Monday, November 5, 2012

Differing Ayatollahs, Part 3

Some observations from things I have read on Iran recently:

1. Ayatollah means, "sign of Allah" and is reserved for the top clerics in Shia Islam who are experts on Islamic law and life. There are lots of ayatollahs across the world, but the few, most senior are called "Grand Ayatollahs." (Wikipedia, fountain of knowledge that it is, lists nearly 70.) If you're a Shi'a Muslim, then you can pick which ayatollah you want to follow and emulate. Which is important since the ayatollahs often disagree of the application of Islam on daily life. Which can make life interesting if you do not happen to "follow" the Grand Ayatollah serving as Supreme Leader in Iran, whose word is final in Iran. On a side note, women can be ayatollahs.

2. Since the revolution, Iran has seen two Grand Ayatollahs in power: the original, Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini, and his successor, Ali Hoseyni Khamenei. Khomeini was 79 when he came to power in 1979 and ruled until his death in 1989. (The Shah had exiled him to France which probably only served to help Khomeini's popularity.) This means he was born in 1900. No offense to the Ayatollah or his compatriots, but that's a pretty old dude to be heading up a revolution.

3. Before the revolution, Iran was ruled by an authorian Shah. Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi ruled from 1942 to 1979 and before him, his dad, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who gained power in 1925. Prior to the Pahlavi dynasty, the Qajar Shahs had ruled since the late 1700s. The Pahlavi's weren't exactly an establish dynasty in historical terms, and it seems most Iranians have very strong opinions for or against the Shah. The last Pahlavi Shah had close ties to the west and many Iranians viewed this as  a threat to full Iranian independence. (It didn't help that under the Shah, the CIA got rid of Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister in the 1950s for nationalizing the Iran's oil industry, at that time owned by the Brits.) Farah Pahlavi, former wife of the last Shah, is still alive, residing in Paris. Her son, the "heir" to Iran if the pro-Shah segment of the Iranian diaspora living in the West had it's way, lives in Northern Virginia.

4. In the years since the Islamic Revolution, government enforcement of certain public laws on women's dress and public displays of affection have relaxed considerably. While the "morals police" do still crackdown every now and again, most city women dress very fashionably, much like classy New Yorkers, with the addition of a loose head scarf and a lot more makeup.

5. Iran is not like Russia under communism. In the past, I've mistakenly equated all authoritarian regimes with the Russian version of communism. But they are very different. For one, Iranians are not forced to live there--they can emigrate. And they do "tolerate" the practice of other faiths. Well, under their definition of tolerate, which apparently doesn't include switching to another religion, unless that religion is Islam. But as mentioned above, they can emigrate, which a huge number Iranians Jews did do before and just following the revolution.

6. Despite the limitation on freedoms that Americans hold dear, most Iranians do not emigrate. A lot of wealthy Iranians, many quite secular and not happy with the current Islamic rule. But the fact they still live and raise their families in Iran when they could leave (and some who even own homes in the West), says something. On the other hand, these are the same people who lived through the atrocities commited by the Shah and then didn't leave after the Ayatollah and his Revolutionary Guard came the power and started committing their own atrocities. So maybe staying power doesn't say very much.

7. A lot of what we consider Islamic architecture (the cool arches and stuff) is actually pre-Islamic Persian architecture. Another nod to the cultural dominance of the Persians in the region.

8. Iranians regularly and publicly speak out against elements of their government (save for Islam and the Ayatollah, against which all dissent is punished). In fact, they appear to revel in public political debate as much as Americans do. I find this fascinating and disturbing. As much as I might get annoyed by militant atheists, I believe they have as much a right as me at publicly expressing their opinions. So Iran, if you truly believe Islam is the truth, then it doesn't matter what people say against it. The truth will prevail ultimately, right? I know, I know, to many Muslims it's a blasphemy issue...but if Allah is bothered by it, can't he smite the blasphemers on his own? I don't think he needs "helpers" to do that.

9. Tehran is a very modern city and surrounded by mountains. Iran actually has a lot of mountains. For some reason, I expected it to be rather flat and desert-ish. But from pictures and video I've seen, Iranian geography looks more like Afghanistan and less like Saudi Arabia. Utterly beautiful.

10. Iran officially recognizes 3 other religions outside of Islam: Zoastrianism, Judiasm and Christianity. Zoasterianism is an ancient Iranian monotheistic religion. The Magis in Daniels time were probably of this stripe. There are a handful of small practicing communities in Iran today and they often come under persecution. Jews have lived in Iran ever since the Babylonian captivity by Nebuchanezzer (who wasn't Persian, but ruled over part of Persia during his lifetime). They've been both protected and persecuted throughout Persian history. There was a Persian diplomat in France who rescued a number of Jews during WW2. A small Jewish contingent (less than 10,000 by 2011 officia1 Iranian count) lives in Iran today, but the bulk of Iranian Jews emigrated to Israel and the U.S. Finally, Christians come in all sorts of denominations in Iran today, from the original Iranian Nestorian Church founded in the ?? to modern pentacostal varieties and everything in between. As expected, the Christians who ally themselves and support the current regime typically do not face persecution, while those who seek to share their faith may face trouble.


Here are three resources I currently recommend to understand more about Iran (and from which many of the observations above came):

Rick Steve's Iran: Yesterday and Today (2009): Popular American travel guide to Europe, Rick Steves' gives an introductory look at Iran. Not funded or endorsed by the US or Iran, Steves travels throughout Iran allowing Americans an interesting glance at an often closed and complex society. Highly recommended as a first shot at getting to know Iran. Watch for free on

The Queen and I (2008): Documentary on one former Iranian revolutionary's attempt to get to know the former wife of the shah she earlier worked to depose. (See my full review here.)

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd (2008): An enlightening, personal account of an Iranian-American exploring his homeland with a focus on Iran around the turn of the millenium. Readable, engaging, humorous at times, the book dispels a number of myths and stereotypes. On the flipside, Majd's philosophical bias is rather overt (liberal, secularist, with some appreciation of his Islamic roots). He is related to the former president of Iran, Khatami and that no doubt colors his political take on Ahmedinijad. Also, his glaring lack of discussion on both the nuclear situation and the human rights issues ongoing in Iran, is telling, however, I suspect that he just didn't want to go there, preferring to discuss the nature of the Iranian people rather than politics. Finally, if you can't handle any cricitism of American foreign policy, Pres. Bush, or Evangelicals, and the lack of condemnation for the atrocities committed by Iranian fundamentalists this isn't the book for you. But if you can weigh criticism, accept any grains of truth and dismiss the chaff (which there is plenty), the book is worthwhile. I learned a great deal from it.

As a final note to this series, any misunderstanding or misrepresentation of Iran, its people, culture and history in any of three past posts has been mine alone. I welcome any corrections, feedback, or suggestions for further reading on Iran in the comments section.

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