Tale of two counter-elites
In their anti-modernist stance ruling elites in
Iran and the US are unapologetic about their return to the language
and politics of fundamentalist
December 22, 2003
Exiles and children of broken homes have much in common. As citizens
of two of the world's most antagonistic and least popular
nations some, like Iranian-American exiles, find themselves trapped
in a bad divorce as well. It is from such a marginal position that
they can appreciate the many similarities of their bickering parents
in spite of their loud protestations.
Despite enormous differences
in political structure and culture, Iran and the United States
suffer from a similar malady: ideologically
driven counter-elites dominate their foreign policies. The Iranian
counter-elite, a mixture of radicalized clergymen and lay intellectuals
steeped in the populist ideas of Ali Shariati, the charismatic
sociologist and left-leaning Islamic intellectual, came to power
with the Iranian revolution of 1978-79.
Having rigged the Iranian
Constitution to perpetuate its hold on power, a faction of the
now-aged counter-elite continues to dominate Iran's highest
bureaucratic and nonelective political offices, long after its
legitimacy has vanished. Seven years of reform under President
Khatami has done little to shake the monopoly of the original revolutionary
The more routine circulation of elites in the US operates through
elections rather than revolutions. The strange wheel of the presidential
election of 2000, however, pulled up a bucketful of surprises as
a group of radical intellectuals who referred to themselves as
"neoconservative" came to power.
The group grew out of the third
generation of an intellectual
movement founded by Leo Strauss, an erudite political philosopher
who fled Nazi Germany and established himself at the University
of Chicago. By the early 1990s the "neocons" had established
themselves in Washington think tanks and started to draw up
the utopian blueprints of a world dominated by the United States,
in the context of a period that they appropriately dubbed the
American democratic tradition will not allow this group to perpetuate
itself or irreversibly alter the nation's political and legal
structures. However, three years of neoconservative policies have
seriously degraded America's international standing. Iranian
radicals had to work for a quarter of a century to sink that low.
Basking in their respective ideological certainties, both counter-elites
despise the procedural routines of international law and consider
international bodies and world public opinion as irrelevant as
well as incorrigibly hostile. As an example, for as long as they
thought they could defeat Iraq's Baath on their own, both
counter-elites saw the United Nations as little more than a nuisance.
Deep in their philosophical souls both groups nurse a deep suspicion
of modernity. They consider modern relativism a blight on the
certainties informing a civilization's sense of self-worth and
to defend itself against external enemies.
Strauss, in his book Natural Right and History,
and Allen Bloom, the second generation Straussian author of The Closing of the American Mind,
decried and satirized academic relativism that tends to treat
tradition as just another culture among equal cultures. Islamic
apologetic literature found in Iran in the late 1960s -(for
example the works of Ayatollah Motahari)- contains similar
and polemics against the corrosive effects of the modern, relativizing
outlook prevalent in academic circles.
Each counter-elite's combined sense of intellectual superiority
to and unjust marginalization by the academy has produced comparable
responses, despite vastly different contexts.
In Iran, the
revolutionary leadership started its forays against academe by
of the Office for Fostering Unity between the Seminary and
the University (currently a most liberal organization despite its
name and provenance) to control West-toxicated professors,
by fomenting a "cultural revolution" in order to subjugate
In the US, the anti-academic vendetta
started with Campus Watch, a website that has encouraged
students to inform
on unpatriotic faculty, and culminated in the legislatives'
International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003, that aims
the country's Middle Eastern studies departments.
In their anti-modernist stance both ruling elites are unapologetic
about their return to the language and politics of fundamentalist
religion. Both have turned God into a political instrument.
Religious invocations such as "In the name of God, the most
the most merciful" in Iran and "God bless America" in
the US have turned into bookends for sanctimonious political
speeches. Both counter-elites have traded the secular language
discourse for eschatological epithets like the "Great Satan"
and the "Axis of Evil."
But the similarities don't
end at the level of ideological propensities. As organized social
entities with strong in-group
sentiments, both the Iranian and American counter-elites
also engage in crony capitalism. Given the 200 years of
democratic and capitalist
traditions separating the two countries, the parallelisms
their corrupt practices are striking.
politician, who also happens to be a member of Iran's
Chamber of Commerce and a multi-billionaire, would have no difficulty
understanding a certain war-related business luncheon
last January in
Marseilles and attended by the arch neocon Richard Perle,
chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, and
two Arab venture
capitalists, Harb Saleh al-Zuhair and Adnan Khashoggi.
Nor would the above mentioned merchant of Tehran fail to appreciate
machinations behind Halliburton's no-bid contracts in
Last but not least, the Iranian ideologues and their
American colleagues are cynically manipulative. Both
used the outrage
of their respective
nations in the wake of historically traumatic events
(Iraq's invasion of Iran; the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks)
as fuel for
their own ambitions. The result in both cases was an
ill-defined, seemingly interminable war in Iraq.
lost six friends
war. More recently, during a diving trip to North
Carolina I developed
a friendship with a recent graduate of the Citadel
Military Academy bound for Iraq. Now, as I listen every morning
to the report
of the casualties of in Iraq I can't avoid a sad
thought: I may lose one more friend to another war brought about
hubris of a revolutionary counter-elite.
Ahmad Sadri is a professor of sociology at Lake Forest
College in Illinois. He wrote this commentary for
THE DAILY STAR>>> News & politics
Ahmad Sadri is Professor and Chairman of the Department
of Sociology and Anthropology
at Lake Forest
College, IL, USA. See
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