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What Happened in Iran?

In response to:

The Iranian Revolution from the June 26, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

While I am pleased by the full and generally favorable attention Shaul Bakhash paid my book (NYR, June 26), and while I am grateful for corrections of fact and interpretation, Dr. Bakhash’s casual allegation of careless control of facts and prose needs rebuttal.

Mahnaz Afkhami was made Minister of State for Women’s Affairs in January 1976; this no doubt did not amount to much more than the older Women’s Organization of which she continued to be General Secretary. Bakhash does not say what events I confused “surrounding Khomeini’s [several!] arrest[s] in 1963 and his exile in 1964.” Kalam literally means “speech” or “word,” and in philosophy is used for the Greek logos, but it primarily refers to theology in contradistinction to fiqh or jurisprudence and in distinction to philosophical argumentation, Casuistry means “that part of ethics which resolves cases of conscience, applying the general rules of religion and morality to particular instances in which ‘circumstances alter cases’ or in which there appears to be a conflict of duties” (OED). What does Bakhash think kalam means? The shorthand gloss Bakhash cites is taken out of its perfectly correct context and is not the general definition for kalam provided in the book. Rak’at is a unit of the namaz prayer during which recitation of Qur’anic verses is done, in distinction (in the Shariatmadari quote) to the prostrations which are also part of the prayer. If the two minor items in 1978 are the only points on which the international press is possibly misleading, then the press deserves more credit than we usually pay it. Matin-Daftari, it seems, was not detained, only forced into temporary refuge by a warrant for his arrest along with others.

Bakhash at various points is careless in his prose. I do not argue that Islam brought people together as a political vehicle and not as a ritual vehicle (that is said of a particular demonstration). I do not say that all Iranians draw on a common religious tradition (but that the majority of Muslim Iranians do). In arguing that the basic causes and timing of the revolution were economic and political, I do not deny a religious component nor religious motives, but I find religion and Islam to be complex categories, not simple, easily defined ones. Bakhash calls Khomeini’s Islam “a complete system of thought and a set of defined goals and ways of behaving.” Were he to try to tell us what these vague terms mean he will find himself immediately enmeshed in the complications of interpretations and political factions, as the furor over the second draft of the new constitution indicated.

It is too bad that Bakhash chose to read the book as merely a piece of political journalism and ignored the anthropological arguments about how we can describe and understand the changes in a cultural milieu. An example: Bakhash pigeonholes Shariati as a leftist; another writer, Hamid Algar, recently has tried to claim him as an anti-leftist; the book attempts to suggest how Shariati’s writings have become a disputed prize between progressives and conservatives. Again, Bakhash makes the judgment “in accepting the leadership of Khomeini and the clerical classes, the common people seem implicitly to share in [a theocratic] vision.” Your readers may get a more sympathetic view of the “common people’s” tempered support for Khomeini from Eric and Mary Hooglund’s descriptions of the village in which they lived until recently (MERIP No. 87, Spring 1980).

The revolutionary process is not over. It is a shame that while Bakhash brings some of the chronology of events up to date, he does not provide any analysis of where that process might lead. He might have drawn on the Brinton, Weber and Skocpol theories of revolution mentioned in the book to make a more coherent critique of my early liberal hopes. Such hopes, as he acknowledges, were an important mobilizing ideological component in the first stages of the revolution. As it stands, his essay is an eloquent testimonial to the bewilderment of the middle class at its weakness, miscalculations, and political unpreparedness.

Michael M.J. Fischer

Department of Anthropology

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Shaul Bakhash replies:

The Minister of State for Women’s Affairs (like all Iranian ministers of state) was a minister without portfolio. There was thus no Ministry of Women’s Affairs, as Michael Fischer in his book asserts.

Khomeini was arrested in June 1963 for his attacks on the Shah’s policies and was kept, virtually without interruption, in detention and under house arrest in Tehran for a period of ten months. Only in April 1964 was he permitted to return to Qum. He was arrested once again in late October or early November 1964 and within a few days sent into exile, this time for his attack on the “status of forces” bill, which extended diplomatic immunity to the members of American military missions in Iran in the employ of the Iranian government, and also for his criticism of an American loan of $200 million to Iran for arms purchases.

Fischer confuses these events of 1963 and 1964 and treats them as having all occurred in 1963. Khomeini’s attack on the status of forces bill and the American loan was made not prior to June 1963, as Fischer supposes, but several months later. Fischer is also mistaken in believing that Khomeini’s exile in Iraq began in 1963. Khomeini was not expelled from Iran until November 1964. He was first taken to Turkey, and it was only in 1965 that he took up residence in Iraq.

Kalam is indeed generally translated as theology in contradistinction to fiqh, or jurisprudence. But to refer to kalam as “theological casuistry” is imprecise and misleading. This stricture would apply even if Fischer used “casuistry” not in the normally understood sense of the term but in the sense suggested by his quotation from the OED. Kalam is concerned with such questions as God’s attributes, predestination, salvation, and similar theological matters. It is not generally concerned with the application “the general rules of religion and morality to particular instances in which ‘circumstances alter cases’ “; this is, in fact, the province of fiqh.

Rak’at, as any Persian or Arabic dictionary will indicate, means bowing or prostration. It is a term used to describe the unit in the Muslim prayer during which such prostration takes place. There is recitation during rak’at; but it is imprecise to refer to it as recitation.

There are other imprecisions in the book. The transliteration is inconsistent, even within the terms set by Fischer, and some names (Gholam Hossein Saddiqi, Ne’matollah Nasiri) are mangled in the process. The names of Barkhordar, Forqan, Khalkhali and Mahdavi-Kani, among others, are misspelled. The first name of the Qajar prime minister, Ali Asghar Atabak-e A’zam, is given as Ali Akbar. There are numerous typographical errors in the transcription of Persian names. These are not all matters of great moment; most belong in a footnote, where I had initially placed them. But they occur alongside an unevenness in the writing and in the organization of materials that blurs the thrust of Fischer’s argument and also the questions at issue in the religious discourse he seeks to describe.

Some of the broader points raised by Fischer are also raised in a letter received from Professor Shahrough Akhavi of the University of South Carolina. Akhavi warmly praises Fischer’s attempt to “explore the symbolic uses of language and to unravel the manysided dimensions of symbolic discourse.” Fischer does so, Akhavi writes, “in ways never accomplished before, and he does it with a subtle, nuanced skill that sheds great light on the concepts and methods of intellectual discussion in Qum.”

Akhavi suggests that, given the paucity of sources, it is unreasonable to have asked for greater detail on the sources of madrasa funds. This is fair enough, although bazaar contributions to the religious leaders are not as great a mystery as is suggested. However, it is not unreasonable to ask that a book concerned with religious discourse take cognizance of the ideas of religious spokesmen the author himself names as significant influences on the thinking of seminary students and others.

I hope the review did not treat Fischer’s book as “merely a piece of political journalism” or, as Akhavi suggests, that it found fault with Fischer for not having “explained” the Iranian revolution. But Fischer distorts the focus of his own book by devoting a concluding chapter and epilogue, which occupy fully one-fourth of Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution, primarily to an account of political events. The first three paragraphs of the introduction alone, to say nothing of other paragraphs scattered throughout the book, reflect this uneasy attempt to yoke an anthropological study to an up-to-date account of the revolution—right down to the taking of American hostages at the Tehran embassy.

There is much new material in the book. I noted in the review that many important anthropological questions are raised and indicated my sympathy with the view that the outcome of the religious discourse under way in Iran today, and the reformulations in key concepts that it implies, will have considerable bearing on the future of the Iranian polity. My disagreement with Fischer and Akhavi is not over the significance of these issues, anthropological and political, but over the extent to which Fischer succeeds in elucidating them.

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