I have said it repeatedly but the need arises again and again to underline a simple truth: You can be insider to one culture only; that of your own.
You can have deep knowledge of another culture but that only amounts to peeping through a window, not the same thing as being inside the room.
Of course, I am not an Iranian and cannot claim to be an insider. Nevertheless, I have peeped long enough through the window to be able to offer some pointers to the west.
The first thing to register is that there are some distinguishing features of the Shia branches of Islam.
The Sunni branch is considered the mainstream because it has more adherents than the Shia branch. On the other hand, the Shias consider themselves true Muslims.
The schism is rooted in history when, after the demise of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) some of the Muslims refused to take oath on the hand of Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA), the first Caliph of Islam. They were of the view that Hazrat Ali (RA), the son in law of The Prophet should have been chosen as the successor.
Apart from this question of succession, the significant element that differentiates the Shia version from the Sunni version is that in the Shia branch there are six pillars whereas the Sunni branch has five pillars of faith.
The Sunnis consider Oneness of Allah, Mandatory Prayers, Annual Fasting, Zakat (obligatory 2.5% tax on accumulated wealth), and Hajj as the five basic pillars of Islam.
The Shias, in addition to these five pillars, also consider Justice (Adl) as a pillar of Islam.
Pursuit of Justice, therefore, is woven strongly in the Shia doctrine. All of this is pegged to the battle of Karbala, where the army of Yezid ruthlessly massacred the close family of The Prophet including his grandson Hazrat Hussain (RA) and others.
The logic here is that the pursuit of Justice is so important that one should not hesitate to offer own life for the sake of Justice. That is why martyrdom and defiance as the means to obtain or deliver justice are so glorified in the Shia branch of Islam.
When the west renegades on its promises, when Trump tears away the nuclear deal despite the fact that Iran was in full compliance, when unilateral sanctions are imposed every other day, the Iranian mind considers it miscarriage of justice.
With this comes the deep respect for those who dared to defy in line with the Shia version of Islam.
For example, in Merv (present-day Bayramali in Turkmenistan) there is a huge graveyard that has thousands of graves including the mausoleums of Soltan Sanjar and Khoja Yusuf Hamdani.
Not far from the sprawling mausoleum complex of Khoja Yusuf Hamdani, there is a cluster of three graves called Buraidah Baba. One of these graves is of Hazrat Abu Buraidah al-Aslami (RA). He was a companion of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). He fought in some battles together with The Prophet and he is also a narrator of Hadith (sayings of the Holy Prophet). After the demise of the Prophet he refused to take oath at the hands of the First Caliph, Hazrat Abu Bakr, and left the Arabian Peninsula.
After a bit of traveling he settled down in Merv, which was a great metropolis during those times.
At the feet of his grave there is a graveyard within the graveyard. The people of Shia faith, mostly of Azeri origin, are buried there. From the gravestones it is clear that the people have been buried there throughout the Soviet period.
This shows affection for the elders and the deep respect for their defiance. Consequently, it is the proof that the Shias would identify with Justice, by association, even in death.
* * *
The west celebrates the shedding of Hijab and baring of skin as a mark of modernity. This is absurd.
In a truly democratic society, the option to cover or uncover the hair or skin should be the prerogative of the individual.
The dressing habits cannot be dictated. This is pseudo-liberal hypocrisy.
Not just the dress, the entire way of life has to be a personal choice. If it is manufactured and goes against the basic grain of the people, it cannot last long.
I visited Iran in 1978, probably June or July. This was the first foreign country I visited.
Our ship docked at Bandar Shahpur (renamed Bandar Khomeini after the Islamic Revolution). We were supposed to carry some crude oil that Iran had gifted to Pakistan. While the oil was being pumped into the ship, we went to Abadan, the nearest sizeable city, some 102 km southwest of Bandar Shahpur.
We didn’t know it then but Iran was just a couple of months away from the Islamic Revolution.
Around lunch time, our biggest challenge was to find a Halal food eatery in a Muslim majority country. We settled for fried chicken. With food, we asked for water. The waiter was incredulous. Who drinks water with food? Take some beer. We have the best.
We noticed that there were very few people in the hall even though it was lunchtime.
After the lunch, there was the task of passing about three hours till the end of siesta. We decided to go watch a movie. We stumbled into the Rex Cinema where they were showing an x-rated movie, probably in German language with subtitles in Farsi. The hall was nearly full of men and women of all ages. Naturally, we didn’t walk away.
Most of the women on the streets were clad in jeans but covered in burka – a walking display of clash of values. A facing-off of what does the state dictate and what does the individual want.
At the corner of a street a slogan on the wall had been freshly painted over. It was still possible to read the slogan despite a thick layer of paint – Marg ber her qadr-e Shahi (Death on every imperial value).
On 19 August 1978, the demonstrators set fire to the Rex Cinema. About 420 people perished in the fire. This was one of the key incidents of the start of the Islamic Revolution.
25 years of bankrupting the values in the name of modernization, 25 years of artificially altering the way of life, 25 years of cutting the people from their roots – all went into thick, black smoke.
Rejoicing in today’s demonstrations is therefore hugely misplaced. The people of Iran would defy the authority quite strongly but they would defy the foreign interference even more fiercely.
Whatever freedom they crave, they will take it at their own terms, through their own collective strength. Any foreign involvement is bound to backfire.
* * *
The west should also understand that active interference is counter-productive in Iran if the purpose is to dilute the revolution or even topple the regime.
They should keep in mind one of Napoleon’s maxims: External aggression brings internal unity.
In fact, every time there is external interference, it bolsters the credentials of the revolution. If is so easy to redirect every resentment of the population against the America – the Great Satan.
* * *
Dr. Hassan Rouhani is from a trading family. His father dealt in spices and nuts. This is the first time that someone from the Bazari – trading, business – community has made it to the top office.
The Bazari community traditionally sides with the clergy, and together they play the decisive role in the Iranian politics.
The west must understand that if Rouhani is obstructed, from within or from without, if he is not allowed to succeed, it will lead to long-term fusion between the clergy and the Bazari community.
Rouhani has already been humiliated at home because Trump threw away the nuclear deal with hardly a second thought.
To shrink the acceptability of Rouhani in the eyes of the Iranian people will automatically create the space for a right-leaning candidate.
* * *
The ability to generate noise and action in Tehran does not mean the ability to rewrite the script of the Iranian politics.
Several years ago, when I was in Tehran, I went to Behzad Kebabi, whose food is quite delicious, for lunch. In Iran, people sit on the table with the strangers without any hesitation and if you are willing to talk, they will happily start the conversation.
The man who joined me was a retired bureaucrat or something. When we were talking, he pointed to the Tehran University, which is less than a hundred meters from Behzad Kebabi. He asked, do you have any idea why most of the demonstrations start at the university gate?
I said, no, certainly not.
He said that the roads in front of the university are always full of people. If you start some kind of noise, they will stop to see as to what is happening. In no time at all, you will have a sizeable crowd. When they block the road out of curiosity, the crowd will thicken. This is how many of the demonstrations start, he said.
It is easy to hold a demonstration at any choke point in any major city of the world but the real question is whether it can be converted into a nationwide, grassroots movement.
* * *
If starting a war is the objective of some powers or people, they need to pause and reflect: As far as warfare is concerned, the high tech can almost always be countered with low tech. Afghanistan is the case in point. Therefore, the west should try to find a cure for its itch of fear-mongering to sell military hardware and weapons to all sides of the conflict.
Actually, peace is more profitable than war. Just think about it.
* * *
Let’s hope there is no outbreak of war but what if it does actually happen. —– The world cannot afford a major war. Nevertheless, Central Asia needs to prepare for all kinds of scenarios.
Central Asia is a victim of geography, hostage to someone’s greed.
The history of the Great Silk Road shows that the best condition for economic prosperity of the region are obtainable when there is contiguous peace from China to Europe.
When thinking of diffusing the situation and preventing a war, one of the first things to do is to give the council of the heads of states of Central Asia a permanent character. This should be a consultative and executive body, with powers to authorize all the peaceful means to prevent the start of a war in the neighbourhood.
The council of the heads of state should establish an institutional relationship with UNRCCA (UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia).
Since the UNRCCA is based in Ashgabat, it is but logical to headquarter the council of the heads of states of Central Asia in Ashgabat too.
The second thing is to encourage every country that is on the side of peace, to increase their economic stakes in Iran.
For instance, the newly discovered Namavaran field in southwestern Iran is believed to have 53 billion barrels of oil reserves. Even if there is just 10% of recovery rate, it will add 2.2 billion barrels to the production capacity.
This could be the chance for Central Asia, in partnership with Russia, China, and Turkey to form a joint venture with multipurpose charter – an entire cluster of upstream and downstream projects.
The idea here is to give economic relief to the Iranian population.
This leads to another area: Do the unilateral sanctions imposed by the powerful countries have any moral or legal justification? Do such sanctions constitute crime against humanity because their desired effect is to make the life of ordinary citizens miserable in the hope that they will rise against their own government?
In the context of raising the universal awareness against the unilateral sanctions, one important and useful area is the globalized cyber space, particularly the social media.
The young people – the millennial generation and the generation Z, the people born in 1980 and later – are all for justice and fairness.
The social media should be used to spotlight that the Boomers, the people born between 1946 and 1964 – are causing pain worldwide on behalf of Millennials and generation Z. It is time for them to say, “Not in my name. No more.”
Or, they can simply say OK Boomer.
Make the social media your friend. Use irony, satire, humor. Use caricatures and memes. Use personal stories. Use everything that clicks, use everything that can go viral, to encourage the younger generations to rise against the greed and corruption of their Boomers. — Let everyone shout in unison: OK Boomer!!!
OK Boomer is the current trend. Next week it may be something else. Plenty of barbs are always floating around. Own them and use them. Make their voters turn away from them in revulsion.
And last but not least, Central Asia should establish dialogue with Iran to point out the need to trim their extraterritorial ambitions. /// nCa, 22 November 2019