The Moral Indigenous Rebellion
By the mid-1960s a significant paradigm shift transformed the modern political and philosophical landscape of Iran. As in much of the Third World, the shift focused attention away from a perceived need to catch up with modernity – which informed and energised much of the modernising movements of the early part of the 20th century – towards introverted versions of nativism and self-dialogues that, to lesser or more extreme degrees, revolved around a rejection of an essentialised notion of the West. The new paradigm shift was defined by an apparent moral indigenous rebellion against “cultural imperialism”. In Iran, as in much of the Third World, a correlation was applied: “imperialist aggression at the level of economy was, it was argued, matched by that at the level of culture”. The idea formulates a clear correlation between the need to resist imperialism – advancing the causes of self-determination and sovereignty – and cleansing from (all that can be perceived as) Westernism. Such a rejection of ingested European influences and values was to liberate and oxygenate the decolonised man and to reconnect him with his locally authentic, unadulterated self.
A loaded neologism was coined in the Persian language as early as 1959 by the philosopher and intellectual Ahmad Fardid: gharbzadegi (occidentosis or westoxication, literally meaning “West-struckness”). Occidentosis epitomises the idea that there is a “Western sickness” from which the Third World must rise to detox and strive to cleanse itself. Purification of a locally authentic self and the revival of ethnic memories, in the words of sociologist Ali Mirsepassi, came to dominate the nativist thinking and purposes of significant portions of the intellectual polity in Iran in the 1960s and 70s. That was particularly successfully exemplified by the new intellectualism of the Iranian writer and thinker Jalal Al-e Ahmad, who adopted gharbzadegi as the title of his most influential book in 1962. Al-e Ahmad, who had previously been a member of the Tudeh (Communist) Party of Iran, changed course and set out to attempt a synthesis between secular ideas and what he and some other prominent thinkers perceived as radical possibilities embedded in native Iranian Shi’ism. While Fardid’s occidentosis referred back to the corrupting (in his view) influences of ancient Greek thought on the Eastern world, Al-e Ahmad appropriated the term to encapsulate a modern malaise inflicted and perpetuated by the technological West, whose dehumanising and materialistic civilisation threatened Iranian society and alienated it from itself.
In the immediate pre-revolutionary era in Iran, the discreditation of essentialised Western ideas and values – and those deemed to have been influenced by them – rose to become the ideological bedrock of much of the dominant and emerging political and philosophical discourses. The new return to Shi’ism as a vehicle for emancipation and progress is what the cultural theoretician Hamid Dabashi refers to as “theologies of discontent”. Ali Shariati (influenced, amongst others, by revolutionaries such as Frantz Fanon) also rose to prominence as another highly influential thinker and writer whose anti-Western philosophical position proposed Iranian Shi’ism as a valid and unique repository and scaffolding for formulating rhetoric and theory of → liberation. This movement embraced many more thinkers and philosophers than Fardid, Al-e Ahmad and Shariati, including Dariush Shayegan and Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
The search for the “soul” and the desire and myth for cultural authenticity and of a return to a locally authentic ideology deciphered and delineated the ontological differences between “Oriental” and “Western” societies, setting up a Manichean Orient-West binarism. As a modern political discourse, this binarism contradicted the possibility of shared systems of thought and the cross-pollinations of intellectual traditions at its core. A direct and positive correlation was posited between subservience to Western colonialism and existential cultural rootlessness; liberation from the West was aligned with attainment of cultural authenticity. The background to these inventive essential articulations is to be sought in a political and intellectual disillusionment with Western and even universalist ideas of emancipation, liberation and progress. The disillusionments must be understood in several ways in relation to local and international political exigencies. The bitter political defeat at home in 1953, in the form of the coup d’etat masterminded by the CIA – the first major CIA international operation that took the form of a regime change – distorted the political landscape in fundamental ways. It effectively crushed the Iranian nationalist and leftist movements, seriously dented a sense of national pride, and transformed aspirations of sovereignty. It also dislodged a historically intense engagement with international → emancipatory alliances (Bandung and the Non-Aligned Movement), neutering Iran’s potential as an emancipatory force in leading Third Worldism. Instead, locally, it consolidated a political system that, once again, rejected a constitutional monarchy in favour of autocracy. Internationally, it marked the embedding of Iran into the complex realities of the Cold War as a geopolitically vital player and an American ally, patrolling the longest stretch of the Soviet border beyond the NATO belt. The associated Cold War policies of a clamp down on communist, leftist and progressive intellectual, political, and labour unionist movements scarred and altered the political landscape of Iran, and by design and default frustrated Iran’s national aspirations and injured its democratic process.
A far-right hijack
In this context, a total rejection of the West became the dominant discursive obsession, in many instances a hardened dogma. In the case of the ideas articulated by Al-e Ahmad, those defensive systems of thought went so far as to negate and dismiss the entire project of “modernity” as borrowed and learnt from Europe. Secular, universalist and leftist ideas were abandoned in order to invent a local Islamic modernity. The nativist alternative articulated as a response to the concept of occidentosis in effect proposed a transfiguration of “modernity” and an abandonment of, or at the least a divergence from, leftist universalist ideals. While this alternative did not propose the abolishment of the achievements of “modernity”, it nevertheless radically shifted thinking in Iran and rose to shape the course of history through the revolution of 1979. Khomeinism adopted occidentosis not only to transform but to fundamentally and structurally undo and abolish much of the progressive achievements of the “modernist” project in Iran. Detoxing from the West was co-opted, perverted beyond its already inherent ambivalences, confusions and contradictions, and morphed into a denouncement of the whole modern project to dismantle and remove from vision phenomena and agendas that did not comply with or perpetuate its method or practice, including the secularised penal code and essential structures of a democratic system.
Khomeinism’s palingenetic and populist return to Islam was never a project of the “soul”. It was a form of populist → propaganda in order to drown out and stamp out all opposition, and to fuel and satiate a divergent revolutionary zeal amongst the masses. It established a socially and politically anti-liberal authoritarian theocracy, unprecedented in Iranian history, a totalising system beyond the → imagination of its intellectuals, progressives and political thinkers, including those who paved the paths of an invented return to a constructed authentic Islamic self. Here, modern citizens become mortals in the face of the divine; justice is defined and determined by divine law as interpreted by the religious clerics; ultimate, total power (judicial, legislative and executive) is bestowed upon a single individual with direct links to the divine – a spiritual leader (akin to a Pope with absolute powers). The myth of a return to the “soul of the self” is hijacked to establish the ideological foundations of the absolute rule of the divine over and above the institutions of the modern state in a promise of rescue from decadence.
In practice, Khomeini’s interpretation of society and its relationship to citizens advocated anti-liberal and anti-socialist isolationism with the slogan: No East, No West, Islam is the Best. As a total opposition to universalist or internationalist ideas, Khomeini’s ideology forged a rhetorical clash of civilisations, a standoff in which cultural differences had little to offer each other, except antagonism and incompatibly, imposing, contrary to the essence of Iranian sensibility and the course of history, a turning of Iranian backs to the world. And in a bid to impose a traumatically debilitating totalising system of control, he advocated at once for a detoxing from the West, as well as from the East (i.e., the Soviet Bloc). In concrete terms – symbolically and politically – a ferocious attack was unleashed on the progressive liberal and socialist values and ideas embedded at the core of the very revolution itself. Scores of revolutionaries, intellectuals and progressives were sent to face execution squads, consolidating the groundwork for the perpetuation of an immense project of violence and an ongoing, terrifying cleansing of the political and intellectual landscape in order to establish and consolidate a concretistic interpretation of society and theocratic system of rule. It is worth mentioning that in order to achieve its hegemonic establishment, the imposition of that monolithic system required the abuse and instrumentalisation of the deep psychic and real wounds – human, → ecological, sociological, psychological, ethical and spiritual – of a murderously unwarranted and unnecessarily prolonged eight-year war with Iraq. The inexorably ferocious dismantling and internal restructuring of socio-political structures were imposed upon history at great cost to Iranians.
Deconstructing the “authenticity” of the nativist myth
Recent scholarship has compellingly challenged the notion of the pure, authentic self, especially as put forth by the proponents of Iranian sectarian nativism. The proponents of those concepts themselves, it is argued, derive their arguments not from any solid native cultural roots or local groundings, but from an intrinsically European, Heideggerian counter-Enlightenment position. The three prominent exponents of the nativist approach had definitive interests in European thinkers, more so than any indigenous philosophical strands: Fardid in Kant and Heidegger, Al-e Ahmad in Camus and Sartre, and Shariati in Heidegger and Sartre. According to the sociologist Ali Mirsepassi, far from being rooted in indigenous thoughts and exigencies, occidentosis and, indeed, the core intellectual drive of political Islam itself, can be traced back to the ontology of the Heideggerian critique of man. “The frame of reference takes a giant step out of Europe and into → Asia and shifts the ontologically sanctioned dogmatism of Heideggerian ‘being’ to an Islamic ‘truth’”. Overt hostility towards the ideas of the West is shown to conceal a much deeper original fascination with them. The obscure amalgamation of Heideggerian metaphysics (his notion of the essence of truth as historical) and his critique of the soulless modern technological West with Iranian Shi’a theology seems to have produced a misleading and fateful blueprint for the revolutionary change that led to the tragedy of a right-wing, reactionary quasi-fascist take-over. Khomeinism successfully appropriated occidentosis as the mythic core of its populist form of palingenetic ultra-Islamism beyond man in a direct link to the divine.