It is interesting how the context you grow up in can determine a lot of what you come to learn in your life. Growing up in a Sunni family and mostly Sunni community, I knew very little about Iran except that it was a Muslim country–Shia predominantly, near Iraq, and that the language spoken was Farsi and not Arabic. Although I grew up in a very diverse community, I did not come to meet many Iranians. When I look back at it now, it seems to me that part of the reason that I am not familiar with that part of the Muslim world is that in some ways it was always distant.
With all that is happening in Iran–the elections and post-election protests, I wanted to know more about a part of the world that still remained unfamiliar to me. This past week, I got my chance to learn more about Iran by reading Hooman Majd‘s book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran. Majd will be joining Here on Earth tomorrow to talk about his book and Iran.
I learned many things about Iran that reminded me of other places in the Middle East and many things that were unique and stemmed from Iran’s specific place in the world. An aspect of Iran that was perhaps already familiar to me was the notion that it is a land of contradiction. Majd implies that this is specific to Iran, but I have the feeling that contradictions can be located anywhere. For example, the idea that outward conservatism combines with a private space for liberal expression does not seem that unique to me. Majd writes that in Iran the Persian concept of privacy is fundamental to the stability of the regime so that Iranians are afforded the freedom to do as they like behind closed doors. Can’t we find this in many parts of the world?
On the other hand, Majd does relay a uniqueness about Iran that stems form Shia Islam and a strong Persian heritage. What Majd points out, and I have come to learn, is that in order to understand Iran, you have to understand Shiism first. Throughout the book, Majd demonstrates the role of Shia Islam in how Iran engages the world. He writes, for example, that Shiism has been political from its inception. The deaths of Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and the fourth Caliph, and Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who became a saint in Shia Islam, represent their struggle against forces of oppression, which in Shia Islam began with the majority Sunni community and continues to the present day with Western powers. Without understanding the role that this notion of loss, struggle, and mourning plays in the present day Iranian psyche, one can not begin to engage Iran.
The conclusion that confronts the reader is that Iran and the Iranian people are much more complex than they are often portrayed. Any constructive dialogue with Iran requires an acknowledgement of this reality.
What do you know about Iran? Are there parallels between Iran and other countries? What do you think about the elections and the following protests? How do you think the conflict with Iran should be resolved? Please share your comments.
To learn more about Iran and Hooman Majd’s book, listen to the show tomorrow, Tuesday, August 11th.
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