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A Clerical Regime and the People at Odds With It

By Reuel Marc Gerecht
The Wall Street Journal
October 10, 2000

Book review: PERSIAN MIRRORS (Free Press, 402 pages, $26), by Elaine Sciolino

FOR 21 YEARS the journalist Elaine Sciolino has covered revolutionary Iran, first for Newsweek and then for the New York Times. In "Persian Mirrors," she draws on her long experience to illuminate Iran's seductive contradictions -- its ardent, grim faith and the hospitality, irreverence and mirth of its people.

Thus "Persian Mirrors" pivots on people, not places. Tehran and Shiraz -- Ms. Sciolino's favorite Iranian city because of its easygoing ambiance -- do make vivid appearances, but the book's passages of description usually fade once the main characters arrive. This is a pity since the varied geography and architecture of Iran might have given "Persian Mirrors" a richer background for its portrait of an ever more modern yet conservative country.

Ms. Sciolino's narrative is also sometimes choppy, especially in the first half of the book, where she splices together various historical episodes. What is more, her staunch American-feminist outlook can give her writing an infelicitous tone at times. When Iran's President Mohammad Khatami asks Ms. Sciolino whether she knows how to cook Persian food, she notes: "The question about cooking had sounded condescending to me, and I told [the translator] afterward that we should have asked Khatami if he knew how to cook."

Yet the analysis at the heart of "Persian Mirrors" -- especially concerning matters of human rights -- is often incisive. It must be very difficult for a journalist who wants to protect her visa, and who obviously loves the country she is writing about, to hit hard at its failings, yet Ms. Sciolino makes the ugliness of Iran's system abundantly clear.

She depicts Jews, Christians and the followers of Bahaism (an Iranian religion founded in the 19th century) as inevitably persecuted minorities of an Islamic-law state. Journalists, too, are subjected to harsh treatment. She quotes Faraj Sarkouhi, the Iranian writer and literary editor, who was imprisoned for seven weeks in 1996: "I spent eight years in the Shah's prisons. . . . But all of those eight years together could not compare in pain and distress to a mere five minutes during these forty-seven days. . . . I am a broken man."

It could be argued, of course, that compared with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, or the Afghan Taliban, clerical Iran is a human-rights paradise. Iran's age-old traditions of civility and openness are still vibrant, even among the worst of revolutionary clerics, and they have held in check what Jean-Francois Revel called "the totalitarian temptation."

Nonetheless, the Islamic-law state in Iran is perfectly capable of brutalizing its people, and the threat of state-sanctioned violence is always there. To punish malcontents, the regime applies severe pressure (censorship, jailings, torture and, very selectively, murder) and then pulls back, creating an ebb and flow of oppression that is extraordinarily effective.

Since February, when reformists won a majority in Iran's Parliament, the clerical regime has clamped down on free speech with special force. But dissident critiques live on by word of mouth. And indeed, the tension between democracy and theocracy -- in no way relieved by Iran's muddled constitution -- is inevitable. As it intensifies, Ms. Sciolino notes, it is like a time bomb waiting to go off.

It is perhaps among Iran's women that the contest between religious strictures and democratic rights is most vivid, since the clerical regime has in large part defined the Islamic revolution in terms of protecting "female virtue." The body-wrapping black chador is the symbol of the Iranian revolution. Ms. Sciolino is at her best when she describes the indignities and triumphs of Iran's increasingly self-confident women, who have been thrown into jail for wearing too much makeup or holding hands with men outside their family.

Yet she offers few portraits of clerics and none of the young men who are the backbone of the regime's security forces. These young men are more cynical, less overtly religious and poorer than their older brothers and fathers, who zealously gave their lives to Ayatollah Khomeini in the Iran-Iraq War. Such figures deserve more attention in a book about the Middle East's first revolutionary Islamic society, which is after all still ruled, defined and indeed brutalized by men.

Iran's clerical despotism is at war with Iran's history. Part of the country's rich cultural tradition -- implicit in its literature and poetry, among much else -- is the belief that a broad humanistic culture should exert a moral force on society itself. This is one reason why the denial of human rights is more momentous in Iran than in Afghanistan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

Ms. Sciolino has a nice feel for this civilizing force, as well as for the dark side of the Iranian character. I think she ought to be more skeptical about the real progressive intent of clerical reformers, in particular President Khatami, and the possibility of "Islamic democracy" in Iran. But she has done a good job of showing the contradictory forces that have animated the Iranian soul since the Islamic revolution.


Mr. Gerecht is a former Middle Eastern specialist for the CIA and the author, under the pseudonym of Edward Shirley, of "Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey Into Revolutionary Iran."


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