Where the trees of doubt blossom

Life and Art - Being Modern in Iran
April 7, 2000

Modernity fascinated, preoccupied, frightened and largely eluded Iranian thinkers. Gasping for breath as they awoke in the 19th century from centuries-old intellectual hibernation, they rushed to regenerate an outdated society ruled by a decadent monarchy. This resulted in Iran's first revolution of the 20th century, the constitutional revolution of 1906, which aimed to limit the power of the monarch, to define the position of religious divines and to introduce a representative government. It went astray and failed partly due to British and Russian intervention but due more to divisions among the revolutionaries. It appeared to be a division between democratic/secularist and tyrannical/Islamic forces. In reality, it was more a division between reformist and traditional Islam.

The net result was the Islamic camp being out of power for the next 70 years. Iran was ruled by a cocktail of secularist, authoritarian and nationalist forces, represented in the Pahlavi monarchy that came to power in 1925. Pahlavi rule set out to modernise Iran. It introduced a centralised army, universities and railways, it suppressed the tribal leaders and unified the country, and it forced women to unveil and men to wear European hats. But because reforms were imposed from above, they failed to win the hearts of people or become internalised: it was modernisation without modernity.

Iran's second revolution, the Islamic revolution of 1979, was supported by a similar cocktail of self-contradictory forces, united only by their desire to remove the "illegitimate monarchy". Ayatollah Khomeini's agenda was to reinstate the dominant position of the clergy and to revive the kind of relations between the ruler and the ruled that Khomeini felt conformed with the model of the Prophet Muhammad. Twentieth-century Iran was not 7th-century Arabia, however. The dominant faction, true descendants of the traditionalist, authoritarian and Islamic forces of the constitutional revolution, attempted to desecularise state institutions and reintroduce abandoned rules. Not only did this alienate the democratic/secularists in the revolutionary coalition, it threatened the unity of the clergy as divisions re-emerged between reformist and traditionalist Islam.

Learning from the mistakes of the first revolution, Khomeini kept the clergy largely united and opted for a speedy institutionalisation of Islam in a constitution that was a demo/theocratic compromise. The effect of 70 years of modernisation and western-style education and the struggle for national sovereignty and democracy under the Pahlavi kings had to be acknowledged.

On the surface, Iran turned into a bleak kind of medieval state. But the real revolution involving the modernisation of Shia Islam had just begun. The Shiite clergy traditionally rejected the notion of a temporal state until the reappearance of the hidden Imam (the Shia version of the Messiah). If Khomeini saw his mission as imposing the rule of religion on the state, his historic role was to legitimise the notion of the temporal state. Within a decade of clerical rule under Khomeini, this hugely centralised and bureaucratic state finally imposed its own logic on the clergy and on religion and made them subservient to its temporal logic. Khomeini drew his own legitimacy from religion and gave legitimacy to the state. His successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, draws his legitimacy from that state.

At another level, villagers came to the town, and the kind of urban social relations Iran knew, at least on the surface, gave way to a rural way of life with which the clergy felt more at home. But for the masses and especially for women, who played a major role in the revolution and the war, it became an opportunity somehow to reassert themselves as a powerful force and reappropriate the amalgam called Islam that was in power; to question it from within.

This was the process that in 1997 led to the election of President Khatami, voted in by women and the young, who wanted to restrain the radicals with the rule of law and the constitution. Under Iran's black sea of chadors, modernisation continues under the ayatollahs. What the secular modernists did not bargain for was that the mullahs would help Iran face the challenges of modernity more seriously than the modernists could possibly have dreamt.

Being Modern in Iran by Fariba Adelkhah is as much about the political state of modern Iran as about Iran's attempt to move towards modernity with all its complexities. Adelkhah, a Paris-based Iranian anthropologist, has produced a unique and original book in which she discusses the continuing process of replacing revolutionary passion with evolutionary reason and the move towards "bureaucratisation, individualisation, rationalisation and commercialisation". It is a penetrating survey of how Islam's role in society, perhaps for the first time in Islamic history, is being challenged and redefined from inside an Islamic state.

Adelkhah takes us deep into the complexities of Iranian society by dealing with a great deal of imagery from Iran's social, political and religious institutions and successfully portrays issues that preoccupy the Iranian social psyche such as the changing images of an ideal social man ( fata/javanmard ) who is financially generous and endowed with liberality of spirit. "In the past, a javanmard was a man who had courage, honour, humility and rectitude", while today "you are a javanmard if you succeed in bringing home a kilo of meat". Adelkhah's case study of a man seen as a real javanmard by many and a villain by some for modernising Tehran, the imprisoned mayor of Tehran, Gholamhosein Karbas-chi, is both analytical and informative.

Adelkhah cautions those who compare Khatami to Gorbachev or Havel. "Khatami is a man of the system," she notes. It does not mean Iran cannot change. Adelkhah reminds us that the changes in Iran are more about the professionalisation of the revolutionary class than its moderation. It intends to question the heritage of the revolution while retaining its privileges. In her view, "Islamism in the context of Iran is not rigid and has remained in gear with the dynamism of social changes," including those of globalisation. Iranian cinema is seen as an example in which cultural and social expressions imported from abroad are not received in a passive way. "It takes them over and builds them up in accordance with many individual initiatives and sometimes real collective mobilisations," she writes.

As an arena for modernism, cinema is portrayed in a collection of essays, Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema , edited by Rose Issa and Sheila Whitaker. This book makes an important and timely contribution in introducing the cinema of Iran to the outside world. Cinema is a vibrant feature of Iranian culture, acknowledged at most international film festivals. Two of Iran's film directors, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, are well known to cinema-goers worldwide. Those in London were fortunate last year to see a season of Iranian films at the National Film Theatre organised by the book's editors. Kiarostami and other leading directors such as Ebrahim Mokhtari, Daryoush Mehrjui and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad dealt with in this book came to London and talked to their audience, which is another sign of change in Iran. Bani-Etemad is one of Iran's leading female directors, whose portrayal of Iranian women's emotional lives and their social struggle is to be admired. As Whitaker observes, Bani-Etemad is able to write and direct strong female roles whose body language is negligible because of the dress code.

It is ironic to see the expansion of women's roles under the regime of a clergy who vehemently opposed cinema before the revolution as being a den of corruption for its projection of female sensuality and sexuality. In a single decade after 1979, more female directors emerged in Iran than in the preceding half-century since the emergence of cinema in Iran in the 1930s. A chapter of this slight but powerful collection on women in post-revolutionary cinema is titled "Veiled vision, powerful presence". It maps out the way in which female roles evolved from being cut out of films, to appearing as ghostly presences, then as more dramatic presences and finally as protagonists with powerful personalities. Iran now has a number of leading actresses and seven recognised female directors. Women's multiple struggle to liberate themselves from family, social and religious restrictions has made this possible. The political infighting in Iran serves only to obfuscate the unstoppable process of evolution towards an open society in which women, not only in cinema but in society at large, are challenging men, the clergy and their own perception of themselves. If modernity is the institutionalisation of doubt, then, in the land of prophets and certitude, the blessed trees of doubt are blossoming.

Baqer Moin is head, BBC Persian/Pashto Service.

Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema

Editor - Rose Issa and Sheila Whitaker
ISBN - 0 85170 775 0
Publisher - British Film Institute/ National Film Theatre
Price - £9.99
Pages - 160

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