|Can we say "Who needs Norooz?"
Believing in a "lost cause"?
By Reza Bayegan
July 12, 2002
To arrange for the following interview I had to use my connections, not
with the rich and powerful, but with those heartstrings that bind me to the country
of my birth. On my arrival I was greeted by no servant. I was let in only by a feeling
of urgency to communicate what I believe to be true.
I was ushered into no magnificent hallway, but waded my way through the passage of
memories in our national gallery of hopes and betrayals. Finally I came face to face,
not with a famous celebrity but arriving in the familiar little cafe I sat across
the table from my old friend who once again chided me for believing in a 'lost cause':
Don't you think that monarchy is an obsolete system for governing our country?
Depends on what you as a citizen of an ancient kingdom and civilization wish to preserve
from your past. It is a sign of sheer philistinism and imaginative bankruptcy to
divest value from all the moral centers that diffuse stability and sustenance into
our lives. We can do this with all the vital sources of meaning and one by one declare
them as worthless and nugatory.
We can say that the institution of the family for instance is obsolescent, or have
the same attitude towards marriage. If we reduce everything in our circumambient
universe to its utilitarian bareness, then eventually we end up with a cold heartless
skeleton which will inspire us only with emptiness and dread. One can say who needs
Norooz? and call it silly sentimental humbug, sitting around Haftsin and honoring
an outdated custom that should have vanished a long time ago.
But no, our nation has refused to take that callous
view. We have honored our past and our tradition for we are aware that they are guarantees
against national disintegration and disappearance. We have preserved Norooz because
it rallies our people together every year around a common celebration. It endows
our nation with uniqueness and character. We have kept these marks of distinction
because life is more than a mere existence.
It requires emotional ties to a tradition or it becomes vapid and meaningless. The
problem with the proponents of republicanism in our country is that their imagination
is so paltry, so pedestrian. They do not recognize that what has connected our people
together as inheritors of an ancient heritage is more than a social contract. We
have been linked by a covenant consolidated through 3000 years of continuity. The
vacuum created by the absence of this continuity has been, and will only be filled
with tension and fear.
Speaking of fear, let us not forget that it existed during the reign of the Shah
too. It did not arrive with the republican system.
Before 1979 one was more in awe than in fear. Now it is pure consternation. It is
the dread of the black inquisition. The regime has done its best to put people's
backs against the wall and convince them that they have no alternative except obedience
to a fanatical, totalitarian regime that has banned hope, mirth and joy from the
nation's spiritual diet. Let me add that I have also heard many people criticizing
the Shah for his lack of resolve in dealing with the opposition.
What they mean is that he did not possess the cruelty to order the mass killing of
his own people. A practice that by the way is routinely performed by dictatorial
leaders of countries of that part of the world. So the criticism leveled against
the Shah about the way he dealt with the opposition comes from totally divergent
angles. These animadversions to a large measure cancel each other out.
Having said that, I would like to add that I do not wish to exonerate the late king
and gloss over his faults and shortcomings. I believe that the kingdom is far more
important than the personality of its individual kings. I believe Reza Pahlavi is
right when he says whenever you have power concentrated in one person you are asking
for trouble. The system should be streamlined in such a way that abuse of power becomes
How do you answer the charge that during the Shah's reign, Iran was becoming rapidly
westernized and that the revolution was a reaction to a very fast pace of unbridled
Many Third World countries including Iran were for years almost untouched
by great scientific transformations taking place in the western hemisphere. We were
introduced to the developments in modern science and technology without being philosophically
and emotionally ready to meet them. Our country had no choice but to move fast.
We had to learn to run, foregoing the middle periods of toddling and walking. You
cannot adjust to this change and introduce sophisticated technology, initiate social
and economic overhaul in a backward country without causing a very major shock to
the social corpus. You cannot do this without letting in corruption, crime, alienation,
and a whole gamut of social problems that are the side-effects of modern life.
These problems were not unique to our country. Our nation was trying to come up with
its own ways and means of tackling them. It was trying to find a mode of reaching
a balance between preserving its traditional values and at the same time harnessing
the resources of modern technology. This process of searching for an intelligent
and thoughtful solution was brought to a halt by fundamentalists who oversimplified
the problem. Having no real solutions they only encouraged escapism and dastardly
retreat to the past.
Regression to the dark underworld of fanaticism was their plan for saving national
identity. They tried to make a virtue out of evasion and opting out. The way they
tackled the universal challenge of modernity and globalization was to foolishly declare
that our nation is not part of the world. This amounted to sitting in a fragile boat
in the middle of the roaring ocean and saying that the ocean does not exist or I
stand unaffected by its elemental force.
Now twenty-three years later we see that this boat is in tatters. We have not kept
our navigational skills up to date. We have not learned to swim properly. We have
to either fundamentally change our approach or rely on someone else's magnanimity
to throw us a life jacket and save us from drowning. We have to count on the pity
of those whom we have insulted and alienated. This is where we are now.
Do you believe that monarchy is compatible with the needs of the 21st century?
Absolutely. All intelligent nations have tried to make use of the familiar past to
find their way through a strange and unnavigated future. This is totally different
from regressing into the past. To intellectually go back 1400 years is like receiving
your post-graduate degree and then saying a primary school diploma was good enough
for me. This is absolute lunacy. You cannot unlearn the knowledge you have accumulated
after primary school, but a great deal of what you learn at university has its basis
in your primary school education. You cannot freeze your mind there. You have to
make use of the skills you have acquired there to move on into the future. Monarchy
is an ideal system for this synergy between tradition and modernity.
Can you cite any example where this what you call 'building on the past' has been
Every country is unique and undergoes its own individual experience. It is a manifestation
of self-contempt to try and find justification for one's national course of action
in patterns provided by some other country. If however you want me to point to some
modern examples, I can cite Japan, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Spain
amongst many others.
In the countries you mentioned the monarch is only a figurehead whereas in Iran the
King was involved in the micromanagement of the whole country.
What you are saying is true, but also remember that
in these countries the monarch has not always been a figurehead. These kingdoms have
gradually evolved to where they are now. During the reign of the Pahlavis our country's
priority was education, healthcare and building of the infrastructure. It is obvious
that these factors are sine qua non of civic and democratic development. Political
maturity cannot be achieved by legerdemain and moving of a magic wand. It requires
training. It requires civic and political education. It demands education for tolerance.
Look at Mr. Khatami. He came to power by his mantra of civic society and the rule
of law and instead what he has delivered after two terms in office has been further
muzzling of the press and pervasive chaos and lawlessness. The reality of the problems
facing us need more than magniloquent words and wishful thinking. They require diligent
fundamental groundwork and long term planning.
Do you think it is realistic to think of the restoration of the monarchy? Will
the new generation of Iranians accept to consider it as an option for the future
of their country?
Depends on what people want to dream for their future. I believe no dream is impossible
to attain. Only there have to be enough intelligent people who dream that dream.
If the people of our country dream great dreams, then we will have a great future.
If they give up dreaming or succumb to those who are only capable of conceptualizing
nightmares, then we will have that too.
Do you believe the creation of the Islamic Republic was a nightmare come true?
Just look at the history of the past twenty-three years and there you have your answer.
Ask yourself whether today our country is better off morally, spiritually, socially,
economically and culturally than it was before 1979 and there you have your response.
Let me also tell you something else about dreaming. Petty, puny minds dream petty,
We also have what we witnessed in the USA on September 11. For the great future of
our country we need great minds to be busy thinking, planning, debating, arguing,
finding our nation's intellectual pathway in the 21st century. We should remind ourselves
of Plato's famous words that 'The heaviest penalty for declining to engage in politics
is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself'.
We need valiant, original thinkers to see where we want to go from here. We have
to meet this challenge. We have to meet it under such perilous circumstances when
in a very arbitrary way we can be labeled as warriors against God and stand in the
peril of our lives. We have to meet it under the insulting and demeaning human condition
that exists in our country today when citizens are considered mentally deficient
and in need of constant coaching and guidance.
We have to meet it under such a system that is not conducive to national self-confidence
and self-esteem. We have no choice. We have to meet this challenge or die. And remember
the words of T.S. Eliot. We do not always die with a 'bang', we can also die with
a 'whimper' and unceremoniously disappear. We can turn into a nation without a raison
d'être. But I believe that the Iranian people will not allow this to happen.
The young people of our country are politically astute. They are aware that it is
only by active engagement in politics that they can refine their political judgment
and make wise choices for the future. They do not seem to be in any mood to renounce
the exercise of these choices or delegate them to someone else.
The fight for overthrowing monarchy in Iran was to a large measure a fight to
end the reign of the rich and spoiled, why do you think the poor and suffering people
of our country should allow the corrupt plutocracy back into a position of power?
By now we have learned our lesson very well that those who abuse their position and
influence can exist under all systems of government. It is incumbent upon a democratic
society to come up with an intelligent way of combating parasitism and corruption.
To assert however that monarchists are a breed of rich
and spoilt individuals betrays a lack of fair and sound judgment. It is like saying
farmers are all lazy and stupid. To pigeonhole people and pass wholesale judgment
on a group of individuals is lazy-minded and jejune. The fact of the matter is that
the argument for the restoration of the monarchy in Iran is by far the most valid
and sensible alternative for the future of our country.
There are intelligent supporters of monarchy and there are also those who are always
guided by a selfish and materialistic scent and their only real passion is self-interest.
It is our moral duty to discern the difference and not throw away the wheat with
As I took leave of my friend, I reminded him that if it was not for believing
in 'lost causes' our country would have disappeared years and years ago. Our nation
has always managed to turn these 'lost causes' into great revivals.