Many Iranians today are divided regarding the possible solutions that could be applied to the current regime to resolve the Iranian paradox. The origin of the Iranian dilemma could be traced to the ideas of current traditional social structure verses modernity. The Iranian society is a traditional society that is deeply rooted in Shia Islamic ideologies and traditions and the Iranian intellectuals have been trying to find a path that modifies our traditional beliefs and culture to the next level and ultimately modernization.
By the year 1906 the Iranian intellectuals who compared the backwardness of the Iranian society to the forward and developed western nations decided that major changes need to happen in order for Iranian society to reform and leap into the 20th century. The intellectuals thought that the best way to reach a modern and developed nation was through democratic laws.
Those who were educated in the west decided to take the Belgian constitution and with a slight modification, apply it to the Iranian Constitution. Probably most of the Iranians at the time would have agreed that the best way to apply the newly born constitution required a powerful leader who would enforce the national unity and laws to create a smooth transformation from a traditional Islamic social structure to a modern technologically driven nation. Reza Shah was a good candidate at the time, regardless of how he was put into power.
The role of the religion in the Iranian society was undermined by the Pahlavi dynasty. The Pahlavi dynasty tried to copy the western methods to bring modernization to the Iranian society without having any Iranian traditional base. Naturally those made people feel uncomfortable. Many reasons could be the root of the social uneasiness towards copying a Western model; one that seems the most prominent is that Iranians value their culture greatly. Iranian culture is based on the Shia Islam. For those who like to discredit Islam and portrait Shia Islam as an imposed Arabic cultural invasion should know that Shia Islam is based on the pre Islamic ideology and culture. This is why the Arabs generally don’t like Iranians and don’t accept Shia Islam as true Islam.
It may be useful to mention that from Imam Hossain to the last Imam, they all had Iranian blood and were more Iranian than Arab. The princess Shahrbanoo from the Sassanid dynasty was married to Imam Hossain. They had two children name Hassan and Ali aka Zain ol Abedin. One should understand that Imam Ali and Hossain are figures deeply rooted in the Iranian ideology against oppression. Clearly Shia Islam is part of the Iranian culture and society and is held dear to the Iranians. We need to accept these principals before forming a solution to the question of how to reach modernity in the Iranian society.
The 1906 revolution could not have succeeded regardless of who was in power because the necessary tools in order to leap forward towards modernity and modernization were void. The tools needed were education, industrialization, modern infrastructure, a defined role of the religion in the society, and so on. Although the Dar-ol Fonun schools were established and many were sent to the West to become educated, this did not seem enough.
The religious clergy never lost their importance. They were the real organized social groups that were able to effectively communicate all over Iran and were speaking the language that the masses could understand or simply relate to. The Iranian traditional society at the time could not even imagine sending their daughters to school, defined to them as a place of prostitution and disgrace. The traditional Iranian society had not been altered while the country was beginning to dramatically change and modernize its economy along with adapted western culture.
Generally western culture to the Iranian society meant all the wrong things; translating to alcohol, prostitution, and social corruption. Maybe these thoughts were the reason for the genesis of the new Iranian thinking that became the theoretical salvation to modernize Iranian society. The Iranian intellectuals began to realize that the root of the Iranian social beliefs and traditions, hence culture, needs to be revived within.
Although copying the West could possibly work for some nations, it was clear that the Iranian nation was not ready to adopt western methods to modernization. The Iranian civilization was not to transform its traditional culture for anything else unless it was from the knowledge of the Iranian culture, thus had to be based on Shia Islam. This “within” movement gave birth to the Islamist intellectualism that began to define modernism and modernity. Modernism was defined as modern structures of a society ranging from economical advances to progressive industrialization.
Modernity on the other hand was defined as the reforms in the socio-cultural basis that would advance traditional thinking and culture. The advantage of the Islamic intellectual verses the secular ones was the language that they used, which was based on already existing traditions that people felt comfortable and could easily relate to. Marxist Islamists also were born and adopted the Islamic intellectuality based on the same logic. For these new thinkers the issue that the change needed to begin “within” rather than imported was resolved.
The main commonality between the Marxist Islamists and Islamist intellectuals was that they both defined themselves as anti Westernization. The Islamists were truly an Iranian answer to the western dominance for modernism. Shariatmadari and Soroush were two prominent Islamist philosophers who advocated modernity of the Iranian society based on the already existing traditions and culture.
For example Dr. Soroush’s arguments attempt to advance the old principles of tradition and religion by emphasizing the importance of understanding the religion rather than just the thought of it. The general concept for Islamist philosophy is to modernize the social and cultural structure within the framework of existing religion. Islamist philosophy also tries to answer whether a society can reach modernity while being religious and traditional. Their strength again is the power of communication since people from all walks of life could relate to its philosophical concepts.
One could argue that the lack of Pahlavi’s leadership to direct the society to the next level of modernization was the source of Islamist popularity as an alternative path to social advancement. One could understand how the Islamist philosophy was a true alternative. The role of religion in the lives of the people is not exclusive to the Iranian society. A major difference between the Western social structure and the Iranian was that the West had historically dealt with religion while Iran had never been able to truly deal with this issue. Another fact is that Shia Islam is a political religion and deals with this world and the next, so naturally Iranians needed to experience the true effects of Shia Islamic government system in their society.
The relevance of this quick historical background is to clarify the role of Shia Islam in the Iranian culture and society. This might also explain the reason for the formation of the Islamic revolution and the Islamic Republic government. After the establishment of the IRI, the majority of Iranians felt comfortable that the regime will take care of their religious concerns regarding many modern dilemmas that they had. The Islamic Republic was able to ease many citizens in the towns and villages to send their daughters to school; something that would be impossible during the previous regime.
Having half of your citizens capable of gaining the same Rights as the other half was a huge advancement for the feminist movement in the country. The knowledge was being transferred to the next generation regardless of the governments’ ideological views. In reality one could find that the IRI never had an issue with knowledge and progress from the scientific lens. IRI is an Islamic Shia government from a reactionary angle rather than a philosophical point of modernity. The IRI would capture and imprison the religious intellectuals. Apart from the regime being traditional, the Iranian government is gradually reaching maturity. This may have been what the Iranians needed during the 1906 revolution but never received. The IRI would have been a great regime during that time period and by now we may have had our answer to modernity and modernization.
The Shah of Iran was good for Iran during his time and if he stayed in power, the possibility of a better Iran today may have been realized. The reality of the Iranian society was not in line with his forward planning for the country. Iranians needed to step back in to the traditional society in order to step forward to modernity. This forward step to modernity is happening in today’s Iran. The best possible scenario for the Iranian society is to have the population realizing the realities of Iran and instead of smashing the religion and being Islamophobic, accepting Iran’s history to speed up the modernization of the country. One can argue that Islam is against progress but one cannot argue that our problems in the modern world are narrowed to Islam.
Nowadays the Iranian nation is not a fanatical Islamic society; in contrast Iran is a forward and semi modern nation. The culture of the Iranians is changing to modernity and that is a reality that cannot be taken away despite what government is ruling the country. Similar to the west, the Iranian society needs to find the answer between religion and politics, and I believe we are on the way to resolve 1400 years of intertwined religious/cultural issues. From the point of cultural standing, Iran today is far ahead of any of her neighbors and can be a leader in the region for future generations. Maybe today’s society is working and enduring hardships so the future generations can be better off; or maybe it’s too late and we will fail like our fathers’ generation.
In spite of the possibility of failure, we need to try to resolve the Iranian modernity issue and I am quite hopeful looking at the present Iranian society. A very educated, direct, self secured, passionate, and informed generation will likely reshape the Islamic Republic of Iran to the their own wants and needs, time permitting. We are not too late to catch up to the world, as the old saying goes: “Whenever you catch a fish from the water, it’s fresh”.