The Image and Reality of Iran’s 100-year-old Approach to Modernity

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During the past 100 years, Iran has been involved in a prolonged civil war according to Aram Hessami. This war is fought between the discourse of modernity on the other hand and its opposing forces of the Religious-Islamist, the Nationalist-Nativist and the Marxist-Leninist discourses on the other. He further argues that this war of discourses has had practical ramifications in the entire social, economic and political structure of Iran’s past 150 years. Hessami claims that it is not the scientific-technological aspect of modernity that has motivated these opposing forces to continue fighting in this war; rather it is the claims of the Enlightenment within the social-human universe that is problematic for these three other discourses. Rationalism, secularism, humanism, legalism and the individualism of the Western Enlightenment Liberalism are the points of contention for the narratives of all three Islamist, nativists and Marxist discourses. Hessami argues that this civil war is turned into a war of attrition which will also define Iran’s next one hundred years.

This is a transcription of Dr. Aram Hessami’s interview with the Iran 1400 project.

The Historical Context

Iran’s past 100 years should be called the century of modernity and its discontent. However I believe the term discontent is too timid a word; I think, properly, it should be called the era of civil war of discourses in Iran. There are four discourses that basically were in disputes and created this war. One of course was the discourse of modernity but the discontending forces, the warring factions, were composed of three other discourses, namely, the discourse of religious-islamism the discourse of national-nativism and the discourse of marxism-leninism. I believe this dispute, this war of attrition, started about 150 years ago and it is sure to find its way into the 15th century in Iran. Now, the question is why? The year 1300 in the Iranian calendar corresponds to the Gregorian calendar of 1921. 1921 is a pivotal year for Iran. Reza Khan becomes much more relevant than before; his ascendancy basically starts in 1921 by his marching army on Tehran to save basically Iran from northern invasion of some Marxist forces. Two years later of course Reza Khan became the Prime Minister and two years after that he became the first king of the Pahlavi dynasty ending the Qajar dynasty. But, 1921 is also important because the international setting which sets the stage for Iran’s dilemma with modernity. World War I, I should say, the devastating World War I of 1914 to 1918 creates major havoc around the world but particularly devastates Europe and changes the map of Europe but also the colonial map of Asia and Africa. Iran herself was occupied by the Tsars Russian forces in the North and by the British forces in the south. It is in this climate that 1921 and the rise of Reza Shah become important because the two concepts of freedom and Independence become critical for the Iranian political, social and international discourse.

The Desire for Freedom and Independence

Now, how, how do you become free and independent? The clear answer was and is that these two concepts are related; you cannot be free and independent until you have the means; you have the economic means; you have the military means; you have the social and infrastructural means; you have the technocratic means or administratively means which means a semi-feudal Iran with a weak Ahmad Shah at the helm and a bankrupt country needed to modernize. So the dilemma becomes, how do you modernize Iran? This is the same dilemma for the Tsarist Russia and then after that with the important Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the October revolution of 1917, now you have the same dilemma not only for Tsarist Russia, but for the Leninist Soviet Union; how to modernize? The same dilemma is also posed to Turkey, another neighboring country with Iran. Therefore, this becomes a challenge. The short answer was: we need to modernize; we need to become industrialized; we need to adopt the scientific ways of the West and become equipped with the means to basically improve our economy, improve our education, improve our Judiciary, improve our roads. This is the same dilemma Reza Shah had and this is part of the reform that he started to initiate. They needed to modernize but modernize fast; Iran’s encounter with modernity started much earlier than 1921 with the Constitutional Movement of 1905, 1906.

Iran’s Religious Dilemma

Here, you have two clear discourses in dispute. On the one hand, you have the forces of Mashrūteh, the people who want conditional constitutional limited government, and the forces of Mashrue who are calling for more religious-based governance opposing Mashrūteh. Here, you have people like Akhundzadeh, people like Taqizadeh, even earlier, people like Mustashauldoleh, people like Malcom Khan who want to modernize Iran; but, these [religious] forces are against it. Because, they’re referring to the religious traditional basis of society and therefore resenting and resisting the change that is to take place. I think it is worth our time to mention this one book, “One Word” by Mostasharuldoleh; he sets the dilemma pretty well! By all accounts, Mostashauldoleh is a modernist; he is in favor of liberalism, in favor of the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment; he wants to modernize Iran. But he wants to basically justify the Bill of Rights of the Frenchmen and their constitution to the Iranian people based upon the Quranic verses and Hadith. In other words, he sees the only way to persuade the people and the influencers in Iran to go along with the project of modernity is to sell the project of modernity in terms of religious doctrine and religious order.

So, what is at stake? Why are these three other discourses against modernity?

The Narrative of Warring Discourses

Modernity, on the one hand stands for the scientific discoveries of the laws of nature; what we call the physical universe; you discover the laws of nature; your method is [gathering] empirical evidence; you present an empirical evidence to investigate hypothesis and you make assertion based on these hypothesis testing these theories; this is modern science. Modern technology is a fruit of that type of mentality. They [these opposing discourses] had no problem; neither the Marxists nor the national-nativists even the Islamists did not have any problem with this aspect of Modernity. The problem they had was with this human or social universe and the social pronouncements of modernity. Modernity at the end of the day was based upon a number of tenants or principles; it was based upon of course rationalism; it was based upon secularism; it was based upon legalism; it was based upon individualism. Now, the religious discourse totally opposes all of this; it is faith-based; it is duty-based; it is not right based. Religious discourses ,to them, the concept of freedom or independence is defined only in the context of religious order and God’s divine plan for humanity and the religious community. This plan is relayed through the messenger and through Imams; it is totally based upon Faith as opposed to reason. But, also modern law advocates for secularism and this is one issue that they could not live with. Here, I want to go back so you can see how this type of religious discourse and arguments were made by Sheikh Fazlollah Noori during the Mashrooteh. You can see the same type of arguments made by Majlisi and Khomeini, himself.

On the other hand, the nativists’, or the nationalist-nativists’, discourse found a voice in people like Jalal-e-Al-Ahmad and Kasravi. They argued that we should not imitate the West; we are infatuated, they argued, with the West; we want to imitate, emulate, everything that the Western countries have done and therefore neglecting our historically rich tradition of Iranian Persian culture. What is at stake is the soul of the country, the character of the country. You can see this again through the use of Hegalian philosophy and later on with the Heideggerian phenomenology which glorifies history, nation, and the nation-state. These arguments were used against Westernization, Liberalism and its western philosophical foundation.

On the other hand, the Marxist-Leninist approach also has a bone to pick with modernity. Yes, they want modern science to be able to produce and mass-produce but what they don’t want and what they reject is the “bourgeois liberalism.” For the Nationalist-Nativist discourse, independence and freedom where to be defined locally and through the indigenous culture without the Western influences; for them, we needed to look within; in other words, you become independent and free when you do away with western influence and Western democracy; and therefore you go back to your own Rich history. In the the Marxist-Leninist discourse, you basically needed the technological aspects of of modernity, but they too opposed bourgeois liberalism; they too opposed consumptionism; they too opposed imperialism and colonialism associated with liberalism and capitalism; they objected the bourgeois definition of freedom; freedom cannot happen without equality and without creating an egalitarian classless society. Freedom cannot happen without the worldwide destruction of capitalism. So, here modernity is opposed by these oppositional forces again; these were not just esoteric discussions among people like Mustashaludolleh, Malcom Khan or other intellectuals; there were not just esoteric discussions among these elites and intellectuals.

The Practical Ramifications

The war among these four discourses have had social-political ramifications: from budget allocation, from educational reforms, from judicial reforms, from building roads, from all the revolutions and upheavals from 1905 all the way to today, they all can be attributed to this war of discourses: Modernity and the modern discourse vis-a-vis these other discourses. Technically since 150 years ago, there has been a civil war of discourses in Iran, the modernists, the westerners and the liberals on one side and the religious, the Marxist and the nativist discourses on the side. The war of discourses has had major ramifications for Iran and the Iranians ever since.

You can look at Reza Shah’s reforms; you can look at Mohammad Reza Shah’s White Revolution; you can look at the Marxist movements in Iran from the Tude party’s inception onward, you can look at Mosaddegh and the National Front Movement in Iran; you can look at the Islamic revolution and the establishment of the Islamic government in Iran and view these events in the context of this war of discourses. These discourses at times in a “mix and match” combination opposed one or more aspects of the social-political aspects of modernity and liberalism. Today, still, Iran and the Iranians are faced with the same challenge posed by Modernity and modernization, a challenge that will continue in the next century.

Iran’s Protracted Problem with Modernity

The point though is that, as I said, modernity has two aspects. No one is opposed to the technological scientific advancement of modernity. The problem they [the opposing forces] have is with the modern, human or social universe– with the depiction of the human universe, human society or the ideal society proposed by modern western liberalism. How to be free? How to be equal? How to create a new social-political order? This is what is at stake in this war of discourses. In the 1979 Revolution, the Islamist forces, the religious discourse won power outright opposing both Mohammad Reza Shah and Reza Shah’s modernist approach. The failure of their modernist approach was that we, as a culture, took one aspect of modernity to mean the end-all approach to modernizing and modernization. In other words, we thought that if we liberated women or improved their conditions, if we built roads, if we built manufacturing facilities, if we encouraged trade, if we sent students to a foreign land to educate them, these would suffice. The question though is this other aspect of modernity: how to define social-political order which has to do with rationalism with secularism with liberalism with legalism and these are the issues that are basically hunting Iran today. The problem… and I saw in your interview with Ramin Jahanbegloo, he also mentions the difference between modernization versus modernity; in other words, we can still build bombs, we can have 100% of the people in Iran using smartphones or have access to the internet, but we could still be traditional and religious if we don’t change our mentality if we don’t change our attitude.. Modernity has to do with an attitude, Ramin Jahanbegloo says that the problem is that we never technically questioned or critically examined our values, our beliefs and therefore we basically associate one aspect, the technological aspect of modernity or the scientific aspect to be the only sign of modernization ignoring the critical thinking aspect of modern approach. I am going one step further, I’m saying to you even if you were critical of your own thoughts, if you do not change the basic tenets of your thoughts, we will be stuck in the same dilemma: modernity vs. traditional vs. Marxism vs. nativist and religious approach. Rationalism, secularism, legalism, humanism and individualism and egalitarianism are the basic principles of modernity. These are the principles to which we need to adhere.

The Challenge for the Upcoming Century

What I see basically ahead of us in 1400 is the same dilemma. In other words, would the religious-Islamist discourse be able to hold on to power or will there be a challenge a discursive challenge to this order. One approach is that today, in the era of postmodern philosophy or that of postmodern thinking, we think that we basically have passed modernity and we have entered a new stage. I need to clarify this way of looking at postmodernity. One way to look at this phenomenon, the postmodern, I should say, is that it is pointing out to the blind spots of liberalism and that of the Enlightenment or modernity. But, these others discourses, namely, the religious discourse, the Marxist discourse and the nativist discourse, these discourses are using postmodern language and postmodern sensibilities to undermine liberalism; whereas, postmodern thinking itself is questioning all of these other traditional presumptuous paradigms and their narratives. So, they, the opposing forces of modernity, using postmodern discourse instrumentally to undermine the project of modernity and liberalism.

The reason this becomes important is that during the past 100 years, Iran has been grappling with the challenges of modernity; I believe that the same challenge will continue to haunt Iran during the upcoming century. If and only if we could address the second aspect of modernity and approach it in a more methodical cultural and humanistic way this becomes a challenge for Iran in the year and the century to come. Will Iran be to modernize the state? Will they be able to have modern political parties? Will they be able to create an independent and free press? Could there be free, fair, and clean elections? What I see as a challenge for the 1400s and maybe even beyond is the same dilemma: will the forces of modernity, not just a scientific aspect but the humanistic aspect of modernity, be embraced and accepted by the Iranian culture? And of course, will we, the modernists, win power or will the traditional, religious Islamic forces be able to hold on to power in the face of globalization and in a globalized world? The other discourse that can challenge this existing order is the nativist-nationalist discourse. This becomes the dilemma for the future of Iran. It may take another 100 years or even more for Iran to come to terms with the social-human claims of modernity and its liberalizing forces.

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