'Westoxification' and Worse: Probing Iran’s Turbulent History

Two new books – by American journalist Laura Secor and human rights activist and lawyer Shirin Ebadi – shed light on Iran's complex political and religious psyche.

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Iranians holding banners in support of Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Islamic Republic's aims during a rally commemorating 37th anniversary of the Islamic in Tehran, on February 11, 2016.
Iranians holding banners in support of the Islamic Republic and its leaders, at a Tehran rally commemorating 37th anniversary of revolution, on February 11, 2016.Credit: AP

“Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran,” by Laura Secor, Riverhead Books, 508 pp., $30

“Until We Are Free: My Struggle for Human Rights in Iran,” by Shirin Ebadi, Random House, 304 pp., $27

In 1963, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, shah of Iran, launched the White Revolution – a series of political and social reforms inspired by the progressive democracies of the West and directed at improving the lot of the Iranian working classes. That’s what he claimed, anyway. In fact, the intended principal beneficiary of the reforms was the shah himself; he assumed that a newly empowered middle class would shore up his wobbly political standing. But he was wrong.

It wasn’t that the proposed schemes – including land ownership reforms, a literacy drive and extending suffrage to women – were untimely in themselves. But the inchoate, incompetent and often corrupt attempts to implement the changes merely underlined the self-interest behind them, and ultimately exposed an even wider swathe of Iran’s population to the shah’s capricious rule.

The reforms also created enemies among the clergy, who resented what they saw as the dilution of their traditional power base: the rural poor and landless. One leading agitator was the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who railed against the White Revolution’s Westernizing ambitions, framing them as a threat to Islam – while at the same time leveraging the shah’s human rights abuses to his own political benefit. After Khomeini described the shah as a “wretched, miserable man,” in an incendiary 1963 speech, the shah sent him into exile. Afterward, the shah attempted to diminish the threat the ayatollah represented to his reign by dismissing him as a an “obscurantist little cleric.” If only.

As we know now, the shah’s misjudged drive to Westernization prepared the ground for his eventual overthrow. The mass literacy achieved by White Revolution indeed expanded the educated middle classes, but not the economic infrastructure needed to support them. Unemployment and social discontent burgeoned. Over the next decade or so, two ideological movements steadily grew in strength and influence, finding a receptive audience amid the discontent.

The first, led by left-leaning intellectuals, championed the evolution of an indigenous and independent Iranian identity, freed from slavish mimicry of the West. The other, religious and conservative in orientation, proposed the extension of Islamic jurisprudence into the public and political spheres. The populace was primed for the introduction of a new order. But whose?

The enduring face-off between these two movements, always fractious and often violent, forms the crux of “Children of Paradise: The Struggle for a New Iran,” by American journalist Laura Secor. The principal achievement of her thoughtful political history lies in its comprehensive engagement with the social and intellectual complexities that shaped the creation of this modern-day religious state.

Iran, following the 1979 Islamic Revolution that rid it of the shah, has been commonly described as ruled under the inflexible fiat of fundamentalist clerics. There is truth in this characterization, obviously. But it’s also a conveniently reductive narrative, and Secor – who over the last decade and a half has written about Iran for Foreign Affairs, The New Yorker and The New Republic, among other publications – broadens the terms with which one might decipher the enigma that is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the deposed shah, on vacation with his family in March, 1979. His attempted reforms created animosity among public and clergy alike.Credit: AP

Authentic identity

“The story of the Iranian revolution is not only – perhaps not even primarily – a story about religion,” Secor argues. “It is a story about politics and identity, about social division and cohesion, about the forces that move history everywhere in the world.”

The painstaking detail she invests in charting the ideological journey of modern Iran gives this claim persuasive heft. By starting with the principles and tracing the growth of a uniquely Iranian intellectual awareness in the wake of the shah’s failed reforms, Secor enables the reader to engage with a far more nuanced social and political history. The “anchor” wasn’t religion in itself, but rather the desire of Iranians to create an authentic identity, a sense of self that could stand independently of Western mores.

By the mid-1960s, the distrust had begun to coalesce into a tangible philosophy: Gharbzadegi, usually translated into English as “Westoxification.” Suspicion of Western influences had long been a feature of the Iranian political psyche, particularly after the CIA-supported overthrow of the Iranian prime minister – and the shah’s political rival – Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953. But Westoxification extended beyond the political to the historical and cultural, the cornerstones of Iranian identity.

In 1962, essayist and political activist Jalal al-e Ahmad wrote – and secretly circulated – an influential essay on this theme, characterizing Westoxification as a disease eating away at Iran’s identity from within. Interestingly, given his secular influences, Al-e Ahmad’s tract recognized a place in the national psyche for the only aspect of Iranian identity that, to his mind, remained untainted by exposure to the West: religion.

The clerical class was not quite so pluralistic in its outlook. Khomeini, who spent much of his exile in neighboring Iraq, was always clear that the only legitimate government must be Islamic, guided by religious leaders. Khomeini’s theocratic ideology derived from the Shia jurisprudential philosophy of Velayat-e Faqih, which vested custodianship of the populace in the clerical class.

As is usually the case where the spiritual and the profane intersect, the intended scope of this religion-informed (and at the time, hypothetical) custodianship was disputed. By 1974, Secor reports, Khomeini had made his definitive statement on the matter, favoring a maximalist interpretation: The state, he argued, had no need for either a constitution or for legislation beyond the revealed word of God.

There is one thing all organized faiths hold in common: the promise to believers that religion, and it alone, can create an irreproachable communal identity. Perhaps this explains why the left-leaning activists and intellectuals who followed Al-e Ahmad could find common ground with the clerics during the tumultuous late 1970s. Secor points out that despite his preference for what might be charitably described as guided democracy, “[Khomeini] also presented a seductive theory of a ‘proud and defiant’ national identity.”

This could be interpreted as an embrace of Westoxification, but it ultimately turned out to be something else entirely. In any case, the shah’s undiscriminating but uniformly brutal attitude to his opponents made rapprochement between the two streams of dissent easier. The opposition prevailed, and in early 1979 the shah fled increasing domestic unrest in Iran for a short, peripatetic exile (he died, of a form of blood cancer, in Egypt the following year). In Iran, however, the settling of accounts had just begun.

Intellectual soul

In visceral detail, Secor describes the political lurches and turns of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the country’s transformation from autocratic fiefdom to a theocratic “democracy”: the collapse of the monarchy; the approval of a constitution vesting overall power in a clerical Council of Guardians (manifestation of Khomeini’s favored Velayat-e Faqih); and the establishment of the Revolutionary Guard, to offset the military establishment.

Late in that year, the American hostage crisis presented Khomeini with the pretext to complete his power grab, by using the selective leaking of documents from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran to discredit political moderates. By the beginning of 1980, the clerics were in full political control, liberal thinking co-opted, frozen out, or worse. But while these religious leaders might have won the political battle, the struggle for the intellectual soul of Iran had only just begun.

You can lead a horse to water, the saying goes, but you can’t force it to drink. However, give a person enough material and he’ll have no choice but to think. Velayat-e Faqih might have been presented as the starting point of an Iranian Enlightenment, but in fact it was as repressive – perhaps even more so – than the shah’s regime.

In the face of common sense and good reason, Khomeini exploited the ruinous Iran-Iraq War until it reached a pointless stalemate, leading to more than 190,000 Iranian deaths. In parallel, domestic enemies of the new order were wiped out – literally. Secor notes the more than 7,900 political detainees were executed between 1981 and 1985 – at least 79 times the number killed in the name of the shah throughout the 1970s.

“Cast out of the inner circle of power, the militants of the Islamic left turned to philosophy, sociology and political theory for new answers,” Secor writes. “What was the State? Why did it exist? How could they distinguish the word of God from its reflection in their own eyes?”

As a work of narrative journalism, “Children of Paradise” works particularly well because it reaches beyond the documentation of Iran’s turbulent recent history, and succeeds in personifying it. Secor accomplishes this by crafting evocative portraits of many of the principal characters (as well as some who were not in the limelight) in the battle for Iranian hearts and minds.

The reader meets Ali Shariati, the sociologist from a clerical family who became a main champion of Al-e Ahmed, exhorting the revolutionary potential of religion before his mysterious death in 1977; Abdolkarim Soroush, the engineer-turned-scholar, who strove, ultimately unsuccessfully, to negotiate an intellectual space where cultural and philosophical criticism of the ayatollahs could be possible without challenging the primacy of Islam; and later, reflecting the spread of intellectual opposition, student leader Ali Afshari, human rights activist Asieh Amini and writer/journalist Mohammed Mokhtari, among many others. Through them, the book places markers along the path, tracing the evolution of an almost organic sensibility; the understanding, amid the dissent and defiance, that political freedom is but one aspect of the challenge to create a new Iran. Any inclusive identity must include respect for the human rights of all – and this is something that the Velayet-e Faqih will never quite achieve.

Impassioned memoir

Despite its strengths, “Children of Paradise” is not quite the complete article. Reportage, even when as detailed and informed as Secor’s, can never quite replace the experience of life as actually lived. For this reason, one approaches “Until We Are Free: My Struggle for Human Rights in Iran,” by Shirin Ebadi, with the anticipation that it will help complete the picture.

Iran's President Ahmadinejad in February, 2013. Indiscriminate attacks on perceived opponents of the existing order. Credit: AFP

Ebadi, a lawyer by training, qualified as a judge in 1970 and subsequently became president of the Tehran city court – the first woman to hold this position. Following the 1979 revolution, the clergy forced her into early retirement, whereupon she opened a legal practice, focusing on civil rights and protecting the legal status of women and children. Her work brought her into sharp conflict with the clerics, and several of her clients were killed during a purge – widely assumed to have been sponsored by a hard-line faction of the sitting government – in 1998. (This, as well as the subsequent history of Iranian dissent, is covered comprehensively in Secor’s book.)

Ebadi herself was tried and convicted on the peculiar charge of tape-recording a confession by a government agent in connection with one of these killings, although her five-year prison sentence was suspended by a superior court. In 2003, Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace; the jury acknowledged her work as a lawyer, writer and activist, and also pointed out that she “never heeded the [threats] to her own safety” provoked by her activism.

“Until We Are Free” is an impassioned memoir, framed by the eight-year reign of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the once little-known engineer who trumped the odds to be elected Iran’s president in 2005. Mohammad Khatami, his predecessor, had tread a thin line between acknowledging demands for social reform and respecting the supreme custodianship of the clerics.

Ahmadinejad, who owed his electoral success to those religious figures, promptly reversed the incremental advances secured under Khatami, thrusting Iran back into political tension. Activists had by this time internalized the lesson, learned from the hard days of the 1980s and ‘90s, that championing full human rights for all was a far more effective strategy than demonstrating overt political opposition to the clerics. Even so, Ahmadinejad was indiscriminate in attacking perceived opponents of the existing order. Ebadi’s work as a feminist campaigner and activist – and her international profile as Nobel laureate – made her an obvious target; a warning to other campaigners that dissent would not be tolerated.

On the one hand, “Until We Are Free” is a powerful document, vividly portraying the repressive rule under the clerics and Velayat-e Faqih. “The Islamic Republic has a myriad of shortcomings,” Ebadi writes. “It vests absolute power in an unelected leader, harasses independent-minded clerics who challenge the religious basis of its severe Islamic rule, and pursues policies that are ideologically radical and detached from the national interests of the Iranian people.”

The republic’s insistence on the development of a nuclear program, in the face of crippling international sanctions, stands as testament to this. (Said sanctions are presently in the process of being dismantled. However, as a recent UN Human Rights Council reports, gross human rights violations continue apace.)

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. She won't stop her struggle until all Iranians have full human rights.Credit: Reuters

Ebadi can testify to this firsthand. After failing to co-opt her as an unwitting proxy in the regime’s attempts to evade international sanctions, Ahmadinejad’s factotums turned against her unrelentingly. Her civil rights organization, Defenders of Human Rights, was closed down (inauspiciously on December 10, International Human Rights Day); her family was harassed, and she gradually comes to understand that even if her international profile protected her from the worst of the regime’s actions, this shield does not extend to colleagues and associates. Her daughter’s passport is seized without explanation, then returned without excuses or justification. An intern at Ebadi’s NGO is threatened with dire personal consequences if she continued to work with Ebadi.

Ebadi herself is later allocated an official “minder,” to keep an eye on her activities; the minder warns her that public criticism is dangerous, because it empowers Iran’s international enemies. “If the state stops behaving badly, then I won’t have anything to say,” she retorts. But the state won’t stop, and the implication is that thus, neither will she.

But for all this insight, “Until We Are Free” sometimes reads as though trapped within an incomplete perspective. The warning for the reader (noted in retrospect) can be seen already in the declarative first-person singular of the book’s subtitle, a narrow point of view that runs throughout the work. This may be a matter of social milieu. Ebadi is, correctly, critical of Ahmadinejad’s “money and envelopes” (or, to put it bluntly, vote-buying) policy – “seducing the urban and rural poor with cash,” as she describes it. But she doesn’t pause to consider: Might there be a reason why people might allow themselves to be seduced thus? Later, she muses about the difficulties faced by “ordinary people” trying to obtain visas for study abroad. One would be willing to wager that travel abroad would not have been a high priority for the many Iranians who have had to contend with the effects of international sanctions.

This is not to deny Ebadi’s personal commitment to championing the basic human rights of all Iranians, to a much greater degree than one can say of the government. Despite all the indications to the contrary, Ahmadinejad was “re-elected” president of Iran in 2009, and immediately set about neutralizing the opposition with vigor (Secor, again, covers this period with admirable clarity). It was clear to Ebadi – attending a conference abroad at the time – that returning to Iran would put her in personal danger; by default, she became a political exile, which remains her status until today. Both of her daughters had by this time relocated to the West, but her husband remained in Tehran. Unscrupulous to the last, Ahmadinejad’s operatives turned him into a tool against Ebadi, by engineering a cruel betrayal. That fact, and indeed the book as a whole, serves as a poignant and painful reminder of the personal price paid by many dissidents for their opposition to the regime.