As Iran has shifted into the focus of world attention, many aspects of Iranian politics, society and attitudes fascinate westerners who try to understand seeming contradictions and hard-to-explain phenomena.
“Iran is the biggest prison for journalist in the Middle East,” (published in RSF statements) or “Iran is the most free country in the world,” (declared by president Ahmadinejad).
Imagine this. While President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad practically calls for Israel's destruction and relentlessly campaigns against the United States, ordinary young Iranians are fascinated by American music, love Hollywood films. Moreover compared to Persian characters (kings, poets, social activists, politicians … ) Barbie dolls, Spiderman, Batman, All-Star shoes, Michael Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Bill Gates and many other American characters, signs and icons are more familiar with them. [Although many western journalists and commentators have pointed to these facts especially since the advent of Iran's 1997 reform movement, it is still worthwhile to underline them to set the stage for any original analysis].
Nowadays, not only young Iranians like American things, but seem many also have positive attitudes toward Israel. The more the government bashes the Jewish State, the more young people think it must be something good.
If there is such a huge gap in mentality between the ruling political elite (figures) and substantial segments of Iranian people, then why does Iran seem relatively calm and quiet internally? If the Iranian citizens are deprived of many political and social freedoms and yearn for things taken for granted even in other Moslem countries, then why do they seem to be so docile? Or are they docile?
It should be noted that not all is quiet in Iran. A vocal women's activist movement has launched a campaign named “one million signatures”, demanding equal rights and its members have been arrested and jailed. Additionally, dozens of teachers were recently arrested for simply demanding higher salaries that the government had promised in March and April. Students are also restless in universities – and that has been a constant reality in the last decade. But the average Iranian — feeling dissatisfied with high inflation, unemployment and nervous about the talk of a possible war with the U.S. — may still appear quiet and definitely does not connect with and the opposition, let alone lending it active support.
Are they waiting for the Islamic Republic to reform itself? Many Iranian scholars believe the Islamic Republic cannot be reformed and probably most ordinary Iranians share this view. Some even go so far as saying that the reformist president, Khatami's era was the womb that gave birth to Ahmadinejad's presidency.
Months after Ahmadinejad took away the key to the presidential palace from Khatami; I met a friend of mine who had traveled to Berlin from Tehran to attend the Berlinale film festival. As we talked about the current situation in Iran, he reminded me of an Old Persian story: “the three schoolmates”. The fable supposedly depicting the life of three famous historically-real characters from the 11 th century Iran, Omar Khayyam, Hassan-i Sabbah and Nizam al-Mulk.
“Every Iranian is a mixture of these 3 famous personalities; Khayyam's care-free and fatalism attitude, Hassan-i Sabbah's insubordinate and rebellious personality, and Nizam al-Mulk's wise and analytical mind” he said using an over-generalization. “Believe it or not we Iranians have a share of these three in our characters, and these do not get on very well with each other”, he added. “Persian history is nothing but a battlefield of these three behaviors”, he concluded.
My friend was dead set on the idea that almost all of his homeland's history could be somehow reduced to the story of the said three schoolmates. Barring the exaggeration, his suggestion – if taken with a grain of salt — may shed light on the current attitudes of Iranians towards their political, social and economic predicament.
What is the “fac-tion”?
A mix of ''facts'' and ''fiction'' has recently been referred to as “fac-tion” in some literary writings. Borrowing this concept for a moment, the “fac-tion” of the three aforementioned 11 th century Iran's three schoolmates begins with an account of a pact among them promising once they grow up, if any one of them comes across a fortune or high office, he will share it with the other two.
It so happened that many years later, Nizam Al-Mulk became grand Vizier (i.e. prime minister) at the court of the Shah (the King).
Hassan demanded and was granted a place in the government, but he was too ambitious and eventually he was removed from office after he participated in an unsuccessful effort to overthrow his benefactor, the Vizier. Many years later, he rose to become head of the “Hash-shashin” (meaning ''hashish users'', which according to etymologists later changed to “assassin”) — a mysterious terrorist network that was located in the Alamut fortress in the Alborz Mountains of northern Iran.
Omar Khayyam was much more modest in his request, not asking for any office, but just a place to live and study science. Khayyam lived on governmental pension for the rest of his life and just worked on astronomy and mathematics and wrote great poems. Khayyam is very famous among Iranians and known throughout the world for his quatrains (or Rubaiyat), which are concentrated on fatalism and the desire for enjoying life (but as in “carpe diem” or hedonism and not eternal life) through elements including love for women, wine, playfulness, etc.
But destiny brought a strange end to the life of the third person, Nizam al-Mulk. Aside from his extraordinary influence as Vizier with full authority, he is also well known for systematically founding a number of schools of higher education in several cities (the famous Nizamiyyah Schools), which were named after him. In many respects, these schools turned out to be the predecessors and models of universities that were established in Europe during the Middle Ages. Nizam al-Mulk is also widely known for his voluminous treaties entitled Siyasat-nameh (The Book of Politics or Government).
He was finally assassinated en route from Isfahan to Baghdad in 1092. The mainstream literature says he was stabbed by the dagger of a member of the Hash-shashin (assassins) sect.
While in the story, Hassan-i Sabbah is a symbol of terror, violence and disorder. Khayyam has throughout the years become an icon of fatalism and a knowledgeable yet self-isolated man. And, Nizam al-Mulk is known for his wise management as well as interest in development, progress and entrepreneurship.
Finding contemporary examples
May be, just may be, my friend had a point. Every Iranian's character may have a combination of all of these three components. When an Iranian has hopes and is engaged in reform and constructive work, he/she resembles Nizam Al-Mulk. In the moments that an Iranian is floating in his/her private world and his/her focus is only on personal enjoyment by being carefree and fatalist, he/she emulates Khayyam. Finally, when an Iranian decides that nothing would change unless he/she resorts to rebellion and violence, he/she follows the path traveled by Sabbah.
On the other hand, Khayyam's followers have another face. Persian intellectuals and intelligentsia throughout history had invented a specific way to oppose existing regimes. This unique method was called “mysticism” (Erfan) and it presents itself in poetry, literature, architecture, etc. Then and now, mysticism has been another pillar of Iranian culture. Khayyam, Hafez, Rumi and many other icons of Persian thought and literature were its practitioners of various shades.
My trip in March 2007 to the Qandil Mountains in Kurdish Northern Iraq and meeting with a number of PJAK (Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistan – Iranian branch of PKK or the Kurdistan Workers Party) members, reminded me again of this story. Kurdish-Iranian young men and women had come to this camp of rebels and live and fight side by side.
I asked one of PJAK guerillas why he had chosen this path. His answer was simple. “In Iran there is largely an atmosphere of apathy and none of cooperation between the regime and its opponents. The people have become fatalist all the time just nagging and complaining about whatever they don't have”. So he took the gun and found refuge in the mountains as a Kurdish guerilla.
I thought, here are some young Iranians who have chosen neither Nizam Al-Mulk's nor Khayyam's path. They have embarked on Sabbah's path and if sometime, for some reason the number of Sabbah's followers grow there would be either a new rebellion or revolution in Iran; or death and terror in the country and the region – or both.
But exactly when and how does this happen in Iranian history? How do Khayyams and Nizam Al-Mulks turn into Sabbahs?
If we look at the 20th century Iranian history, the 50-year rule of the Pahlavi dynasty may be interpreted as a scene of never-ending conflict between Nizam Al-Mulk (the Court pushing for socio-economic reforms) and Sabbah (a variety of nationalist, leftist and Islamic rebels) who disagreed with the existing model of governance the hallmark of which was lack of an atmosphere for free and legal political activities in turn fostering rebellion. The majority of the people, however, acted as Khayyam.
Then, in 1978 something happened and the majority joined the Sabbahis.
The whole 20th century debate in Iran was how to be a good Nizam Al-Mulk and exactly what a Nizam Al-Mulk should do – how to achieve reforms and progress. There was the nationalist paradigm, the Marxist ideology and the Islamic alternative. What was lacking in the 25 years preceding the 1979 Khomeini-led revolution, was a mechanism to decide the outcome of this tri-partite debate. The path to choosing the best model of progress was blocked by political despotism.
Then in 1978, slowly but surely, one may suggest, as Sabbahis came out into the streets in small numbers and Khomeini presented himself as a viable future Nizam Al-Mulk, the millions of Khayyams changed side and joined the rebels. The rest is history.
Will this happen again in the foreseeable future? After all, the debate about an acceptable model of governance has not ended in Iran; but the path to make a peaceful decision and or allow the reformists to opt for gradual change appears to be blocked. Khatami's eight-year presidency (1997-2005) seems to have proved this point. Some political observers consider Khatami's era as a calmer period for Iran's relations with the west, but argue that in fact all Khatami did was just to repeat calls for free speech and the rule of law — without many serious acts and lasting reforms.
At least one may safely suggest that he was not able to change any of the restrictive laws in Iran or prevent the religious establishment from controlling the judiciary and law-enforcement agencies.
Mohammad Khatami in the last days of his presidency declared he had no real “authority” and was just an “under-laborer”; a “supplier”; or for lack of a perfect transliteration a “handyman”. The rest is history. Most voters saw the next election as offering no real alternative and decided not to participate. As a result Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the head of the government.
The road to the future
While large pockets of Iranians are not happy with the current regime, and may be willing to join a rebellion, they do not see a credible Sabbah or Nizam Al-Mulk. The Sabbahis are too weak and fragmented and a Khomeini-type potential Nizam Al-Mulk is missing.
Having said that, one must also acknowledge the fact that revolutions are the most unpredictable of social and political phenomena.
A famous quote of unknown origin (popularly attributed to Hassan-i Sabbah and often described as his last words) says, “Nothing is true. Everything is permissible.”
Nima Tamaddon is a Prague-based journalist who is currently working as a radio broadcaster in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Persian Service.
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