Jan 30, 2004 7:44 am


Last night, Ted Koppel's"Nightline," which was born in the days of the Iranian hostage crisis during the Carter administration, presented an extraordinary look inside Iran. The country is basically fractured in two. Real political power is held by 12 appointed clerics and jurists, the"Guardian Council," which exercises"rigid Islamic control" and which recently disqualified most of the reformers among the candidates running for parliamentary election next month because they are"insufficiently loyal to Islam."

And yet, says Koppel,"millions upon millions of very young people thirsting for Western music, movies, and a hip lifestyle" are becoming a cultural force to be reckoned with. Even as genders are separated in public spaces and women remain covered, pro-reform forces are making dramatic strides. Having won the Presidency in 1997 and a Parliamentary majority in 2000, the reformists are giving political expression to a rising cultural rebellion against fundamentalism. It's precisely the kind of dynamic to which I referred in my post on"Hussein, Bin Laden, and Gramsci": an evolving"bloc of historical forces," as Antonio Gramsci would have called it, that is slowly sweeping away the conditions upon which political oppression depends.

On the streets, young women wear make-up, and keep pushing their veils further back off their faces. Teens are listening to Western pop music and attending spontaneous Rave parties. Home-grown heavy metal groups sometimes play concerts.

The raw statistics are ominous for the ruling class. Whereas 7 years ago, women constituted only 40% of the student population, today they constitute 64%. Their more liberal attitudes are the embodiment of a fledgling feminism. An astounding 70% of the population is under 35 and"the expectations of [this] younger generation are very high," says Presidential spokesman Abdollah Zadeh. The students, many of them from Tehran University, continue to organize pro-democracy demonstrations, while the political reformists hope to hold on to their majority and move toward a detente with the US.

And yet, fewer than a third of Iranians plan to vote in next month's sham of an election. There is no political freedom:"You speak, you go to jail," says one woman."Since 1999," reports correspondent Jim Sciutto,"200 pro-reform newspapers have been shut down," while thousands of political prisoners have been locked into Iranian jails.

Given the strength of state police powers, says Jonathan Lyons from Reuters, it will probably take several generations of slow reform for pro-democracy forces to win out.

While it is true that cultural change evolves at a slower relative pace than political change, it is also true that cultural change of this magnitude can make political change superfluous.

What should the US do in response? Nothing. Let freedom take its course. Indeed, if there were this kind of cultural movement inside Iraq, I would be much more confident about"nation-building" in that country — a country splintered by Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi'ite tribalism.

Here is the key difference between Iran and Iraq: A nation of freedom beckons in Iran; it is fomenting from within, rather than being imposed from without, as if from an Archimedean standpoint. The Iranian clerics condemn this movement as"decadence." All the more reason to be In Praise of Decadence, as author Jeff Riggenbach would say. For decadence, in this context, signifies the decay of authority, the decay of the traditional. The Iranian students are staging a countercultural revolution; they are calling for political freedom, the rollback of clerical control, and the assertion of procedural democracy. It is too early to tell whether this counterculture will evolve into an authentically libertarian movement; but it is a blast of freedom that might very well topple the suffocating power of the fundamentalist state. It is the kind of radical change — change that goes to the"root" — that frightens Islamicists far more than the presence of a US occupying force in neighboring Iraq.

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Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 1/31/2004

Jason Pappas writes: "Do we see here the dominant effect of culture over structure, Chris? Could this be the reason Islamists are so fearful of our culture above all?
Regards and good will, Jason Pappas"

I think in this instance, yes, we are seeing the dominant effect of culture over structure.

I've long accepted that there is a culture war going on here; I don't think that one's opposition to the war in Iraq means that one must blind oneself to the serious cultural divisions between fundamentalist Islam and "Western" values.

Unfortunately, the cultural issues have been terribly complicated by the long history of US political, economic, and military intervention in the Middle East. And because of those complications, the Islamicists often "package-deal" the West's commitment to the values of individualism and liberalism with the West's anti-individualist, anti-liberal history of propping up despots like the Shah. In the end, the fundamentalists oppose the latter as if it is an outgrowth of the former.

If I can engage in a little speculation: If there were less of a history of US political, economic, or military intervention, and more explicitly cultural penetration (made a lot easier with the advance of global technologies), the shape of the Middle East today could have been dramatically different.

Thanks for your comments, Jason!

Jason Pappas - 1/30/2004

Do we see here the dominant effect of culture over structure, Chris? Could this be the reason Islamists are so fearful of our culture above all?

Regards and good will,
Jason Pappas