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Iran Political Culture in the Islamic Republic.

CONTEMPORARY IRAN has many ardent admirers and also many severe critics among Persian social scientists. This collection is basically of critical essays around a linked theme, Iran's political culture and its relation tb society today. Even so, Mansour Farhang in his foreword notes some positive developments since 1979 which "may yet become a catalyst for a progressive change in the Iranian political culture." Iran's revolution has led to some big changes, for example lessening the gap between the masses and the political elite, ending overt foreign interference and, so Farhang claims, generally making Iranians much more conscious of secularism, pluralism and popular sovereignty.

One of the basic goals of the Islamic revolution of 1978-79 was social justice and achieving a more equal division of wealth. Even while the war raged against Iraq, popular complaints came that life was too hard for the poor in Iran - leading Ayatollah Khomeini to make his contemptuous reply, "we did not make the revolution for watermelons." Khomeini could demand enormous sacrifices of the people, because his austere lifestyle and high spiritual standing were complemented by his towering political prestige.

One of the book's editors, Mehrdad Mashayekhi, writes that "national political cultures are only abstractions that often do not correspond to reality." The previous half century of Iran's history saw a struggle for influence between rival poles which served as political sub-cultures; these he defines as Islamic, monarchist, liberal-democratic and socialist. He points to "the strong presence of a nationalistic element, albeit cloaked in Islamic guise, in the Islamic political culture."

The consolidation of Iran's revolution under clerical leadership has inevitably dictated the shape of contemporary Iranian society. The enormous influence of the Shia clergy derives from Iran's folk culture. As Mohsen Milani, another contributor, reluctantly admits, "Shiaism is an inseparable component of the Iranian psyche and political culture. Substantial change in Shiaism cannot be initiated or completed exclusively by secular intellectuals, nor can it be achieved by force and intimidation, as the sad story of the Pahlavis indicates."

The resurgence of Islam in Iran at the end of the 1970s was caused not only by the superior tactics of its leaders or its innate appeal, but in large part by negative factors. As Michael Fischer and other specialists have argued at length, the Shah's regime's brutal repression of the secular opposition left open a fertile field for clerical opponents active in the country's mosques and madrassas.

Four main strands are identified here linking the disparate elements in the anti-Shah opposition: nationalism, populism, social justice and the Third Worldist strategy of revolutionary violence. It was the Islamicists who set the agenda and went on to seize power after the Shah fell. After the revolution, the regime "fused Shia culture and politics into a single integrated political culture which it then set out systematically to institutionalise."

One of the key concepts in modern Persian studies is Gharbzadegi, (or "Westoxication"), associated with some of Iran's most influential intellectual figures from the 1960s on. Gharbzadegi also arguably explains part of the populist appeal of Ayatollah Khomeini. This is the subject of a chapter subtitled, significantly, "the dominant intellectual discourse of pre- and post-revolutionary Iran". But its chauvinism and intense nostalgia for a vanished past - if author Mehrzad Boroujerdi is correct - no longer has such a potent appeal in our own decade.

"Education and the Culture of Politics" is the subject of a concise chapter by Rasool Nafisi, who shows how the pre-Islamic heritage of Iran deliberately highlighted by the Shah has been replaced by a new emphasis on Islam and specifically Arab features, such as illustrations of traditional garments of the Prophet's era, along with Arabisation of school texts.

The hold of the mullahs is obvious in school textbooks, gloomy and doctrinaire, with death and martyrdom prominent. "The clergy, aware of the numbing effects of death, and the fear and fascination evinced by martyrdom, uses this psychological game quite effectively. In this context, death becomes the rule, while life, as stated frequently by the clergy, is just a transitory stage, meant for purification of the soul," writes Nafisi.

Broadcasting and the arts in general were "cleansed" of immoral and foreign influences. Islamicising film culture in Iran made for profound changes from 1979. Directors of locally produced feature films as well as film importers have felt the impact of Islamic ethical values. Hamid Naficy explains how a new and vital cinema finally emerged in the 1980s, which he separates into two categories, a "populist" and "quality" cinema, the first affirming post-revolutionary values and the second more independent and often critical of the system.

The consensus here is that the staying power of the regime is still considerable, along with its popular appeal and legitimacy. But it is not enough to avoid trouble in future. Without Khomeini's great prestige and charismatic authority, the current leadership will need to deliver the long-promised economic benefits of the revolution to the people of Iran, if popular discontent and a higher level of alienation is to be avoided.
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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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