Monday, 12 May 2014

The long, rich and despotic history of Iran in Empire of The Mind

From The Week of May 1st, 2014
Though pride insists that we have the right to act as we choose, our wills unfettered by the shackles of anyone else's desire, we are, inescapably, beings shaped by history. History is the gestalt of our experiences, the joys and traumas, the victories and the defeats, that, by individually imprinting themselves upon us, collectively influence our futures. We can try to recognize these influences in hopes of minimizing them, or perhaps even with an eye towards completely weeding them out, but how can we mitigate something we can't even measure? How can we extricate the fallout from something that has already happened to us? As much as individuals struggle with answering these questions, nations are equally subject to them. For what is a nation if not the collective will of human beings who share geography, culture, history? What scars the people scars the nation as well and leaves behind marks that take centuries to fade. The experiences of many nations provide evidence of this truth, but few more vividly, or tragically, than Iran. Michael Axworthy elaborates in his piece of narrative history of this consequential country. Home to one of the world's oldest human civilizations, Iran is a nation as fascinating as it is troubled. For millennia, it has produced poets and scholars, theologians and mathematicians, whose insights and revelations have both enriched the world and advance the scope of human knowledge. It has hosted dynasties and religions, groundbreaking universities and defined entire disciplines of science. Without it, the world, and the peoples that populate it, would be exceedingly different. And yet, for all of this glorious history, for all that its culture makes the Ancient Greeks look like Johnny-come-latelies, its recent past has been ravaged by the plagues of corruption, colonialism and conflict, all of which have taken its toll on this proud nation. Made a pawn in the Great Game of the 19th century, in which the British and Russian empires vied for regional dominance, and made a slave to oil interests in the 20th century, during which its politics and its institutions were ruthlessly manipulated by foreign governments and foreign corporations, it has become a suspicious theocracy, one that seeks, through the favor of god, to wrestle back its rightful place, as one of the world's premier nations, the first amongst younger equals. But the world is not what it was when Iran was a center of culture and knowledge. And it may well be that Iran cannot return to the prominence it claimed for so long. An exploration of the long history of a singular nation, Empire of The Mind is a riveting portrait of a country transformed by the insights of science and by the vicissitudes of geography. Mr. Axworthy, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Exeter, transports us back millennia, before the Romans, before even the Greeks, and gradually marches us into the present, introducing, along the way, religions, scientists and kings that have characterized this place of mountains and faith. The reader witnesses the fall of Zoroastrianism and the rise of Islam, the decline of tribalism and the assembly of the nation state, the destruction of pluralism and the elevation of theology. But for all these potent forces, none prove as consequential as colonialism. The world is not short of examples of colonialism's cruelties. It seems, at times, that half the world has suffered beneath its ruinous shadow. And yet, Iran has escaped most of the obvious consequences, instead, bearing up under more subtle and insidious damage. Perhaps, this is owing to the fact that Iran was more of a client state than a colony, its interests, and therefore its policies, torn between the various western powers fighting for dominance in the 19th century. This subservience certainly engendered a sense of humiliation within such a proud culture. And yet, this anger would be but a rehearsal for the outpouring of betrayal and rage that would come later, during the 20th-century's thirst for oil, when Wilsonian promises of self-determination gave way to the ruthless politics of necessity that undermined their governments, manipulated their intellectuals and empowered their dictators. For those of us fortunate enough to have been reared in countries spared the indignity of being subjected to the merciless will and the selfish whimsy of other nations, this shame is difficult to relate to. The West looks at Iran today and sneers at its theocracy and expresses incredulity over the insanity of its nuclear weapons program. But while the convergence of these forces is certainly cause for dismay, they should be properly understood as the consequences of meddling, of manipulation, of exploitation. For in the minds of a people, whose culture has been forgotten and whose sovereignty has been toyed with, what could possibly germinate but distrust? Put in this situation, we would all want the security of knowing that we would never again be someone else's tool. While maintaining an admirable neutrality, Empire of The Mind conveys not just the history of Iran but the powerful ways in which that history has informed the problematic present. This is no mean feat, particularly for a work that strives to be much more than an ideological weapon with which to chastise one's enemies. It is far easier to descend into the language of victimization and or excusemaking. That Mr. Axworthy avoids this while delivering an engaging read on a consequential country makes this one of my more thoughtful reads this year, only marred by the fact that its publishing, coming in 2007, denies the author the opportunity to read Iran's history into the failed Green Revolution and the events of the Arab Spring. Quality work... (4/5 Stars)

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