Interactions in Culture and Cultural Politics

Iran and the Surrounding World: Interactions in Culture and Cultural Politics

Youssef H. Aboul-Enein

IRAN AND THE SURROUNDING WORLD: Interactions in Culture and Cultural Politics, Nikki R. Keddie and Rudi Matthee, eds., University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2002, 400 pages, $30.00.

Iran considers itself to be a cultural beacon in the Middle East and South Asia. The Islamic fervor of the 1979 Iranian revolution is only one manifestation of centuries of poetic, artistic, linguistic, and cultural influences that Iran (Persia) has had in the region. In private circles, the Iranians feel they brought the theory of governance, bureaucracy, and an appreciation for art to their Arab conquerors in the 8th century. They also feel that it is in their tradition that Islam is being reinterpreted to address the issues of the 21st century. Those studying the Middle East should not ignore the psychological superiority the Iranians feel toward their neighbors.

Sixteen cultural and political academics who specialize in subjects relating to Iran, focus on Iran’s image of itself, its culture, and its history. Essayist Juan Cole presents a historical assessment of the Iranian culture and how it has permeated South Asia. He explains that during the rise of the Mughal Empire in India, many Persians flocked to the subcontinent, bringing with them bureaucratic experience. Over the decades, the Persian language became the language of the Mughal court, which required that those pursuing a higher education in India must first learn Persian.

Thomas Barfield examines Turkish, Arab, and Persian tribal relationships and how they affect Iran as a modern state. He describes the Safavid, Qajar, and Pehlavi dynasties and how they sought to balance the three ethnic tribes within Iran to try to forge a nationalist identity.

Golnar Mehran analyzes Islamic Republic school textbooks to understand what civic lessons are being taught. First and second grade social study books focus on an introduction of Iran, its people, and its customs. For example, Iranians are bound by a common land and share common feasts such as Aid-e-Nawruz (Persian Zoroastrian New Year). Islam is not mentioned at this level.

By the third and fourth grades, primary school texts begin to emphasize Islam, equating patriotism with martyrdom. Only 1 of 26 primary school textbooks mentions non-Muslims, Zoroastrians, and no book mentions the linguistic differences within the country. Role models for young Iranians are always male and include members of the Ulama (clergy), who combine political ideology with religious status. The world as presented to young Iranians is black and white, good and evil.

Wilfried Buchta highlights the writings of Abdul-Karim Soroush, a controversial religious thinker. Soroush has abandoned a need to convert Sunni Muslims into Shiites and focuses on a reconciliation of the Islamic Umma (community). He postulates that all Muslims share the same belief of tawhid (God’s unity), nubuwa (prophethood) and ma’ad (belief in judgment day).

Asef Bayat and Bahman Baktiari describe the effect Iran’s revolution had on Egypt. They postulate that Iran’s influence was at its height when Teheran embarked on social mobilization, democratic practice, and popular participation. In contrast, they describe Iran’s political influence to have been at its lowest when it was authoritarian and advancing militant or repressive policies.

Middle East affairs officers, foreign area officers, intelligence specialists, and psychological operations specialists should read this book. It is excellent.

LCDR Youssef H. Aboul-Enein, USN, Gaithersburg, Maryland


COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group