The Indigenous and the Imported: Khatami's Iran

The Indigenous and the Imported: Khatami’s Iran

Culture is what remains when one no longer believes
in Utopia.
—Farhad Khosrokhavar and Oliver Roy
Comment sortir d’une revolution religieuse1

At the bar of my hotel in Tehran—or what used to be the bar in
officially dry, postrevolutionary Iran—I sip tea with a young career woman, a
mechancial engineer named Jairan Jahani. Three or four times in the course
of a few hours’ conversation, she casually adjusts her roosari, the head covering
that has been mandatory for women since the 1979 revolution. Jairan
opts for the Benazir Bhutto look. Like that of the former Pakistani leader,
her roosari consists of a colorful silk scarf worn well back on her head. And
like many women in Tehran, Jairan would not look out of place on the right
bank of Paris.
Even a few years ago, patterned silk would have been a dangerously
risque substitute for the traditional maghna’eh, a plain, rustic cloth that covers
all but the face and drapes below the shoulders. But women such as
Jairan—urban, educated, intent on looking outward—have achieved a certain
accommodation with Islamic Iran. In matters of the hejab, the Islamic
dress code, the authorities have eased off on women of modern tastes. And
such women, in turn, have come to acquiesce in the wearing of scarves outside
the home—an acknowledgment that for the vast majority of Iranian
women, making the hejab compulsory has been immensely liberating.
The fortunes of the hejab over the past century follow the rough terrain of
Iranian political history. In 1925, when Reza Khan became shah and
founded the Pahlavi dynasty, he looked out upon a drastically underdeveloped
nation. His response was to embark upon the most sweeping modernization
program the nation had yet seen, a program entirely dictated from
above. In 1936, Reza banned Islamic dress and made Western clothing man-
datory. Then he enforced this edict with ruthless, still-remembered efficiency:
police went through the streets ripping veils and robes from any
woman dressed according to the hejab. Under Reza’s son, who was deposed
in 1979, the hejab was again tolerated. This was partly an accommodation to
the clergy, just as Reza’s ban was partly intended to suppress the clergy’s influence.
But under the last shah, as under his father, the hejab was still a
badge of one’s backwardness. It could hardly have been otherwise in a nation
bent upon Westernizing as frantically and thoughtlessly as the Iran of
the Pahlavis.
Then came the Islamic revolution—and the hejab is brought full circle:
What was once banned is now compulsory. Post-1979, the hejab is intended
to express not just religious commitment, but the triumph of Islamic populism
over the worldly culture of the Westernized elite. In this it was a nearperfect
symbol of the revolution. And what happens when all of Iran’s
women dress according to the hejabl The consequences were swiftly apparent:
tens of thousands of Iranian families suddenly decide that it is acceptable
to let daughters and spouses out of the house. Literacy among women
rises from less than 30 percent just before the revolution to 75 percent. The
university population changes shape: from about 25 percent women under
the last shah, it grows to more than 50 percent women. Within a few years,
women are a new presence in the workforce and the press, in the arts, and
in politics. Tehran now has two women serving on its fifteen-member city
council; Qom, the seat of Islamic learning 90 miles south of the capital, has
one—who triumphed over several male rivals. Women were a decisive force
in the 1996 elections to the majlis, the national assembly—and proved
themselves a permanent feature of national politics in the majlis elections
held in February this year.
From a Western perspective, there is something decidedly upside down in
this brief account of the hejab and its journey through modern Iran. In the
West, we have always taken the artifacts of the shahs—roads, factories, and
refineries; chic shops and French furniture—to be the measure of modern
Iran. As we understand it, these are the very currency of the modernization
process; the shahs’ mistake was simply to have modernized too quickly. By
the same token, we ordinarily take the hejab to be emblematic of the suffocating,
retrograde character of post-1979 Iran. This scarcely requires a second
look: Iran is a pitiable nation, we conclude, a nation under wraps,
whose leaders have made an even larger mistake than the shahs’: they have
stopped Iran in time and then tried to go backward into an inaccessible,
Utopian past.
Twenty years after the revolution, we are challenged to rethink these
judgments. We are faced with a revolution that has proven itself to be more
than an event isolated in time; it is a living thing, with a past, a present—
and a future. It is made of offices and businesses, bureaucrats and policies,
agreements and debates. It has substance—texture and depth. Above all, it
is self-referential. So we must ask what the Islamic revolution meant, and
means now. The shahs sought to make Iran and Iranians modern by making
them look modern. But not much changed—not for most women, not for
most men, and not for most of Iran, either. The locus of change was very
concentrated. So we must also ask, as we have not troubled to ask until
now, who are the people the revolution was fought for? And then, what does
“modernization” mean if it does not begin with the actual conditions under
which the un-modern live?
We have always taken the Islamic revolution,
a revolution of “fundamentalists,” to reflect
a desire to avoid modernity—to flee the
modern world in retreat. This, it turns out, was
never more than a way of avoiding the true issue.
Now we must recognize that the revolution
was not an act of impossible flight after all. For
it emerges as something we never imagined it
to be. Two decades of momentous history have
passed. And the revolution no longer looks like
a rejection of the modern so much as a nation’s endeavor to discover a
method of accepting it.
“What did the revolution give you?” the filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf
was once asked. It was during an interview a few years ago with a correspondent
from Liberation, the Parisian daily. Makhamalbaf had been an anti-shah
dissident and then a fervent Islamic revolutionary. And now, with the new
state’s assistance, he has made himself into a dexterous, imaginative master
of contemporary cinema. The revolution gave me what revolutions always
give their people, Makhmalbaf replied, “Pride and images.”
There is no mistaking either in Iran today. Across the nation, there are
images everywhere. Billboards depict soldiers and pilots set to defend the Islamic
Republic, or a man prostrate in prayer, or a solitary child gazing hopefully
at a glass of pure water. Vast, extravagant murals of Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini, the revolution’s spiritual leader until his death in 1989, are
painted up the sides of buildings. Others show Khomeini with Ali
Khamenei, his successor, or (with or without Khomeini) Mohammad
Khatami, the popular reformist who was elected president in 1997. There
are so many of these images, and so much Farsi script scrawled across the
nation’s walls, that after a time the images and the slogans begin to compete
with one another, as if they were part of a discordant orchestra, still tuning
its instruments before attempting symphonic harmony.
What are these images? What is the point beneath the obvious point?
They are intended as mirrors, one must finally conclude. Beyond their intent
as propaganda, they are put before Iran’s 60 million people to show
them who they are, or have become, or should become. Together they say,
“This is what we Iranians look like now”—suggesting at once both confidence
and an uncertainty born of the newness of self-possession. And here
is where the images are most interesting, for they collide with the other
legacy Makhmalbaf mentioned, the legacy of pride. For however much the
revolution’s leaders once intended to tell Iranians who they were, they discover
now that they cannot: It is fundamental to anyone’s pride to decide
one’s identity for oneself.
“It isn’t hard for me to wear the roosari,” Jairan Jahani says. “After a
month, it’s a habit.” We have fallen into one of Tehran’s favorite parlor
games: how many women, we muse, would forget about the hejab if the rules
were relaxed? “I would, but I’m in the minority,” Jairan says. “Iranians are
quite religious. My guess is that nine women out of ten still believe they
should hide themselves from others.” The difficulty, Jairan says, lies in not
having the choice. One should observe the hejab because one believes in it,
not simply to conform to “someone else’s Islam.” And then, like other Iranian
women I was to meet, she compared the compulsory hejab with Reza
Shah’s ban of the hejab, when many Iranians—most, Jairan reminds me—
were made uncomfortable.
One could conclude easily enough that Iran’s revolution was not for
Jairan, but for those many who favor the hejab and who have benefited from
the law that makes it mandatory. There is some truth in this, as most people
such as Jairan understand. But it is an incomplete truth. There is much at
issue within Iran today. One is struck by the breadth and vigor of the
nation’s political conversation. And as this conversation proceeds, it is
changing the essential character of the 1979 revolution—its look, so to say.
What once marked a decisive, messy conclusion now emerges as a point of
departure—a beginning as much as an end. The essential question posed by
the revolution is changing too. In its postrevolutionary phase, Iran is less
concerned with what it means to be Islamic—that has turned out to be an
insufficient inquiry—than with what it means to be Iranian.
These shifts in meaning were more or less inevitable. They would have
sprouted from the revolution with or without Mohammad Khatami’s election
to the presidency. To put it another way, Khatami’s rise to power reflects
political and social changes that were well under way by 1997. But
Khatami has given these impulses shape and direction and advanced them
as a political agenda. In so doing, he has also clarified them. At issue in
Khatami’s Iran, it is not too simple to say, is the construction of public
space, at home and abroad. Among Iranians, this requires a redefinition of
the individual’s place in society; abroad, it means redefining Iran’s place in
the global community.
The remarkable thing about Khatami, a 56-year-old cleric and an intellectual
of wide learning, is the way he proposes to resolve these questions. He is
as wary as any other Iranian, religious or secular, of “Westoxicity,” as he once
put it. But he equally rejects subservience to indigenous tradition. “We are by
no means doomed to dissolve into modern civilization, but we cannot ignore
its many great scientific, social, and political achievements,” Khatami once
Why can’t we transcend “today” to … achieve a new vision, and in its
shadow become the source of a new civilization which, while resting on
our historical identity, and benefiting from the accomplishments of modern
civilization, could inaugurate a new chapter in human life?2
This is new thinking—or, at the very least, it is old thinking in a new context,
which amounts to the same thing. We ignore it, or dismiss it, at the
cost of our own understanding of the post-Cold War world. It is for such
ideas that Khatami must be counted among a generation of non-Western
leaders who are important not because they possess some new ideology, but
because they implicitly challenge us to reevaluate the one by which we live.
In the Iranian context, Khatami marks another shift, another fundamental
passage—from the defensiveness and xenophobia of a wounded nation, so
evident during the revolution’s early phase, to the nascent confidence of a
nation certain of the terms upon which it is prepared to rejoin the world.
When we began talking about Khatami and what he meant to her, Jairan
became animated. Yes, Khatami had put forward a new idea, she told me,
and it had earned him wide support among Iranians. “We can’t be like European
people,” she said. “But we can be like ourselves.”

The Conversation That Has Lasted a Century

In March 1890, Nasir al-Din Shah, who had reigned since 1848, conceded
the production and marketing of Iranian tobacco to a Briton named G. F.
Talbot for a period of 50 years. The shah was to get a quarter of Talbot’s annual
profits and a 5-percent dividend.3
Concessions to foreign interests were familiar enough during Nasir al-
Din’s reign: he handed out many. But this one, affecting a broad range of
farmers, landowners, merchants, and ordinary shopkeepers, might be said to
mark the beginning of modern Iranian politics. It quickly produced an alliance
among the ‘ulama (the religious authorities), the bazaaris(the merchant
class), and the small movement of reformist intellectuals then active in Iran
and in exile. In November 1891, afafrwa, a religious edict, advised Iranians
to boycott all tobacco products. Two months later, Nasir al-Din Shah was
forced to cancel his deal with Talbot.
The tobacco protest demonstrated certain political truths for Iranians. To
oppose the shah was to oppose undue foreign influence—a reasonable
enough connection for the next 90 years. To
form alliances, the deepest of differences could
be temporarily submerged. This can be fairly related
to a principle of Shi’ite Islam, the Islam of
Iran, called taqija. Taqija permits the Shi’ite
Muslim to disavow his convictions and proclaim
those of a stronger power so as to survive
in adverse circumstances. One may also note
the sharp distinction made in Iranian culture
between external appearance and what lies
within. “The Iranian being,” the writer Djavad Mojabi noted recently, “faces
the inside.”4 In such a universe, alliances are inevitably in constant flux—as
they were before the tobacco protest and as they were soon after it succeeded.
One may align with or against the government, or the ‘ulama, or the
bazaaris, or the reformists. One may be an ‘ulama but secretly oppose the religious
orthodoxy. Or one may be a secular nationalist but publicly support
the orthodoxy of the ‘ulama. So have the various forces present in Iranian
politics contended with one another the whole of the modern era.
One other useful truth was demonstrated during the tobacco protest: The
‘ulama have a considerable power to harness popular opinion, and at crucial
moments they can use it to tip the political balance. It is for this that most
Iranians today know the story of the protest, at least in outline. But many
also know it as the moment when conundrums the nation still faces first
suggested themselves in a modern context. What is the nature of political
power in Iran? More specifically, what is the place of the clergy in the political
structure? How will Iran be governed—by civil statutes and an elected
assembly or by religious powers that preside above the law and the legislature?
And where should Iranians look to resolve these issues? All of these
questions burst into the open with the constitutional revolution of 1906,
which gave Iran its first majlis. But they have never been satisfactorily answered.
As a prominent writer and editor said in a recent interview, “Iranians
have been engaged in the same conversation for almost 100 years.”
So does the revolution of 1979 and all that has come after it gain the context
necessary to understand it properly. For all its drama and violence, the
shah’s overthrow represented a new phase in the long, multisided struggle
among Iran’s contending political forces. To put it in familiar scholarly terms,
there was as much continuity in the revolution as there was change. The distinction
is essential. As is well known, the political alliance that toppled the
shah was exceedingly broad, with numerous submerged differences; it was
only after two non-Islamic governments collapsed that the clergy consolidated
its political power in Tehran. But, just as the music did not stop in 1979, it has
not stopped since the clergy took its place atop the post-Pahlavi political
structure. The conversation that has lasted a century continues.
Most of what is at issue in Iran today revolves around velayat-e faqih, the
rule of clerical authority, which establishes the power of Islamic jurists above
the executive and the legislature—divine law above civil law. Khomeini lectured
for many years on this theme before returning from exile in early 1979.
He eventually published these lectures, and the book became an essential
document of the revolution. But Khomeini’s position was not dogmatic. The
first draft of the revolutionary constitution, written in mid-1979 and based on
the 1906 constitution and that of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, provided for a
strong presidency and made no mention of the principle of velayat-e faqih;
Khomeini approved of it. But what passed into law later that year turned this
formula upside down. There would be a weakened president and a faqih, a supreme
Islamic jurist, above him. Under the faqih, Iranians would be subjects,
as they were under the monarchy, not citizens.
The debate over the faqih, his status, and his powers was heated and divisive.
It was submerged but never concluded once the constitution became
law—and is much in evidence again today. From velayat-e faqih flow all the
institutions of “political Islam” in postrevolutionary Iran: clerical courts,
which try transgressing ayatollahs; the Guardian Council, which is empowered
to approve or disqualify political candidates based on their Islamic credentials;
and so forth. Divine law has been invoked to justify everything
from gender inequality to the execution of apostates over the past twenty
years. It has also been used to hamper the reform movement that has been
growing roughly since 1988, when the revolution turned ten. Of late it has
landed numerous dissident ayatollahs in prison, notably Abdollah Nouri, a
former minister in Khatami’s cabinet and among the most visible figures in
the reformist movement.
Many words and intricate theories have been marshaled in defense of
velayat-e faqih—and as many in criticism of it. None of it should obscure the
nature of the discourse; it is essentially an exchange between constitutionalists
and “transcendentalists,” not altogether unlike that in Japan during its
imperial era, when the emperor’s divine status and temporal power were
much at issue. And in Iran today as in Japan many years ago, the debate is
political, not religious. Ebrahim Yazdi, a longtime reformist and a prominent
Khatami supporter, makes a critical distinction in this regard. “You cannot
call Iran a theocracy. That gives the clergy too much credit,” he says. “The
word is ‘hierocracy.’ Look it up in your Webster’s: priestly rule. We are talking
about the sovereignty of the clerical class.”
Iran’s conservative ‘ulama still control the terms of what is now a pitched
political debate. But they no longer control the debate. Talk to any newspaper
editor, political figure, attorney, filmmaker, feminist, or liberal ayatollah
(of which there are many), and the vision of the future put before you will
rest on ground unfamiliar to the Western intellect. There is no open discussion,
for example, of secular nationalism—once a prominent thread in Iran’s
political fabric. There is no talk of separating church and state. But it is
more or less impossible to engage in any political conversation in Iran today
without discussing how the clergy’s present position of political supremacy
must be altered to make room for a pluralist society and greater individual
The oblique—and sometimes opaque—character of the current discourse
reflects two factors. Most immediately, there is much that is submerged in it.
No one in the reformist movement wants to damage the fragile framework
for discussion that reformists have constructed under Khatami. No one
wants to risk a conservative backlash—a return to the Iran of vigorous press
censorship and forbidden films, an Iran that forces the silk scarves off the
streets. Khatami has unleashed a tiger that he may eventually have difficulty
riding—as renewed student demonstrations at Tehran University reminded
him last summer. But the running theme among reformists—before the February
2000 elections and now, too, that a new majlis has been chosen—is
careful negotiation with postrevolutionary conservatives. “Iran is a pot with
the lid still on. We don’t even know yet what we are capable of,” says
Morteza Mardeeha, a journalist and prominent reformist thinker. “But no
one believes a radical approach would achieve much. The focus is on political
realism—gradual steps.”
More interesting—and this also shapes the current discourse—is the
question of direction, where Iran is headed. Fundamentally at issue is a new
notion of the relationship between religion and the state. No reformist
would put it this way—although one suspects Khatami, with his large vision
of things, would have no trouble with such nomenclature. But the core of
the reformist project is the reimagination of a principle the West fixed in
granite centuries ago. A polity in which church and state are no longer entirely
discrete: This is unmapped territory in the modern era. The Iranian
revolution was not Islamic in its initial phase; it became Islamic by circumstance.
But in hindsight, at least, it was inevitable that Iran, in the course of
making itself modern, would reconceive one of the West’s most hallowed
principles. Islam, as is well known, is a way of life; the Koran, filled with
verses of political and legal import, does not distinguish between religion
and temporal governance. More practically, authority in Iran was dual—
monarchy and mosque—from the time of the Safavid dynasty (1499-1736).
None of this, moreover, was effaced by a colonial interlude. And now, something
very old suggests something very new—a turn in history. It involves
not only Islam’s transformation of politics; it is also a question of an emerging
political force transforming Islam.5
This is the meaning of Khatami’s “politics of inclusion.” It is a tactic to
draw the “hierocracy” into Iran’s running discussion of its future. But it is a
strategy, too—an acknowledgment that a nation can advance only on the
platform of its own past, not someone else’s.
We do not begin by making two of what we
have for so long considered one. What kind
of polity this approach may produce is yet to
be determined. As reformists of numerous
persuasions point out, no one has put his
full agenda on the table—including, they
strongly suspect, Khatami himself. But the
direction is clear.
Clerical theorists talk about adjusting the
status of the faqih so that he is politically accountable.
Velayat-e faqih is an electoral matter, in which people choose a certain person,
for a certain period of time, to be the country’s supreme political authority,
and that person is responsible for how he exercises the authority
vested in him.
This is the reasoning of Sheikh Mohammad Shabastari, a cleric of rank and
an authority on Islamic law. Shabastari, who is also a respected professor of
philosophy at Tehran University, thinks broadly. He sees Iran developing a
democratic model useful in other Islamic societies. Outside the clergy, intellectuals
address the question of plurality—and the place of the nonbeliever
who is also a citizen—more directly. “Religion is a right, not an obligation,”
says Morteza Mardeeha. One hears this sentiment echoed often among reformists—
who talk of a government that, if not secular, would look awfully
like one. Yes, the ‘ulama should continue to assert their authority, they say—
but it should be moral and asserted from Qom. “We are talking about a faint
role,” says Ezatollah Sahabi, a longtime leader in the nationalist movement.
It is a phrase others also employ. But this, reformists acknowledge, may be as
much as a generation away—not because of conservative resistance but because
“society isn’t ready,” as Mardeeha put it.
It would be easy to conclude that Khatami’s conservative opponents retain
the upper hand. Prior to the elections, they were anything but shy in
exercising their constitutional powers. Abdollah Nouri, who was widely expected
to be elected speaker in the new majlis, was sentenced to five years in
Evin Prison just two months prior before the polls. In January, the Guardian
Council eliminated a portion of the reformist slate—as had been expected.
Postelection, many dissident clerics still languish at Evin prison, a grim,
sprawling complex in North Tehran, a remnant of the shah’s repression.
Velayat-e faqih remains intact as the nation’s primary political principle.
None of this, however, should obscure
the extent to which the conser-
Khatami’s rise to power
reflects political and social
changes that were well
under way by 1997.
vative ‘ulama are in retreat. Their
rough treatment of the reformists
over the past several years has weakened
their historic ties to the populace—
which marks a momentous
political turn. As a consequence, the
conservative clergy’s isolation has
mounted while their political ground
has shrunk to a tiny patch. Every move they make now seems to blow back
in their faces; every prison sentence creates another national hero. Iranians
are much practiced at opposition—it is fundamental to the Shi’ite tradition.
I was with a book publisher the morning of Nouri’s sentencing. “This is a big
setback—for the conservatives, not for Nouri,” the publisher said. “Iranians
now have another strong figure to look to, someone who didn’t cave in.
Whose values are reinforced—the reformists or the hardliners?” It is an excellent
question. The conservatives still grip the levers of ultimate power,
but their hands are tied.
One senses that the conservatives themselves are gradually grasping this
truth. The Guardian Council, for instance, could have disqualified many
more reformists than it did. One also gets the impression—and it is no more
at this point—that some may be bargaining for nothing more now than
enough time to find a graceful exit and a way back to Qom. For one thing,
the clerics are eating their own, as the Nouri case surely reminded them,
and the taste cannot be but bitter. “Islam is a religion of mosques, not imprisonment
and torture,” Yoosef Saneiee, an authoritative ayatollah and a
former chief prosecutor in the Islamic courts, said a few days after Nouri’s
verdict was announced. For another, there is the civil society movement
that stands behind Khatami. No one who has seen its fruit—particularly the
reinvigorated press—can harbor any doubts as to its permanence. There is
no turning back from the social change that has unfolded beneath the vast
murals that decorate Iran. Together, the old images and the life beneath
them suggest that Iranians have simply passed their revolutionary leaders by.
“The genies are out of their bottles,” writes Akbar Ganji, an outspoken jour-
nalist in the reform movement, “and the bottles that once contained them
are cracked.”6

A Mayor, a Park, a Way of Being Modern

space. It was among the first parks to be so transformed after Karbaschi became
mayor; now it is one among many.
What kind of city—what kind of nation—did Karbaschi see when he arrived
in Tehran a decade ago? Standing in Shafagh park, or strolling through
it, this is not hard to surmise. Swift, relentless urban drift had drawn almost
two of three Iranians from farms and villages into Tehran and other towns
and cities. These were people who had given up their old, familiar surroundings
and their old ideas of belonging. Almost three-quarters of the population
was under 35, more than half under 21, and for most, their parents had
nothing to teach them about the world outside the front door. The only dependable
point of identity for these new urban dwellers was Islam. But Islam—
the Islam of the revolution, in any case—did not help them resolve
immediate problems—practical problems, psychological problems. They did
not know how to interact with unfamiliar neighbors. They could neither
form healthy bonds nor manifest differences in a healthy fashion. In short,
they had no understanding of what it meant to be part of a modern city—to
be citizens. And this is what they learn in such places as Shafagh park. It is
their classroom, and their subject is nothing less than themselves and how
they might live in the modern world.
Shafagh and other parks are one aspect of Karbaschi’s larger project. In
1991, he founded Hamshahri (Fellow Citizen), a municipal newspaper that
quickly became the city’s top seller—”a window through which we could see
and understand events,” as a journalist on a competing daily describes it.
New food markets, bookstores, highways, apartment towers—they were all
used to build and enhance public space. In 1995, Karbaschi helped found a
movement called the Servants of Reconstruction—so named for good reason.
After a long period of revolution and war, the technocrats who constituted
the Reconstructors understood the city itself—its geography, its
infrastructure, its architecture, and its institutions—as an instrument by
which Iranians could make modern citizens of themselves. The Reconstructors
eventually became a critical force behind Khatami’s rise and the opening
of the nation’s political discourse that is evident today.
By way of making Iran modern, Karbaschi accomplished more in eight
years as Tehran’s mayor than the shah did in a quarter-century as an unhampered
monarch. He did this by beginning with what he saw in front of him,
and with a clear understanding of what being modern means. The comparison
is almost cruel. The shah’s response to the challenge of the modern had
no real center. What did it rest upon if not a primitive adoration of objects
and a felt inferiority when faced with the West? The Pahlavis took great
pride in the grand gardens built during their reigns. But these had nothing
to do with creating modern spaces or modern Iranians. By any honest account,
daily life under the last shah was ruled by fear and terror. And fear
and terror, as they always do, made authentic interaction among ordinary
people impossible. By the end, there was no public space in Iran; the
Pahlavis had destroyed it.
So did the revolution begin with nothing by way of a civil society—
scarcely more than building blocks. And among the Islamic government’s
most fundamental errors was its endeavor to create sacred space—the whole
of Iran redefined as a place of religious observance—instead of the public
space of a modern nation. One’s primary relationship was with Allah, not
other people. Hence, one was to remain a subject rather than become a citizen.
It is quite understandable: The mosque, inaccessible to the last shah,
was among the only institutions to survive him. But then the religious revolution
went on to create the very conditions that now force its forward motion.
It allowed for the recreation of space—inner and external both, in
minds as well as on streets—that turned out to be civic as well as sacred. It
provided for the recreation of a damaged culture. It released women from
domestic confinement, from the private into the public. It gave rise to leaders
and thinkers such as Gholamhossein Karbaschi—a generation of them,
too many not to prevail.

A Post-Western World

“The politics of inclusion,” let us say bluntly, is an over-freighted phrase,
nearly exhausted by overuse even in its youth. One immediately suspects a
lack of intellectual rigor or the old Iranian habit—a multitude of conflicting
interests papered over in the name of a strategy that has little chance of
proving itself. But this is not enough to dismiss the notion; skepticism does
not excuse us from serious scrutiny of what is being said. It is possible that
“the politics of inclusion” has achieved cliche status precisely because it is a
concept fundamental to our time. All over the world one hears assertions
(and sees some evidence) that the old polarities are dissolving—between
East and West, the traditional and the modern, religion and science, logic
and intuition, nature and architecture, and so on. Is it not worth considering
whether a politics of inclusion is of a piece with these ideas?
In Khatami’s Iran, it seems to me, a strategy based upon oneness rather
than division is a defensible way forward. It is a way of engaging the past and
the future at once. It is a way of addressing forthrightly one of Iran’s most fundamental
challenges: to prove in practice, as it seems intent upon doing, that
Islam is not inimical to democracy. It contains within it the means to make a
shift Iran has failed to make from Amir Kabir’s time onward, from a top-down
approach to modernization to one that is attentive to the bottom. And it offers
a means of escape from the twin traps Iran has fallen into throughout this
century, one after the other. To borrow Khatami’s terms, an inclusive Iran will
be neither enchanted by the West nor hostile to it.8
Is it not inevitable that Khatami’s search for a new domestic design is reflected
in a corresponding search for a new relationship with the world? The
two cannot be separated, for the one is an extension of the other. Just as he
proposes that adversaries at home attempt to advance together, so does he
seek to put into the past Iran’s long, storied enmity and suspicion of the
West. And here we come to another much (ab)used phrase: Khatami’s “dialogue
of civilizations.” Yes, this notion, too, has its problems—chiefly the
absence of flesh on its frame. But neither can it be fairly dismissed. For one
thing, it has enormous resonance. It was not long after Khatami outlined
this idea at the General Assembly in 1998 that the United Nations (UN)
declared 2001 the year of civilizational dialogue. For another, it is an undeniably
large approach to the post-Cold War world, a world no longer ruled
by a single pair of poles. One would say it is substantially larger than anything
Washington has come up with in this regard, except that Washington
has come up with nothing.
Mohammad Khatami hardly appeared on Western radar before he was
elected president. This is not surprising. Khatami was much a man of the
revolution, but he has also been an outsider within it. It is said that the supreme
authorities permitted him to run for office in 1997 because no one—
including Khatami, it is also said—gave him much chance of winning.
Although raised in a religious family and trained in Qom, Khatami has always
shown an interest in ideas beyond the Islamic tradition. After the
seminary, he took a doctorate in philosophy at Isfahan University. Like many
‘ulama, he has spent time in the West—in Germany, in Khatami’s case—and
the interim left its mark. Khatami was active in the revolution, but he eventually
disapproved of its direction. In 1992, his liberal policies toward the
press and the arts prompted his dismissal as culture minister; the immediate
occasion was the screening of A Time for Love and Nights of Zayandehrud,
two Moshen Makhmalbaf films that dealt
with intimacy, betrayal, and individual morality.
He spent the next several years in the
political desert.
Through all of this, Khatami did something
that will turn out to be far more
threatening to the American vision than
any terrorist bomb: He read us with the utmost
respect. To his thorough grounding in
Islamic philosophy and law he added an examination
of the West’s great books—everything
from Plato and Aristotle to
Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the Enlightenment philosophies. He wrestled with
the West’s most fundamental conundrums: liberty, morality, the individual
and his community. But learning from the West does not adequately describe
Khatami’s project; neither does the notion that he wants to combine
useful aspects of indigenous tradition with the principles he found in our sacred
texts. That is only the beginning; it is method. In effect, Khatami proposes
to create something quite new by taking the modernizing endeavor
onto a new plane—something we may aptly call a post-Western context.
“We can pass through ‘modernism,'” Khatami has said. “But we should not
stay in it for long.”9
Through his speeches and writings, one senses that Khatami views Iran as
uniquely placed for such an essay. It has a long history of interaction with
both East and West; as already noted, no colonial experience interrupted its
connections to its past. Perhaps this is why Iran’s cautious claim to speak for
others has been so warmly received—as at the UN. This, in any case, is the
context in which Khatami’s dialogue should be understood. It is more than a
response to Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, although
that is often cited in Iran.10 It is a defense against the globalism sponsored
by Anglo-American societies. In this, Khatami’s dialogue resembles the
1979 revolution: It is not a way of rejecting the future but of accepting it. Its
essential principle is that difference is neither to be prosecuted nor ignored;
rather it is to be acknowledged and then transcended. And what is that if
not a “politics of inclusion” writ in a global context?
The Third World as instructor of the first, the autonomous validity of
non-Western experience: Khatami has his intellectual ancestors, from
Rousseau and his “noble savage” through Gandhi to Frantz Fanon, the
Martinican psychiatrist active in France and Algeria during the 1950s and
1960s. But none of these lived in the post-Cold War era; none was the
mayor of a sprawling capital or president of a country in transformation.
Khatami, like Karbaschi, can fairly be placed in the tradition of a jdvanmard,
in Persian history the public man of intellect and integrity.” But Khatami
has also engendered his share of skeptics among Iranian intellectuals, as
Karbaschi did during his mayoralty. Khatami’s dialogue, his critics say, is essentially
unserious. He knows as well as anyone that there is no rebuilding a
dead civilization. “Dialogue of civilizations” is no more than window dressing—
an appealing announcement of a nonaggressive foreign policy that
spares Tehran the embarrassing duty of acknowledging its recent past.
It is possible. In North Tehran, the International Center for Dialogue
Among Civilizations consists of 12,000 books, a couple of dozen desks, and
a few seminars held now and again. It is still to be seen how this warren of
small rooms will be filled, and with what. One suspects, however, that these
rooms could grow crowded over time. For Khatami’s dialogue is a declaration
of both difference and ambition, and we in the advanced nations ought
not be startled by it. More startling is the survival of our assumption that
the non-Western world will continue into a new era with no aspiration other
than to follow indefinitely the way lit by the West. “We have watched the
West and its great achievements, and since ancient times we have produced
nothing,” says Mohammed Sadeq Husseini, a writer and a press attache in
the Khatami government. “We have been no more than consumers in this
respect. Is it not time once again for us to add something to the world?”

Memories and Identities

Among the most revered figures in Iran today is Mohammad Mossadeq, the
nationalist prime minister who was deposed in 1953 in a coup engineered by
the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in concert with officers loyal to the
shah. Although Mossadeq was highly popular in his own time, his place in
post-revolutionary Iran is nonetheless remarkable for any number of reasons.
For the remainder of the shah’s reign—and for some years after the
1979 revolution—it was difficult to speak or write of Mossadeq. And among
those today who hold him in high esteem, many are too young by a decade
or more to have any real memory of him.
Remarkable, too, are the explanations offered for Mossadeq’s persistent
presence in the imaginations of so many ordinary Iranians. As elsewhere, oil
has been freighted with symbolic import since Britain was first awarded a
concession in 1901. When Mossadeq nationalized the oil industry half a
century later, he showed Iranians for the first time that it was within their
power to alter relations with “the foreigner,” which in Iran always means the
Westerner. In the domestic context, the brief Mossadeq era—he was prime
minister for two years—was a political oasis, the second time in history that
Iran had attempted to live by modern institutions. His government was the
first since the 1906 revolution to find some
equilibrium among Iran’s contending forces.
He freed Iranians from the weight of the
monarchy. And he believed, above all, in the
rule of law—a cornerstone of Khatami’s reformist
movement. “The goals of Iranians
now,” says Ezatollah Sahabi, the aging nationalist
leader, “were Mossadeq’s goals,
with some modifications for the passage of
time.” All of this casts Mossadeq in the mold
of the jdvanmard of Persian tradition.12
There are layers of meaning in Mossadeq that Iranians do not readily articulate.
One has to do with identity, one with memory, and they are closely
One finds evidence everywhere in Iran today that a fundamental shift in
consciousness is under way—an evolution from an Islamic identity to one
that begins with being Iranian. This is one way, indeed, to define the
nation’s current transformation. In the early years of the revolution, for instance,
it was much the political fashion to salt one’s Farsi with Arabic vocabulary.
This is now no longer in evidence; interest in Arabic, language of
the Koran, has fallen precipitously. At the same time, Iranians are palpably
curious about their pre-Islamic past, the past of Persepolis and the great
emperors. Hardly a day passes without a small news item covering an archeological
dig, the restoration of an ancient site, or the discovery of a new
one in the desert. This is the past the Pahlavis liked to dwell upon—so
alienating ordinary Iranians from it. Now it is reclaimed. To put the matter
in psychiatric terms, it is as if we are witnessing the reintegration of a longdisordered
personality. And it is not hard to see where the figure of
Mossadeq—a nationalist but opposed to the shah, a secular thinker who had
no quarrel with Islam—fits into this process.
This brings us to Mossadeq’s place in the collective memory. Thirty-three
years after his death, 20 after the revolution, he gives Iranians a chance to
look back at where they have been while keeping within their own frame of
reference. He allows them to contemplate democracy and their aspirations
without thinking of someone else’s history. It is not unlike the place
Sukarno occupies in post-Suharto Indonesia, a figure who stands for a disrupted
experiment now resumed. Each nation has its own narrative of success
and failure, its own inherited memory, and it is enough. As Frantz
Fanon once put it in a different context, no Iranian must any longer “experience
his being through others.”13
Americans would do well to consider these matters of identity and history.
To see Iran’s revolution in its historical context would allow them to
understand it better than they have: the violence, the excesses—and the inevitability
of it. Revolutions are rarely neat, well-managed affairs with swift,
predictable outcomes. Understanding this would also help Americans recognize
that the change in consciousness that occurs in Iran today deserves
their applause. I do not doubt that Washington’s relations with Tehran will
change in coming years. Khatami has made his views plain on this point,
and the impulse to move forward is evident in the White House, if not on
Capitol Hill. But the United States is already late, for the simple reason that
it remains lost in a certain, well-circumscribed version of the past. As things
stand today, the sanctions Washington continues to insist upon now isolate
the United States more than Iran. Yes, Americans have historical grievances.
But so do Iranians. And as they seem to understand better than
Americans, history is no excuse for failing to recognize the arriving future.
Neither history nor memory began in 1979. Iran is a nation of 650,000
square miles. The U.S. embassy in Tehran accounts for very little of it.


1. Farhad Khosrokhavar and Olver Roy, Comment sortir d’une revolution religieuse
(Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1999), 16. The translation is that of the author.
2. Mohammad Khatami, “Tradition, Modernity, and Development,” in Islam, Liberty
and Development (Binghamton, N.Y.: Institute of Global Cultural Studies, State
University of New York, 1998), 37. Khatami’s other book in English, a collection of
speeches, Hope and Challenge (Binghamton, N.Y.: Institute of Global Cultural Studies,
State University of New York, 1998).
3. Although I have drawn historical detail from numerous texts, three bear mentioning:
Janet Afary, The Iranian Constitutional Revolution: 1906-1911 (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1996); Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and
the Islamic Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1984); Nikki R. Keddie, Roots of
Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran (New Haven and London: Yale
University Press, 1981).
4. Mojabi, a prolific poet, novelist, and journalist, offered this remark at a talk sponsored
by the Asia Society in New York, November 1, 1999.
5. See Khosrokhavar and Roy, Comment sortir d’une revolution religieuse, especially
chapter 2, “Un islam chamboule,” and chapter 3, “Le post-islamisme et le debat
intellectuel,” 42-116.
6. Akbar Ganji, “The Release of Devils: Putting Giants in Bottles,” Asr-eh Azadegan,
November 18, 1999, p. 1.
7. While this account of Karbaschi’s reforms is based on my own interviews and observations,
I have also made use of Fariba Adelkhah’s insightful book, Etre moderne en
Iran (Paris: Karthala, 1998). It is now available in an excellent translation by
Jonathan Derrick, Being Modern in Iran (New York: Columbia University Press,
2000). I have further drawn upon Kaveh Ehsani, “Municipal Matters,” in Pushing
the Limits: Iran’s Revolution at Twenty, Middle East Report, No. 212, 29, no. 3 (fall
1999): 22-27.
8. Enchantment and hostility are two poles Khatami described in “Religion in the
Contemporary World,” a lecture delivered in June 1995 at Allameh Tabatabiee
University in Tehran. The translation is kindness of Mitra Behnam of Tehran.
9. Ibid.
10. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations?: The Debate (New York: Council
on Foreign Relations, 1993; W.W. Norton, 1996). Huntington’s thesis was expanded
in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1996). For an example of the Iranian response, see Kaveh L.
Afrasiabi, “The Contestation of Civilizations and Interreligious Dialogue,” The Iranian
Journal of International Affairs XI, no. 3 (fall 1999): 338-361.
11. See Adelkhah (Derrick, trans.), Being Modern in Iran, chapter 2.
12. A contemporary analysis of Mossadeq’s place in Iranian history was published to
popular acclaim in Ali Rezagholi, The Sociology of Eliticide: Gha’em Magham, Amir
Kabir, and Mossadeq, A Sociological Interpretation of the History of Totalitarianism and
Backwardness in Iran (Tehran: Nay Publications, 1998). The book is now in its fifteenth
13. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks: The Experiences of a Black Man in a White
World (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 109.