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Four Iran in Focus

The 1979 Iranian Revolution came as a shock, not only to political strategists who had looked on the Shah’s regime as Western bulwark against the Soviet Union, but to social scientists who had trouble coming to terms with what appeared to be a ‘religious’ revolution. Classic secularization theory, echoing the great sociologist Max Weber’s idea that the ‘disenchantment of the world’ was integral to the processes of modernisation, was obviously in trouble. Stories appeared in the newspapers recounting that office windows in late-night Washington were ablaze with light as bureaucrats were ‘speed-reading the Qur’an’ to catch up with developments. The first article in this section, ‘Fall of the Shah’, looks at ‘what went wrong’ for Western policy through the brilliantly eclectic writing of Ryszard Kapuscinski - a worthy compatriot of Joseph Conrad - as well as through the lenses of leading diplomats, including Britain’s man in Tehran, Sir Anthony Parsons (an engaging personality and familiar presence on radio and television during the 1980s). The centrepiece of this part of the book, ‘Was Weber Wrong?’, addresses the intellectual crisis engendered by the Iranian Revolution through the work of two outstanding scholars, Gilles Kepel and Martin Riesebrodt. I was fortunate to meet both of them at a gathering of the Fundamentalist Project, hosted by the distinguished theologian, Professor Martin Marty, under the auspices of the American Academy of Sciences. The proceedings of this and subsequent conferences eventually produced several thousand pages, in five thick volumes, published by the University of Chicago Press. My own efforts in this area have been much more modest and succinct: Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction (around 70pages), published by Oxford University Press.

The remaining essays in this section encapsulate -1 hope - some of the best recent writing on Iran and its wayward, disorganised, confused and confusing revolution. In his Rose Garden of the Martyrs, Christopher de Bellaigue, to my knowledge the most talented journalist (apart from Kapuscinski) to have covered Iran, brings the grim realities to life by engaging directly with individuals and their experiences. Janet Afary, an American-Iranian and expert on the work of Michel Foucault, explores some of the mysteries behind the ubiquitous chador, and exposes the homosexual culture that served to preserve segregation - and feminine ‘honour’ - in pre-modern times; while Ray Takeyh, a former US State Department official, in contrast to the hysterical outpourings of the pro-Israeli press, addresses Iran’s nuclear aspirations in the light of cold, rational, strategic common sense. The final essay celebrates Hamid Dabashi’s brilliant, if flawed, account of Shi‘ism not just as a religion of protest, but as a psychic phenomenon demonstrated in striking examples of cultural expression through the works of Abbas Kiaorstrami and Shirin Neshat. I am particularly pleased to have had the opportunity to struggle with this book (it is by no means an easy read) because it made me aware of Dabashi’s mentor, Philip Rieff, a great Freudian critic whose work has been unjustly neglected.

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