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The Revolutionary Shias

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Simon Norfolk/INSTITUTE
Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque seen from Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan, December 2003

Dabashi is fascinated not just by the intellectual and political ramifications of this process—the rise of Khomeini, the fall of the Shah, and the establishment of the Islamic Republic—but also by what might be called its manifestations in the Shiite psyche. In exploring this landscape he acknowledges the influence of his teacher and mentor Philip Rieff (1922–2006), author of The Triumph of the Therapeutic and a major interpreter of Freud.

According to Rieff the neurotic symptoms Freud identified in his patients were a reflection of the decline of traditional moralities: as the anchors of religion were loosened, instinctive desires became less easy to control. Freud’s solution was to provide his patients with a technique that would enable them to manage their instinctual lives in a prudent and rational manner. The flaw in Freud’s atheistic approach—according to Rieff—lay in his failure to recognize that the underpinning of the repressive myths that inform human action lie in a supra-empirical or transcendental source of authority, namely the sacred.

In Rieff’s view, authority rooted in the sacred infuses our creativity with the guilt without which we cannot manage our instinctive impulses. Desire and limitation, eros and authority, are intimately connected. The tension between them provides the energy for all artistic endeavors. Yet if we deconstruct them by unmasking, as it were, the secret police, as therapists would have us do, our culture will lose its vigor. “A culture without repression, if it could exist,” Rieff wrote in a passage cited by Dabashi, “would kill itself in closing the distance between any desire and its object. Everything thought or felt would be done, on the instant…. In a word, culture is repressive.”

Dabashi’s perspective on the relationship between culture and repression does not mean that he subscribes to the current brutal repression in Iran, where activists, artists, and journalists are being persecuted, and in some cases executed, for opposition activities, or that he endorses the subjection of art to religious bigotry. Dabashi is a firm supporter of the reformist Green Movement. In March he chaired a special meeting in New York of the Asia Society to honor the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has been sentenced to six years prison with a twenty-year ban on his work. The discussion, however, evoked some significant Rieffian themes, showing, for example, how the rules forbidding male–female interactions on screen can be used by ingenious directors such as Panahi to expose the contradictions of Iranian society in ways unintended by the censors.

Adopting an approach that builds on Rieff’s ideas, Dabashi proceeds to analyze two works by well-known Iranian artists. In Close-Up (1990) Abbas Kiarostami created a film about an actual person—Hossein Sabzian—who in real life impersonated the celebrated activist turned filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In making his film Kiarostami has Sabzian reenact this impersonation in front of his camera. The film, according to Dabashi, is driven by “the aesthetics of formalized representation”: Kiarostami plays with the irony or double-mirror effect of having a real person playing himself in a fictional recreation of an actual event.

Any possible political implications are left unexplored. Dabashi sees Kiarostami’s film as exemplifying the deep cultural split within Shiism between art and politics, with art disengaged from politics, and politics assuming

an increasingly one-sided ideological disposition, banking almost exclusively on the feudal scholasticism at its roots at the heavily expensive cost of denying, rejecting, or destroying its non-juridical heritage—from philosophical and mystical to literary, poetic, performative, and visual.

In contrast to Close-Up, Dabashi finds a redemptive grace and “singular act of visual piety” in Tuba (2002), a video installation by the artist Shirin Neshat. In this video the face of a woman fades onto a perfectly matched landscape of rocky hills. Pilgrims stop at the threshold of a sacred space before transgressing, or desecrating, its boundaries. Dabashi’s lengthy description traces the archaeology of Neshat’s installation, from its ambiguous origin in a Koranic phrase, by way of its elaboration in early commentaries, to a gnostic invocation of a female deity and vanishing paradise in the novel Tuba and the Meaning of Night (1988) by Shahrnoush Parsipour. His commentary suggests that the psychic split afflicting Shiism, between the scholasticism of the ayatollahs and the aesthetic formalism he laments, may only be temporary. He writes that while a culture may fancy itself “secular,” “its sacred memories are nevertheless busy thinking its ideas and populating its dreams.”

An American-Iranian well known for his hostility to Israel and America’s Middle East policies, Dabashi makes no concessions. He attacks Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, author of the popular The Shia Revival, for being a “native informer” who reduces the “multifaceted, polyvocal, worldly, transnational, and cosmopolitan” culture of Shiism to a “one-sided, divisive, sectarian, and factional” system, a perspective that serves to “facilitate the US military domination of a strategic area,” while confirming the Shiite religious class in their “belligerent clericalism.” In the case of Noah Feldman, legal adviser to Paul Bremer, whom he accuses of writing sectarianism into the Iraqi constitution, his criticism seems misplaced, particularly in view of the nuanced lengths to which Feldman has gone in arguing against “imposed constitutionalism.”

A larger criticism of the book is that Dabashi fails to address Shiism as comprehensively as his project demands. For example, while he celebrates the Ismaili variant of Shiism in the work of Nasir Khusraw, he is silent on the survival of this tradition for nearly a millennium in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia (now Tajikistan), followed by seven decades of Communist rule. He is also silent on the remarkable spread of Ismailism in South Asia (mainly Sindh, Gujarat, and Mumbai).

With its unique language and literature, for which the Khoja Ismailis of India invented a special language and script, and its genius for translating Hindu concepts and symbols into the Islamic religious vernacular, Ismailism may be seen as a significant inheritor of the Safavid version of Shiism that Dabashi admires. An impressive model of an enlightenment tendency within the Islamic fold, Ismailis are engaging creatively with contemporary architectural practice, commerce, public health, women’s rights, social empowerment, and a range of contemporary concerns, not just in the developing world but in Europe and North America.

I suspect that Dabashi neglects this quiet Islamic revolution because it does not fit his theme of a tragic bifurcation between artistic creativity and juridical scholasticism that afflicted Iranian Shiism in the post-Safavid era. As a Shiite minority living in the diaspora but with a strong centralized leadership, the Ismailis have preserved the integrity of their tradition while advancing public engagement with the countries in which they reside. They have achieved this by running with the flow of political power—with the British in India, East Africa, and Canada, with the Portuguese in southern Africa, with the Soviets in Central Asia, and—until the current crisis—with their former Alawi rivals in Syria. Dabashi’s somewhat cliché-ridden, anti-imperialist model is based essentially on the Iranian historical experience. It would have to be modified considerably if he were able to accommodate the Ismaili story of social and educational advance, business success, and significant cultural achievements.

On balance, however, his swipes at academic colleagues, unfair or ill-judged as they sometimes appear, are the obverse of a generous vision, not just of Shiism but of Islam very broadly conceived. In pursuit of this vision he combines his meditations on Islamic culture with an impressive grasp of Western thinkers (including Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Weber, and Habermas) and above all of Freud, as refracted through the important but neglected prism of Philip Rieff.

Dabashi’s extraordinarily rich and powerful book takes Shiism out of the sectarian ghettos where it was largely confined when it became an ideological weapon of the Persian Empire in its rivalry with the Sunni Ottomans. By emancipating Shiism from its instrumental use by the Islamic Republic of Iran, he has performed a vital cultural—and political—service.

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