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We Iranians Should be Suspicious of the Proselytizers

January 16, 2019
Firouz Farzani
4 min read
We Iranians Should be Suspicious of the Proselytizers

Back in 1977, Jimmy Carter was encouraging the Shah to reform, and the educated Iranian middle class was waiting to see the result.

It was a time of political roiling instability and upheaval.

Back then I was a young bearded student with little money. One day as I left the cafeteria at the University of Isfahan a young man asked to see the book I was carrying. It was called What Is Science?

He glanced at it and dismissed it as bourgeois, then invited me home to meet his housemates – all engineering students, and all Marxists.

We sat around drinking tea and they tried recruit me.

“Keep exploring science,” they told me, “But through the best science books, written by Soviet thinkers and published by the Communist state printer Mir.”

The students were all convinced that Marx was the solution to everything, including the big problems facing Iran and the world – like poverty. I couldn’t hope to understand unless I had read the Marxist texts they approved of. If I didn’t, they said, I would be unenlightened — remain a prisoner of my bourgeois worldview.

So many Iranians, like these students, find rigid, simplistic answers in absolute dogma.

Why are we intolerant of grey areas, wiggle room, debate?

In the 1970s, young people tended to be anti-Shah dissidents. They dismissed those who didn’t join them as monarchists, who were akin to devils.

And of course the monarchists reviled anyone who criticized the Shah, no matter what justified the criticism.

Marxists, Monarchists, Islamic Revolutionaries, they remind me of Jehovah’s Witnesses...knocking on doors, looking for converts to a system of belief that will deliver a new dawn. Iranians seem especially credulous. Is it naiveté, or maybe just serial disappointment?

Just after the revolution, in the fall and winter of 1980 and 1981, a handful of Communists were arrested in Amol near the Caspian coast. There was a show trial, and the prosecutor, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani, had the men paraded on television before they were executed.

Hossain Reiyahi (the leader of the group “the Sarbedars,” named after a 14th-century anti-mogul resistance movement in Kohrasan) said Communism looked so convincing.

“When I was young, Communism and Maoism were transforming southeast Asia. Even the Fatah movement in Palestine was influenced by Marxism. Marxism chose me, not the other way round.”

In 1996, Iran had suffered three years of diplomatic isolation thanks to its – in the BBC’s words – “sacred terror.” President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani decided it was time to humanize his country’s image. Suddenly, the official rhetoric was all about “reform”, “democratization of the ruling theocracy” and “a new chapter in the history of Iran” – rhetoric that became the foundation of Mohammed Khatami’s election campaign in 1997.

It turned out to be a flurry of buzzwords masking the same old authoritarian core.

A few months later, in May of 1997, my 22-year-old daughter had just been hired to teach English in a private language institute. She wasn’t buying Khatami’s promises or his rhetoric. Then the week before the election, her headmaster summoned her and told her that unless she showed up to vote for Khatami that Friday, she would lose her job.

Khatami went on to win a landslide victory, which was enough to stifle any real debate or analysis of his so-called “reforms.”

Recently, an Iranian couple secretly converted to a Protestant Christian sect with roots in the United States. They ended up as guests in my home in Isfahan, where several times a day they joined in group prayer, ostentatiously closing their eyes and asking my family to join in asking for “redemption by Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The nerve! I couldn’t help thinking. Such an invasion of our privacy. And then I thought: Haven’t four decades of religious claptrap and empty promises taught them anything? Perhaps they felt that we – disillusioned with our theocratic dictatorship – were easy prey for their proselytizing.

Recently I was reading The Testament of Mary, a novel by the Irish writer Colm Toibin. It is written as a long soliloquy by Christ’s mother Mary reminiscing about her son and his companions – men we now know as “the apostles.” In Mary’s view, these companions manipulated Jesus for their own selfish ends.

She has little regard for them....this group of “unshaven brutes and twitchers, men who could not look at women and who came to my house after [Joseph’s] death and sat with my son, talking nonsense through the night.

We Iranians should be suspicious of all the proselytizers; anyone who claims to have a system, or a god or a philosophy that will show the Way Forward in the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

It’s all snake oil. 

What we really need – and have needed for decades – starts with the fresh, free and open exchange of ideas by people with no reason to fear speaking their minds.



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