Global Context Series (Central Asia): The Ayatollahs’ Democracy

By: Philip O. Hopkins

[Editor’s Note: This series of posts deals with the global context in its historical, social, cultural, political, economic, demographic, and religious dimensions in particular. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.]

About a year and a half has passed since the controversial reelection of Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The election and the protests that followed focused Americans’ attention on Iran in ways not seen since the hostage crisis some 30 years before. In The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge, Hooman Majd helps to open America’s eyes to a country that many fear and know little about. Majd delves into the inner workings of the Iranian political system to show that the “Twitter Revolution” or “green revolution” was not a revolution (or the beginnings of one) at all: it was Iran’s “first real civil rights movement,” (43) and not a rejection of the Islamic ideals upon which the Republic was founded in 1979.

Majd’s belief that the occurrences that happened after the election were more of the beginnings of a civil rights movement than a revolution arises in part from his extensive contact with Iranians in country. Unlike many of the Iranian Diaspora, Majd, a US citizen born in Iran but educated in the West, travels frequently to Iran and knows people in high places in both the conservative and reformist camps. All the political players are committed to Shia Islam even those in the Green Movement. “Shiism, born out of a sense of injustice perpetuated by tyrants” Majd notes, is “central to the thought of the reformists who see power vested in the people but guided by the social system of Islam” (87), which, as Majd makes clear through summarizing Iran’s political system and weaving history into the discussion, is essential to understanding Iranian thought.

Majd notes that the idea of equality is essential to Iranians, which is why civil rights are important to the people. Protests occurred after the elections because Iranians believed that these rights were violated. This is also why the nuclear issue is important. Iranians of all stripes believe nuclear power is their right; a right they seem willing to sacrifice (even Ahmadinejad) if equal conditions are met. Ironically, Ahmadinejad’s defense of this right against the West has gained him respect even among those who despise him.

Much more could be said about The Ayatollahs’ Democracy. Majd’s interaction with America’s involvement with Iran betrays his politically liberal bias (though he does criticize all parties). Even this insight is helpful as his explanation is an accurate reflection of many (if not the majority) of Iranians’ perception of American politics. While not necessary, it would be helpful to read Majd’s first book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ (reviewed on this site), before reading this one as Majd assumes that Westerners, Americans in particular, now, after the elections and protests, understand to some degree that Iran is not some monolithic terrorist country in which the entire population hates the United States; the opposite, in fact, is true. Finally, I should note that Majd’s language is a bit salty (nothing that one would not hear in any PG-13 movie, but it is worth noting).

Hooman Majd, The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge (NY: Norton, 2010), 282 pages. ISBN: 978-0-393-07259-4. $26.95. Reviewed by Philip O. Hopkins.

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

Reviewed by: Bruce Riley Ashford

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ is a lively little romp through the recent history of Iran and a peek into the Persian soul. The author, Hooman Majd, is an Iranian-American who wields an incisive, eloquent, and witty pen. Although he was educated in the West, he was born in Tehran, is the son of an Iranian diplomat, the grandson of an ayatollah, and has served as a translator for both Khatami and Ahmadinejad.

In the Introduction, Majd tells us that his “hope is that this book, through a combination of stories, history, and personal reflection, will provide the reader a glimpse of Iran and Iranians, often secretive and suspicious of revealing themselves, that he or she may not ordinarily have the opportunity to see.” In this hope, Majd succeeds, particularly in contrast to the handful of others who have attempted the same thing in recent years.

The reader is taken on several excursions into the world of Iranian politics. Majd argues that Iran is a class-based society, whose wealthy elite are constantly in conflict with the blue-collar masses. It is these same masses who brought current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.

Ahmadinejad, Majd says, is a master politician who knows how to appeal to the religious and national pride of the masses, assuring them that he will help them to throw off the yoke of colonialism and imperialism. As the son of a blacksmith, he has major “street cred” among the underclass and is the first President to give speeches in colloquial, rather than classic, Persian. Majd speaks of Ahmadinejad’s style, of “the bad suits, the cheap windbreaker, the shoddy shoes, and the unstylish haircut…[They are] signal to the working class that he is still one of them.

The reader will also have a quick course in Shia Islam. Majd tells, for example, of his visit to Jamkaran, the home of a huge mosque which was built on the site of an alleged appearance of the 12th imam, the Imam Mahdi. (Supposedly the 12th Imam never died, is in a state of occultation, and will return one day as the Muslim Messiah.) On Tuesdays, the reader is told, one can drop a note to the 12th imam in a well. The imam, though invisible, takes requests and answers prayers on that day.

In another vignette, Majd tells the story of a Sufi cleric who entertained audiences, answering questions and often helping various individuals discern God’s will on particular issues. Sometimes, “he would hold a Koran in his hand and pray, again with eyes closed, and at the right moment stop and randomly open the book to a page, whereby he would ascertain from the passage his finger pointed to what answer to give the petitioner.” Sound familiar?

Along the way, Majd uses historical research and personal experience to give the reader quick and colorful lessons in Iranian (Persian) civilization and culture. The Persians have a superiority/inferiority complex. They are a fiercely proud people, with a rich history, who see their culture as superior to all others. Take the Arabs, for example. While many Americans might imagine a friendly co-existence between Persians and Arabs, they could hardly be more wrong. The Persians understand themselves in opposition to Arab culture. Though the Arabs bequeathed Islam to the Persians, Majd writes that the Arabs have brought “nothing else of any value and may have, in fact, hindered Persian progress in the arts and sciences.” And yet at the same time, they are shamed that their country has been relegated for years to the status of a third-world country.

It is for this reason, Majd explains that “Iranians of a certain age can be forgiven for feeling a tinge of pride in their nation’s rapid ascent to a position of being taken seriously by the world’s greatest superpower.” Whatever can be said about Iran these past thirty years, it cannot be said that Iran is submissive to any other political power.

And yet, Majd also speaks of Iranian social decay. Iranians are #1 in the world in narcotics consumption, with 4-6% of Iranians being drug addicts. Majd tells the story of his being expected to take a puff on the opium pipe on one of his visits. On that occasion, there was in the room a tall young mullah, who “calmly spent the next hour puffing away, drinking tea, fingering his beads, and occasionally answering questions of religious philosophy.” Indeed, Iran suffers from many of the same ills as the US: AIDS, prostitution, addiction, and abortion.

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ is strongly recommended as the best introduction to Iran on the market. There are other books that focus on particular aspects of Iran-Sandra Mackey’s The Iranians explores Iran in the context of the 1979 revolution, Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival gives an in-depth treatment of Shia Islam-but Majd’s book is the best snapshot of the country as a whole.

Editor’s Note: The Global Context series deals with the global context in its many dimensions-historical, social, cultural, political, economic, and religious. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.

Book: The Ayatollah Begs to Differ (2008)

Author: Hooman Majd

Region: Middle East/Central Asia (Iran)

Genre: History/Current Affairs

Length: 272 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate

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