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Modernism vs. Traditionalism

By Ali Kazemi
September 21, 2001
The Iranian

Freedom of belief is pernicious. It is nothing but the freedom to be wrong.
-- St. Robert Bellarmine (Italian Cardinal 1542-1621)

The September 11 attack was not a new war. It started long before the Persian Gulf War or the creation of Israel. It is much older than that. It is a war that Giordano Bruno fought over 400 years ago. He was imprisoned, tortured and burned at the stake. He won his war.

Giordano was born in 1548 in Italy. He became a Dominican priest after his monastic education. He was intelligent and outspoken. He wrote several books, none of which are read much today. Bruno was interested in the nature of ideas and truth. He was an early epistemologist and constantly challenged the traditional knowledge methods. He learned about the Copernican theories and took them up enthusiastically. He believed that earth revolved around the sun. This was contrary to the church's teaching that the earth was stationary and the sun revolved around it. "Who laid the foundations of the Earth, that it should not be removed forever." Psalms 104:5. Giordano, against Catholic dogma, also believed in an infinite universe. He traveled around Europe for 14 years giving lectures.

He went back to Italy in 1593 and was immediately imprisoned as a heretic. They kept him in the papal dungeon where he was tortured and interrogated many times and finally was convicted by the chief theologians after 10 years. He twice promised to recant but changed his mind both times at the last minute and resumed his "foolishness". The theologians sentenced him to be burned to death. His defiant answer was "Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it." He was given eight more days to repent and save himself. But it was no use. In February of 1603, as he was being burnt to death, a crucifix was offered to him to save his soul. He fiercely pushed it away. Bruno and many like him sacrificed themselves and pulled Europe out of the Dark Ages.

Europe embarked on an age of discovery, creation, exploration, innovation and invention in arts, sciences, literature, economics, geography, philosophy, and other human endeavors. Europe's progress during the Renaissance was truly rapid and gathered more steam every decade until it finally became explosive with the Industrial Revolution. Europe that had been in many ways more backward than the Middle and Far East had left them in the dust by the 19th century and the gap has been widening ever since. In the West, the battle between Traditionalism and Modernism went to the latter a long time ago. As a result Western societies are now pluralistic, democratic, and prosperous.

There have been different reactions to the great Western advances in Iran and the rest of the Middle East. There have long been various conspiracy theories to explain their own slow rate of advancement. They all basically place the blame in various places but never at home: It is the West that has kept us back. They deny any inherent advantages in Modernity and assign Western advancements solely to their duplicity and unfair dealings against the East. The forces of Modernity have had a hard time in Iran the last century. The Modernist Pahlavi lost to the Traditionalist Khomeini after decades of Iranian intellectuals dismissing Western values as corrupt and not relevant to us. Our leftist and Islamic intellectuals coined the phrase of "Gharbzadegi", or Westoxication, but we suffered from Hesperophobia (fear or hatred of the West) a common affliction in Middle East.

Let's be clear on why these terrorists and their Taliban backers have declared war on the U.S. Contrary to what many of their apologists claim, it is not because of Israel. Israel is fairly low on Osama Bin Laden's list of grievances. His primary grief is over the presence of the "infidel" American troops in Islam's holy land of Saudi Arabia. American "infidels" are considered to be "befouling" the Arabian Peninsula because they represent a different civilization -- a modern civilization that is increasingly threatening to swallow their own traditional one. They hate the "Great Satan" because it is strong, democratic, free, pluralistic, prosperous and advanced. This is not easy to accept if you think of your civilization as divinely inspired. They are killing because nobody is listening to them. How can there be a dialogue" of civilizations when one side really has nothing valuable to say.

I don't know if anyone remembers this Iranian poster. It was also made into a postal stamp. It was a painting of Khomeini in a heroic posture holding up the flag of Islam. He was standing on top of the world. Khomeini and the flag easily dwarfed the globe beneath them. The message was clear. They wanted to export their backward revolution but they ran into domestic problems and became less ambitious. But Khomeini's fallen flag has been picked up by various Islamic fundamentalist groups.

They believe in a utopian golden age of Islam that never was and never will be. They want the West and its biggest representative U.S. to totally disengage from the Middle East so they can take over. They are opposed to the introduction of modernity and plurality in the region. That does not mean just Israel. It means Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Persian Gulf and Caucus states. They want to finish what Khomeini and Taliban's Mullah Omar have started. They condemn the governments of these states not for being autocratic, but for the same reason Khomeini and his ilk fought the Pahlavi regime. They want totalitarian theocracies not democracies. They want more Taliban.

Our many imprisoned journalists, writers and dissidents are doing the same thing for Iran that Giordano Bruno did for Europe 400 years ago. Velayate Faghih in Iran which is really a more polished version of the Taliban, is trying to prevent the Iranian Renaissance. They may now learn a lesson by watching the fate of the Taliban.

The recent war on these enemies of freedom is not going to finish them forever. This is an old war. But they must be pushed back because they have pushed us too far. There is nowhere to go after the U.S. We have to make our stand against them here and now. This is a war of ideas. Traditionalism vs. Modernism, Totalitarianism vs. Pluralism, Dogma vs. Dissent. What makes this war worth fighting is not vengeance. It is the human desire for freedom.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer Ali Kazemi


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