Tuesday 16 September 2008

Iran and the Iranians (1): Misunderstood and underrated.

No Muslim country has had such a consistently bad press in the West as Iran since 1979, when a grave-looking cleric succeeded in ousting the Shah. But it is often forgotten that also under the Pahlevi-dynasty Iranian politics had its sinister side – not least by the decision of the last Shah’s father to rename the country ‘Iran’ in order to underscore the nation’s perceived Aryan roots, a notion that conjures up very unsavoury associations, certainly in post-war Europe and America.

Perhaps it would be better if the country were named ‘Persia’ again',* because it might help raising other people’s awareness of its ancient cultural legacy. When, in the seventh century CE, Islam took a foothold in the region, Persians quickly occupied influential positions because they possessed the skills which were in short supply among the Arabs who initially controlled the new empire. When the Abbasid caliphate replaced the Umayyad Dynasty of Damascus, Persians began pouring into the state administration and education system. Their cultural influence radiated far beyond present-day Iran into Central Asia and what are now Pakistan and Northwest India. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, Persian was the court language of the Mughal emperors.

The Persians' cultural resilience is exemplified by the fact that they managed to retain their own language even after Islamization, in contrast to, for example, the Egyptians and Syrians who became more thoroughly Arabized. Some of the finest Islamic poetry of Islamic world was written in Persian. Through translation, poets like Attar, Hafiz, and Rumi (or Jalal al-Din al-Balkhi as the Persians call him) have even become household names in the West. But also famous medieval Islamic scholars addressing wider audiences in Arabic, like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and al-Ghazali, came from the Persianate world.

Present-day Iranians (Persians) are not only well aware of this legacy, but take an active interest in preserving it and keeping it alive. Whenever I meet Iranians they never fail to impress me with their erudition. At a conference in Indonesia I met a man who in his daily life worked as an administration manager at an oil refinery in Southern Iran, but whose real passion was literature. Equally at home in classical Persian poetry and modern prose, as well as Western writings, he quoted from Bertold Brecht and Joseph Conrad. Although he claimed that his superior at work was a grim and dour member of the 'mullahcracy', the latter nevertheless was generous enough to give him time off to attend conferences around the world and always eager for stories from the outside when he returned.

Kader Abdolah
Admittedly, substantial numbers of intellectuals have been forced to seek refuge elsewhere. There is the very impressive example of Kader Abdolah (pen name of Hossein Sadjadi Ghaemmaghami Farahani). As a leftist political activist he fell foul of the regime and had to flee the country in 1985, reaching the Netherlands in 1988 While awaiting political asylum in a refugee centre he taught himself Dutch. In 1993, he made his Dutch literary debut with a collection of short stories about his experiences as a refugee and foreigner. Now he is one of the country’s best-selling authors. The English translation of his latest novel, My Father's Notebook won the prestigious Vondel Prize, while the Dutch original (Spijkerschrift: Notities van Aga Akbar) was awarded the E. du Perron Prize. Others were able – for some time at least – to find a modus Vivendi with the regime, although with the growing influence of hardliners that became increasingly difficult.

Abdolkarim Soroush
For some time one of today’s foremost Persian thinkers, the pharmacologist-turned-philosopher and scholar of religion Abdolkarim Soroush (pen name of Hosein Haj Faraj Dabbagh), was able to combine his work in the Islamic Republic’s higher education system with critical philosophical investigations. Initially primarily interested in the philosophy of science, he later shifted towards religious topics. Unfortunately, by 2000 his views drew such hostile reactions from Ansar-e-Hizbullah vigilante groups that he deemed it prudent to move abroad. Since then he has been teaching at Ivy-league universities in the States and at Berlin’s Wissenschaftkolleg. Most of his writings are in Persian, but Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam, a collection of essays in English, gives a good insight in his ideas.

More recently, I came across the writings of Ramin Jahanbegloo. A cousin of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Jahanbegloo studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and spent many years teaching in Toronto, until he returned to Iran, accepting a post as head of the Contemporary Philosophy Department of the Cultural Research Center in Tehran (2001-2006). During this time he wrote a book on intellectual life in Iran, entitled Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity

Ramin Jahanbegloo
After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over the presidency in the Fall of 2005, Iran’s intellectual climate deteriorated and between April and August 2006, Ramin Jahanbegloo was detained in the notorious Evin prison. Following an intensive campaign by intellectuals in both Iran and abroad he released and went to India. BHe served for two years as Rajni Kothari Professor of Democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, until returning to Toronto in early 2008.

Jahanbegloo made name as the one who managed to bring thinkers like Richard Rorty, Antonio Negri, and Michael Ignatieff to Tehran. He also published books of his conversations and interviews with Isaiah Berlin and Ashis Nandy, and written about Indian thought, Gandhi, and the doctrine of nonviolence. Certainly a man to watch.

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