In those days, more than 2000 years ago, kings like Nebuchadnezzar and Darius conquered lands as far as the Levant, in the historic home of the Jews. Wikipedia has that "Iran reached the pinnacle of its power during the Achaemenid Empire founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BCE, which at its greatest extent comprised major portions of the ancient world, stretching from the Indus Valley in the east, to ... the northeastern border of Greece, making it the largest empire the world had yet seen."
To cut a long history short, over the centuries, this civilization has seen ignoble defeats in war and also the self-inflicted malaise of incompetent civil administration. In fact, in this course, we learn that a state's achievement in war and in administration are closely linked in a mutually reinforcing, or mutually eroding, cycle.
So for Iran, times have changed. Their landmass is greatly diminished. They boast impressive ruins, ancient architecture and ancient feats in technology and the arts, but are not today first or best in anything. How does a people so aware of their majestic history handle such a discrepancy between their great expectations of themselves and their mediocre reality? If they could do it before, why are they not doing it again?
In the 19th century, Iran was under the rule of the Qajar dynasty, and by the early 20th century, this largely incompetent rulership had for "neighbours" the clever Russian and British empires. Iran was losing badly - not just land, but even the labour of the people, the wealth of the remaining territory, was committed to servitude and debt payments.
The British, and later, American meddlers were of course not their traditional rivals - say Ottoman, Arab, or their conquered minority tribes. Modernity in the 19th and early 20th century meant that a country that lay oceans away could 1. have commercial or martial interests in your own country and 2. actually cross barriers in communication and transport to realize its aims. That is, to say, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the challenge of modernity came to many of our territories in the form of European colonialism.
Modernity does not have an easy definition. Wikipedia employs these subheadings in the attempt to define it: politically, sociologically, culturally and philosophically, secularization, scientifically, artistically! The explanations then focus on the use of reason and loss of "God" concept, and the incidence of a prescribed set of institutions in government and economics.
Basically this verbosity exposes the term as a weak one. Being centered on the experience of those who use it, its meaning may change from one place to another and from one decade to the next. In fact, the discussion forum for this course has featured some debate or complaint over the use of the word "modern, not modern, or modernity."
Still, it is a reasonably useful term because I know what it means, you likely do too: it relates to things of the new age that are not things of the times past. It relates to things from the bringers of new things (USA, say) and not things we have known for generations (the customs of my people, say.) I think it is easy to get annoyed with the term if one does not identify with the European dominant culture that defines it. This may be the case for Iran, as it is often the case for Africans, Muslims, Texans, and others who are beset and besieged by this new dominant power.
In this course, we learned that there are four idealized responses to modernity that have been adopted in the Muslim world, and that they are Secularism and emulation, religious Reformism, traditionalism, and fundamentalism.
Turkey has tried to jettison its own culture to chase after the West. It changed its writing and dress, abandoned its religion, adopted new laws, bureaucracies, and secular rationalism. Today, it has a strong economy alongside a nagging feeling among citizens that it should "be itself" sometimes. Who knows if the Europeans will ever admit Turkey into their club - the EU - or if Turkey will stop caring?
Iran had its phase of emulation, when the royals enjoyed foreign travel and racked up debts to finance it. Perversely, they even "emulated" the tactics of their tormentors in 1951 by nationalizing (claiming their rights to) their own oil.
Egypt, like Turkey and Iran, has a grand ancient history. It has had a Western-backed secular leadership over a largely religious population, with a constitution that was nominally Islamic but allowed reform and interpretation to suit the modern elite. Today it's in the midst of a bloody struggle and for six months has been ruled by the military.
The people of the Gulf, in Saudi, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and so on, may not have had great civilizations, but they are proud of their fiercely independent history in the desert. So far, they trade with the West - oil for modern goods - but have not adopted its laws. Will they need to change from their traditionalism to Western laws and bureaucracy to manage modernity, defined here as close contact with the rest of the world and its objects and ideas? I believe that process has already begun, as they purchase state-of-the-art education and financial centers.
Iran too is no slouch technologically (two words: nuclear weapons) but how quaintly Islamic its constitution is! It permits a bureaucracy to function, but at all times inferior to and checked by the ayatollah. I can't imagine how, except through fear and force, the Iranians have maintained this government for more than 30 years. The Iranians I've met are barely Islamic in lifestyle, so why do they accept the authority of a purported voice (sign) of God?
1. Wikipedia: Iran http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran
2. E. Afsah's video lectures: https://class.coursera.org/muslimworld-001/lecture/index
3. Course discussion forums
4. Wikipedia: modernity http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modernity
5. My experience in Western, Muslim, and other countries.
6. Aljazeera.com and Al-Jazeera TV.
Note: I wrote this essay this week as part of an excellent online course on
Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World
Here was the writing prompt:
This course has presented four distinct response patterns to the challenge of modernity. These four Models of Adaptation are, to recapitulate:
- Religious Reform
Write a well-argued, clearly structured, exposition that addresses at least three key questions:
- What is special about modernity and which challenges does it generally pose to traditional societies?
- Which challenges did Iran face from the 19th century onwards and what had these to do with modernity?
- Which elements of the first three response patterns can you make out in modern Iranian history, and what accounts, in your view, for the ultimate success of the fourth in the shape of the victorious Islamic Revolution?
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