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Making mistakes
Daryoosh Homayoun's talk at UC Berkeley


June 13, 2007

"We all made mistakes," confessed one member of an audience of fifty or so that had gathered a few nights ago at UC Berkeley to see Dr. Daryoosh Homayoun. The former Pahlavi era minister was there to talk about Iran's historic struggles with modernity, but many had showed up hoping to confront the intellectual with his Pahlavi past and to dispute his controversial call for a constitutional monarchy in Iran.

The highlight of the energetic and sometimes noisy exchange was the moment following that sadly introspective, "We all made mistakes." The room went quiet, like a daycare center where children fighting over a rag doll had torn off a limb, and now stood in shocked remorse, each holding a piece.

If Shiism hadn't won the day, we wondered, and our Leninist/Maoist/Stalinist naiveté had inherited Iran's revolution, would the country be any better off today? And Homayoun, perhaps remembering the cruel tactics of the Pahlavi dynasty nodded in apparent acknowledgment. Was he admitting the moral errors, or did he simply regret the political miscalculations of the regime he was part of? His praise for Reza Shah and Ataturk, who tried to secularize by force, suggests the latter.

"The Turks worship Ataturk," he pointed out authoritatively. When confronted with the human cost of this reform, the strikingly tall 78 year old statesman displayed the pain of wisdom on his still charismatic face, as though to say, "if only you understood the responsibilities of power." Having once walked the corridors of power, Homayoun's lanky stride still echoes marbled floors. The slight bend of his shoulders appears less a sign of aging than the burden of his critics' adolescent idealism.

Watching Homayoun's composure, I would have guessed--incorrectly--an aristocratic military background. He declined to drink his lecturer's bottled water without a glass. Looking around, he spotted some plastic cups near the coffee pot, then directed the organizers to bring him one. There was no "thank you," just in case this breach in hospitality was not simply American informality but an Iranian sign of disrespect.

During his lecture Homayoun seemed to talk down to his audience. Too many of his statements appeared as asides for tutoring rather than information supporting his case. After a while I realized he was not really talking down to us. The misunderstanding occured because his presentation lacked modern linear structure, making asides necessary. Like passengers on a Tehran bus, some of his points dangled off the sides of the discourse waiting for a proper seat. At one point he asked the audience to let him know when to stop talking.

Homayoun was quite succinct, however, when it came to clarifying the difference between modernity and modernization. The straight forward argument boils down to this: handing a scalpel to a butcher doesn't transform him into a surgeon. Modernity is not the same as industrialization or better financial institutions. It is a mindset of humanism, secularism and rationalism. The Iranian culture does not have this mindset, therefore Iran is not a modern nation.

His solution: toss the culture. A nation's identity, he believes, is in her history, not in her culture. As to how any Iranian would submit to this cultural lobotomy, leaving only memories of facts, Homayoun offered no guidance. Nor did he develop a theory as to what is really meant by culture. Having correctly handed the scalpel to the surgeon, we now wonder if the doctor plans to kill the patient. Was the butcher safer after all?

There were indications in Homayoun's discourse that he isn't really suggesting a lobotomy but an Islamectomy. Yet even there we find that Dr. Homayoun misunderstands the function of the organ he is planning to remove. This is apparent in a partial autobiography where he remembers spending time in jail with an Iranian Muslim during the chaos of the revolution. The man was studying one of the many Islamic advice books titled, Explanation of Problems (towzih-al-masaael). Here is what Homayoun says:

"A couple of times we asked him to read parts of the book for us. He stopped reading for us when he saw our uncontrolled laughter. After that, every evening we would force him to give us the book and entertained ourselves by reading it. Never before did we have time to make the acquaintance of such things [bold typeface emphasis mine]. We could not believe that these were the people who had defeated us, and how was it possible for our nation, under the leadership of their intelligentsia, to long for the government of such characters in preference to us."

What Homayoun found funny was likely the book's straight faced Dr. Phil responses to questions like, "If I have sex with my goat, is the meat still halaal? The answer: The meat is haraam to you but halaal to others." What we may observe -- after we're done laughing -- is that this well-reasoned answer provides a disincentive for romancing one's livestock, and at the same time makes sure the meat is not wasted.

It is also mindful of the economy as it averts a possible panic in the community for certified virgin meat. Note the adeptness of the ayatollah in tackling the problems of sexuality and poverty in a rural environment. While Homayoun et al. ridiculed the simple peasant as being beneath their sympathy, the religious scholar took the time to understand the man as a sexual being. In this autobiographical passage Homayoun has answered his own question as to why his accidental cellmate chose "the government of such characters in preference to us."

Homoayoun goes on to say that he spent the dull waiting times during his prison escape reading Moby Dick and the works of Saul Bellow. Fully devoting their time to exploring the Western mind, the Iranian elite found themselves intellectually unprepared to take on the Mullahs.

And perhaps the ayatollahs are smarter even when it comes to understanding the West. Does modernity give us a ladder to climb out of the vulgar irrationality of human sexuality? Sure, but marketing experts, film directors and the artistic elite of the West more often use the ladder to go farther down, not up. There is research to inidcate that pornography played a central role in the the development of Western civilization.

Erotic imagery was one of the earliest uses of the printing press, advancing its development. Today it is a common belief among mass media professionals that the course of technologies such as the internet and DVDs are often determined by the porn industry. The obscene amount of energy generated around the Hejab issue both by its Muslim supporters and its Western detractors is as clearly explained by the ayatollahs' comedic obsession with genitalia than by Captain Ahab's tragic obsession with his Moby Dick.

Ironically, Homayoun's most controversial idea, his support for a constitutional monarchy is a well calculated concession of intellect to lowly instinct. Our herd instinct, in particular. Common people love royalty, and will rally around the symbol. Getting past my gag reflex, I nibbled a little on his monarchy idea and found it actually palatable. In a crisis of divisiveness a throne is a handier piece of furniture than seats in the parliament. In harmonizing our ethnic diversity chanting "Jaavid Shah" compares well with chanting "death to America." Unified under a crown, perhaps we won't need unification under dangerous slogans. In the alphabet of our daily concerns Zionism can go back where it belongs with Zulbia and Zereshk polo.

Taking his cue from Homayoun's political philosophy, Iran's handsome new king would distance Iran from the filth and fury of the third world, allying us instead with the cream of civilization, the West. I would quite enjoy living in the happy kingdom of Iran.

But when I step out of Disneyland, I see a world where the disparity between rich and poor nations has created an empty niche of power. This particular niche has been exploited ever since Jesus Christ found he could get a following by saying "blessed are the poor." The only trouble with Iran preaching rebellion to destitute nations is that the Islamic regime itself has only a primitive concept of human rights, democracy, and non-violence. Otherwise it is well within the mandate of the Iranian revolution to confront injustice in world affairs, and once again have our philosophies, culture, and management style affect the course of History. The limits of our national ambitions are farther out than Homayoun would allow.

During audience exchanges we spent much time arguing about the limits of scope of the 1906 revolution and had only unspoken despair for the vastly larger, global scope of our 1979 revolution. Yet in its degree of activism -- though not in methods -- Iran's revolution is not only alive but thriving in the Islamic Republic.

Despite the many instances when I thought Homayoun was wrong, there was a moment when he touched my soul. With a sense of plea that his proud voice could not hide, he reminded us that he was at the helm of affairs for only one year in Iran, but for sixty other years his service to the country was unquestionable. He mentioned being the publisher of the popular paperback series Ketaab Jeebee. I remember as a youth delighting at every new release, saving money for the next one. The fatherly figure adeptly defending himself from our reproach had helped give us the very tools of the intellect we were using to disagree with him. As he had destroyed, so had he built, and along the way he had made mistakes. We all made mistakes. Comment


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Ari Siletz



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