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What happened?
Why did the Googoosh generation turn fundamentalist?

February 15, 2002
The Iranian

One of the most intriguing byproducts of the September 11 events, was a kind of public psychoanalysis of the alleged highjackers, many of whom apparently came from middle or upper middle class families and had been known, in one time or other, to have indulged in the Western "la dolce vita". Why would well-educated young men in their prime, living a comfortable life, voluntarily participate in a suicide mission?

The pundits and news anchors kept volleying back and forth. After all these individuals were not the "dead end" kids of Palestinian refugee camps or their equally impoverished and oppressed Shiite Lebanese brethren of the Hezbuallh. On contrary, these were the ambitious children of often secular professional parents of the Arab middle class, well versed in the ways of western world.

As the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Alqaeda progressed, there was also increasing evidence that the Bin Laden group was a kind of Islamic version of Communist International or the international brigades in the Spanish civil war; again middle class, educated men of all shades of colour had come from a variety of countries to join the Jihad against the infidel.

Suddenly, as if the Islamic world had been the lost city of Atlantis, a new interest in knowing Islam surfaced in the North America. Glossy specials on CNN, hosted by the likes of Christian Amanpour (it has to be authentic if it's presented by Ms. Amanpour), slightly less shallow documentaries on PBS, and an array of academic hacks on Charlie Rose struggled to explain to the puzzled masses the mystery of Islam and the Moslem mind.

Nevermind that there's been fifty years of hostility in West Asia and North Africa involving largely Moslem countries and that an enormously popular and ground shaking revolution took place in Iran only 20 years ago. North America had finally waken up to understanding Islam.

Beneath the thin veneer of political correctness which has held back the more rabid racist attitudes at bay, an old topic is resurfacing: the mystery of the oriental mind, specifically of Moslem, Middle-Eastern variety.

The openly colonialist attitude towards the Easterners that went underground after the successful nationalist campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s in North Africa and middle-east is rearing its ugly head again. Once again we are hearing about the prototypical oriental man, prone to Asiatic despotism, violent and fanatical.

Don't make any mistake about it. Despite the public relation blitz that the war is against terrorism and not Islam and people of Moslem origin, a strong section of the media and public opinion in North America has been fixated on the intense dark eyes of Muhammad Atta's mug shot, the infamous leader of the 9/11 events.

At times it has looked as if we were back at the days of British mandate in the middle-east. Never mind the openly hostile angry white men commentators of Fox news or CNBC, or an array of newly energized Israeli and Jewish-American talking heads. Just listen to Harvard big shots like Bernard Lewis, the Mideast "authority", sounding off on Charlie Rose and The New Yorker magazine, pontificating about the oriental man. (1)

Still, even if one ignores the media hype and dismisses the idea that the Bin Laden and his gang, like some evil characters out of James Bond movies, are out to destroy Western civilization, as opposed to achieving specific political goals such as destabilizing Arab governments friendly to West, the question itself remains relevant. Most of these men were from middle-class background, some British and French born. What would motivate perfectly logical young men to commit such acts?

Modernity in each historical era is defined by the civilization that has established its economic and socio-cultural hegemony over the rest of the world. Current modernity, commenced at Enlightment is defined by Western Christian civilization and specifically mid-way through the 20th century this modernity has been deeply marked by all things American. The rest of the world then has been asked, for better or worse, to reshape itself in the image of America.

Liberal capitalism, separation of church and state and secular civil society, consumerism, rock & roll, sexual revolution, Women's Lib, Mickey Mouse, William Faulkner and MTV; they're all part of the same package. Don't get me wrong; many of the things listed above is good and just. The idea of a secular civil society is what people in Iran have been fighting for in the past 10 years, and I also happen to love William Faulkner.

The point is that the culture of West, the same way the Islamic culture dominated in the middle ages and the culture of Rome did before it, dominates the world now. Every non-Western culture then has gone through the same psychological purgatory, dealing with the Western culture. How do you reconcile tradition and modernity?

In case of Moslems this psychological trauma has been more intense because it has involved a thousand year old rivalry that started at the Crusades, and a history of Western colonial domination of the middle-east whose wounds are still fresh. The Algerian war of independence only ended 40 years ago and Palestinian conflict is still on going .

Let me elaborate further on this theme of psychological trauma further by making a comparison with the situation of the Native American people and their relationship with Whites in North America. In Vancouver, where I live, the Native population has a strong presence. Their communities are often poor, heavily addicted to alcohol and drugs, and they constitute, disproportionately, a high percentage of prison inmates.

The Native children have a high school drop out rate, teen pregnancy is almost a norm, and prostitution rates are high. They're often perceived as lazy, stupid, welfare bums, etc. In other word they're Canada's Blacks. When they first encountered White European traders, the Natives were hunters and gatherers who had lived in North America for thousands of years, knew the terrain well and had developed sophisticated systems of cohabitation with nature.

The Europeans, however, were from agrarian based societies and lived in large cities. They introduced alcohol to the Natives -- often used as a form of barter -- brought with them Christian missionaries and their philosophy of life that was based on conquering and exploiting nature rather than cohabitating with it.

The Natives put up a fight against the ever increasing encroachment of the Europeans but eventually the more superior fighting technology prevailed and the "guests" became colonizing masters. The Natives were forced into reservations, their children were sent to Catholic and other parochial schools to become "descent" Christians rather then "pagans". There were only two ways open to them. Either totally assimilate and become "White" or stay in reservations and rot.

The psychological wounds to this day are evident and so is the internal debate amongst the Native bands as to how to negotiate with and live within the greater White society. 10 years ago in a place called Oka in the province of Quebec, armed Mohawk warriors came to a stand off with the Canadian army that lasted over a month and threatened to start an armed insurgency. The Native Canadians dilemma is in essence no different from that of people living in Islamic Middle-east.

Before someone screams "clash of civilizations", it must be noted that no culture is monolithic and there are common areas where different cultures overlap. Most world cultures are synthetic and dynamic anyway and they contain within them elements where they reflect contacts with other cultures and changes as a result of them.

Regardless of power relations between contacting cultures -- the conquered and conqueror -- both will be transformed. Naturally the dominant societies in the centre will attempt to dictate the context of the exchange, economically, technologically and culturally; however the societies in the periphery are not powerless and can negotiate their integration into modernity.

Japan, China and Russia, each in their own way have attempted to negotiate the slippery path of synthesizing tradition and modernity, maintaining a sense of continuity with their past, while partaking in modernization. China for instance, has experimented with Confucian Communism as well as market Capitalism. The synthesis has not always been successful though and at times has resulted in disruptions, e.g. the Cultural Revolution and the events of Tianamen Square.

In Iran itself this debate first took place in the aftermath of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905. The anti-Qajar revolutionaries, both the reluctant and fervent types, included representatives from a wide spectrum.

There were those who, through their stay in Caucasus, had been influenced by Russia's social democratic movement; the mainly Tehran-based liberal clergy such Kashani and Tabatabii and their more militant allies in civilian clothes who wanted a more secular civil society and rule of law while maintaining the Islamic tradition; Sheikh Fazlalla Nouri, one of the most senior of the conservative clergy who had to be dragged into the revolution kicking and screaming and whose reactionary positions were so destructive to the fragile revolutionary government, that eventually he was hanged.(2)

And the last group represented by the likes of Taghi Zadeh who were the out and out modernizers and openly pro-Westerners and eventually, betraying some of their own principles succumbed to Reza Pahlavi's Napoleonic ambitions and formed the core intellectual group around his and later on his son's modernization efforts. (3)

The latter group's position was a complete rejection of Iran's Islamic heritage, a la Ataturk and adopting all things Western. Iran, though proved to be a tougher nut to crack than Turkey, where even the Latin alphabet replaced the old Arabic one.

Reza Pahlavi's ascendance to power and his subsequent policy of modernization from the top didn't quiet the debates that had started during the revolution. The country was still mainly rural and deeply religious and the clergy never forgot his forced de-hejabing and the humiliating beard shaving he endured on them.

The progressive intellectuals, both of secular and Islamic variety despised him and later on his son, for what they perceived to be Pahlavis' cow towing to Western powers and their giving up Iran's sovereignty to former colonizers and now neo-colonizers, especially after the overthrow of Dr. Mossadegh's government, e.g. the presence of American and British military and intelligence personnel in Iran (sounds familiar?).

Another element key to the debate was the question of underdevelopment and relationship between the poorer countries in the South and East and richer, more developed ones in North and West. So the question of modernity versus tradition also became about social and economic development.

By 1964, the year of 15th of Khordad riots in Tehran, three oppositional views had come to fore in Iran (as in all other Islamic middle-east). The secular socialist solution of the Marxist variety; the Islamic social-democratic solution such as the Ba'ath parties in Syria and Iraq; and the conservative, fundamentalist solution. Ayatollah Khomeini belonged to the last one.(4)

Khomeini's decrees in the occasion of riots were all about moral issues and Pahlavis' "anti-Islamic" and "immoral" policies. He condemned the regime for allowing the Western powers (read the infidels) to run the country and export their "corrupting" influence on the population. The nature of Ayatollah Khomeini's opposition to the regime, regardless of what one thinks of Pahlavis, was conservative at best and anti-progressive at worst.(5)

The suppression of the demonstrations and the proclamation of the so-called White Revolution in the same year opened a new era of further Western influence in the country. Rapid, poorly planned urbanization, an increase in literacy especially in the cities, formation of a middle class, increasing infiltration of Western pop culture and influx of oil revenues--some of which actually trickled down -- all contributed to creating what one may call the Googoosh generation.

In early Seventies, the idea of an Islamic Iran, at least in major cities like Tehran, seemed far fetched. The late Sixties and early Seventies urban Iran was a phantasmagoric mix of what Ahmad Shamloo called "Azan and Jazz".

The Beatles and Sinatra, Kojak and bell bottom pants coexisted with Ashura and Thursday night religious gatherings. In other word, the sacred and profane lived side by side in the same uneasy, slippery plain. Unlike the West where the evolution of a secular civil society had taken a few of centuries and some very bloody civil wars and revolutions; here the magic wand of a benevolent dictator and the power of Western media was to accomplish the same in a few decades.

So what happened? Why did the Googoosh generation turned fundamentalist? There were specific social and economic context to the 1979 revolution, but for those of us who actually lived through it, it's undeniable that there was a deeply psychological and spiritual aspect to the events. It was as if having gone to bed with a gaudy whore, people had woken up and looked into the mirror and found the experience rather cheap and shameful.

I think Khomeini's oft repeated quote that the people of Iran didn't start the revolution for bread but for Islam was an honest one on his part. In his mind, it was all for Islam, albeit his interpretation of Islam. If only people looked inward to their "true Islamic" selves rather than try to reshape themselves in the image of materialistic, corrupt and profane West, all will be well again for the flock.

And the conservative clergy weren't the only ones to argue this; a decade earlier, as esteemed and learned a writer as Jalal Al Ahmad, more or less made similar arguments in his influential book Gharbzadegi (Westoxication).(6)

And that brings us back full circle to well educated young men from well off middle class families, familiar with ways of the West, living in the global village of leisure life styles and stock markets, embarking gladly on suicide missions.


1 -- Bernard Lewis is the old fashion type of Orientalogist, the type who became consultants to the Foreign Office and the British Intelligence Service when the British started to make colonial inroads in North Africa and West Asia. In response to Charlie Rose's question, when he appeared on his show last Fall, that what is in the oriental man's mind, Lewis quoted a British diplomat that it's not important what is in the oriental mind; what is important is to let the oriental man know what is in your -- occidental man's -- mind. Bernie and Charlie shared a nice chuckle over this. To top

2 -- As reported in Kasravi's Enghelab Mashrootiat Iran, Nouri's own son who was a progressive put the noose around his father's head and hence carried on the grand tradition of parricide and infanticide in Iran's political history. In more than one occasion Ayatollah Khomeini spoke of Fazlalah Nouri as his mentor. Also for those who don't know, Nouri was the grand peàe to the future head of Tudeh Party, Mr. Kianouri. Oh god of all ironies. To top

3 -- Taghi Zadeh once proclaimed that for Iran to enter the modern world, it had to become Western from head to toe. To top

4 -- In many ways, Bin Laden has modeled himself after Ayatollah Khomeini. Like Khomeini, he's a Pan-Islamist who addresses all Moslems regardless of their particular denomination. And like Khomeini, he has an open, unabashed and swaggering contempt for the United States and the West. To top

5 -- Khomeini was a great admirer of Al Ahmad's book. In fairness to Al Ahmad, anybody who has read his book can't mistake his views with Khomeini's vision, and his widow, Simin Daneshvar, has tried subtly to distance him and his work from the Islamic regime.To top

6 -- One thing needs to be said. Although unequipped to handle such complex issue, Al Ahmad at least tried to deal with interaction of Iran's Islamic tradition and modernity head on.To rop

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Asghar Massombagi

By Asghar Massombagi

Massombagi's features index


Where it all started
Democratic concepts emerged during the 1906 Constituional Revolution
By Janet Afary

Khaharan va Dokhtaran Ma
Excerpt from a 1944 book by Ahmad Kasravi, a year before he was assassinated by Islamic militants (in Persian)

Bihali Enqelabi
The human spirit: a casualty of the revolution in Russia.
Jalal Al-e Ahmad

Reza Shah: The self-made king
With a little help from the British
By Cyrus Ghani

Lost opportunities
Limits of U.S. support for constitutionalism in Iran
By Charles Kurzman

... following the
September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks


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