There was no shouting
Stanford meeting on Iran and Iranians
By Moe Maleki
May 30, 2003
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
(b) the version modified a year later giving authority to various
(c) the 1989 version which gave near-absolute power to the Supreme
(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
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.
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