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The Intertwined World: the Clash between Modernity and Tradition in the Iranian Context

Mehdi Aminrazavi
Interview by Elahe Zomorodi

As opening remarks, could you please tell us about your background?

I was born in the city of Mashhad, Iran. After finishing my high school degree, I went to the U.S. where I attended the University of Washington in Seattle. I received my bachelors degree in Architecture and city planning and received my masters in philosophy. I then transferred to Temple University where I received my masters in religious studies and a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion.

As you know currently, there is a great deal of debate on the concept of progress, development, poverty and the future of our global governance and how best we can manage these crisis.

These are rather general questions but they are often discussed and debated in the framework of technology, management and how best the current crisis can be dealt with. Rarely anyone is cognizant of the philosophical and metaphysical roots of the problem. We should ask ourselves how has the problem come about? Why is it that native Americans, Australian aborigines, traditional cultures in all continents have lived for the last tens of thousands of years and did not create the environmental crisis but in the last few centuries since the industrial revolution, Western technology, which is now a global reality, is threatening the very existence of human civilization?

What you are saying is that modern way of life puts us on a collision course with the environment. Can we go back?

The question is not to go back but to learn to live with the environment as our benefactor and not something that is to be dominated. Europeans are actually on the forefront of this perspective but in the U.S., where 5% of the world population owns 33% of all the cars in the world, being an “environmentalist” is almost a bad word. It is often equivalent to being a leftist. In traditional cultures, living with nature and being part of it has been a major concern of the indigenous people.
I would like to refer your readers to so many treatises in Persian literature in which birds or other aspects of nature are protesting man’s treatment of the environment often as a philosophical allegory, such as Avicenna’s Risalat al-Tair (Treatise on Birds), or Attar’s Mantiq al-Tair, (The Language of Birds). We also have a medieval treatise titled Ikhwan al-Safa in which animals and trees take man to the court of law for his abuses of nature. All these indicate how traditional societies were sensitive to nature as the hand work of God.

The questions of race and gender are among the subjects that are intensely debated in the West. This might be partially due to large number of immigrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa to Europe. Can you please taking into account Iranian scene too?

It is imperative to realize that in much of the Eastern countries in general, and Iran in particular, race is not seen as a “problem”. Ethnicity and religious sects have all been contentious but race has rarely been the subject of debate. This is partially because in an ancient culture such as Iran, all races are newcomers and given enough time, become a permanent part of the racial landscape of the country. Iran is like a mosaic, a dome of many colors which has been the epitome of a successful multi-cultural model. This may very well have been due to the fact the European civilization spread in an already all white continent whereas Eastern civilizations had to come to terms with multi-culturalism from its very inception.
We have seen in so many places when the central government collapses, racial and ethnic tensions rise; Yugoslavia is a perfect example of it. In the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution (1978-79), there was not a single conflict between any racial or ethnic groups in Iran simply because Iranians did not see race as an issue.

So how would you explain some of the hateful rhetoric we hear from Iranian leaders regarding other countries, races, and even religions and even denying the Holocaust?

As someone who frequently visits Iran, I can tell you that there are “several Irans.” There is the Iran of moderates, secular people, intellectuals, and even many great religious figures who favor separation of religion and politics. We also have the far right who are unfortunately now in a position of power in Iran but the far right exists in every country; they happen to be in power in the U.S. as well and we see the effect of their policies as well. All societies, including Italy during Mussolini, have gone through their troubled times. We have to remain optimistic and not identify such periods with the long and rich history of an ancient civilization such as Iran.
What is important to realize is that as far as Iranians are concerned, the so-called “clash of civilizations”, is really the clash between modernity and tradition. Where the youth embraces modernity and change, and the traditional fabric of the Iranian society resists, the result is a conflicted society. The Iranian society however is a very dynamic one, such questions as democracy and its limits, Western and Iranian concepts of democracy, the role of gender and feminism and the relationship between religion and politics are all part of the national discourse.
Unfortunately, stereotyping the Iranian culture fits into the general scheme of seeing the “other” as enemy; and the mass media in its continuous attempt to sell news will have to only present the most demonic aspects of the Middle Eastern culture, which is the daily violence.
To have a full grasp of the beauty, profundity, and the richness of the Iranian cultural heritage, one has to go beyond the daily news and read Persian poetry, literature and philosophy, not to mention its art, architecture and the spiritual dimensions of the Iranian culture. The reader will notice that moderation and tolerance have been the salient features of Iranian culture. Racism and nationalism are both Western concepts which have not been part of the historical and cultural experience of the Iranian culture.

Interview given on April 20, 2007

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