A conversation with Daryush Shayegan
Tavoos Quarterly,No. 10, Winter 2001
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Your new book, Ex Occidente Lux* was widely acclaimed abroad, especially in . This response has apparently increased since the events of September 11th in New York.
Yes. After the events of September 11th, my book came to appear as a relevant and timely commentary on our times. Most of the interviews I have had over the past few months have been far more concerned with world events than with my book. When the French version of my book was published, many used the opportunity to discuss Bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda, and the nature of their Islam and its origins. It was quite natural for everyone to feel very confused, because the plotters and perpetrators of these events were held to be, by and large, Western educated individuals of wealthy families from , , and elsewhere, who had studied in
My book however was very successful, because it soon ran into a second printing, yet, I wasn’t completely satisfied. The first printing of the Persian version of my book was in March 2001, obviously long before the events of September 11th.
It seems that the September 11th events in further proved the views expressed in your earlier book, L’Asie face à l’Occident.
They relate more to another book, Le regard mutilé, which, unfortunately, has not yet been published in Persian. It addresses these matters more directly, and is in reality a continuation of L’Asie face à l’Occident. The Turkish translation was very successful in , and sold about 10,000 copies. I have heard that it is used as a textbook in the . It is descriptive of a situation, whereas Ex Occidente Lux is a different book altogether, totally unrelated to Islam and current political or social events.
Ex Occidente Lux is a book about humans in the twenty-first century. Le regard mutilé however, is essentially concerned with schizophrenia; mankind’s mental schizophrenia in recent contemporary history, from the closing years of the last century to the opening years of the new one. Its about how it is possible for an educated individual, technically advanced and knowledgeable, with an apparently modern attitude and demeanor, to be at the same time blinkered, backward, and bigoted in his or her views. This dichotomy in the human mentality is entirely contradictory. If these individuals were to study a branch of the humanities instead of the pure and applied sciences or new modern technologies, they would gain a deeper understanding of problems and realize the contradictions inherent in their outlook. Yet when they study technical subjects and are able to benefit from modern technology, they do not perceive their contradictory viewpoints. They become incapable of facing their own true mentality and so remain untouched by modern science and technology. For instance, most of the individuals who planned and executed the September 11th project were graduates from technical schools. They knew how to fly an airplane. They were familiar with computer technology, telecommunications, the Internet, and all its related ramifications, yet at the same time, backward and rigidly religious in the worst possible sense.
Although you mentioned that you didn’t want to discuss these recent events in connection with your book, I am still inclined to discuss the matter with you. Looking at it from a psychological point of reference, this type of schizophrenic outlook is a cultural or even philosophical phenomenon. But from a sociological and economic point of view, the behavior of these individuals in perpetrating the events of September 11th can somehow be looked upon as an inevitable reaction to the doomed North-South relationship. Do you agree with this? Don’t you think that this behavior is a sign of the natural anarchy resulting from the inequity and distance that exists between the economic,
cultural and social states in the North and South?
Of course your opinion is correct. This is indeed a type of anarchical reaction. But why does this type of reaction only occur in parts of the Islamic world, and not in other countries of the region? Why does it not materialize in , ? Why does this only happen in Near and Middle Eastern countries? I believe the answer to be the fact that the countries of the were founded on the beliefs of Confucius and Buddha. The people in those countries adapt more readily to the conditions of the world. This adaptation is more difficult to achieve in Islamic countries. We are all aware of the longstanding rivalry between Islam and Christianity. We all know of the Crusades, which were the first direct confrontation between Islam and Christianity, and then the Islamic conquests, followed by reformist movements in the Christian world. These two religions, and the two cultures that have evolved from them, are on the one hand close to each other and on the other very far apart. What is interesting is that both of these religions, along with Judaism, are derived from the tradition of Abraham. All three share approximately the same teachings, geographic origin, and traditions. They venerate the same ancestry, saints, and prophets. All three have similar rituals. Yet they are rival religions. More importantly, seen from the viewpoint of the Muslims, their prophet was God’s last emissary, and this adds to the metaphysical advantage we Muslims feel over the other two religions. Our prophet is the last messenger to have received the revelation and this in itself enhances the metaphysical advantage of Islam. Taking all of this into consideration, one can no longer remain puzzled as to the reason for this deep rivalry. More than anywhere else in the world today, opposition to modernity, change, and the speed of that change is manifest in Islamic countries. The best evidence in support of this assertion is the contrast between . They both were and, in a sense, still are one nation, but in the face of the changes and problems facing today’s world, Indians and Pakistanis react very differently. is essentially viewed as a religious and Islamic country, while this is not the case in
Is this not an issue with which Islam, and the Shi‘ite faith in particular, has long been grappling; that of reaching a present-day balance between tradition and modernity? This problem was resolved in , , and many other countries a long time ago. They have been able to achieve a combination commensurate with their needs while preserving the essence of their traditions, whereas we, and many other Islamic countries, have failed to reach a concurring balance and are hence still struggling.
Yes, and this has been an issue for about the last hundred years. This question has existed from the time of Seyyed Jamal-ed-Din Asadabadi and ‘Abduh, and it still remains unresolved today. This is a fundamental problem, which contains within itself tens of other issues of relevance, each one significant, important, and problematic. The question of secularism and the laity. The difficulty of the separation of state and religion or their coexistence, which is a fundamental and primary issue on its own. All of these issues, which are both acute and relevant today, are the same ones that have always been relevant and posed with the same fervor, intensity, and importance.
For instance, what does Bin Laden want? He wants the entire Islamic world to be under the control, supervision, and rule of a single caliph. This too is one of those fundamental issues. When the Ottoman Caliphate collapsed and Ataturk came to power in , the empire fragmented into many newly founded Islamic countries. All Middle Eastern and Near Eastern Arab countries had been part of that empire; , . was ruled by a Khedive. All these countries were orphaned by that separation.
But ’s situation is different. It has been so since Safavid times, when two large neighboring powers were in conflict: and the
That is, the imamate and the caliphate?
Yes. In , until the Islamic revolution, a certain harmony existed between the clergy and the royalty. But under the , all Islamic provinces came under the rule of a single caliph. With the outbreak of World War I, everything fell apart and problematic issues arose. The essential questions remained unaddressed. One of the issues of the Islamic world is that of the ‘ah [Islamic Law]. The Shari‘ah’s role in society, civil laws, and the coexistence of the ‘ah and a civil code, inevitably leads to contradictions. The conflict between divine and earthly rule is examined within the framework of the political structure of a country. It is imperative to understand the relationship between Islamic government and the republic. Can these two be reconciled? Can a republic and Islam coexist? What is the role of parliament? What, and
how inclusive, should organizations be?
Now to get back to your book, Ex Occidente Lux. On the whole, your book looks at the present condition of contemporary humans in relation to the totality of contemporary thought, and describes this relationship. The reasons behind the present situation are somewhat randomly examined, but a question remains for me as a reader. Did the contemporary being you describe, with his/her harlequin mode of thought, rise from a Germanic philosophical base? At the peak of modernist philosophy, with Hegel, we really arrive at the end of an era. Western intellectualism and philosophy have apparently reached a dead end. After this there seems to be nothing but a skeptical return to previous philosophies. Do you agree that this condition began at that time?
At the beginning of the twentieth century the majority of German thinkers speak of ‘the end’. This is voiced more comprehensively by Spengler, who speaks of ‘The Decadence of the West.’ Heidegger speaks of the end of metaphysics. There is talk of the end of tradition and also the end of religion. To most intellectuals, the era that had begun with faith and metaphysics, reached its zenith, then degenerated and fell apart. Humankind entered another era. And what is this new era? Some consider it to be the end of metaphysics. Some think of it as the end of ideologies. Another group considers this to
be the beginning of an era they term Post-Modernism.
In a way they are all correct, but nothing is definite. We have entered an era wherein there are no absolutes. The sum total of all this is that the previous ontology, on which Western metaphysics were based, is no longer considered to be the final arbiter and has fallen by the wayside. We no longer believe in an absolute truth, an absolute existence, or an absolute intellect. There are no absolutes. What has replaced these previous absolutes is a kind of relativity that is at the same time very dangerous. Between truths, there are no longer any classifications, no ranges of degrees. This can be dangerous because by taking this approach, one could reach an absolute relativity. In that event, it will naturally follow that all levels of awareness will dissolve into each other and a surprising mish-mash world will ensue. Cultures will blend into one another… a colorful, kaleidoscope world will come to be and we shall bear witness to the hybridization of the world. This is the situation that we are currently experiencing and which I have attempted to explain in my book.
But keep in mind that this does not imply that faith and religion do not exist. Religion and faith, contrary to philosophical opinions, retain a strong presence. They continue to be present in the thoughts, the spirit, and the life of humankind. Between the two world wars, the majority of Western intellectuals were greatly influenced by leftist ideologies and mostly by the grand illusion that is Marxism. In this respect, one can refer to the French leftist intellectual Lucien Febvre’s L’Incroyance au 16e siècle, which describes the passion for Marxism that befell most Western intellectuals between the wars and even to a point, after the Second World War. There are various periods within the history of the twentieth century during which intellectuals were so entranced by different ideologies that truth was relegated to the back seat. In the one person who had the courage to stand up to leftist ideologies was Raymond Aron. He single-handedly took a stance against this ideology and suffered greatly for it.
Today, at the start of the twenty-first century, people no longer think the way they used to. Much of the attraction and appeal of dogmatic and rigid ideas and ideologies have disappeared. We have lived through all those ideological phases and have heard and read all the interpretations and arguments. Each individual has several identities. It is no longer easy to claim ‘I am a pure Iranian.’ Of course we Iranians all have an Iranian identity and this identity will always remain within us, but at the same time we are confronted by various problems. Whether we like it or not, we are connected to the world at large. We are influenced by the ideas of other nations. We have all become owners of manifold personalities. Therefore, the big problem for human beings everywhere is how to rationalize these different levels of awareness which are present in his mind, gathering and adding up to a massive pile. This is the main topic and forms the basis of the discourse in my book Ex Occidente Lux.
But how an event occurs is just as important as its consequence. After the establishment of leftist ideology, the rise of Stalinism, the creation of Euro-communism, Maoism, and different branches of Marxist philosophy, we witnessed the uprising of May, 1968. This was really the first important move against leftist utopian ideology. With the appearance of a new generation of young philosophers in the 1960s, the effective discarding of all the previous ideologies, which consequently caused the downfall of various leftist anti-colonial movements, the intellectual scene of the 1970s was completely transformed. In a continuation of this cultural shake-up and the fall of established ideologies, are we now witnessing humankind in a hybrid and harlequin cultural mode?
The revolutionary movements of the 1960s started in but reached their zenith in May 1968, in . These uprisings were in reality the crystallization of an anti-cultural movement that started in the . This was the counterculture movement, born in in the early sixties. The movement was anti-technology, anti-consumerist and against the market forces, which had become established and predominant in society after the Second World War. These market forces are still in place and have become even more powerful. The movement was against ‘the production machine’ that no one could control and which enslaved human beings. Their message was that in everyone is a new type of slave; the distinguishing feature of American society. In this society everyone lives and works with debt and installment payments, which they must pay till the day they die, and what is more, should they lose their job, they will be left with nothing of material value. Everything revolves around credit cards, and society must perpetually consume, or the economy will fail. Since they consume, they must produce. If there is no growth, there is unemployment, so society is forced to continually grow and grow, in order to work more and more, in order to produce more and more, in order to acquire more debt and more credit, all of which ends up with mankind becoming even more enslaved. People are forced to consume more, to suck life out of earth’s natural resources and replace it with dross. Any resistance or opposition to this trend causes everything to come to a halt, a full stop, and will result in the total collapse of the system. This trend continues because they have no other choice.
The counterculture movement was against the dynamism of capitalism. Yet, the events of the sixties in coincided with the Prague Spring of 1968, when Czechoslovakians began to question Soviet dogmatism. In the May 1968 uprising in , the demonstrators intended to burn the ‘ of ’ but this ‘temple’ ended up being the Paris Stock Exchange building. It is arguable that Al-Qaeda, in its own thinking, was also targeting the ‘Bastion of Capitalism’ in its attack on the . The uprisings and movements of the sixties were the antidote that Western culture formulated against itself. Even now, wherever the G-8 group of nations gather for their conferences and deliberations on the details and structure of globalization, demonstrations immediately ensue. This is the antidote to globalization that arises from itself. This represents a dialectic process which tries to continually self-regulate and at the same time points to the robustness and well-being of a movement that endeavors to stop the excesses in the system by not allowing any of the phenomena to become polarized and one-sided. It creates obstacles to the establishment of unhealthy phenomena in society.
The counterculture movement of the 1960s caused all this to change. This shock to the general public and dominant culture also shook up most of the social and traditional values, such as sexual relationships, human relations, and the foundations of social class structure. As a result, new issues were raised, such as feminism and the human rights movement. The protection of ethnic and religious minorities is yet another example, as manifested by the Civil Rights Movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Through his efforts, the movement became an issue and achieved positive results in . What I mean to say is that Western culture has this dynamism within itself, where it constantly questions its institutions. It brings its own values under question, creating doubt, and leading to a phenomenon of setting up a new order. But after each new order, a new crisis ensues. This means that the West is a culture based on crisis. An all-encompassing crisis wherein all the essentials of intellect, thought, and their foundations are in a permanent state of crisis. It is interesting to note that in the science of linguistics, the words ‘crisis’ and ‘critique’ share the same root. A crisis appears, is criticized, and a solution is conceived. If there is no criticism, there can be no solution.
Let me give you a real example. The 1980s were a period of great growth in the countries of . During that decade, these countries had exceptional growth rates and most of them achieved successful results through this growth. In the meantime, they regularly attributed their success to Asian values. They would say, ‘We are not Western, we maintain Asian values.’ These Asian values were the values expounded by Confucian philosophy, the values of self-discipline, asceticism, and respect for traditional family values. Each person bows to the law of society, and the individual does not exist. All these Asian principles and values, when applied, were very workable and successful, and resulted in the growth of these nations.
Inevitably, and as was to be expected, the situation evolved into a crisis, an Asian one which overturned everything that had been built and not even their values could stop it from happening. In order to be able to confront, realize, and understand a crisis, one must have a critical spirit. Had this critical spirit and basic realization been present, it would have given rise to timely constructive criticism which would have worked to resolve the crisis. Lacking the tools of criticism, they did not criticize, until it was too late and of little use. None of those Asian values had the ability to confront or check the status quo power structure. When there are no anti-status quo mechanisms in place, there can be no control, and power itself is in contention. Therefore the crises can not be controlled. Consequently, when these countries faced crises of major proportions, they were unable to overcome them internally. The allegedly came to their aid, and up to a point, did bring them out of these crises. They failed in the case of , which has not yet emerged from its crisis. The Japanese lack the courage to change, while in this is easily and frequently accomplished. In a crisis, the Americans immediately bring everything out into the open and all the details are mercilessly divulged in the media. Everything is criticized with great facility, whereas in
long after the crisis was realized, it was kept secret.
They did not tell anyone that their banks had granted vast sums of money to economic daydreamers who had invested this money in the stock market and raw land. All of a sudden, stock share prices collapsed, and the price of land plummeted to virtually nothing, sending the banks into bankruptcy. Instead of admitting to the situation, making it public (and thus exposing themselves to scrutiny and approbation), they chose instead to further enflame the crisis to the extent that it was not longer
resolvable. is still in the throes of that same crisis.
All this means that the dynamics of modernity are constantly in a state of crisis. It is as though the process of modernization is the same as that of a crisis. It is, in and of itself, crisis-creating, with periods of expansion and stasis. It must constantly reveal itself and in this exposure, must constantly change skins. In effect, the difference in civilizations is this very issue. The difference between Western civilization, especially its modern manifestation, with other civilizations, especially Eastern ones, is that they can constantly reveal and correct themselves.
This enables the process of modernization to continue ad infinitum. In the East we are prone to having major crises, but do not possess the power to extricate ourselves. We are presently approaching the issue of globalization in the same way. We do not fully comprehend the phenomena. Globalization does not mean any particular display of force. This phenomenon, created by recent technological revolutions, has created a third global wave. Communications, advanced technologies and the transformation of the human thinking process are all forces behind this wave. Globalization was not planned and cannot be controlled, just as other scientific or technological advances are hard to control. For instance, a matter that will very soon become much more serious than it is at present is the issue of cloning; matters relating to biotechnology and genetic engineering, one of the avenues of technological innovation which can not be stopped. It may be possible to control this technology to a certain extent and forestall some of its excesses and to at least stop another Frankenstein from being created. But this process has begun, is continuing to be researched and developed, and is unstoppable.
_Why is it unstoppable? In your book you point to the fact that as much as humankind has advanced towards this new civilization, at the same time religious faith, religious beliefs, and various beliefs in the supernatural have matured and become substantive. Don’t you think that religion and religious beliefs can be a limiting factor in stopping the excesses of this technologic culture?
I have already explained that they can no longer prove effective. That is, they do not have an equal effect on one another; they have dissolved into each other. Two movements are presently apparent: one moving towards globalization, and another seeking a return to a tribal existence. One can readily observe all the different aspects of these two movements around us. For instance, in one saw a move towards tribalism in its worst possible guise. Nationalism that turned into war. Milosovich is currently being tried as a war criminal. We saw where this war led us. We witnessed scenes the likes of which had not been seen since the Second World War; death camps, massacres, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. This tribal state of existence can essentially be viewed in two differing and even opposing ways: as fanatical nationalism or dogmatic religious fanaticism. Religious faith is ingrained in human nature; we are inherently religious and drawn to worship. Gilles Kepel has methodically analyzed this process in his book La Revanche de Dieu.
On the other hand, the phenomenon of globalization, whilst being extremely alluring, leaves much to be desired. It does not offer mankind any solutions on how to live. It has no answers for personal life. In this interminable world in which everything is buried, ancient cultures twinkle and beckon, like oases in a barren desert. Everyone is searching for a safe refuge in this vast wilderness, but no one has the ability to bridge the gaps in the phenomenon of globalization. How can they be bridged? In various ways. Inevitably, a number of individuals will experiment with various types of culture and develop their own pseudo culture. They manage to put on a good show. Another group, in this hotchpotch of cultures, end up by becoming wandering migrants. They will go from culture to culture. The high rate of immigration, mainly from the East to the West, confirms this. Those who move from one cultural environment to another, find that in their new environment, their individual fields of endeavor differ in accordance to what cultural level they originally possessed. This arouses diverse sensibilities and feelings. Some have a feeling of rebirth and regeneration. A number, however, tend to regress to the ways of their forebears, and out of frustration, want to destroy the world they find themselves in. From this type of confrontation with their new culture, religious anarchy sometimes appears. It sometimes appears in the shape of post-modernism. In effect, the Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden movement and their counterparts in the West, that is to say pseudo-religious anarchism, are post-modern phenomena. This type of worldview wishes to somehow return to a primordial existence.
At the same time, globalization creates fear. People feel strange and disoriented and naturally cling tooth and nail to what they culturally possess. This is why turn-of-the-millennium movements and cults and so-called religions do not appear only in the East. They also thrive in the Western world. People put their faith in the strangest beliefs. In the West, they feel more estranged and empty than we do in the East, because being alone and alienated is part of their lives. We in the East have Sufi traditions, which help. We Easterners, especially Iranians, whenever upset, read a line of poetry from Hafez and are relieved; we seek divination; we read a few verses from Rumi; a verse from the Ruba‘iyat of Omar Khayyam. Westerners are not thus blessed. Western cultures abandoned these respites long ago, but are now desperately turning to anything that promises any spiritual relief. Religious cults are an especially popular escape and include scientology, spirit, and devil worshippers. Why has Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist had so many reprints and sold over 12 million copies? For the same reasons that the Harry Potter books are so successful: a newly resurfaced enchantment with witchcraft and sorcery. Supernatural phenomena, even in extremely superstitious forms, have gained popularity. Mankind discarded such ideas, over 50 years ago, but has now regressed and we are witness to it. This is the reason that I have named this phenomenon ‘the re-enchantment,’ because we are witnessing a new form of enchantment that has been created by technology. This technology and its influence have spread throughout the world and have become the cause for the creation of this enchantment.
I was recently watching a television interview with George Lucas, the producer of Star Wars. He was asked whether he used new myths and legends in his films. He replied, ‘Myths have existed since time immemorial and are still present today; I only change their format and the way in which they are presented.’ When you see his movies, you realize that they are full of essentially mythological characters. The struggle between brave heroes and evil villains, or the eternal battle between good and evil. We witness Herculean trials of endurance and difficulty. They contain everything: the pilgrimage, achievement of higher levels, and the belief that higher states can be achieved by trials and tribulations. Our world today is becoming more and more shamanic.
It is interesting to note that in order to establish this new order, the West, instead of rejecting technology, chooses it to recreate the essence of this newly released intellect. But in the East this is completely in reverse. It seems that the East is helpless. In the East we have not yet reached the level of intellectual dependence on technology. The tools of technology are still regarded as playthings or status symbols. This helplessness of Middle Easterners and South Asians can be said to be a direct link between that mindset which was mentioned in the book L’Asie face à l’Occident and this new mindset that is mentioned here. We are resisting Western intellectualism. Meanwhile the West is using this new shamanism to color its life and intellect.
In Ex Occidente Lux there is a chapter about the ‘ideology of recollection.’ This term refers to the process by which the West created a new world and a new way of thinking after the Renaissance. They created dialectics and brought into being the Hegelian era. They have now finally reached a point where a panorama is laid out before them. This panorama consists of the whole history of intellectualism, existence, and the cosmos since the beginning of time. Today we are witness to the tremendous interest, in the genesis of virtually everything. For example, in the field of astrophysics there is a great deal of interest in ‘the Big Bang’ theory. How did the universe come to be? After four hundred years we now have finally reached the point where we have cosmology, and now know that the universe was created with an explosion. There are other interests: dinosaurs, ancient mythology, old legends and their origins, genesis, theory and psychology of creation, astronomy, human intellectualism, origins of man, evolution of mankind, the origins and evolution of Homo Erectus, Homo Sapiens, and Neanderthal man. All of our present-day intellectual consciousness goes back in time and, like a vast panorama, its contents are spread before us. I have named this ‘recollective intellect.’ To those who reach this level of consciousness, everything is possible and they begin to experiment. We in the East, however, are stuck at the point wherein our ancient cultural heritage is, in a way, still alive within us and has a fatal attraction. Our ancient ideals have not yet been completely abandoned, therefore in this present world of many colors, we feel alienated. Because we cannot link up with this world, we stand in opposition to it. Much like a guest who enters a feast through the back door, observes everyone laughing and enjoying themselves, but is unable to find his own place at the banquet. So he takes himself off into a corner, turns his back on every one, and sulks. From his point of view, all the rest of the guests are out of place. These radical movements, in reality do the same thing. They turn their backs on the mainstream. They occur everywhere, even in places like where the Shining Path party, or Maoists, are still active. These movements can either be radically leftist, or religious in nature, and all share the same important characteristic of nihilism and anarchy. They all want to blow everything up and return the world to its original state of primordial existence.
One of the reasons that these people cannot accept defeat in this matter is due to their non-participation in the process. Naturally they are upset and have a feeling of disillusionment and rebelliousness, which results in mutiny. We can not escape from this fact. We are right in the middle of it. But to partake of this colorful feast is not as simple as it looks. It requires a modicum of preparation.
The question of globalization seems to have a cultural aspect and the proponents of globalization in the East appear to be its artists. Globalization is no longer a matter of choice. In truth, both sides must make an effort. If the West has set its heart on globalization, which is basically out of its control and by which it wishes to extend economic and political uniformity over the entire world, it must make compromises. This movement starts from the West. The East, in order to protect its individuality and its national identity and to forestall alienation, must try to somehow control this phenomenon. This apparently is only possible from a cultural point of reference. What tools does the East possess to control this phenomenon and enter this process knowledgeably and with forethought, thereby escaping the ill effects and profit from the benefits?
The first and foremost step is that the East must accept the rules of the game. A game has started and whether you like it or not, you are right in its midst, and have little choice but to accept its rules.
What are these rules?
This is somewhat akin to putting on a carnival in which all take part according to their relative talents. This splendid festival is open to all comers. Each person can enjoy themself to the extent of their capacity for enjoyment. Many are currently doing just that. Just look and see how many Anglo-Indian writers have achieved worldwide recognition. It is because they are presenting their opinions in a universally understandable language. The West is in need of these writers. We in the East have things to offer and say, which the West both needs and appreciates. We only need to learn the right way to present these ideas. The rules of the game are to try and not blow up the world.
Since the decision whether or not globalize is no longer under anyone’s control, very much like a terrifying runaway automobile, and since this phenomenon cannot be stopped, then it is better to join in the process willingly. In this way, we should be able to both present our sensibilities and preserve our identity, which can be very interesting for the rest of the world.
How do we manage to do this?
One of the ways is through art. Take for example Iranian cinema. Iranian cinema has, during the course of the last decade, managed to introduce a new sensibility in film, which had all but been forgotten. This consisted of a fresh and innocent outlook, which was both novel and vigorous. The West picked up on this and it was hugely acclaimed. Iranian photography has now come into its own. It has become clear that in the field of modern visual arts, we have something to offer. We have been very well received. By using our talents we can participate in world events and tell everyone that we too exist. In much the same way as the rest of the world: the Latin Americans, the Indians, the Chinese. Now that the world has become one big kaleidoscope, we can also have a strong presence.
How can we preserve our character, our role, and our share in the totality of these rules?
These rules are neither special nor complicated. These are ordinary matters and not only are they not in opposition to our personalities but can be used to show our advanced level of culture and consciousness. The first rule is to refrain from condemning others, and accept them. The ‘otherness’ of others must be accepted as a fact, and we must not state that we are better; that they are materialistic and we are spiritual; that they are evil and we are divine. We must not divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ What we have, which is neither small nor insignificant, should be exhibited. I think we actually have a great deal to offer. holds a unique and outstanding position amongst other Islamic countries. Islamic culture is in debt to Iranian efforts and innovations. Islamic culture is beholden to us. We are very different from the Syrians, Iraqis, and Saudi Arabians. We are different from all other Islamic countries of the East. No country has contributed to Islam’s majesty and glory to this extent, and put in as much effort into Islamic culture and civilization. Our mystical poetry is unique in the world of Islam. The greatest era of Islamic culture and civilization occurred during the ‘Abbasid dynasty. We created that culture and gave it credibility and value; this should not cause us problems.
We are worried about the loss of our identity. We are not the ones who determine the rules and values of our current situation; we are just forced to obey these rules. Because we wish to speak in an international language and through a Western idiom, we are forced to put our words in the molds made by them. An example of this was in our Saqqa-khaneh school of art, in which we were obliged to accept the Western format and present our offerings according to their tastes. We are worried about losing our identity through globalization. We want to be the ones to prescribe our values.
This worry comes from misjudgment. Let me give you an example. Consider the new Stone Age. Let us forget where this phenomenon occurred or originated—in , or elsewhere. The civilization that came into being some 10,000 years ago belongs to everyone. It belongs to all of the world’s inhabitants and is the basis of all later civilizations. It is a misplaced debate to wonder whether it comes from a particular country or a particular civilization. All the moments of history and civilization, after a period of time, belong to the entire world. The Second Industrial Revolution belongs to all humankind, including us. The question of whether something is Eastern or Western is no longer relevant. Today Iranian cinema has a prestigious standing in the world, but we did not create the medium of cinema. The Lumiere brothers and Edison did this. But today cinema belongs to every one of us; all of us in this world who live with these inventions. Let us stop saying ‘theirs’ and ‘ours.’ This world belongs to everyone, a civilization made up of the labors of all mankind, for the use of all mankind. If we keep this thought firmly in mind, duality will not occur. Our personality is part of the global identity. The question of East or West, at least in a cultural sense, no longer exists. The world is a lavish banquet; very attractive but at the same time dangerous. This is part of the fate of each human being that lives in this world, to take their share of what belongs to them from this world and this life. Our identity has its roots in Iranian-Islamic culture and is in the process of constant change, so we must not be afraid that Western culture, with all the tools at its disposal, will tear them out and take them away, because our roots are deeply embedded in our psyche.
But we are worried about our share in this exchange.
I do not know if it is appropriate to speak of the West in this regard. It is probably better to say in today’s world. In my book I stated that we live in a world in which individual cultures have merged into a global one. But I believe that the world can be altered by those involved in research, in the fields of science and information, or in visual and artistic creation. We are a great nation, with a rich and ancient culture, which allows us to play a part in the progress of humankind. We must be able to present our way of thinking, one in which we believe and which will surely be appealing to the rest of the world. We must speak of our thoughts and beliefs, and these will be very well received. We must not be afraid. Look at the Chinese and Indians. What do they do? I don’t foresee any obstacles in our way. Self-confidence is important. We must have self-confidence. Iranians who live abroad are generally successful. In , in business, in medicine. Iranians are an intelligent nation. This is a great nation that has an exalted place in history and is still present on the global scene and can make itself felt. I truly don’t understand the reasons behind this uncertainty.
It seems to me that those who immigrate are little concerned with losing cultural ties; yet this matter preoccupies the thoughts of Iranian artists who live and work in . They are worried about their Iranian identity and consequently are anxious about globalization.
I understand this, but we only have two ways to go. We either have to turn our backs on everyone, shut the doors and oppose the entire world, or take courage and enter the fray. We can become participants in world events and the products of mankind’s ingenuity. This is the bottom line and to me the choice is quite clear. Why not take the plunge? If others have done this, so can we. At the same time I appreciate the fact that our picture of the West is tainted with a historical sense of helplessness (and hence our willful opposition to it). This duality exists, but it has an important advantage, which is our awareness of this very fact. It gives us the opportunity to take on an active, more confident role on the world scene. At the same time, we have been successful whenever we have played an active role. There are many such examples. Look at what we have achieved in cinema and photography. We have demonstrated great talent, which has been highly acclaimed. In a way the centers of talent have traded places. The center has moved to the perimeter and the perimeter has been focused in the center. Everything has shifted. Coincidentally, this issue is one of the advantages of globalization. The previous conception and interpretation of what the West was all about has been completely eroded. The colonial era is now over; the era in which colonization was the center and everyone was under its influence. This is what I mean when I talk about the climate in which hybridization takes place. Our thoughts and suppositions confront one another, and a very interesting new world is evolving. I am sure that in this interesting world, we too can play a role and participate, do our part and claim our share. Whenever we have had anything worth saying, everyone has listened.
But this process of globalization goes hand in hand with a global uniformity of cultures. The Americans have made this uniformity a reality, by exporting the distinguishing marks of their culture, such as blue jeans and McDonalds, and along with them the iconization of film stars and rock music. They have created and exported role models and icons for the entire world. They have been and will continue to be the cause for the destruction of local and indigent icons. This method of uniformization of culture will result in the total destruction of native cultures.
In this globalization of culture and art, we will also lose our cultural identity and innovative creativity. It doesn’t seem like this process will leave any room for demonstrating the individual identity and signs of our native culture.
It is interesting to note that Europeans on the whole, and the French in particular, believe much the same thing. Like you, they see the same problem. American cinema has presently managed to eclipse other native cinemas throughout the world. The French have only managed to preserve their film industry with large state subsidies.
But they haven’t actually been able to preserve their cinema.
Well at least they tried to preserve it and continue to do so. We made a similar effort and we were successful. The French, who both encouraged and promoted it, introduced our cinema to
It is said that one of the reasons our cinema was first a success in France and later the rest of was because the French were searching for their lost or rather abandoned cinema of the neen sixties and seventies.
Yes that is correct. But in any case, we have managed to portray our national disposition, enthusiasm, talent, and creativity by the use of all the tools available in this now universal medium of cinema, and our efforts have been acclaimed throughout the world. But your fear that in globalization we shall give up all aspects of our cultural heritage is a universally held fear. The Arabs, Indians, and even Europeans that possess an ancient culture have the same fear. That is to say, that portion of Western culture which is itself totally familiar with the tools of this game and has had a share in many of the signs and factors that created this world culture. But we are still left with the same two possible solutions in confronting these cultures. Either we turn our backs on it or we confront and fight. This confrontation with the probable winner, is in itself a form of conditional participation.
Turning one’s back on this situation is the worst thing to do because it can only lead to isolation, and isolation means vulnerability to damage. But if we do not turn our backs and if we participate conditionally, we may eventually find our rightful place.
The results of indifference are events like the 11th of September. To condone these events is to support an idea that has been created out of hatred and hostility, and is demeaning to the great culture of Islam. This is not a war of cultures between Islam and the
This event is a reaction to the injustice prevalent in the world today. It is the South warning the North against its all-consuming greed. A warning to the West and the North to give the East and South their due share of this world’s bounties. If this important matter is overlooked, there can be no alternative but to challenge this oppression and injustice. But the West viewed the matter from a different perspective and consequently reached a different conclusion. The East was the side to actually suffer. They hoped to call attention to their unequal status in this global equation, but ended up being viewed from the colonial lens of the West. This is because they have access to tools which we do not, and have learned how to use and apply them. Mcluhan remarks about one such instrument. They use these devices to dominate the world with their values and icons. In this cultural globalization, their forceful and inquisitive nature and knowledgeable utilization of mass media have allowed them to dominate, precluding our success in expressing our cultural identity.
Why is there so much emphasis on ‘the West’? The term ‘identity’ is also prone to being misunderstood. What we refer to as ‘identity,’ if expressed in simple words, would be a very appealing, understandable, and presentable concept. That is to say it would be an internationally understandable concept. Let me give you a more concrete example. If contemporary Indian writers are so well received and acclaimed worldwide, it is not because they write in English, but also because they express their problems at a level of awareness and intellect that is universally understood. This is the reason they are accepted by everyone worldwide. So in order to express this identity, we must first communicate in today’s language. But before all else we must revamp the essence of our cultural identity and understand that it must be presented in the generally accepted and predominant universal model. One can ask what this model consists of? The form that it must take has to be in a universally recognizable language and idiom, or the content will remain indigent and local. It will be irrelevant at the global level. It will remain ‘exotic.’
So we face two major problems in presenting our art and culture on the international stage: old and worn out content and an unfamiliar local format?
‘Old’ may not be the correct expression; maybe it would be better to say the contents are not relevant to our present day problems. We live in an in-between world which is a mixture of a local and native world and a general international world. We have both local and global identities. This in-between world is also extremely complex. It is fascinating and at the same time very complicated. If we were to express these in-between matters as a present day affair, in a presentation that was dually aware, and express our difficulties, they would automatically become public and international. A lot of our problems, as dual-identity, ‘hybrid’ members of today’s world, are similar to those of a Frenchman or an American. In this respect we all live under similar circumstances. If we can manage to do this, we can undercut this process.
What do we get out of this process?
That is another story altogether. Here we enter the realms of economics, the market and industry. How we can produce an economic formula from this phenomenon is another story altogether. First of all we are living off capital. We are heirs who have come into their paternal inheritance and are now living by spending that inheritance.
Does this mean that in the economic and industrial fields, we stand no chance?
That is not the case. We must simply translate our present possibilities into an economically viable and productive process. Let me give you an example. For a long time now a , which has come to be known as ‘’s .’ The Indians have become so proficient and effective in the field of software technology that the Americans are placing orders for software programming with them. An example is the Indian Microsoft Program. We too can do the same in . Our cinema, and our contemporary arts in general, due to their broad appeal and market demand, have the potential of becoming a marketable commodity and being commercially fruitful. We can be innovative and take on subcontract work from global conglomerates. The income generated by our oil resources has made us all lazy.
We consume our traditions and use them up. Of course in so doing, these traditions do proliferate to a certain extent. But we are unable to approach them in a more productive manner.
Yes it is a capital resource that we use up, rather like oil or even religion. It is an enormous asset, which we have been wasting and continue to waste today. I really have no solution for this matter. I can only give examples. I only know that our issues are similar to those of a great number of peoples who inhabit this earth. We must try to find a place for ourselves and I am completely certain that this is possible. We have to realize this about our culture, that we are people with manifold personalities and various identities. We must become aware that we live in a world that is versatile and changeable and to which we also have something to
contribute and in doing so, we shall find self-confidence.
What can we do with the traditions? Can they be revived? Would their rejuvenation serve any purpose? If we do this, will they still be traditions?
The traditions have not died, we should not hold funeral services for them. We must try to resuscitate them and give them a rebirth. We must be able to express them in today’s idiom and find them a suitable place. Let me give you a commonplace example. What did Henry Corbin do with Iranian intellect? He exposed anew the lost continent of Iranian culture in a contemporary language and as a result, it found a niche. That is to say he found a new way of looking at things. At present many young French people read Sohrevardi, whose works have become part of French public culture. He put new clothing on this ancient culture. He dusted off and polished this great edifice and made it shine. Iranian culture is one of the acmes of human intellect and is in reality timeless. The language of spirituality, mysticism, and mythology is fascinating and compelling. He explained all this not in the language of academia, but in layman’s terms, so that present day people understood it. Corbin distanced himself from this culture in order to be able to study it. We must do likewise. We must separate it from ourselves and study it from an outside perspective. This is what is meant by revival and renaissance. Bipolar awareness does the same thing. The very nature and essence of modernity is this phenomenon. A bipolar person, who is dually conscious and aware, can easily do this.
Do you mean that the only way to reach a compromise, mid-point, or common ground between tradition and modernism is to go beyond modernity?
Yes that is correct. That is precisely what it is. Otherwise tradition becomes self-orbiting, closed. It does not see itself. One day I asked Master Ashtiani why he had not written a book on the history of Islamic culture. He replied that he himself embodied that culture. This was a very perceptive response by someone very much in tune with Iranian thought and interpretation. To be able to write about a culture, one must remove oneself from that culture. Certainly one needs a deep and penetrating vision in order to do so. We do not possess such a perspective. In order to write such a book one must first acquire a constructive critical outlook.
Do you think that we have reached the point of ‘crisis’ so as to be capable of arriving at ‘criticism’? To acquire a critical mind and outlook requires that you first reach a crisis.
Iranian intellectuals and society at large are currently confronting a crisis. I believe this to be the reason why Iranians have had greater progress in comparison to other Islamic countries. I was speaking to an Egyptian intellectual and he commented that Iranians had reached the peak of intoxication, whilst other Islamic countries had not yet reached this level of awareness and expansion. I take this to mean that since Iranian society is in the process of a crisis, it has managed to take on a critical form and spirit.
During the course of the last two decades, Iranians have undergone exceptional experiences. They have allowed their traditions to dominate them. We fathomed the depths of our traditions. We explored all of our commonly held beliefs, which in reality we had held out of ignorance. We discarded and threw out certain traditions, which had accumulated over the course of centuries within us and had become part and parcel of our beings. What ever we had had, we expended. We could no longer state that we had not expressed or clearly introduced ourselves. It was not possible to do anymore in this respect. After this period of catharsis, we arrived at a new crisis point. Like it or not, the very fact that we have reached this new crisis point has produced a pattern of critical thinking within us. Present day Iranians possess this critical way of thought and spirit of constructive criticism. It has grown within them and taken root. The intellect, thought, and consciousness of all Iranians is currently in the process of pondering the juxtaposition of various issues. It is doing this with its new comprehension of the duality of traditional thought as opposed to modern thinking. A transposition has occurred. Iranian intellectualism has undergone spring-cleaning. I spoke about this in L’Asie face à l’Occident, but in fact this spring-cleaning had not yet occurred at that time. But we have now reached the point where we are spring-cleaning our minds and conscious intellects. It is my belief that the speed with which the previous regime attempted to change society and bring about modernity was one of the main reasons for its downfall. We wanted to become modern overnight without taking into account the depth of our traditionally held beliefs. It was believed that these traditional beliefs could be taken for granted. Perhaps this would have worked had we been an East Asian country with a Buddhist or Confucian cultural tradition. We started the process of modernization some ten years before these countries attempted to do so.
So you foresee a positive future for
Very much so. Arab nations are suffering from a kind of delusion. They have lost their way. The reasons for this are numerous, but one of them may be that their political situations, have evolved into dynastic republics. This has happened in and has in turn led to a type of stagnation and listlessness in both their political and social structures. Their societies are falling apart or, at the very least, have come to a full stop. But we in are alive and vigorously searching. We constantly perform dangerous feats and are forever entering the combat arena. Everything in our society is in a state of flux. Iranians today know the relevant place for both tradition and modernity. We have reached a level of understanding and intellectual awareness to appreciate the reciprocity between these two phenomena.
If we consult our past history, we shall find that during the Constitutional Movement, all those who had returned from abroad brought back new ideas as souvenirs, which we had no idea what to do with. It was as if one had purchased household furniture but had no house in which to place it. Reza Shah tried to construct this house but it was not of the same standard as the furniture. The ideals of the Constitutional Movement were expressed in a society which was tribal. At the same time the idea that the very foundations of society should be totally and fundamentally regenerated was in the minds of the intelligentsia of the era and the general mood of the times. These ideas were eventually realized and crystallized into reality. We felt their presence in every aspect of our daily lives. Iranians today are aware of what constitutes the solutions, or at the very least, even if they don’t know the solutions, they have come to realize and fully comprehend the problems. We have completed our spring-cleaning at a cost which we must pay.
It might interest you to know that after many years, I reread Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, and was truly amazed. How could an 18th century manuscript be so in tune with our current situation? The story is about two or three Iranians who had traveled to . The book is written in the form of letters exchanged between them. One of them maintains a large seraglio in . The letters illustrate the typically traditional outlook of Iranians towards European society of that time. While they have been very moved and greatly influenced by all that they have observed with respect to the advances and progress of the French, they however still criticized the French system and way of life. The Iranian who maintains a harem appears to be modernizing. But in reality, it is quite the opposite. When informed that the women in his harem propose to protest their state, he orders his eunuchs to put them under more pressure. Almost all the text revolves around this one point that part of this man is bound to tradition and another part is seeking modernity. The ideas are modern, but the inner self is traditional. This 200-year-old dichotomy is still with us today, and must sooner or later be resolved. But as long as it exists, it will continue to provoke crisis, and when crisis becomes a permanent state of affairs, it leads to the evolution of a critical mentality and state of mind. The importance of crisis lies in calling attention to this conflict between tradition and modernity. What I mean by this is that you become aware that you possess a duality of awareness. That is the importance of crisis. It enables you to see this. In a normal state of existence, you can not observe these phenomena. I propounded a meaning for this in my book, Qu’est-ce qu’une révolution religieuse? in which I called this state of being as ‘unconsciously Westoxified’. In my opinion we are either knowingly and willfully Western or unwittingly and unconsciously Westoxified. Knowingly Western means knowing when and in what respects you are tribal whilst at the same time being aware of what direction and towards what end your Western aspect is leading you. Being Westoxified is where one is overwhelmed by it and passively confronts it. For example, when for the first time the late Al-e Ahmad spoke of the state of being Westoxified, he made no distinction between the concepts of Westoxification as opposed to Westernized. I say that Westernization goes hand-in-hand with the awareness of becoming Western but ‘Westoxified’ refers to a person who has become Western without realizing that he has been vanquished. Dr. Shariati is the best example of this because he placed Islamic components within the context of Western Radicalism, without being aware of the differences between these two ways of thought.
He did not realize that these opposed concepts once combined, created a Marxist Islam. I believe that the Islamic Revolution has caused us to understand the meanings of becoming Western and of being Westoxified and the difference between the two. This itself is no mean feat. This crisis has given us this awareness. It is not yet totally formulated and is currently mute, but it exists.
The new generation no longer thinks like us. The youth of today both feel and understand their harlequin identity. This was not true of our generation, which never truly comprehended this. My generation is not interested in this issue. The in-between generation, that is currently above forty and in its fifties, also understands this crisis and the current situation, but those above sixty generally do not make any effort to get involved. I am a person from yesterday’s generation, trying to point out the problems facing the next. This is not my statement, a newspaper reporter, in his comments concerning my book, said it. Due to the crises it has undergone and its constant struggle with its own ancient ideas, Iranian society has come to realize and understand many issues. If the present day Iranian also becomes Western, at the very least he will come to the realization that he has become Westernized, and will be able to make use of the beneficial aspects of this phenomenon of Westernization, will no longer be ‘Westoxified,’ but in the real sense of the word, and in reality, will have become modernized. Being Westoxified means being bewitched and enchanted; a person who is bewitched is not aware of the fact. We have now become knowledgeable immigrants, who are aware of the reason behind their journey. The ingredients that go into making up this amalgam have at last been separated in our minds and fully understood. The problem of regeneration or renovation is another matter which, we might not be able to solve but in any event, have sorted out and separated the components.
Of course the perception of separation is important but still points to incompatibility.
Maybe we must accept this incompatibility. This is a truth we must face. It is a phrase I have used in the book, Tamed Schizophrenia. You know that you are schizophrenic but have controlled and suppressed it. What does psychiatry do to schizophrenia? It brings it under control by first seeking and discovering the different complexes present in the patient, and then studying these until it has found and understood the causes. This does not mean that the disease is eradicated, only that it is understood and controlled. Complexes are exposed to the spotlight of awareness until they no longer trouble internally. This will then be a form of cultural psychiatry.•
<!--[if !supportLists]-->· <!--[endif]-->The Persian translation of Ex Occidente Lux, first published in 2001 in , was entitled (approximate English translation:) The Re-enchantment; Harlequin Identity and Nomadic Thought.