Wednesday, January 15, 2014

On constitutional struggle and the challenge of modernity, with Iran as an example

Iran is a nation-state that is descended from the Persian empire of Biblical times. 

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
2. E. Afsah's video lectures:
3. Course discussion forums
4. Wikipedia: modernity
5. My experience in Western, Muslim, and other countries.
6. 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:

  1. Emulation/Secularism
  2. Religious Reform
  3. Traditionalism
  4. Fundamentalism
In the preceding weeks, you have been presented with one country or sub-region that embodies each of these response patterns. But do remember that these models are ideal types, that is that we can generally see elements of all four simultaneously at play in any given society. Iran, that you have just learned about in this week, is a good example of this general fact: we can find elements of all four models of adaptations throughout its modern history.


Write a well-argued, clearly structured, exposition that addresses at least three key questions:

  1. What is special about modernity and which challenges does it generally pose to traditional societies?
  2. Which challenges did Iran face from the 19th century onwards and what had these to do with modernity?
  3. 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?

This is a short writing task of maximum 1000 words (less is acceptable, INCLUDING references)


Anonymous said...

Dear T,

Just thought I would give a few (unsolicited) comments :)

1. References - Academic writing requires references which are stringent, clear, dependable and specific.

Even though I consider Wikipedia to be a reliable source for day to day doubt clearing, it generally makes an academic blow up in hives. It is best to avoid using Wikipedia for definitions. Using page numbers or time stamps for videos is helpful for the person evaluation. I am sure on the first page of Google search listings you will find far more reliable sources worth citing.

Surely you have seen the nature of our discussion forums. Not all of it is reliable either. But I think you were referring to conversation there in general so it is alright :)

2. Your current style is getting in the way of your answering the question. Good academic writing is clear, precise and exacting. If nothing else it is can be an efficient way of saying more with less. Your idiosyncratic style made your answer for the 1st and 3rd question relatively long winded and at the same time superficial. Let me explain..

All three questions are asking you to take a clear stand. You are expected to make arguments to back the stand. The arguments are backed by the matter. The more matter, the better and stronger the argument, The stronger the arguments, the stronger your stand is.

The basic theme song of the comment would be:

Matter >> Manner.

Trust me I really enjoyed reading your piece as it was definitely quirky, but since you aren't putting in the matter entered in by your comparable peers, you might lose out on a few marks.

It is like watching subsequent episodes of that tv show New Girl.. The quirkiness just doesn't cut it and you realise there isn't much backing it up.

I think the real challenge is to make an engaging academic piece and I am really looking forward to seeing what you come up with next. It definitely would require a lot more work and I am sure it cannot be typed out in a hurry, but I know you can do it.

Here is the link to my (boring) essay -

t said...

Thanks Anonymous. Your comments are useful, and your essay answered the questions efficiently. Maybe I'll try answering the questions so next time. (And maybe not :) )

If you watch football, hmmm some say it's about the ball in the net, some say it's about play. Play is great! Competition, winning, is great too.

Content-wise, I think you didn't evaluate significantly more than my essay did: we both have gaps in answering 3a, and for 3b, because I dispute what the question calls "ultimate success" - just because it's currently successful - suggested thoughts on that, while you answered the question.

I did not take seriously the requirement to answer the questions, that would have seemed to me a really boring approach to what was called an "essay".

I also must learn that a well-thought out response, when not painstakingly structured to reveal the thought process behind it, is not appreciated in some circles.

Referencing...that's another story. It's "useful" to reference definitions, and to reference things that may reasonably be disputed. It's also useful to reference to show that things are not one's ideas/inventions/intellectualprop, to credit the source. For the most part, my sources are what I listed. I did not use ideas without attribution. I still think that is reasonable. I also agree that it exposes one to a lower grade. It's all good, as they say.

Again, thanks for commenting.

Mark Heyne said...

Hi Tosin. i enjoyed your essay, its more conversational than academic, but never mind, the feeling is there.
All the best!

Anonymous said...

:) I like your attitude.

In the end it isn't about the marks and the scores.

And when the discussions get far too heated I just tell myself repeatedly.. 'this is just a Mooc'.. You can't take all this quite seriously..

I feel a bit silly now having read your responses. i think i just gave you the means to score more, but that isn't really the purpose of what we are doing. thank you for pointing that to me albeit obliquely :)

t said...

You are both very generous. 'This is just a mooc' makes a nice little chant.
Hmm, so maybe next time, more academic than conversational. Should be a fun experiment. It won't hurt anybody :)

t said...

Correction: Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylon, not of Persia. But the histories are intertwined, and the lands of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon soon became Persian lands.

t said...

I did the experiment, wrote what I call a robo-essay and scored the maximum number of points. Pretty funny. I'll post the essay and my prize (a certificate with distinction, heeehaw!) sometime soon in a fresh post.

Taking this online course was a really really very special experience that I cherish greatly.