Perspectives From Central Asia: Installment Two

In the next few days I want to note the various ways that people in various parts of Greater Central Asia have been coping with a modern world in which the certainties of the past no longer obtain or are at least contested. Iran is a curious example of one place where Islamism has been victorious, but its success has bred a sympathy for western cultural forms among many of its young people, who in fact constitute a substantial portion of the total population: 70 percent of the country is below the age of 30. Officially there is no doubt about the “certainties” of our times but unofficially the social conventions demanded by the state are resented or rejected. The state has found one measure that attracts genuine public loyalty among the Iranian people, namely its nuclear program. This is one reason President Ahmadinejad continues to press for nuclear power. Even so, the religious zeal of his government creates a careful dance between the official enforcers of the state and a superficially compliant public.

Here is a note on the tension between the requirements of the government and the behavior of many of its young people: from an article on underground rock music among Iranian young people by Michael Slackman:

After the 1979 revolution, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was fashioning Iran into a Shiite Islamic state, one of his many sayings was, “Keep the appearances of Islam.” Public profile is important and so, if Iranians chose not to fast during Ramadan, well, O.K., but they were expected to eat in the privacy of their homes. . . . . [Someone told Slackman] “there is no written law . . . , You are allowed to do everything, unless you want to share it [openly].” That seems to be the unwritten law in Iran today: no sharing. The act of publicly sharing ideas that challenge the system is forbidden, because, at a minimum, that amounts to challenging the appearance the government would like to promote. . . . And so people in many spheres – arts, sports, politics, business – find themselves pressing against the limitations of what is deemed permissible. Mostly, this is done behind closed doors, in the privacy of people’s homes. Some people, like the rock musicians, do risk public sharing, but watchfully.

So the body complies, but the sentiment is elsewhere. All the more reason not to suppose that “Iran” is being truly represented by Ahmadinejad.

Al-Qaeda Threat Overblown?

A question I have had for some time is how connected up the various militant Islamists elements are. A case can be made that in many places the incentives for insurgency are local and provincial, in which case the various militant groups, even if in some contact, have little reason to cooperate except in the most elementary sense. Authors like Robert Naylor (Satanic Purses) argue that in fact al-Qaeda is a small network of fairly informally connected militants; to him the West’s fear of al-Qaeda, etc., is overblown.

At the same time there are indications that some of the groups cooperate. Claims that Al-Qaeda and Iran or Hizbullah are cooperating seem preposterous to me: Al-Qaeda is a Sunni movement that cannot tolerate any divergence from their view; Shi’a for them are anathema. But the recent news that Hezbollah has trained several hundred members of Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Lebanon is plausible. It is also likely – perhaps only too obvious — that Iran has been supporting Iraq’s Shi’a militants, including the Mahdi Army.

Even so, I wonder if the scale of the militant movement, lethal and vicious as it is, has not been overblown. Islam – or rather Islamic terms, Islam as a political ideology — now seems to be the popular vehicle of anti-Western expression in the Middle East and South Asia – which means that we cannot take the movement as an authentic religious movement, a struggle over “higher values,” so much as an authentic political expression of frustration.

In the end, this is what many specialists of this region have been saying all along, while the public in the West has not internalized it.

Speculation on Iran’s pretentions

In an article published a little over a year ago [9/5/05] Amir Taheri pointed out that in 1998 “a pirated translation of Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order” appeared in Tehran. To the publisher’s surprise half the print run (1,000 copies) was bought by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Among those who received a copy was Yahya Safavi, now commander in chief of the Guards, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, now president of the Islamic republic. According to Taheri “Iran wants to reshape the Middle East in its own image” and in particular it intends to confront the United States over hegemony in the Middle East. Taheri believes that the election of Ahmadinejad as President marks a major shift in power from the clergy to the Revolutionary Guards. In a kind of “creeping coup d’etat” the Guards built an impressive grass-roots network throughout Iran with two political-front organizations: the Usulgara (fundamentalists) and the Itharis (self-sacrificers), each attracting a younger generation of military officers, civil servants, managers and intellectuals. In 2002, the network captured the Tehran city council and elevated Ahmadinejad as mayor. Two years later he emerged as the Guards’ presidential candidate, besting former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Taheri presented this election as the beginning of the end of the clerics’ dominance.

He is the first non-mullah to become president since 1981. The holder of a Ph.D., he is also the best educated of the six Islamic presidents so far. His humble background and populist discourse have won him a genuine base, especially among the poor who feel let down by corrupt religious leaders.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, if anything, he can be expected to be a far more formidable enemy of the West–and of America in particular.

In August 2005, General Safavi declared before an audience of senior naval officers that Iran’s mission was to create “a multipolar world in which Iran plays a leadership role” for Islam. Ahmadinejad at about that time declared that Iran’s foreign policy is nothing less than “a government for the whole world” under the leadership of “the Mahdi,” the Absent Imam of the Shiites. He regards the United States as being in its “last throes” and will be replaced by the Islamic republic. Geopolitical dominance in the Middle East, says Ahmadenijad, is”the incontestable right of the Iranian nation.” Khamenei has said in a speech, “The Americans have their so-called Greater Middle East plan.” “We, too, have our plan for the region.”

Taheri predicted a year ago, that “the stage is set for a confrontation with the United States.” Militant Islamists remember what most Americans forgot: that in 1980 the United States did nothing much when its embassy in Tehran was seized by students, that the Americans retreated from Lebanon after suicide bombers recruited by Tehran killed 241 Marines near Beirut in 1982; and that Bill Clinton did nothing more than fire rockets into Afghanistan after the attacks on American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam. Taheri said the prospects for resolving the nuclear standoff are not good. Iran is convinced America will soon depart the region. “The strategy will most likely be to wait Bush out, stalling on the negotiations while bleeding America to the maximum in Iraq and Afghanistan, working to prevent a settlement in Palestine and sabotaging U.S. hopes for a democratic Middle East.”

That prediction is now a year old. So far, pretty good augury.

A Clash of Civilizations
Published: September 5, 2005 (Newsweek)

Eight years ago a pirated translation of Samuel Huntington’s celebrated essay “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order” appeared in Tehran. The publisher received an order for 1,000 copies, half the print run. “We wondered who wanted them,” recalls Mustafa Tunkaboni…

Iran: Know Thine Enemy

Bill Berkeley’s experience in Mashhad reveals something more about Iran than we can get from the normal sources. One of the most heartening things about his long article on his experience is that the Americans are still welcomed. This comports with what we have heard from others. (And with Liza Baron’s report on her experience in Syria.) A member of the Basij militia was proud to have him in his home – and in one of the most conservative cities in Iran. He notes that there seems to be a “challenge of getting it right on Iran.” Even though anthropologists were all over Iran in the 1970s they didn’t see the Iranian Revolution coming. And again “few American reporters anticipated the election … of Ahmadinejad”. We have tended to read too much in what Safdari had called “the gilded youth” who are scornful of those who voted for Ahmadinejad. Steve Coll points out in Ghost Wars to us that in the 1970s the CIA passed by the tables of cassette tapes of sermons by radical clerics all over the Middle East and went to talk to the elite who spoke western languages and paid no attention to what the ordinary public was reading and listening to. Owing to the new issues over nuclear power new concerns are being expressed about Iran, but “on the street” the picture is very different.

Iran: Know Thine Enemy
Published: September 14, 2006 (Columbia Journalism Review)

On a reporting trip to Iran in the spring of 2004, I visited the northeastern city of Mashhad. It’s an important pilgrimage destination for Shiite Muslims, a sprawling, low-slung metropolis that fans out from a central plaza built around the gold-domed shrine of the Imam Reza. Imam Reza is believed to have hailed from the family of the prophet Mohammad. He was designated the eighth of the twelve sacred imams of the Shi’a faith, and is the only one buried in Iran. Hundreds of thousands of devout Shiites from across south Asia and the Arab world make pilgrimages to Mashhad each year to worship inside this splendid compound of aqua-tiled spires and arches, luminous chandeliers, and gushing fountains under two glittering domes.