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An Epistemic Shift in Iran

For Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari
In friendship and solidarity
And for having held our hopes high!

About a decade ago, soon after the parliamentary election of 2000 in Iran, I wrote an essay, “The End of Islamic Ideology,” in which I made a twofold argument: (1) there is an inner paradox at the heart of Shi’ism that makes it legitimate only when it is in an oppositional posture, and it thus loses that legitimacy when it is in power; and (2) the age of ideological convictions was over in Iran, and we had entered a post-ideological conundrum up for any grabs. I had borrowed the idea from Daniel Bell’s 1960 classic, The End of Ideology, but radically altered its positivist and functional premise with a dialectical relocation of the argument inside an anticolonial context. 

Shirin Neshat, from Women of Allah Collection (1993-1997)
Shirin Neshat, from Women of Allah Collection (1993-1997)

This argument was predicated on my earlier book, Theology of Discontent (1993), in which I had demonstrated in extensive detail the formation of a militant Islamist ideology out of a dialectical force that was predicated on a false but enabling opposition between “Islam and the West.”  My argument in that book was that the false dichotomy was the single most creative catalyst of generating an Islamic ideology and then sustaining its political potency. I argued that “Islamic Ideology” was in fact the supreme sign of a fixation with “the West,” a delusional mirage that loses its categorical authenticity the closer you get to it. 

Shoja Azari’s piece in “Iran Inside Out” (from the exhibition catalogue, Chelsea Art Museum, New York, June 2009).
Shoja Azari’s piece in “Iran Inside Out” (from the exhibition catalogue, Chelsea Art Museum, New York, June 2009).

The radical Islamization of the Iranian revolution of 1979 had paradoxically turned my own Theology of Discontent into an archeological verification of the exclusive Islamicity of that event, whereas I had in fact written it because that particular militant Islamism was so alien to my generation of activists in the 1960s and 1970s; a mixture of anticolonial nationalism (Nehru, Musaddiq, and Nasser read through Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire) and Third World socialism (Marx read through the Cuban Revolution) defined our perspective. In my Theology of Discontent, I wanted to excavate the hidden and distant layers of an Islamism that was in fact quite alien to my generation of leftist activists—not that we were hostile to it, but that we thought it (foolishly) outdated. In my subsequent work I proceeded to place the Islamic ideology inside a larger cosmopolitan political culture that obviously included Islamism but was not limited by or to a larger historical framework, in which I have always thought Islam is integral but not definitive. 

Having concluded that the age of ideology in general and Islamic ideology in particular was over, throughout the 1990s I took a partial leave of absence from Iranian politics, which I found unbearably boring, and took an extended look at Iranian literary, poetic, visual, and performing arts—film, fiction, poetry, drama, video installations, underground music, photography, etc. It was here that I noted that the creative lexicon of a new generation was in full swing. They were dreaming (to me) unfamiliar dreams. When I wrote my Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema (2007), I opted to write it in an epistolary mode, addressing a younger generation that I no longer knew intuitively. I had become, unbeknownst to myself, a father-figure to their dreaming otherwise. I was walking on eggshells.

Bita Fayyazi’s piece in “Iran Inside Out” (Chelsea Art Museum, New York, June 2009).
Bita Fayyazi’s piece in “Iran Inside Out” (Chelsea Art Museum, New York, June 2009).

The work of Shirin Neshat was a path of liberation for me—for in her visual reflections I found a sinuous subway into the subterranean labyrinth of a creative imagination I sensed seminal in what was happening in the post-revolutionary generation. I took the lead from Neshat and worked my way towards contemporary Iranian, Arab, and Muslim artists around the globe. I followed Iranian cinema very closely, read and watched extensively, and wrote widely on its history, politics, and aesthetics. Around and about Iranian cinema, I began following contemporary Iranian art—its visual, performing, and aesthetic imaginary opening onto a whole tapestry of unfolding panorama in front of me. I was now convinced that the children of the Islamic Revolution had left the political hang-ups of their parental generation behind and were sailing into uncharted territories. They remained conscious and cognizant of poets and artists, filmmakers and novelists, that had animated our souls a generation earlier, but they were making their own mark in newer and more exciting registers. For us, Forough Farrokhzad was a poet-prophet who kept us on our toes to reach out to her. For them she was a cute and cuddly grandma who was spoiling her grandchildren. The sheer audacity of these kids, we thought quietly to ourselves, as they were giggling their ways around our revered icon and hanging lovely looking pairs of cherries on her wrinkled up earlobes. 

At the writing of this essay, as we are both bruised and enthralled by the presidential election of June 2009 and its aftermath, two almost simultaneous contemporary Iranian art exhibitions, one in New York and the other in London, pretty much sum up the latest that is happening in this domain, where aspects of contemporary Iranian art are on display for the whole world to see—though the operatic panorama of what we are watching in Iranian streets has considerably overshadowed them—for those demonstrations are the variegated vineyard of the wine we are drinking in these exhibitions.

Shirin Aliabadi’s piece in “Made in Iran: Contemporary Art from the Islamic Republic”  (Asia House, London, June 2009).
Shirin Aliabadi’s piece in “Made in Iran: Contemporary Art from the Islamic Republic” (Asia House, London, June 2009).

As the colorful drama of post-presidential election 2009 was unfolding in ever more dramatic vistas in Iran, the global media took very little notice of this astounding presence of young Iranian artists in New York and London. Curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, the extraordinarily ambitious “Iran Inside Out,” at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York, was only one among a number of other sites in which some of the most poignant samples of contemporary Iranian art was on display. At the nearby Thomas Erben Gallery, another exhibition, “Looped and Layered,” had put together the works of twelve other Iranian artists; and uptown, the works of some forty other artists were also on display in Selseleh/Zelzeleh: Movers & Shakers in Contemporary Iranian Art at Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery. Yet another five Iranians were included among 28 artists in Tarjama/Translation at the Queens Museum of Art. Entirely by serendipity, Americans now had all they needed to know about the civil rights movement in Iran right here in these exhibitions and yet the mass media was chasing after “experts” who had scarcely a clue that these pieces of artwork even existed, let alone what they meant.

 Almost at the same time, in London, “Made in Iran,” a timely but mostly overshadowed exhibition, curated by Arianne Levene and Églantine de Ganay, brought the work of a number of Iranian artists to a more global attention.

The trouble with the perfunctory media attention that these exhibitions did receive was that it maintained the habitual false bifurcation art critics make between politics and art—disregarding the far more important fact that the traffic between the two sublates the matter into the manner of a whole different way of seeing things. The operatic drama of the Green Movement in Iran was on full display, running the two complementary/contradictory urges of patricide and infanticide against each other, and yet journalistic art criticism was still caught in the congested traffic of art versus politics.

It was in the course of my getting closer to the contemporary Iranian visual and performing universe that the presidential election of 1997 and then the student-led uprising of the summer of 1997 came to complement what I was sensing in that universe and convinced me that we are witnessing a seismic change in Iranian youth culture—that a new generation of sensibility was fast upon us. The presidential election of 1997 and the student-led uprising of 1999 are the two most immediate antecedents of the current uprising in Iran. When Samira Makhmalbaf was invited to Cannes in May 2000 to participate in a conference on cinema in 21st century, his father and I spent a couple of weeks together in Paris reflecting precisely on this sea change in Samira’s generation. A few years later, in 2003, when I went to Cannes to see Samira Makhmalbaf’s Five O’clock in the Afternoon (2003), I also saw Parviz Shahbazi’s Nafas-e Amigh/Deep Breath (2003). Shahbazi’s film literally frightened me out of my wits and gave me countless sleepless nights. There was a quiet cruelty in that film entirely alien to me, a suicidal serendipity that convinced me we have entered a whole new matrix of existential anxieties in this generation—at once pregnant with possibilities and yet ruthlessly self-abortive. Shahbazi’s film made Camus’ The Stranger or even Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground read like Tintin comics. Fast-forward to June, and the bloody murder of Neda Aqa Soltan will now haunt the nightmares of the Iranian Islamic patriarchy for the rest of history. She has finally given a contemporary feminine face to the masculinist martyrological pantheon of Shi’ia Islam. A young and exceedingly eloquent Iranian-American, Melody Moezzi is her name, was interviewed on CNN after Neda Aqa Soltan was murdered, and at one point she said: “When Neda was killed…she became a martyr…When we [perform any] physical exertion, Iranians say ‘Ya Ali’…and now we’re saying ‘Ya Neda.’” There is a whole theology of discontent, a liberation theology of unsurpassed power, in that very twist of Melody Moezzi.

When in 2008, now deeply drawn to the post-9/11 syndrome, once again I turned back to the political parlance of this post-ideological generation and expanded my 2000 article on “the End of Islamic Ideology” into a book, Islamic Liberation Theology: Resisting the Empire (2008). I was ready to make a case for a political culture in which any claim to a liberation theology had to move towards a theodicy, namely be enabled to account for and assimilate its own shades and shadows, its political nemesis and emotive alterities. The work thus concluded with a chapter on Malcolm X as a figure whose revolutionary authenticity was predicated on cultural inauthenticity—for he kept shifting identity grounds, from a pre-Muslim, to a Muslim, to a post-Muslim, in order to sustain his revolutionary disposition. Sustaining my argument throughout this book was Gianni Vattimo’s revolutionary notion of il pensiero debole/weak thought, and even more than that Emanuel Levinas’ palimpsestic constitution of the face of the other as the ethical foundation of any future metaphysics.

I had come to this conclusion about “the end of Islamic ideology” and the epistemic exhaustion of ideological Islamism based on the argument that the binary opposition between “Islam and the West” had in fact exhausted its creative energies and thematically dissipated. The “West” had imploded by the end of the Thatcher/Reagan era and the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s, which had in turn prompted the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” (1989); the creative crisis of the East and West had depleted itself, and yet within a couple of years Samuel Huntington published his  thesis “Clash of Civilizations” (1992) to resurrect an Islamic nemesis for the West. The events of 9/11 were a godsend for Huntington’s apocalyptic vision of not just a clash but in fact the end of civilizations. As the world was distracted by that resurrection of an old cliché, I thought we needed to keep our eyes on the ball inside the emotive universe of the younger generation, for whom the Internet and social networking had brought down all sorts of factual and fictive walls. 

What we are witnessing today in Iran is predicated precisely on that end of ideological thinking, the surfacing of a whole new emotive universe, and the commencement, I believe, of a “civil rights movement” that marks a major epistemic shift in Iranian political culture. This, I propose, is not yet another iteration of a revolutionary uprising, as it is first and foremost evident in the collapse of the binary supposition between Islam and the West, the exhaustion of both Islam and the West as potent categorical entities that can generate ideas, sustain convictions, and launch movements in juxtaposition against each other. Bush and Bin Laden, in short, have been protesting too much, and creating a massive smoke screen with their “war on terror” and “jihad,” blinding our insight. The ruling clerical establishment and the younger generation they are trying to chain speak two entirely different languages—one a cliché-ridden language of military coup, foreign intervention, and a manufactured “enemy,” and the other the visual, performing, poetic, and dramatic lexicon of a far more fundamental liberation. 

In an instant reaction to what is unfolding in Iran, Slavoj Žižek wrote a useful summary of the most useless and irrelevant readings of the current crisis and then offered his own. Žižek suggests that “the green color adopted by the Mousavi supporters, the cries of ‘Allah akbar!’ that resonate from the roofs of Tehran in the evening darkness, clearly indicate that they see their activity as the repetition of the 1979 Khomeini revolution, as the return to its roots, the undoing of the revolution’s later corruption…We are dealing with a genuine popular uprising of the deceived partisans of the Khomeini revolution.” In other words, Iranians are not going back all the way to the time of the prophet 1400 years ago, but just to thirty years ago, and they have started their march anew. William Beeman, a prominent anthropologist of Iran, has offered a similar reading. He thinks, “People can only imagine what they can imagine. In Iran today both the people and the establishment have only one model for social and governmental change, and that is the original Islamic revolution of 1978-79. Because both sides are working with the same vocabulary of symbolism, they are groping to command those potent images that will galvanize public support in their favor.” Though his vision is foggy by his ethnographic lenses, Beeman at least offers an archetypal and not a reactionary reading: “The master vocabulary of revolution in Iran is the historical Martyrdom of Imam Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who was killed on the plains of Karbala in present day Iraq in 680.” 

Both these gentlemen are out to lunch. Not everything that is round is a walnut, as we say in Persian. This is a post-ideological society: Today’s activists are not trying to reinvent an Islamic revolution that happened before they were born, or reiterating an archetypal martyrdom that has more than one way to skin a cat. Much has happened in Iran between 1979 and 2009, and neither a revolutionary nostalgia nor an anthropological dyslexia can account for it. Beeman is of course correct that “people can only imagine what they can imagine” (a redundant truism), but he has no blasted clue what this young generation has been imagining, and what their imagining has in turn imagined far beyond the distorted images of anthropological ethnography. A much more patient reading of the visual and performing arts of this generation is needed before we know what in the world they are doing as millions pour into the streets of their cities, brandishing their poetry, and sporting their green bandanas. The inherited universe of this generation has been atomized and then radically recast anew. They have re-invented themselves from an emotive ground zero on up. Not just their parental generation and the aging clergy in the autumn and winter of their patriarchy were fast and deep in slumber when they were out playing and acting out their future.

      In the resurrected soul of this generation no metanarrative of salvation holds supreme, no sublime supposition of truth holds any water. They have been after the nuts and bolts of a more meaningful life, from which I have concluded that in specifically political terms what is happening today is far more a civil rights movement than a revolution; it is a demand for basic civil liberties, predicated on decades of struggle by young Iranian men and women to secure their most basic and inalienable rights. I might very well be wrong in my assumption, and there might very well be yet another revolution in the offing, countered by a military coup, opposed by even more severe economic sanctions, even a blockade, perhaps even by a military strike by the US/Israel. No one can tell. But the singular cause of civil rights of seventy million plus human beings, I daresay, will remain definitive to this generation. In the course of these thirty years, this generation has learned from its parental mistakes and might be given the allowance that it is marching forward through a major epistemic shift in Iranian political culture—seeking to achieve their most basic civil liberties within whatever constitutional law that cruel fate has handed them.


Hamid Dabashi

HAMID DABASHI is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2009

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