Last night I attended a panel discussion on Iran and modernity at Stanford University. On the panel were such notables as Fereydoun Hoveyda, Prof. Abbas Milani, Prof. Behnam Tabrizi, and Trita Parsi, president and co-founder of NIAC, the National Iranian American Council. (See flyer)
The 293 capacity auditorium in Jordan Hall was filled to capacity, with another two dozen or so people sitting in the aisles or hovering by the doors. This was a well-organized and presented event which started and ended on time, where there was no shouting, no one got undressed in protest, and no one got hurt! Even more amazing was what was said by the panelists, a brief synopsis of which follows.
The topic on the table was “Temptations of Tradition and Modernity in Iran”. Prof. Milani spoke about how the socio-political history of Iran in the past century has been centered on the question of modernity and the struggle with tradition, arguing that modernity is not necessarily a Western monopoly and traces of it can be seen in Iran's long history.
Prof. Tabrizi, professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford, started his talk with a brief recounting of an event that took place at the university in Hamadan this month but which received little or no coverage by the foreign press.
He recounted how the student population, against the dictates of university officials, held a referendum on which version of the Iranian constitution they favored. On the ballot were four options:
(a) the original constitution ratified immediately after the 1979 Revolution,
(b) the version modified a year later giving authority to various non-elected bodies,
(c) the 1989 version which gave near-absolute power to the Supreme Leader and
(d) none of the above.
The result of some 600 votes was 90% in favor of choice (a) — a pretty amazing result. Even more amazing was that such a vote actually took place over the ban by the university (the Provost of Students was later forced to resign) and the disruption caused by raucous right-wing students, which was met with tremendous self-restrain and nonviolent poise by the organizers and the wall formed by female students to protect the voters and ballot boxes.
Prof. Tabrizi described this event as an example of the struggle for democracy currently taking place in Iran by the youth. He further went on to outline a lucid roadmap of do's and don'ts for US foreign policy regarding Iran, advocating a hands-off approach in Iran's internal affairs while at the same time espousing a unified call with Europe for human rights and democratic freedoms.
The third speaker was Mr. Fereydoun Hoveyda, brother of late Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda and Ambassador to the United Nations during the Shah's regime. Mr. Hoveyda, author of numerous books on Iran and occasional contributor to Iranian.com, delighted the audience with his amiable elder-statesman persona and with his sly remarks on the rift between his adopted countries of US and France.
His main thesis was that Iranian patriarchal society is rooted in ancient Iranian traditions as told in such stories as Sohrab & Rostam on the one hand, where the father inadvertently slays the son (by inference, tradition usurping modernity), and the story of Jamshid & Zahak, whence the benevolent but self-deifying king is replaced by a tyrannical despot (à la Shah in his latter years vs. Khomeini) and the populace goes in search of a hero to save the day.
Mr. Hoveyda's premise was that Iranians need a archetypal Iranian approach to the pedagogy of democracy within Iran which again might be rooted in Iran's rich mythology in such stories as Ferdowsi's Kaykhosrow and Attar's Simorgh. In Attar's “Conference of the Birds,” the birds go in search of the almighty omniscient Simorgh only to find, at the end of their tumultuous journey, reflection of the remaining thirty birds (in Farsi, “si morgh”), inferring that the Simorgh is none other than their own selves.
Finally, Mr. Trita Parsi spoke about the role of Iranian-Americans in civic participation and raising our collective voice. He indicated that despite Iranian-Americans high standing in almost every strata of American life, our collective voice in the political arena is almost completely inaudible and organizations such as National Iranian American Council (NIAC) aim to change that.
He explained that NIAC does not take sides on issues, but rather provides the tools and knowledge by which Iranian-Americans can deliver their own voice to the ears of their elected officials. He mentioned that the usual reason given for Iranians' lack of participation, their percieved lack of unity, is a non sequitur as he read statistics from the NIAC web site which indicated a unified stance in regards to such issues as visa controls and US diplomatic engagement of Iran.
All in all, it was refreshing to hear such truly enlightened views on issues relating to Iran's future, embracing concepts such as tolerance, diversity, civic participation, indigenous democracy, pedagogy and awareness while at the same time recasting our rich traditions to the needs of the times instead of being bound by them.
Notably and pleasantly missing from the discussion was the buzzword-laden superficial panacea for Iran's ails one often hears from the well-organized and highly leveraged opposition groups. Incidentally, the monarchists were mentioned only once during the whole program, and then only in the same sentence as the militant Mujahedin organization (MKO).
Finally, a big tip of the hat must go to Stanford student Ms. Lily Sarafan for organizing and moderating a well-run event.