Hamid Dabashi’s 2006 book on Iran turns conventional western scholarship on that country upside down. By rejecting the dynamic that counterpoises so-called western modernity to “Oriental” traditionalism, Dabashi creates a new historiography inspired by Edward Said’s scholarship and Fanon’s studies of colonialism. Dabashi, who currently teaches Iranian Studies at Columbia University, does not reject the modernizing influence of western colonialism and imperialism. Instead, he describes a dynamic where that very modernity created its anticolonial/anti-imperial opposite. This anticolonialist modernity is and was a direct result of the methods used by the colonial invaders to impose their Enlightenment philosophy and way of ordering things—that is, through guns and oppression. Incorporating a multitude of philosophies, with Marxism, Shi’a Islam, and bourgeois nationalism being the primary ones, Dabashi’s anticolonial modernity has both informed and inspired the various movements against outside domination in the last one hundred and fifty years of Iranian history.
Although this historical dialectic is of course expressed in the fields of politics and economics, the essential and continuous thread of this history of resistance is found most importantly in the poetry, prose and film of the Iranian people. This resistance is not merely a conversation among Iranians or even between Iranians and other non-imperialist states. It includes the West in its conversation and, in essence, turns its history upside down. There is no “end of history” just because western policymakers and their sycophantic intellectuals say there is. Instead, history remains alive and is being written by the very forces those intellectuals and policymakers disregard and try to subjugate. This approach describes his approach to history as one that “is open ended in its search for freedom.”
Underneath this current of resistance is a phenomenon forced upon the world by Washington and directly related to how it wants the world to see history. Dabashi denotes this phenomenon as tribalism. It is the logical outcome of the neocon intellectuals and their silent neoliberal cohorts that pretend that history has ended and the West has come out on top. It is a phenomenon that calls its attempts to dominate the world in every way possible a “clash of civilizations.” Through Dabashi’s prism, this so-called clash is shown to be what it actually is: a reduction of struggles against imperial domination into battles between religious extremists. This battle features a Zionist regime that exists because of a Christian empire that is organized and controlled by a Washington that labels all of its opponents Muslim extremists. In reality, this label is accurate only in so far as it describes the actions and philosophies of a relatively small number of primarily Sunni Muslim millenarians who were spawned in Washington‘s anti-Soviet wars of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, the lineage of Al Queda and the Taliban (both millenarian in nature and Islamic in name) can be traced back to the machinations of the CIA, the Saudi clients of Washington, and the political establishment in DC. Meanwhile, a Hindu fundamentalism based in part on its desire to remove Muslims from India is on the rise and in Iraq a war flares between various Islamic sects —in large part because of Washington‘s invasion and occupation. Instead of ending history, Washington‘s support of the Zionist government in Tel Aviv and Islamic millenarians in Afghanistan and elsewhere has turned history into an echo of the Middle Ages.
What about Iran today in the wake of the 1979 revolution? Dabashi accurately describes the revolution as a popular upheaval with philosophical underpinnings in the three philosophies noted above—Marxism, Shi’a Islamism and nationalism. Furthermore, he discusses the devastating effect the assumption of absolute power via the Guardian Council by the conservative Islamist elements represented by Ayatollah Khomeini and his circle had on the elements involved in the revolt and the country of Iran as a whole. Unlike most Western analyses of the revolution, Dabashi discusses the class nature of the various elements and the failure of the Marxist and nationalist elements to acknowledge and attempt to bridge the class divide between their student and skilled worker bases and the peasant and urban working class. This failure enabled the conservative clerics aligned with the merchant class to manipulate the religious and revolutionary passions of the poorer masses, resulting in the eventual almost total control of the government by those clerics. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of this part of Dabashi’s text is his insistence that the 1979 revolution was more than an Islamic revolution and would not have occurred without a complementary coalescing of all the forces opposed to the Shah and US domination. This perspective and Dabashi’s detailing of its foundations in Iran‘s history provides a more hopeful reading of that revolution than the one provided by Washington and its unwitting allies among the conservative clerical establishment in Tehran.
Dabashi reflects on his personal experiences growing up in Iran under the Shah as a means to narrate Iran‘s history and the meaning of that history. He describes his youth in the country and his college years in Tehran as a student and opponent of the Shah’s regime. Unlike most Western readings of Iran, Dabashi names the 1953 CIA-organized coup against the anti-imperialist prime minister Mossadegh as the essential event in twentieth-century Iranian history. He discusses the hopes of the 1979 revolution and his observation of the destruction of many of those hopes in the years immediately after as some revolutionary opponents of the conservative clerics were disappeared and exiled while others lent their support at the cost of their politics. He also discusses the historical role of Shi’a as a movement in opposition to authority and what that means for the government in Tehran. Iran, A People Interrupted is a panoramic history of Iran that addresses the political and cultural realities of that history. It also serves as a cry against the increasing tribalization of world politics by the theocrats and their allies in Washington, Iran, Delhi, Tel Aviv and elsewhere.
This is a complex book that just begins to examine the complex history of the nation called Iran. Simultaneously despairing and hopeful, it provides the historian with an alternative and ultimately more complete way to explore Iranian (and world) history. Dabashi writes that the despair ever present in the Iranian’s various eras of political failure is overcome by the optimism of their literature that not only inspired the political events at the time it was written, but survives to inspire future revolutionaries. For the non-historian, Iran, A People Interrupted is a concise introduction to the breadth of Iranian history and culture unencumbered by the Orientalist nonsense found in the current western library on the subject.