The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

October 12, 2009 at 6:05 pm | Posted in Politics | 1 Comment

I am well aware that Iran is a very complex country with a rich, multifaceted history that is comprised of deep Persian roots. What I failed to realise, until I starting reading The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: the Paradox of Modern Iran, is how much her history, both recent and ancient, may be playing a part in the visible paradoxes of Iran’s current theocratic system. Political science is a subject that used to interest me very much but over the years I stopped immersing myself in the subject. Yet for some reason I’m finding that the way different types of government work and how that affects the lives of its citizens a fascinating aspect of international affairs. Iran is in many ways a unique case–aside from the largely irrelevant Vatican I think it is the world’s only present-day theocracy. I still have about two more chapters to go before I finish this book but I like  Mr. Hooman Majd’s theories as to why modern Iran acts the way she does. If I’m understanding correctly it seems that the present day (by and large) bellicose in Iran is part of the Persian character because there is a strong sense not necessarily of what is just but of what is unjust. For example, it seems most Iranians believe that their country should have the right to proceed with nuclear energy research  however their government sees fit, as to deprive it of this right is (in their eyes) unfair and a double-standard.

However, Mr. Majd also heavily brings up the concept of Taarof, something which can best be described as not only tremendous hospitality and generosity but also, less charitably, “false humility” or “polite lies” (known here in the West as “white lies”). A taxi-cab driver, for example, may refuse to accept a fare out of courtesy to the passenger–such humility would be to the driver’s detriment because it deprives him/her of his/her source of livelihood but that is the point–the more generous one is the more respect he/she receives and if the author is to be believed it often becomes a game of “oneupsmanship” over who is more generous, even if the intent behind that generosity is not 100% genuine. For a slightly different but humorous take on this aspect of Iranian poltical culture read this; I found it particularly amusing.

I bring this up because in a very simplified way perhaps these two very sharp contrasts in mindset serves as a symbol for the political puzzle in today’s Iran. Although this summer’s elections have caused a huge internal and international uproar and the fallout is still continuing, it can perhaps be said that the very fact that Iran’s theocracy even allows for elections at all is an extreme example of Taarof. But rememebr also that while Iranians don’t necessarily have a clear definition of what is just, many segments of the population seem to know what is unjust. A large part of Iran’s electorate clearly believed the results were completly fradulent and what unified such a diverse group of protestors–young and old, modern and traditional, liberal and conservative–is the intense belief among all of them that what happened was unjust–unjust is actually a definite and understood concept so that many Iranians recognise it when they see it and fight because of the injustice of having an election stolen, more so than the fact that the actual election was rigged.

Of course, my understanding of this may be completely off and even if I’ve understood correctly I’m clealry making gross simplifications; I just find intriguing the idea that many of the protesters this summer may have been fighing against an injustice and not for democracy. I suppose the distinction is rather academic. However, Shiite Islam is based almost entirely on the concept of martyrdom–the mourning of caliphs and imams that were unjustly executed at the hands of brutal oppressors. This might help to explain the nature of those protests.

I did find one thing puzzling about Hooman Majd’s book however, he casually and briefly mentions that Shiite Islam and Iran are completely inseperable. But if this is the case it would be hard to explain away the sizeable Arab Shiite populations in the mideast and the conflicts that are sometimes brewed as a result–the recent fighting in Yemen being one example. I wish the author would elaborate on that.

Iran – Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette


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  1. This is one of the best book reports I’ve read. You’re very thorough, concise & informative on the contents of this book.
    I learned stuff through your report (blog.)
    I suggest you forward it to Ian & Lennie.

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