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Ideas

From Islam to the West
Interview with Dariush Homayoun

October 29, 2003
The Iranian

It is ironic that at a time when Iranians are in dire need of a new and creative approach to politics, one of the most cogent and effective voices for change should be articulated by the 75-year-old Dariush Homayoun who served nearly twenty-five years ago as the Minister of Information and Tourism under the Shah.

This fugitive of the pre and post revolutionary regimes in Iran is a prominent thinker who has articulated a dispassionate understanding of his country's modern history and set forth a clear-eyed vision for its democratic future in numerous books, debates, lectures, articles and interviews. He has also been able to put together the largest political party in exile opposing the clerical dictatorship in Tehran.

I met him twice, once last winter in Germany when he was introducing a speaker on the topic of democracy to a gathering of his fellow Constitutionalist Party members, and again last spring during a stopover in Paris from one of his frequent visits to the United States.

Beholding this veteran politician and experienced journalist, I could not but be aware that I was standing in the presence of a man of sterling quality. I could not but sense that as the regime in Tehran moves towards its inevitable disintegration, Homayoun is the person to watch. His unique vision and style has made an impact that is bound to influence the choices Iranians will make in their advance towards freedom and democracy.

In a political milieu plagued by soliloquy and inbred totalitarianism, Homayoun is one of the very few people capable of and interested in a democratic dialogue. He offers a new way of tackling Iranian national problems, which is not obsessed with bygone eras and has no hidden agenda for settling old scores.

Seeing him talk to ordinary Iranians one recognizes that he has a genuine interest in politicizing and empowering the grassroots. He listens to the most incoherent comments of some of his compatriots with exemplary patience and reverence. He answers them like a skillful educator and without the slightest condescension.

On the other hand Homayoun can be quite daunting and indomitable as a debater. While some of his opponents lazily collapse on their dogmatic and ideological cushions, he thrives on heuristic ratiocination and is used to thinking on his feet. In his book Dirooz va Fardaa (Yesterday and Tomorrow), he devotes a whole chapter to elucidating the folly of conceiving a political system on absolute creeds and ready-made ideologies.

Fostering a habit of political judgment and rational evaluation is inseparable from the promotion of democracy. In Iran a genuine tradition of criticism is well nigh non-existent. Such a vacuum has lead the population into a constant fluctuation between glorification and vilification of national political figures.

To free political judgment from arbitrary considerations and base it on rational and ethical standards has been the distinguishing trait of Homayoun's career. Commenting in an introduction to one his books that "the Achilles heel of the Iranian society has been its moral impotence" he calls for an end to tyranny in his homeland and the establishment of a government responsible and accountable to the electorate.

Arguing for the restoration of monarchy as the best form of government for Iran, he certainly is not advocating a return to the undemocratic nature of the regime that ruled that country before the revolution.

To put on the blinkers and say that nothing amiss happened during the reign of Pahlavis as some Ultra Shahists suggest these days will definitely not serve the Iranian nation in building an enlightened democracy in their country. It will only perpetuate a vicious circle that has stinted the country's intellectual progress and has taken it from one moral quagmire to another.

Since there can be no better guarantee against national pitfalls than enlisting the help of the country's best minds, then the importance of what Homayoun can tell us at this trying time in the life of our nation cannot be overstated. As I was eager to learn more about his analysis of the political situation in Iran, I presented him with a few questions. In the midst of his very busy schedule he generously granted me the following interview.

Very soon after the revolution you talked of the post-Islamic Republic. What made you so sure that such a system was doomed to failure before it had exhausted all its possibilities?

It was the revolution itself that determined both the character and the fate of the regime that came out of it. I made an assessment of the message, the leadership and the driving force of the revolution and came to the logical conclusion. The message was a mixture of Islamic revivalism, in its more backward Shiite form; Third World revolutionary ideology; and a crude Marxism-Leninism -- the worst of all possible worlds.

The leadership was a hodgepodge of leftist zealots, hapless Mossadeqists, backward religio-nationalists and hordes of other opportunists, madly engaged in a moral and intellectual striptease before a reactionary cleric.

The driving force was blind hatred towards the Shah. All revolutions have their fair share of brutality and make-believe; but the inhumanity inherent in a religious revolution and the extraordinary self-delusion our revolutionaries from all walks of life was in a class of its own. No regime coming out of such a mixture of nihilism and ignorance could lead to a viable system. However, even in my depths of pessimism I could not imagine such a monstrous evil that has befallen our nation.

The cleric who was the heart and mind of the revolution I knew from the first Islamic Revolution in 1963, when his followers burnt down a public library, in the true tradtion of Arab invaders, and threw acid on the faces of women without the Islamic veil.

In their total surrender, at the very beginning of the revolutionary stage (summer of 1987) to Khomeini, the non-clerical opposition groups had given away any chance of influencing the outcome of their struggle. I could not see any coherent and clear plan for the future of Iran. The only "plan" worth the name was an Islamic government on the pattern of the prophet and the first Imam.

It was not hard to foresee failure everywhere. Khomeini's accomplices could not pursue their platform, whatever it was, due to his preponderance. The clerics themselves could not turn the clock back to the seventh century and undo eight decades of struggle to modernize Iranian society. Iran at the time of revolution was developing at a break neck pace and could be considered a candidate for the membership of what later became Asian Tigers. The Islamic Republic, in its anachronism, was fighting against modernity, against history, and had no chance.

Last but not least, the mullahs again were challenging Iranian nationalism; and like in the past fourteen hundred years, when it comes to defend Iranian identity against Arab domination, even in the form of Islam, it is Iranian nationalism that prevails.

Two years after the establishment of the regime, I described it as the second Arab invasion of Iran and a mortal blow to Islam's influence in Iranian politics.

In your opinion what has been the major shortcoming of the opposition to the Islamic Republic? Why in the past quarter of a century has it not been able to capitalize on the incessant blunders of the mullahs and pose a serious challenge to the ruling dictatorship?

The past quarter of a century, for most of the opposition has been a continuation of the pre-revolutionary era. Even today the greater part of the leftist and Mossadeqist forces are waging the same war against the Pahlavi regime. Many of them seem to be more concerned with the secondary issue of the form of a future government than preparing the ground that could make democracy workable in our country; or even the havoc that every day is wrought on the Iranian people.

In the other camp, the whole discourse is concentrated on the greatness of monarchy and the fifty-seven years of Pahlavi rule. Both sides suffer from dearth of constructive ideas.

The great divide between various groups, all equally defeated and exiled by the Islamic government, was the irreconcilable differences, sometimes bordering enmity, among supporters and opponents of the ancien regime. This was in a way inevitable, since for the first time in the annals of revolutions, both victors and vanquished were represented, in very large numbers, in the exile community.

No exile group has been a model of consensus; the Iranians, coming from opposing camps were much more prone to the shortcomings of exile mentality. This mentality, almost by definition, means preoccupation with themselves and a narrowing perspective. Alienation and petty concerns have been hallmarks of most of the Iranian political class abroad. It has wasted two decades in waging the wars of the past.

Living in the countries of liberal democracy has been a golden opportunity for reeducating a whole generation of political activists; for reinventing Iran's political culture. However a relatively small number of them have taken advantage. One tends to write off the greater part of a generation that not only brought this disaster to the country, but also continues to think and act as nothing has changed; no self-examination and revision is due.

However the incorrigible optimist in me takes heart from so many examples of a new awakening, not all confined to the younger generation. It seems that we had to go through not only a devastating revolution, but also a generational change. Only now we can expect the emergence of a consensus among some groups and schools of thought, which is a vital requirement for the effectiveness of the opposition.

Reza Pahlavi says his mission will be accomplished the day he sees the Iranian people off to a free and democratic referendum. Why do you think he is necessary, if at all, to the democratic transformation in Iran?

Of course it all depends on the strength of democratic values both during our struggle and after the overthrow of the Islamic regime. Either our society is capable of sustaining democratic institutions or continues to surrender to different dictatorships. In either case, the name of the regime, royal or republican, would not be that important.

To me a constitutional monarchy is in a better position and has more vested interests in defending the constitution against anti democratic forces so abundant in our society. The king has both his/her own fate and the future of the dynasty in mind.

Reza Pahlavi as a modern man can greatly contribute in strengthening democratic values and institutions by example. His is a very sensitive position. Even if he sees no more roles for himself than a prominent spokesman for the opposition, he has to be mindful of his credibility as a true democrat. He is judged not only by his words, but also his actions and inactions (in disavowing certain actions and talks by persons known to be close to him).

He could be vulnerable because of his associates and so many people who claim to be his supporters. He cannot simply ignore what goes on in his name. It is the same with any public figure but much more so with someone who could become a rallying point and is always in danger of becoming a lightning rod -- mostly because of others.

You are very active in the Constitutional Party of Iran. You and your colleagues there seem to be part of a small minority who offer a rational and philosophic defense of monarchy as a viable system of government for Iran. Yet your party has concentrated the bulk of its efforts on the Iranian diaspora. How are you going to reach the people inside the country? Don't you think the voice within Iran is the voice that will ultimately be of the greatest of importance?

As far as organizational work is concerned we have no choice but to concentrate on the large Iranian community abroad. The CPI just recently has started forming its cells in Iran, due to better communications. The importance of the voice from within cannot be exaggerated, nonetheless.

This huge human potential outside of Iran should not be overlooked. The intellectual environment of Western societies is indispensable for the development of a new twenty-first century Iranian mind. The fact that the Party is free from exigencies of dealing with Islamic authorities has been a blessing. Operating in a free atmosphere, it has become a breeding ground for new ideas; attacking long lasting taboos with a facility that is not always possible inside the country.

Our message is getting through thanks to Persian speaking radio-TV broadcasts, Internet and other means. The party among other things performs two important tasks: an organizational framework that can, when the time comes, easily absorb thousands of new members in Iran; and an instrument for changing the political atmosphere first outside and then inside of Iran.

It is no exaggeration to say that we have initiated and promoted what I termed as a new political etiquette; its main characteristics being politeness even at the face of attack, avoiding self-aggrandizement, fair play, restraint and understatement, respect for a different point of view, and above all avoiding petty squabbles. These are all very unusual in our political environment, but awe taking root and bound to go further and improve our political culture.

Who has been the greatest influence in your mind? What thinkers and philosophers more than others have contributed to your intellectual formation?

I had the good luck of having a rather deep classical education, the Persian classical literature that is, which I recommend to every Iranian parent and educator. This is a solid base for any intellectual development. It was Greek philosophy, however, that enabled me to come out of the golden cage of that literature; to free myself from the mould of a captivating language that had taken the place of thought.

Socrates, the first Intellectual, and the first non-military hero, is an all time role model. Aristotle, who defined everything, taught me the importance of powers of observation and analysis, and introduced me to politics, not the gutter politics we too often deal with, but the essence of living as human beings, and not the beasts of a higher order.

In forming my character and basic attitudes, my instinct so to speak, no influence has been greater than two sources of constant inspiration. First, the Zoroastrian concept of "khish-kaari" meaning the human beings' duty and responsibility not only towards and for him/herself, but the whole universe; his/her godlike and vital role in the outcome of the perpetual conflict between forces of good and evil; being and doing good as a natural function of just being human, and not for any expectation of reward or fear of punishment.

The second, was the two great concepts of Stoic philosophers of Natural Rights and the man/woman's ultimate loneliness in the world; nothing but him/herself to rely upon for salvation. Democracy, pluralism and secularism all emanated from Natural Rights. The Stoic concept of Man's total reliance on and responsibility for itself, most likely influenced by Zoroastrianism, has been the driving force for progress and emancipation.

In political theory from Kant to Hobbes to Hume, Adam Smith and Locke, along with Burke and Karl Popper have been great teachers. I live mostly in the world of Scottish-English Enlightenment, with its empiricism; reliance on common sense, rather than rigid systems; and an organic approach to society.

French intellectualism always seems to me too clever by half, and German romanticism wrought with dangerous consequences. They both have been responsible for the monstrous twentieth century; as Islamism is for the atrocities of the late twentieth and early twenty-first. In short, I consider myself a product of Persian literature, Greek philosophy, and European Enlightenment -- a perfect background for engaging a lifetime with modernity.

In one of your papers called "A different World View" you have said that although our country is located in that part of the Middle East and we cannot change the facts of our geography, we should attempt a departure from our present spiritual world? You say that disentangling ourselves from the Middle East, Third World and Islamic culture are necessary to our future development and to our aspiration of ever becoming a first world country. Do you believe that you have any allies within the intellectual community in Iran for this kind of attitude?

I am used to standing alone and challenging conventional wisdom. Life has been kind enough to me to allow me to witness the, usually belated, triumph of common sense over conventional wisdom. Iran has always been preoccupied with the West, perhaps because of our longstanding confrontation with Western Powers -- the Greeks, the Romans, and the New Europeans.

India with all our common roots and the great Vedic tradition has been completely overshadowed by Europe in our worldview. Such a Western oriented people with a taste for the best in life and unbounded and some times baseless ambition could only vie for a higher form of civilization.

The tiers-mondisme of the 60s and 70s; the Islamism that came with our quest for modernity and corrupted it from its start in the late nineteenth century; and the obsession of our intelligentsia with the Middle East have led to disappointment and even disaster.

The intellectual proponents of a worldview, which wanted Iran to be a vanguard of a Third World revolution against the West; a champion of Islamic values against alienating Westernization; and who saw the world from the narrow perspective of sheer anti Semitism and the rights of the Palestinians, who were considered right at any time and whatever circumstances, are discredited.

We can see a new awareness of Iran's self interest which entails disengagement from the quagmire of the Middle East and the inherent backwardness and cruelty of the Islamic world. As an active part of the Middle East we have condemned ourselves to share the plight of both Islamic and Third World societies.

More and more people come to the realization that those three worlds have nothing to offer but misery and suppression and perpetuation of underdevelopment. Iran, even now and under an Islamic regime, which is more Palestinian than the majority of the Palestinians themselves, and bent on rejecting Westernization, is practically abandoning a value system that has brought us to the level of a Third World, an Islamic, and Middle Eastern country.

Anybody can see the thirst of the people for things Western. We are in the process of a spiritual exodus. I am sure of seeing the full fruition of this idea. As a nation, Iranians want progress. We are a consumer society and there is nothing wrong with consumerism, the motor for humanity's long march from top of the trees to landing on the moon (the problems caused by consumerism can be solved by further progress, new technologies and products).

That desire for the best and most comfortable distinguishes Iranians from most Third World societies. There is a longing to get away from a failed world, which is drowning before our eyes.

After the establishment of democracy, how formidable do you think is the task of reconstruction in our country? Can we ever be able to repair the damage of the past twenty-four years? What will it take?

Iran has an excellent geography; few countries of its size command such a strategic position at the heart of a new silk road, between two seas, controlling the flow of most of the world's oil and gas reserves, and itself possessing huge resources of both and other natural wealth. On top of that we have an urbanized, more or less educated population with a long tradition in commerce, manufacturing and entrepreneurship.

We have had the past twenty-five years to study and learn the lessons of our own and other countries' mistakes. Following the removal of this regime we will experience an explosion of national energy that all problems notwithstanding, would once again see our nation in the forefront of emerging economies. The American power has solved almost all our geo-strategic problems -- Russia's two hundred years of southward expansionism at our expense, the 22 hundred years of insecure western border in Mesopotamia, and Taliban sitting in Afghanistan.

Now instead of perpetual threat, all we have is opportunity; to resume our historic role as a cultural and economic magnet in a vast area comprising western and Central Asia; alleviating its needs for industrial and cultural products. This is where we belong, can contribute, and make a difference to the better for everybody. The Americans, by destroying the "Evil Empire", gave Iran a singular chance, but we were in our worst position to take it. If it only had occurred under the Pahlavi regime! Even under the infamous Qajars, Iranians would at least have been allowed as private citizens to go in their hundreds of thousands and establish ancient ties to the mutual benefit of us all.

The Islamic Republic by its nature has tried its best to ruin this opportunity but the strength of Iranian factor is beyond this farcical repetition of the tragedy of 1,400 years ago -- as it proved to be under the original Arabs. People, resources and geography are there and this Islamic Mafia is but a passing phase.

The important thing is that our intellectuals, instead of overstaying in a vanished and vanishing world, open their eyes to a new and most promising horizon. We need a new driving idea, one that gives us direction and mobilizes our energy. This new aspiration for excellence and create a new world around us is what really matters; the rest is a matter of time and logistics -- removing obstacles, IRI first of all, and marshaling the means.

How do you estimate the strength of the so-called Third Force in Iran? Do you believe those who are disillusioned with the process of reform have strong and effective leadership? How can their strength be harnessed for a real democratic change in our country?

Nobody knows for sure. The potential is there; the majority of people, especially among the youth, are ready to explode, and it could happen any time. Any leadership that emerges would be closely related to the struggle itself. It is the struggle that creates the leadership. So the leadership has to have an effective presence in the struggle.

In present circumstances the leadership from abroad can only inspire, stimulate, work as spokesman, and help generally. But to effectively lead, there must be an organization linking the leadership to the forces inside of Iran. The internal leadership of the so-called third force is already there. Some of them have the credibility to pose a serious threat to the ruling clergy. However they are in prison and under extreme restrictions, waiting like all of us, for the inevitable concurrence of external pressure and internal deterioration to act decisively.

The outside opposition should not wait for a charismatic leader to galvanize the nation and overthrow the regime by the strength of his leadership. Any comparison with Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution is in vain. Then the organization was inside and very strong. Now we do have an unorganized and shifting presence in the country. We can get our message through, which is very important but not enough.

By continuing our efforts to create a large and effective organization, we will be in a position to help Iranian people in more ways and increase and strengthen the ties between the two sides of the struggle against the Regime. I cannot understand those narrow-minded people that spare no effort to undermine a party that is having the greatest role in promoting their own cause.

In the light of recent developments in the region and the total disillusionment of the Iranian people with the Islamic Republic, do you think the time is ripe now for calling of a free and patriotic assembly to create a national consensus and put together a clear agenda for a democratic alternative to the present regime in Iran?

What we realistically can expect is a consensus among a good part of the opposition leading to more cooperation and perhaps the formation of a council to coordinate its components. A sizable part of the opposition is now actively in tandem with the irrelevant reformist faction in the Islamic government. They are concentrating their efforts mostly to discredit the name of Pahlavi; and using actions and remarks by some of the more extremist and irresponsible royalists.

These royalists and their opponents in the "reformist" camp are naturally outside such a consensus. A struggle that deteriorates into a fight for or against personalities and forms of government is not what Iranian people expect from us. Our like-minded friends, and I think they form the majority, want a new politics and a new society, as distinguished from what we have or had in the past, as possible.

You have a very busy schedule. Addressing national assemblies and parliaments, giving speeches, chairing various political meetings and when you get a moment of freedom from all this you go back to what seems to be your real passion which is writing, what motivates you? What keeps you so dynamic in your seventies?

I am making for the years I wasted in my youth. In a sense I have taken away some fifteen years from the past and transplanted them to the present. It is working fortunately well both mentally and physically. My goal from the days I was a mere child has been to take part in the renaissance of Iran; to turn my life into a building block to be built higher upon.

Iran is not simply a country, a homeland like any other. Iran is an Idea, one of the few countries in the world to be justly described as that. This needed both thought and action, each helping the other. It is the same now.

By writing and talking, and acting accordingly with scruple, I am trying to help transforming Iranian political culture, to raise the level of political discourse -- a longstanding passion -- and to create a real party that carries on the task to the destruction of Islamic Regime and beyond. I need all the time in the world. For such a noble cause one can surpass oneself.

In your book, "Dirooz va Fardaa" (Yesterday and Tomorrow), you level criticism against the shortcomings of both the Pahlavi era and the Islamic Republic. Yet you are advocating the restoration of monarchy. Why a return to a system of government that could so readily nurture absolutism will be the right choice for the Iranian people?

Monarchy, as any form of government, is prone to breed dictatorial tendencies. It depends on political culture; the political class, the circumstances, and, in the case of a weak country like us, the external factors as well.

I tend to think that a new monarch, who could not escape thinking about the fate of the past Iranian kings from 1890s to 1978 -- only one of them died on the throne, three ended up in exile and one was assassinated -- could better adjust him/herself to the role of monarchy in the age of democratic triumph.

In an uncertain climate for democracy, a republican form of government has always proved more vulnerable to military dictatorship under various guises.

Nonetheless we must keep our guard right from here and now. It is very important that the heir to the throne, our candidate for the future head of state, not the government, and depending on the people's vote in a referendum, is a democrat, but his supporters may have their own agendas. They could turn an institution and its representatives into an instrument of their own. This is why the existence of an independent and detached political party devoted to a constitutional monarchy along west European lines is so important.

Constitutional monarchy is an option, and a very credible one for post IR Iran. It cannot be eliminated by the joint efforts of the Islamic regime and a good part of the opposition. It also has only one other chance in Iran, a chance that could be easily squandered by its partisans and representatives. Here our past experience has not been a very happy one, and our party is trying valiantly to redress some of the excesses and mistakes -- all too avoidable by timely intervention.

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