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Iran and the Two Faces of Modernity

by FARZIN VAHDAT

14 Aug 2010 19:0620 Comments
shiite3.jpgA growing sense of personal agency fuels resistance to monopolized power.

[ IDÉ ] It is often thought that what is currently taking place in Iran, the continuation of what has unfolded there over the past three decades -- violation of human rights, systematic discrimination against women, and belligerence toward the West -- constitutes a rejection of modernity and its fruits. There are many reasons to find this view plausible. Soon after the victory of the Islamists in the Revolution of 1979, most of the modernizing efforts and institutions of the 55-year-old Pahlavi dynasty were either abandoned or completely reversed. Some of the most visible of these institutions pertained to women. During the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah, the state had taken some positive steps regarding the status and welfare of women. Some of the most flagrant institutionalized forms of discrimination and abuse were curbed, if not abolished, through the curtailing of arbitrary divorce by men, the institution of more women-friendly custody laws, and the restriction of polygyny.

With the establishment of the Islamic Republic, most of the provisions of the Pahlavi era's Family Protection Law were abandoned. Personal freedoms, which before the Revolution were more or less tolerated, came under severe attack by the revolutionaries. Women were forced to don the hejab, and any form of resistance to the closely monitored dress codes for both men and women was met with harsh punishment, including public flogging. Ancient retribution laws that entailed the cutting off of thieves' hands and the stoning of adulterers -- which, in fact, had rarely been performed in medieval Iran -- were enforced in many parts of the country.

Human rights, including freedom of belief, among the fundamental features of the modern world, received a fatal blow under the Islamic Republic. Adherents of the Baha'i faith, for example, came under savage attack by the government and zealots soon after the Revolution. Some 200 to 300 Baha'is were killed merely because they were not willing to recant their faith. Many more received long prison sentences. The property of thousands of Baha'is was confiscated and their children were deprived of education, especially of access to higher education. Last week, in a renewed attack on the members of this faith a court in Tehran handed down 20-year prison sentences for seven Baha'i leaders.

There is no doubt that the Revolution and the Islamic Republic that was established in its wake militated against and negated some of what we take to be the most important aspects of modernity. Yet, modernity is complex. Under closer analysis, it could become evident that what has been taking place in Iran over the past three decades might very well be the initial phases of modernity, whose emergence has often been Janus-faced in other parts of the world. The notion of modernity is a contentious one, surrounded by conflicting methods of analysis, value judgments, and sentiments. There is little consensus among social and political thinkers concerning basic questions. What is the nature of modernity? Do we still live in the modern or we have entered the postmodern phase? Was modernity a Western -- that is, Western European -- phenomenon, or not? When did it start, and can we speak of different phases in the development of the modern civilization? Has modernity improved human life or been detrimental to our happiness and security? These are difficult questions and much academic ink has been spilled without resolving them.

Of particular relevance to Iran's situation, there are some intellectual traditions that tend to view modernity in terms of transformations in the human psyche that empower individuals so that they are no longer passive, inactive, docile, compliant, idle, suffering, and resigned. From this point of view -- shared in varying ways by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, and Jürgen Habermas -- modernity begins when a critical mass in a society abandons the life of passivity and acquires a sense of assertiveness, vigor, volition, resolve, and action. In a nutshell, modern people are not passive. They possess agency and power. They act upon the world. Moderns' intervention in and acting upon nature constitutes the foundation of technology, which has liberated humans to some extent from the whims of nature and at the same time brought us close to the destruction of both nature and ourselves.

Modern people also act upon society and politics as they assert their individual and collective power. This aspect of human agency and empowerment underlies the democratic institutions of modern societies. Democracy in the modern world is not possible without these fundamental transformations in the psyches of the people in a given society. We can install all the institutions of modern democracy, but without a critical mass in the society that has a sense of agency and empowerment these institutions will not survive. This happened in Iran (not to mention other countries) in the early 20th century. The Constitutional Revolution of 1906 laid the foundations of a restricted, constitutional monarchy, a parliament, a more or less free press, and free elections. But because a sense of agency and empowerment had not developed among the bulk of the Iranian people, all of these institutions failed. In fact, in the hands of the despotic Pahlavi kings, they were transformed into instruments to promote their heavy-handed rule. Especially from the 1960s on, the monarchy tried to win legitimacy by pursuing a kind of hollow modernization, typified by economic development projects, simultaneously ambitious and corrupt, directed from above.

The observation may at first seem very counterintuitive, but the experience of Iran in the past three decades has brought a significant sense of agency and empowerment to average Iranians, especially those of the lower and lower middle classes. Ironically, this development may ultimately challenge the very existence of the Islamic Republic as we know it. The Revolution of 1979 galvanized and mobilized the "masses" of Iran like no other event in the country's recent history. The participation of Iranians from all walks of life, especially the lower and lower middle classes, in political rallies, consciousness raising (as well as ideological indoctrination), formation of protest groups, and many other forms of social and political struggle toppled the Pahlavi dynasty. This collective action jolted ordinary Iranians and catapulted them into a form of agency, albeit rudimentary and contradictory.

The eight years of war with Iraq in the 1980s further promoted the sense of agency among Iran's men, and to some extent its women (female participation in the war effort behind the front was significant). The conflict was inarguably devastating: it took a massive human toll, with between a quarter of million and one million Iranians killed. It also further devastated what remained of the country's physical infrastructure after the Revolution. Yet, despite the massive human and physical damage that the war inflicted on Iran, it served to increase the sense of boldness and agency among its people.

Thus the foundations for societal modernity among Iranians of average means were laid. And when a sense of agency and empowerment is initiated among a critical mass of a population, there can develop a dynamic process that not only increases the sense of agency in the individual, but also disseminates it further in society. When an individual develops a sense of agency and empowerment and comes to realize that other individuals in the society should have the same, then the foundations of universal rights are created. This, in turn, can inspire a democratic ethos among a large number of people. This seems to have taken place in Iran. The Reformist movement of the 1990s, an abbreviated version of this scenario, gave rise to the much larger Green Movement that emerged, seemingly spontaneously, last year in response to the rigged presidential election.

In fact, that earlier Reformist movement did not emerge out of nothing. It owed much to the actions of some of the once downtrodden people of Iran -- those who had joined the Revolution, participated in the war with Iraq, and as a result had developed a high sense of agency while acknowledging and conceding the same agency for others. In this way a group of Iranians from humble backgrounds gave birth to the ethos of modern agency and its universalization that is at the foundation of societal modernity and democracy.

And this Reformist tide, while large enough to win two presidential elections for Mohammad Khatami, was not quite as large as the Green Movement that succeeded it last year. During Khatami's presidency, between 1997 and 2005, the newly developed middle classes of Iran were mostly silent, even as they sympathized with Reformist policies. With the fraudulent presidential election of 2009, this vast group of people shed their last layer of passivity and became fully active, participating in the protests that shook the regime for many months.

Yet societal modernity has another face. The popularization of agency among the multitude may not be fully disseminated. The democratic ethos is sustainable when the sense of empowerment and agency is dispersed in society and people acknowledge the agency of everyone else. But when a group wants agency and power for its members alone, then an anti-democratic ethos come to the fore. Modernity, it seems, engenders both of these types of ethos and social groups that identify with them.

The people around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Basij embody this anti-democratic face of modernity. Their roots are also largely in the lower and lower middle classes of the 1960s and 1970s who acquired a sense of empowerment and agency as a result of the Revolution and the war with Iraq. However, unlike those whose support the Green Movement, they wish to keep this agency exclusive to their circle and monopolize power. They are relatively small groups who benefit -- or think they do -- from not sharing power. They do not, by any means, constitute a subordinate class, "subalterns," as they are sometimes portrayed. They are ambitious. They actively seek favor, position, and financial resources from the government, Guard, and militia leaders. They possess a large appetite for power and for keeping it within their ranks. They also have a monopoly over the means of violence.

The conflict between these two faces of modernity in Iran makes the struggle for change a protracted endeavor. Those who wish to monopolize power will not give up easily. They belong to the first generation of downtrodden Iranians who acquired power by means of struggle and violence -- or, in the case of the younger Basijis, the first underdog generation to be given a taste of power.

On the other side, the new middle classes of Iran, who have also newly acquired a sense of empowerment and agency but wish to share it in a democratic fashion, are resilient. Nobody has conferred their new status to them on a silver platter. They have earned their status and developed their modern democratic ethos through hard experience in the past 30 years. These new middle classes are the motor behind the civic progress in Iran that has coalesced into the Green Movement. They are not going to give up their desire for democracy because that desire has been evolving for more than three decades. The good news is that most of those involved in this civic movement believe in nonviolent means to bring change and democracy to Iran. Because of that it may take a while for them to succeed, but they are consciously avoiding the sort of violent conflict with the forces of monopoly that could lead to a devastating conflagration.

Dr. Farzin Vahdat is a research associate at Vassar College. IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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20 Comments

Aside from a bit soft on what the Shah did or did not, excellent article. Thank you.

Asghar Taragheh / August 14, 2010 8:10 PM

It all has to do with the LITERACY rate. Before Pahlavis, Iran had one of lowest literacy rates and the school system was based on Madrasah or religious schooling, where Mullahs taught. 80 years ago less than 5% of Iranians could read.

Pahlavis emphasis on modern schooling and then the advent of LITERACY CORPS in the 1960s increased that number to more than 50% by 1978. Today 75% of Iranians are literate.

The regime in power, as much as it likes, can not turn the clock back to 1800's, when Mullahs words, by virtue of their ability to read Qoran, was God's command.

Maziar / August 14, 2010 9:25 PM

Maziar -

Give credit where it's due. The Pahlavis played a part. But many families felt safe sending their daughters to universities after the Revolution - this is why the majority of university students are women and this is why they are playing such a large role in our country today despite the many other legal restrictions placed in front of them.

B / August 14, 2010 9:43 PM

I agree with my above commentators: The key to keeping people in subjugation is denying them access to knowledge.

The mullahs are digging their own grave by allowing people to study (especially humanities).

Right now, emigration, or brain-drain, takes a bit of pressure from the kettle, but that only works for so long.

Dennis Pachernegg / August 14, 2010 10:16 PM

This article is the kind we need more in here! Iran is evolving into something MODERN, but what is modern? We do not know it. It is to be seen. I am only sure of one thing that the result will be unique to Iran and would not be like any other thing in other parts of the World. I am just hopeful that these brutalities of Ayatollahs and Islamic executioners serve to teach Iranians why Religion and State must be separated.

Amin / August 15, 2010 12:37 AM

Oh, I need to say that although education is the reason why Iranians are getting more enlightened and aware of their basic rights but the unjust and unfair treatment of citizens by Ayatollahs is as important as education if not more.

Amin / August 15, 2010 12:39 AM

Thank you very much, Mr. Vahdat, for pointing to the Janus-faced outcomes of modernity in Iran. It gives me however a somewhat disquieting feeling that Iran's war with Iraq "served to increase the sense of boldness and agency among its people." Perceiving war as the vehicle of fundamental social changes is an argumentum ex nihilo, which denies the initial motivation of the 1979 revolution for more freedom, stolen by a clergy, which abused of its positive reputation in society, gained during the Constitutional Revolution (and before).
By replacing one godfather (the Shah) by an other (the "Imam") the clerics adopted the prevailing dictatorial type of rule, but failed to eliminate the leftists as the engine of social change completely.
I would rather argue that the Mullahs opened the doors to the political participation of the masses, the "ommate hamisheh dar sahneh", badly needed for their legitimisation, but failed to realise that these masses demanded more than just serving as useful idiots. The Iraq war may have increased the sense of agency, but constant struggle against a repressive system has been far more effective in shaping a sense of self-respect and autonomy within society.
31 years later both the monarchic and clerical models have failed, leaving only the options for a democracy or a military dictatorship.

Arshama / August 15, 2010 2:09 AM

Dear Dr. Vahdat,


By far the most perceptive and illuminating material I have ever read on Tehran Bureau.

Ali from Tehran / August 15, 2010 2:11 AM

This article is not even founded on reality. Personal freedoms were respected under the Shah? Is he talking about Iran before the revolution? Iran is "belligerent toward the West?" Does this guy have a brain? I guess he wants Iran to do what the Shah did, put its hands up, and pass the "capitualtion law," or give up Bahrain as Britain and US demanded.
Women's rights? It is one thing to pass a law, and it is entirely another thing to "abolish" something. Under the Shah, young girls were still being married off at age 9, because that was the village life. There was not court system to stop anything. Let me give you a personal account this author knows nothing of. My mother divorce my dad in Iran. The judge called her a whore in court, and gave custody to my dad and his parents. That was Iran under Shah's women's rights, in a Tehran court. It is no better today. But please, don't make Shah's Iran something it was not. We were backwards, getting worse. Modernity? better call it dependency.
What most forget, so conveniently, the Shah was actually making Iran into another Fillipines. The denial of Persian language and importation of foreign languaged stories in our text books, and demanded that foreign language be spoken or written at government offices. What country did that? My father, who speaks fluent French, was told he had to write his departmental orders in English or get a translator of EVERY order he made. As to why every single order had to be in English as well as Farsi is not clear. When my father told them he had to hire a translator at taxpeyer cost because he could only speak French, they replied "then, do it in French." In another words, anything but Farsi. That was the new order of all government office in 1978, the year of the revolution. That is probably why people don't recall some of the repugnant aspects of the Pahlavi rule.

Pouya / August 15, 2010 5:29 AM

Pouya I had the pleasure of living in Iran from the early 60s up until April of 1975.I married my wife who is Iranian in Shiraz.We are blessed with 2 great kids and 5 grand kids.My wife is my world.I have seen a good portion of Iran of that era and I can relate to some of your points but you take them to the extremes.Iran was backward.People were illiterate, traditional and the country in dire need of the very basics.Pahlavi era was a turning point for Iran and a lot of good was done while it lasted. Iran began to have a modern educated middle class and the country gained an infrastructure.Iran had a great deal of potential and not enough expertise.If young girls were still married off at the age of 9 it was due to the traditional culture of the people in various parts of Iran who had not adjusted to the modern ways. Any social change takes time even if King Pouya was in charge my friend. I can not comment on the case of department orders in English.I don't know and can not claim I saw evidence of it.I wish a lot of correspondence was bilingual for my own sake.I can neither speak for the American government nor for my colleagues who resided in Iran at that time but no one told me anything about capitulation law as you call it.We came to aid a close ally at the height of the cold war.Of course it was for our interest but it was for Iran’s interest too.I do not believe Iran would stand a chance against the Soviets on its own.If Americans in general had a little adjustment problems it was understandable.It was the fear of the unknown in a third world country.But to make Iran into Philippines as you have commented, I can not relate to it at all.I enjoyed living in Iran. People were kind and very hospitable.I really enjoyed the Caspian region of Iran.Well here is my 2 cents.I wish you the best.

Dan Herman / August 15, 2010 11:58 AM

Pouya,

Other than an irrelevant rant at the Pahlavi regime, what is it you are trying to say and how is it related to the article?

Personally I felt the author was balanced in his treatment of the Pahlavis as well as the islamists.

Agha Irani / August 15, 2010 3:08 PM

Dear Dan Herman @ 11:58 AM,


You say:


"I can speak neither for the American government nor for my colleagues who resided in Iran at that time but no one told me anything about capitulation law as you call it. We cam to aid a close ally at the height of the cold war."


For a person who speak for the American government you do a masterful job of parroting their talking points: "cold war", "aid a close ally", etc.


No wonder you never heard of the Capitulation Law.


I'll give you a penny for your "two cents."

Ali from Tehran / August 15, 2010 5:20 PM

I thought this was one of the better pieces on Tehran Bureau, and a welcome antidote to the excessive postings of Sahimi, who still defends the greatness of the revolution while sitting in Los Angeles. As Dan put it, the Shah had MANY flaws but he genuinely had great aspirations for Iran and was too forward thinking for Iranian society at that time.

Jaleh / August 15, 2010 6:46 PM

Dear Mr Vahdat,

Did you not know that you are not allowed to give any praise to the Pahlavi era?

The Pahlavi era was a backward, dirty stain on Iran's history. Nothing was achieved; everything was destroyed. Cover your eyes and put your fingers in your ears when somebody mentions the Pahlavi era, because you might catch cooties!

We must all praise the Islamic Republic. We must revise our history and conform with the narrative being shoved down our throats. War is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength!

Pak / August 15, 2010 9:32 PM

@ Pak : Your comment was hilarious and a bitter truth! U know, Iranians are still ambivalent when it comes to Pahlavi. U should cut them some slack actually. They had a REVOLUTION 30 years back to get rid of PAHLAVI. They can hate/love Pahlavi. It is normal. But as someone who was born in 1982 in Shiraz, I need to tell u that I am not ambivalent toward Pahlavi, and I know a lot of my friends are like me in this regard. Pahlavi,in their own right, was as bad as Ayatollahs. And if people disagree they can read History.

Amin / August 15, 2010 11:53 PM

Overall a well-balanced article in line with my view that despite their mixed results, successes, and horrendous failures, the constitutional revolution, the Pahlavi era, and the Islamic Regime have created building blocks that have evolved Iranian citizens into one of the most politically-knowledgable people not only in the middle east but I dare to say, in the entire world.

Yes there are large groups of Iranians who still believe in the clerics' outdated religious solutions to modern problems but so do the American right-wing evangelicals, the catholic sheep following their unrepentant pope, and the "we-can-kill-anyone because the Nazis killed us" zionists.

But if we step back and look at the bigger trends, I see a wonderful future for Iranian people who have gained centuries of human political evolution thru the events of the past 100 years.

Bahman / August 16, 2010 12:05 AM

Bahman,

Bravo

Niloofar / August 16, 2010 3:23 AM

Dan

Thanks for your comments. I migrated to the US, and I can bet I have had enough respect for this nation to learn more about its people and history than you had for Iran, where you lived for years. To say you know nothing of the capitulation law that allowed you to kill an Iranian but that Iranian family did not have the right to take you to court, is not going to work. It also means perhaps you need to learn more about the country you lived in and apparently cared not to learn anything about it. I don't want to make this personal but I don't see any other way. Let's forget the overthrow of Massadegh, I only hope you have heard of him. I am sure you heard of Ay. Khomeini. Well, he came to prominence because he opposed the capitulation law in the 60's. And he was exciled for it. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the fall of Mossadegh and the prominence the Ayatollah got, took the nation into an Islamic direction (I stopped crying about it years ago). You can blame the cold war for mistakes. Let me tell you something, those mistakes cost lives, and when it did not cost lives, it changed lives.
Let's forget Iran, I believe she can defend herself. Let's talk about your precious cold war and how it affected Afganistan and Ethiopia. Millions have perished by guns or by hunger. I am solely opposed to these warmongering policies. There are no proof they have done anything good, nor have they shown to make this nation safer. It is people who support such rational that hired Osama, and then fired him in 1997, as Secretary ALbright pointed out. I believe the US can do better. But for that to happen we must become INTOLERANT to such ideology and those who spouse it. Why? because such people are intolerent to others and ignore the cost they have brought upon all societies. Let me remind you that the Soviet Union did not fall by a single shot. It fell because of ideas, because they were wrong, and people had enough. Let me remind you that after 3 million vietnamese dead, they are our friends now because of trade. And as for Iran, she would have become a secular, democratic country, and probably and American ally, as most Iranians inherently share many of America's values.

A. Irani

Thanks for the question. Don't get me wrong, and perhaps I should have said this in my opening remarks, but I like the article in its totality. But I think it is important that we do not overlook articles that try to compromise on something in an attempt to make a bigger picture. While the article may be a good piece overall, we cannot overlook its first characterizations of the Pahlavi era. Such things are taken by others as fact and a separate article is written as if it is all true. That's why it is important to call them out. Maybe I get too vociferous about it (as you like to call it a "rant"), but I hope I make my point.

The interpretation that the Pahlavi regime made Iran modern is simply not true. Did they make Iran dependent? ofcourse. Look, Germany imports american computers and uses microsoft software. But Germany also produces other products, thus its imports can augment its other industries. That is a different picture than we had in Iran. I point out to Germany because it was completely destroyed by the end of 1945, about the same time Shah took reign of Iran. Yes, I know, Germans already were more educated and industrious. But can you mention one, a single, uno, industry Iran had after 37 year reign of Reza. Did Iran import something and export something bigger? Let me ask a question, what was Iran's main export before oil was nationalized by Mossadegh? Did you know Iran was an agricultural exporter? If Shah wanted to modernize Iran would it not be better to bring things that would enhance Iran's exports? Instead, by the 1960's Iran became a net importer of all agricultural goods, and it only got worse with the "white revolution." Have you ever asked why an Iranian king would call an economic plan "white?" Is that an Iranian terminology? That's because the "white revolution" was devised by economists that never visited Iran, but wanted to use her as an experiment, so economists at MIT came up with a plan for Iran. We can all only speculate as to why a few economists in the 1960's America decided to call their plan "white." You can still dig the paper from MIT. And it destroyed Iran. Those of us who lived through the revolution know that once the sanctions came, you could not find a pencil because it was all imported. No factory was open. Paykan produced nothing. You could not find eggs, meat, even bread was hard to find for the first year or two. That was the Iran Shah left behind. Was that modernity or dependency? Let's put it this way, if you can't use a computer, why buy it?

Bahman

I second Niloofar's comments. But I go further to say that your comments are more balanced than the article itself.

Pouya / August 16, 2010 11:47 AM

Reza A.
I agree with the basic argument that Dr. Vahdad makes in this well-written article. I would like to share with him a section of a chapter that I am writing for a book.

In retrospect, the Islamic Republic has acted like a cultural enema for Iran’s modernity, opening for the first time a real prospect for acceptance of human rights norms among the educated youth. The state’s implacable opposition to individual freedom has increased appreciation for such freedom among the youth. In a relevant parallel, historian Lynn Hunt describes the eighteenth-century Europeans who as “individuals had begun to pull themselves away from the webs of community,” then enter into an emerging liberal age and see the “rights of men” as being self-evident.

Autonomy and empathy are cultural practices, not just ideas, and they are therefore quite literally embodied, that is, they have physical as well as emotional dimensions. Individual autonomy hinges on an increasing sense of the separation and sacredness of human bodies: your body is yours and my body is mine, and we should both respect the boundaries between each other’s bodies. Empathy depends on the recognition that others feel and think as we do, that our inner feelings are alike in some fundamental fashion. To be autonomous, a person has to be legitimately separate and protected in his or her separation; but to have rights go along with that bodily separation a person’s selfhood must be appreciated in some more emotional fashion. Human rights depend both on self-possession and on the recog¬nition that all others are equally self-possessed. It is the incomplete development of the latter that gives rise to all the inequalities of rights that have preoccupied us throughout all history.


In the past three decades, the sociopolitical-cultural history of Iran has prepared many educated Iranians to take the first necessary steps toward perceiving human rights as self-evident. For them that history is made by complex interactions among people and between them and the state, by their contradictory experiences and by their socioeconomic anxieties. It is shaped by expanding population of modern middle and upper classes and their unsatisfied aspirations for their children, by the paradoxical expansion of the public sphere, by the spread of the nuclear family structure, and by noticeable shifts in gender relations. Among the youths, it is made by their “inner feelings,” to use Hunt’s words, and their fears of being humiliated in public .....
For them history is made by their growing sense of self-autonomy and individuality. The state propaganda that has stereotypically set up the figure of frivolous and hedonistic (bidard, pain-free) youth as incompatible with Shiite virtue may have heightened the values of autonomy, individuality, and empathy. The Islamization drive in public spaces – with all its spectacles, its verbal abuses and physical violence, so blatantly infringing on the civil rights in everyday settings and in full view – has actually allowed young individuals in urban settings to encounter strangers with whom he or she may easily empathize. Nothing concentrates the mind more than sanctioned brutality in public, which has given this generation greater compassion and empathy across class and gender lines than their parents and grandparents could imagine. The repressive faces of the regime are not confined behind prison walls; they are menacingly present, facing down the defiant youths, on the streets. The Shah’s regime left undisturbed the young generation’s social engagements in public spaces. At the same time, the sentiments of the radical political activists and their often painful fates were not shared by the much larger numbers of apolitical youth. The vigorous political nonconformity faced a repression that was largely invisible. The generation that came of age in the 1960s could conveniently sit out the politics of the authoritarian state. The generations that came of age under the Islamic Republic lacked such a luxury, since the Islamic Republic has criminalized individual appearance and sensuality. Intragenerational empathies did not exist to the degree they do among today’s youth. The three-decade experience under the providential velayat-e faqih has contributed to the valorization of worldly opportunities. It has also enhanced appreciation for the ordinary secular life as the foundation for judging the value of everyday things.
As Lynn Hunt observes, “Human rights are not just a doctrine formulated in documents; they rest on a disposition toward other people, a set of convictions about what people are like and how they know right and wrong in the secular world. Philosophical ideas . . . had to have this kind of inner emotional reference point for human rights to be truly ‘self-evident.’” Hunt writes that in the eighteenth century it was partly through the reading of the epistolary novels that educated Western Europeans learned to empathize “across traditional social boundaries.” In a way, the youth of the “other” Iran have become both the characters and spectators of their own absurd theaters of the public spaces – the creators and receivers of empathy. Their own public spaces – including the ubiquitous taxis that take more than one passenger, always ready to chat and crack the latest jokes at political clerics’ expense – have provided a locale for an undercurrent of informal testimonies that shaped the perceptions of the youths and unite them in how they have defined themselves, largely through what they have opposed. Having imbibed a few of the defining norms of a liberal global political culture, they can now appreciate the notion of autonomous human beings deserving equal concern and respect. Ronald Dworkin has stated this basic understanding as “human beings . . . are capable of forming and acting on intelligent conceptions of how their lives should be lived.” It follows that the state “must not constrain liberty on the ground that one citizen’s conception of the good life of one group is nobler or superior to another’s.”
Daily life under the regime helped to inculcate, more effectively than any inanimate discourse, the necessity of civil and dignitary rights. For some of them, engagements with intellectual discourses have provided rational validations for what has already been intuited. Against such background, even the uncouth appearance of Ahmadinejad and the menacing looks and the human-rights-denying words of the Revolutionary Guards generals have done more to convince the young generation that Iran’s political system has to be changed than the reformist discourse of the religious intellectuals. To attribute developments in the “other” Iran to the emergence of the Islamic reformist discourses in the 1990s is to ignore the daily sociopolitical practices that shape the individual’s subjective consciousness. The transformative emancipatory force of being demonized in public takes place within the private space of every young man and woman who has so treated. Young Iranians have become sentient citizens on a public stage whose official rules they have been deliberately defying.

Reza A> / August 22, 2010 7:34 PM

Reza A

Interesting read. Thanks.

Pouya / August 22, 2010 11:38 PM