October 12, 1999
Right and wrong
The Iranian letter's section, which I stumbled upon serendipously
not long ago, is one of the most interesting discussion fora with regards
to Iran. I read Mr
Khachaturian's nostalgic words which were unpretentious yet lyrical,
like one of the symphonies of his composer namesake. I also read dAyi
Hamid's confused confabulations ["Persian
work ethics"]. One can not take the man seriously after seeing
his picture and many have eloquently and strongly rebuked him. However
I like to write a few words in support as well as refutation of dAyi Hamid.
First my rebuke. Iranians are not intrinsically lazy. We certainly
do not have the Germanic, Protestant or the Japanese work ethics but neither
does the majority of the world. In Spain and Italy for example people,
in contrast with northern Europe and Japan, work to live rather than live
to work. I encountered a certain chick inefficiency in my travels in Italy
and Spain that one does not find in Britain for example. Yet the Italians
have a higher income per capita than the British and live considerably
better than their anglosaxon counterparts. I am sure most of you have
shared my amazement of how aesthetically unpleasing and unpleasant the
capital of the once mighty British empire is and how badly the British
live. The protestant work ethics, in this simple example, seems not to
have greatly advantaged the British.
dAyi Hamid gave the example of sugar production in Japan. It may be
true that Japan produces more sugar than Iran does, but the Japanese soil
is more fertile and its rainfall significantly higher than Iran's. Far
from being efficient, the Japanese agricultural sector is a heavily subsidized
cottage industry that survives on the strength of its political clout and
representation within the government. The Japanese farmer will for many
reasons, some but not all relating to the expense of land and labour, not
be able to compete with his foreign counterparts. Context is essential
for correct interpretation of statistics. Afterall if one places one's
head in the oven and one's foot in the fridge, statistically the temperature
is such that one should be very comfortable. I believe dAyi Hamid has
missed this point.
dAyi Hamid's observation that very little gets done in Iran is true.
The low levels of job statisfaction due to low pay and other stresses
are the main culprits. Iranians in Australia, and I suspect America, are
hardworking successful people. In my Persian upbringing it was always
stressed to me that the opportunity to work hard towards a goal is not
a chore but a previlidge.
Although I object to Hamid's tone he raises some points that we all
know to be true. Zerangi is a badge of honour amongst Iranians. This
is due to our history. Since the fall of the Safavids and the attack of
Ashraf-i Afghan, the instability inherent in the Iranian life and politics
has been a hinderance to the establishment of any semblance of a meritocracy.
People rarely innovated to get ahead. Instead they merely redistributed
the existing wealth by devious or violent means. No legal protection meant
that long term investment was a folly and the surest way to wealth was
dishonesty. So three atitudes developed in the Iranian psyche that still
persist but I see them disappearing in my generation.
Firstly Iranians have what one may call the "tall poppy syndrome".
In other words they have very little stomach for other Iranians' success.
Whoever succeeds, they believe, has had undue favour in life arising from
his high birth, clandestine relations to foreign powers or blind luck.
If his success can not be explained in these terms then he must have been
devious. And if all attempts of discrediting him fails then there is always
the option of either dismissing him as arrogant (" Fekr Mikoneh Che
Pokhieh) or to question his pedigry (Gedazadeh Shahzadeh Shodeh Brayeh
Not wanting success for your coethnics has bizaar implications. One
is that some Iranians prefer, all thing being equal, to give opportunities
to non-Iranians. In my travels to the US I visited some of the educational
facilities around the East Coast. It was interesting to me that I was
much better received by Iranian academics when they were not aware that
I was Iranian, and the name gave the game away each time. Most of the
older Iranians hide their success and wealth in order to shield themselves
from other Iranians' avarice.
The second attitude is that to get ahead one needs to be devious. All
Iranians aspire to be evil in some way but I am glad to say the vast majority
fail miserably in fulfilling this silly aspiration. An Iranian may be
capable of social security fraud or overselling his wares, but he is mostly
incapable of the sort of malice that prompts some in our respective societies
to mutilate after rape and assault after theft. However the sheer mass
of these small time mischiefs such as queue jumping and shop lifting in
the Iranian society creates the sort of entropy we are all so familiar
The third of these attitudes relates to defeatism. Most Iranians I
know are capable and intelligent people. It is true that most Iranians
have had to contend with the sort of racism that would be abhorent to the
American psyche if applied to the blacks for example. We are stereotyped
as violent, evil, dirty and fanatical. We are denied opportunities in
politics and defense. Our loyalties are constantly questioned and so on.
Most younger Iranians, having the vigour and the optimism of youth on
their side, strive to be better than those around them in order to have
equal opportunities. If one's path to advancement is blocked once or a
million times, one still needs to try; for self-respect comes not from
success but from the struggle to succeed. However it breaks my heart to
see some older Iranians, once proud people, are now broken and are either
bitter and isolated or have believed the assertions of those who do not
wish them well.
Although some of the points dAyi Hamid raises are true, they are not
the reason for Iran's poverty. To reduce Iran's economic failure to Iranians
being "lazy and devious" smacks of Orientalism. There are many
factors that determine a nation's wealth. I am not well versed in Economics
but even I can think of myriads of reasons other than Iranian individual
and intrinsic incompetence for Iran's dire conditions. Economic failure
in Iran has everything to do with the system. The failure relates to all
branches of the government.
The executive is inefficient and lacks the managerial skills needed
for the running of a modern economy. Traditionally the tools of macroeconomic
management are fiscal, monetary, income, prices and trade policies. The
gross domestic product is a function of economic injections (goverment
spending, investment, domestic consumption and exports) and leakages (taxes,
savings and imports).
Discretionary fiscal policy is not available to the goverment of Iran.
On the one hand almost none of the government revenue is from taxes. Its
expenditure is also tied into defense, inefficient state insitutions and
what masquarades as a welfare system. So that changes in the budget outcome
are not deliberate expansionary or deflationary policies but are instead
functions of the price of oil.
Monetary policy is also non-existant. The Islamic banking system does
not allow interest rates so that the balance of savings and investment
can not be adjusted by the Central Bank of Iran. The two tier foreign
currency system is a farce that is only of use to those in the bazaar who
can use the loopholes to exploit the system. No consistent incomes or
prices policy is in effect in Iran. Its trade policy is highly protectionist
and concentrates on the export of oil.
The judiciary is similarly inefficient. Clogged to the brim with "moral"
cases and grossly underfunded, court cases take too long and strong laws
protecting private property are absent. Add to that the various elements
in the society who see themselves as above the law and there you have a
very infertile ground for foreign investment. The legislature suffers
from general malaise and spends most of its time in political point scoring
to be much concerned with the economy. Then there are the revolutionary
insitution whose rate of return on government investment is pitiful, who
do not pay taxes and work on a system of favours. Much of that which needs
to be done are taken for granted in other countries:
1-Political Reform: nothing will happen until the government is held
accountable by a free people and their press. Furthermore to deny women
and minority rights is to deprive Iran from her greatest assets.
2-Foreign Policy Reforms: we all know how the sanctions and the absence
of tourism is hurting the Iranian economy. The inordinate expenses in
defence and intelligence are also a burden born by those who choose to
3- Microeconomic reforms: a tax system that equitably spreads the burden
is needed. Since incomes of the wealthy classes are too easily concealed,
a goods and services tax with partial subsidies for essential goods may
be the way.
Competition and privatization policy should move the assets of the inefficient
state industries into the profit bearing private sector and provide the
government with money for infrastructure reforms.
Deregulation of the banks are of utmost importance for the establishment
of a viable financial sector. This is the most crucial as well as the
hardest part of the reforms needed for economic growth.
Labour relations should also be streamlined and labour mobility should
increase both inter-industrially and geographically. Finally the regulations
hampering exporters need to be lifted with credit and insurance facilities
provided for them.
4-Industrial and Infrastructure reform: the government needs to support
sunrise industries in Iran. Iran is ripe for software enginnering, web
authoring as well as handcrafted lifestyle items for the higher end of
the market. Industry policy should provide subsidies as well as tax morotoriums
for the first three years after establishment of such firms. Some of the
infrastructure reforms have already been implimented under Rafsanjani.
5-Judicial and Legislative Reform: are important in two areas. One
is the establishment of the rule of law and the other is legal reform.
For those who say that all laws have to be legislated I like to say that
this is not true in any country. There are two systems of laws in the
world today. The Westminster Common Law (includes the US legal system)
is based on precedance and the French Law is based on the Napoleonic Code.
So beyond the constitution there is always a body of laws that are undemocratically
determined. In Iran the equivilant is the Shariah (Shar') law.
Legal reform in Iran is easier than other muslim countries because
the "Window of Ijtihad" is not closed in the Shia theology.
Fiqh of Sunnies is already codified but Shia can change its Shar' in accordance
with the times. There are five sources of Shar' and these are : the Koran
(one needs: Sarf and Nahv, Maqamat and Tafseer), the Hadith (hadith as
well as rejal), Ijma (Consensus), Qyas(inference) and Ijtihad(innovation).
I will not discuss the controversies regarding the interpretation of
the Koran for obvious reason. However all muslim scholars agree that Hadith
is fallible on two grounds: one is that the authenticity of hadiths can
only be speculated on and the other is that Mohammad is human and not god.
The basis of consensus is the idea expressed in the early muslim society
that if all muslims believe some law to be permissable and it does not
contravene the Koran then it must come to pass. This has been taken to
mean that if the majority of Faqihs beleive in the veracity of a statement
then it is true. However it can just as easily be seen as devine sanction
for democracy. As for inference and innovation the four basic tools are
aristotelian logic (manteq), scholastic philosophy (kalam), neoplatonic
philosophy (Falsafeh) and mystic philosophy (irfan or ishraq).
As you can see this leaves quite a bit of room for the new laws to
be agreed on that are modern and work towards the establishment of a civil
society. However no serious effort to modernize and invogorate Shar' has
occurred since Allameh Majlisi. Today sarv o nahv can be replaced with
modern Arabic linguistic. Rejal supplemented by forensic profiling. Logic
today is far more advanced than in the days of aristotle and philosophy
has come a long way since Philo. Irfan is being organised logically by
Iranian scholars. Computer databases make access to Koranic text and interpretation
as well as Hadith much easier.
Today the Fiqh is devided into religious duty (Ibadaat), Contracts
(Oghood), declaration (the word escapes me) and other (Ahkam). A modern
classification into personal, social and economic affairs is needed. And
the laws have to be re written for today. The number of camels of tax
one needs to give to the goverment is no longer relevant. However it needs
a courageous Ayatollah al-Ozma with an enormous command of the basic Fiqh
sciences to be able to successfully achieve reforms. To be a modern republic,
Iran need a modern commmon law beit in the tradition of our past laws.
Of course I know that most will write and say would it not be better
if Iran is transformed into a secular western democracy. Well quite possibly
but how likely is that? Also all such discussions are only of academic
interest as for all intensive purposes few of us will be anything but good
citizen of our adopted countries and do expend our energies in the advancement
of common interests of all who have the same citizenships as ourselves
beit Australian or American or other. Although we can advise our fellow
Iranians, it is as outsiders who will not have to live under those conditions.
For us to talk of reforms that will hurt the poor while we live comfortably
in America or Australia is the realisation of "kenar e god neshasteh
migeh lengesh kon". Anyhoot I await your vehement disagreements.