The Culture War in Iran - Professor Mohamad Tavakoli Professor of History, Historical Studies, and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto.Info About Professor Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi (Source):
Presentation at the Human Security Lecture Series on 15 March 2012 at University College at the University of Toronto. The series is Hosted by Science for Peace, the Health Studies Program at University College, Pugwash Canada and the Voice of Women. Go to scienceforpeace.ca for more information as well as links to other talks in our series.
Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi is Professor of History and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto and the chair of the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto-Mississauga. Since 2002 he has served as the Editor of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, a Duke University Press journal, and has served on the editorial board of Iranian Studies, the Journal of the International Society for Iranian Studies.
Quotes From The Lecture
1. On The Fundamental Shift Within Shiism From A Traditional Mystical Doctrine That Was Antagonistic To State Power To A Religion Based On Loyalty To The State And Grounded On Issues of Governance And Security.
"These conceptual changes are indicative of a fundamental shift from a quietest and speculative to applied and managerial Shiism. A Shiism that is fundamentally concerned with governance and state security. And this is really important. Shiism, historical Shiism, in a sense rejected the world and it was very mystical in its orientation. And the very foundational block of mysticism that is love of God was the rejection of worldly belonging. And from that point of view it was quietest. It didn't involve in politics and the mode of thinking was highly speculative. But the kind of Shiism that has emerged in a short period of thirty years has all to do with governing, governance, and really the metrics of governing.
The cultural engineering project was a systematic response to the rapid Iran-Iraq post-war development. As most of you know, the Iran-Iraq war started in 1980 and came to an end in 1988. During that period, the new revolutionary government had to move from mass mobilization against the Shah's regime to mass mobilization to fight the Iraqi state and the invasion. And at that time many of the European states were supporting the Iraqi government and Iran had to really work hard with mobilizing both religious fervour and revolutionary fervour, and trying to protect its nation state.
And it is during that period that these engineering terms and concepts moved from rebuilding of urban centers and rebuilding of villages and became increasingly linked with security issues and military concerns. And one of the really interesting things about the development of this political language, it's about engineering, but it's a kind of engineering that has in mind, underlying everything, is security. Security of the state, and how to maintain the existing political order of things." [27:25 - 30:16].
2. On The Cultural And Psychological Engineering of Iran In The Post-Iraq War Years, And The Cultural Invasion of Iran By America and The West Through The Gateway Opened By The Telecommunications Revolution.
"As I indicated, the cultural engineering project was a systematic response to a rapid, post-war expansion of the public sphere and intellectual fervour, the kind of fervour that was increasingly viewed as a turning away from religion amongst Iranian youth and university students. So when the war came to an end everyone said 'Oh God, thank you, now we can go and have fun.' And it was during that period that the public sphere expanded quite rapidly. Many Persian journals and sites of public entertainment developed, but also it was a time that people increasingly became fed up with the political rule.
It is during this period that the Islamic Republic begins to argue that now instead of having a military invasion of Iran there is a cultural invasion, and this cultural invasion is initiated by the United States, by Europe. And, again, in the early 1990s it coincided with this communications revolution that many of us have witnessed. So the public culture that was pushed out from the public, now through this communications revolution, was coming to homes. And it was creating a really interesting impact. Between the experience of living under the Islamic Republic and having access to the pre-revolutionary culture, and also the communications aspect of globalization, created a very vital society, particularly amongst the Iranian youth who were experimenting with a lot of things. This really frightened the Islamic Republic.
So engineering moves from construction, urban affairs, from war affairs, in the 1990s to the maintenance of culture and how to engineer a new culture." [30:20 - 33:00].
3. On How The Mullahs View The Changes In Contemporary History, Their Response To The Clash of Civilizations, Their Reading of Western Civilization At This Moment In Time, And Their Vision of The Future.
"By 1992, again there is another element of this cultural dialogue that enters into the political discourse of the Islamic Republic. Most of you are familiar with Samuel Huntington's 'Clash of Civilizations' and you're also familiar with Francis Fukuyama's 'End of History.' Iranian theologians take these concepts and they argue that the Western civilization, through the clash of civilizations that is happening, Western civilization and Western rationality would come to an end. So the end of history is the end of Western rationality. And now is the beginning of a new age of rationality, a new universalism, a new universalism that is based on Islam. So the question is how to create that new Islamic rationality. That new Islamic rationality, universal Islamic rationality that is supposed to replace Western rationality.
Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, has come up with a number of concepts. One of them is the software revolution. Software revolution really means, not software as computer software, but it means the establishment of a paradigm, foundational ideas that could ground Islamic universalism, universal Islamic rationality. And the people who have devised and written on all of these concepts, particularly the software revolution, are really familiar with Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the paradigm shift.
So they have their eyes in the clash of civilizations, end of history, to a paradigm shift, that will end the hegemony of Western scientific paradigm and Western humanities and introduce something that is new, that is Islam. And the cultural revolution is supposed to transform the everyday life in Iran in accordance with these sorts of paradigms that have not shifted yet. History has not come to an end yet, but they want to hasten it in the everyday life within Iran." [33:01 - 35:38].
4. On How The Islamic Republic Emphasizes The Individual's Relation To Society And Not So Much With God, Especially In Little Matters Such As Fasting.
"This kind of shift within Shiism happens in not only the forms of education with seminary schools. For example, Islamic jurisprudence historically was really interested in prayer. How do you wash, how do you maintain yourselves, how do you keep a clean body, how do you do your prayers, what are the requirements for almsgiving and fasting, and all of the issues that have to do with your relationship with God. The Islamic Republic has changed this. The relationship of the individual with God has become minimized but the individual's obligation to the society has become increasingly more important.
In one of the key lectures that Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, gave in December 1979, argues that while it is permissible to disobey God concerning prayers, fasting, almsgiving, things that originally were very important, it is not permissible to deviate from the divine design and geometry that is the divine design for the making of an Islamic state that is linked to the coming of the 12th Imam. So you have really a fundamental transformation of Shiism." [42:12 - 43:55].
5. Summary of The Main Arguments of The Lecture
"The rise of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 coincided with the rise of engineering schools and the political language of engineering. The analytical terminology of engineering wedded with Islamic theology, Shiite theology, and eschatology. And the Islamic Republic has been responsible for shifting a dissident Shiism, anti-state ideology until 1979 to an ideology that is in the service of the state.
And then another part of the argument that I have was that the entire cultural engineering project which was really a mode of bringing the political language of engineering beyond city planning and engineering the war resistance into political culture happens with this argument that Iran is being invaded by the West. And it came with this clever concept, it's called cultural NATO." [47:41 - 48:45].
6. On How Traditional Clerics Transformed Into A Hybrid of Clerical Engineers (Getting An Education In Both Seminary Schools And Engineering Schools).
"What is happening in Iran is really complicated. The clerics who are ruling over Iran today are not traditional clerics. They are . . clerical engineers. And a lot of people who are running Iran today, the clerics, are the people who have had one degree from seminary schools and another degree from engineering schools. And most of the strategic positions within the state are held by these types of individuals. .... So this coming together of engineering science and knowledge and Islamic powers is very important to understand.
In the demonization of Iran the focus is always on the reactionary nature of the Islamic Republic. But when you focus on the reactionary nature of it you lose sight of this important revolution, transformation in thinking, which is actually, in my view, more dangerous. I am more frightened of an engineering Islam, which becomes really authoritarian, than traditional clerics. Traditional clerics were really harmless from one point of view. Now they have become engineers, they are doing cultural engineering, they are doing large-scale planning with a lot of money from the state, from the resources of the state. From that point of view, if they were really reactionary, backward clerics, I wouldn't be as worried.....they're really sophisticated and modern from that point of view." [49:22 - 52:35].