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Book Review by Elaheh Rostami-Povey, May 2007
Hamid Dabashi, The New Press, £13.99
This book with the intriguing subtitle of A People Interrupted, is interesting in a number of ways. It is written with a biographical edge. The criticisms of the US neoconservatives and their imperial expansion in the region is timely, in particular the way they have hijacked women's rights and human rights issues to justify war and attacks on Iran, as they have done in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The book also challenges authors such as Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington's orientalist views of history and civilisations. Dabashi's narrative of the past 200 years of Iranian history is unusual, as it is told in the context of Persian literature, art and cinema.
He correctly shows how Iranian identity has been shaped by the impact of Greek, Roman, Arab, Mongol, Turkish, European, Asian and African cultures. He suggests that what holds Iranians together is "literary humanism" produced by diverse people and communities throughout their history.
By mapping the resistance to colonial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries the book challenges the wrong perception of Iranians being caught between "tradition" and "modernity". He argues that Iranians throughout the ups and downs of their history have cultivated their own modernity, but in their own way and according to their own culture.
However, the book also has its negative aspects. There are a number of unrealistic and unhelpful generalisations, such as comparing Cyrus the Great of 2,500 years ago to George Bush, and characterising the "Iranian culture at the time of the 1979 revolution as anti-women, patriarchal misogyny".
His description of the process of Islamisation of state and society - a "long, repressive, brutal, and viciously calculated process" - is problematic. He does not provide an analysis of the failure of secular political groups to provide an alternative for the economically, politically and culturally marginalised majority of the population who suffered many years of Pahlavi tyranny before the 1979 revolution, as well as the following imperial interventions from Britain and the US.
Dabashi's argument about the rise of the 1990s reform movement, associated with President Khatami, is also problematic. This movement was not just the result of students, journalists, artists and intellectuals, nor was it simply based on ideology. It had a material base. The poor and the marginalised benefited materially from the process of Islamisation of the state and society. By the mid-1990s the educated young population did not have a quarrel with the process of Islamisation, but wanted change.
It is also not the case that the reform movement failed. Many young people were disillusioned with the leadership of the reform movement, wanting a faster road to a democratic Iran. They also felt betrayed by an economic system which began privatising social welfare and brought about corruption.
The reform movement is alive and kicking. An important part of it is now led by the women's movement, which together with students and trade unionists constitutes a powerful democracy movement.
Like all movements from below, it is a bumpy road - sometimes they win and sometimes they pay a heavy price of imprisonment - but nothing is stopping them other than war, sanctions and Western imperial intervention.
Despite my criticisms, I agree with Dabashi that "Iranians as a people in and out of their homeland have a collective will... that was not given to them by the West and cannot be denied them by any empire. That collective will is the crowning achievement of more than 200 years of consistent struggle for liberty, and national sovereignty."
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