April 8, 2005

NELC professors delve into Iranian cultural mentality

This past Thursday, the Student Committee on the Middle East hosted a panel on Iran's history and the country's potential for liberal reform, entitled "Foundations of Reform in Iran: Culture, Religion, Society, and the Ideal of Freedom." Professor Heshmat Moayyad of the University's Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department and Professor Negin Nabavi of Princeton University were invited to speak on the panel.

"Our event will be a refreshing change from the incredibly political, biased, and agenda-driven events that have often characterized discussions of topics relating to the Middle East," said Dan Michaeli, an organizer of the panel and a second-year in the College.

The speakers were asked to focus on currents for reform among the public and Iranian intellectuals. Rita Koganzon, co-chair of the student committee and a second-year in the College, said that because of recent discussion about Iran's probable nuclear weapons, "we felt it would be important to look into the current state of Iranian society itself—how Iranians feel about their government and what changes they'd like to see."

Moayyad, who studied at the University of Tehran and also in Germany, outlined the events of the 20th century in Iran and discussed the limited freedom of its literature, his specialty, in that time. He spoke slowly, in a tranquil tone, rolling his Rs as he read intently from his notes. He has taught at the University of Chicago since 1966.

International pressure, he said, has forced the Iranian government to become "more lenient," but added pointedly that many restrictions remain. Members of the regime, he said, "still insist and want everybody else to honor the standard of 1,250 years ago." He added, however, that the youth there "hopefully read books and have higher aspirations for themselves and their country."

Nabavi discussed the intellectual reform movements that arose before and after the 1978 revolution that installed the current Islamic government. She has taught about Iran's intellectuals since she moved to Princeton in 1998, having studied in Iran, Switzerland, and finally England, as indicated by her slight British accent.

She energetically described how the "discourse of reform" in the 20 years preceding the overthrow of the U.S.-backed shah centered on the idea of "regaining an authentic culture," which was viewed as a "weapon" against foreign imperialism. When Islam was suggested as the basis for that "genuine" Iranian culture, she said, even secular intellectuals embraced the religion in resistance to the shah's regime.

A few years later, she said, when the new state "proved less than democratic," discussion of reform began anew, and intellectuals then contrasted it with the revolution. They decided it was a "gradual" process of "compromise," not conflict, and, to this day, often repudiate more strident accusations that evoke continuing government reprisals.

Asked about current human rights issues in Iran, Nabavi said, "Things are not that rosy," but pointed to the limited success of underground watchdog organizations. Moayyad definitively predicted, "The change is coming." He said he foresees a fall from political power for the clerics: "Either they change," he said, "or they go."

The University chapters of Amnesty International and Americans for Informed Democracy, as well as the UC Democrats, College Republicans, Chicago Friends of Israel, and the Student Government Finance Committee cosponsored the event.