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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran

Empire of The Mind
A History of Iran
by Michael Axworthy
p. 2008
Basic Books

   Considering the frequency with which the topic of Iran appears in the mass media, it is perhaps surprising that there aren't more books written on Iranian history.  Perhaps it's because few Americans learn Farsi, or maybe it's because Western/Iranian relations have been a non-stop roller coaster of disaster and missed opportunities for the last hundred years, or maybe it's because Americans don't understand the common linguistic heritage with share with Iranians.  Who knows?  But I am of the opinion that our current differences with Iran are largely grounded on ignorance and misunderstanding, and any attempts to rectify current issues must be preceded by a higher degree of mutual appreciation.

     Looking for an affordable, one volume history of Iran led me to Axworthy's Empire of the Mind- clocking in at 290 pages, Empire of the Mind gives the reader a good jumping off point, but doesn't get to heavy into any particular debate.  The first thing to keep in mind is that Iran really has two histories.  The first is everything before the Arab invasion and Islamization of Greater Iran, the second period is after.  The Arab Muslims conquered the area of Iran, and sporadic attempts by the Shah to revive a sense of pre-Islamic Persianism, wiped out the widespread appreciation for all things pre-Islamic.  Thus, while the pre-Islamic history of Iran is fascinating, it's not really relevant, since no one gives a shit, including the Iranians, today.  Today, Iran is an Islamic society, defined by Shiaism, though heir to a cultural history that includes amazing poetry, advanced science and linguistics as well as it's own tradition of written history.

         Understanding modern Iran requires keeping a thumbnail sketch of the Shia Islam religion in mind.  This split didn't have anything to do with the Persian/Arab ethnic divide- it involved a dispute concerning the successor to Mohamed, but as it turned out, greater Iran and Persian speaking people became the majority of the Shias.  The bottom line is that the Shias are the perpetual underdog and base their entire identity on funeral procession type remembrances of their "murdered prophet."  They also basically created higher education and have nurtured an independent intellectual tradition in a troubled, troubled environment for a thousand years before actually TAKING OVER THE COUNTRY in the mid 1970s.  So, Shiaism is a STRONG cultural tradition that is a blend of a particular kind of Islam AND a pre-existing tradition of Iranian higher education.  There was also a related but separate tradition of Sufism, which was characterized by a fascination with mysticism.  It is one of the peculiarities of the current Iranian regime that their founder, Ayatollah Khomenhi, was a disciple of some of the Sufi inspired mystic thought that has made it's way into the Shai scholarly tradition.

      Outside of Shia Islam, and it's peculiar role in the Iranian environment is the catastrophe of the the early modern period in Iran, namely the 18th and 19th century.  After the Arab/Muslim conquest, Iran was pretty mellow until Genghis Khan rolled through: he hit Iran HARD.  Once the Mongols abated, Turks took over, but they were Turks who were "under the influence" of Persian culture, and thus provided a relatively stable security environment, basically having border spats with the Ottomans in the greater "Mesopotamia" area next door.

    The 18th and 19th centuries are what you call "lost years" for Iran.  While Western countries were industrializing and "westernizing" generally speaking, Iran was lost in a 200 year haze of civil war.  First, the Afghanis invaded the Iranian heartland (1719)  These are the same Afghani Pashtun tribesmen that are fighting Americans in Afghanistan today.  By 1730, the Afghanis had been beaten out by a Turkish/Persian General, Nader Shah.  Shah comes off as a neglected hero, an Iranian counterpart to Napoleon.  Nader Shah's poly-ethnic army disintegrated upon his death and his crowning triumph became Irans nightmare for the rest of the century.

   In a scenario that sounds familiar of Western encounters with non-Western countries/empires, the West just happened to roll in after the end of this century of misery.  They didn't really understand that was the case, and this accounts for some of the racist theorizing that started to be disseminated about "Asian Despots" in this period within the West.  As the 19th century moved forward, Iran experienced the worst Western Diplomacy had to offer as the object of the oft-written about "Great Game" between Russia and Great Britain with Central Asia and Iran the object.  Surely, an Iranian scholar drawing his conclusions about Western Nations from their conduct in Iran in the 19th century could be FORGIVEN for thinking that we are bunch of lying thieves.

  The 20th century was just as bad,  there was a division of Iran into "zones of influence" around the time of World War I, followed by an out-right occupation by the Allies in World War II, with another three way division of "areas of influence," a lop-sided oil development contract with Anglo Iranian Petroleum AND- AND- the concerted effort by all concerned Western nations to PREVENT infrastructure from being developed, in terms of railroads, paved roads, etc.

  So perhaps we should all be a little more sympathetic to our enemy in this regard.  Clearly, they have grounds to be upset, set on top of a non-Western history that itself was pretty disastrous in more recent centuries.   It's a testament to the strength of the Iranian "empire of the mind" that it has endured despite all that hardship, certainly to compare Iran to failed states like Afghanistan or reclusive dictatorships like Turkimenistan is to compare horse to a pony.

  My opinion is that our attempts to solve the problems of countries like Afghanistan and Iran are hampered by our inabilities to actually understand the problems they face there.  Maybe if we did a better job of understanding their history, we'd spend less money and fewer United States soldiers would die.

  

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