Nikki R. Keddie, Modern Iran


Philip Jenkins



As I remarked some weeks back, I do not necessarily want to turn you into specialists on Iran and/or the Middle East. Having said that, it seems absurd to contemplate a course on the modern world and the twentieth century without dealing with issues of religion and politics, and the rise of neo-fundamentalism, the “revenge of God”. And Iran is SUCH an important country in world affairs. Accordingly, we will be using Keddie’s book to try to understand why some societies responded to modernity by turning to or reasserting religion. Though we are most familiar with this phenomenon in the context of Islam, similar trends occurred within other great religions, including Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism.


In addition to the Keddie book, I also want you to read an article I will circulate, by Yehudah Mirsky, “From Fascism to Jihadism.” I would also recommend reading the review article on modern Iran at http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,1888563,00.html


Themes that we will be discussing in this class include:


1.Theories of secularization – why religion should have had the decency to die with dignity during the twentieth century, and why it didn’t.


2.The term and concept of fundamentalism. Can it be applied outside Christianity?


3.How religion has been affected by urbanization, industrialization and modernization.


4.Globalization and the changing shape of Christianity during the twentieth century.


5.Why people in the mid-twentieth century believed that religion had been tamed, and excluded from politics.


6. Why it came back forcefully around the world from about 1975 onwards.


7.The role of demographics in the religious revival


8.The role of gender and family politics in the new religious environment.


9.Can we legitimately compare the growth of Islamic politics with ostensibly secular movements such as fascism and communism (discuss the Mirsky article here).


10.Why and how have Christianity and Islam come into conflict?


11.How have these changes affected other religions?


12.Can we legitimately talk of a clash of civilizations?


13.How radical Islamic politics became associated with terrorism.


14.Was September 11 a bizarre anomaly, or a key benchmark of the ideological shape of the emerging world of the 21st century?



For a quick biographical summary, check out http://www.history.ucla.edu/keddie/  


How have Iranian affairs affected the wider world in modern history, and specifically the US? Would Western policy-makers have responded better if they had understood the religious motivations involved? What mistakes could they have avoided? How far do these lessons apply to the present day?


What have been the most significant trends in modern Iranian history?


What have been the greatest turning points and dates of transition?


What have been the country’s most important interest-groups? How far would these differ from what we might expect in a Western country?


How have successive leaders tried to modernize Iran? How far have they succeeded? Where have they failed?


How far can Western and particularly US intervention be blamed for the radical politics of post-1953 Iran?


Why did the Shah fail?


How far can the revolution of 1978-79 be compared to other great revolutionary movements, such as the French, Russian or Chinese? Does this experience contribute to forming a generalized theory of revolutions?


How far were Iranian affairs shaped by individuals, eg Khomeini, or should we rather see them as riding powerful currents at work at the time?


In trying to reshape Iran post-1979, can we see similarities to how the Soviets tried to reshape their country after 1917? What parallels can we draw to the findings of Kate Brown? Of Sheila Fitzpatrick? Can we compare the portrait of post-1979 Iran with the Stalinist world depicted by Fitzpatrick?: Are people making masks in the same way?


Here are some questions that I have asked about other books in the course, but that apply equally here:


What presence did the Iranian state have in the localities before the mid-twentieth century? How did this presence change as the century progressed?


What role do schools and education play in the process of making identities?


What role do history and memory play in the process of making identities, political or religious?


What role does language play in the process of making identities and ideologies? Note how different religious and intellectual traditions use different languages and linguistic styles.


What role has war played in shaping and reshaping modern Iran, especially during the two world wars, and in the 1980s?


What impact did the Iran-Iraq war have, both on the nation of Iran and the wider world?


How far did Iran have a national identity apart from its religious context?


What chance of success did Communism or radical socialism have in Iran?


What role has oil wealth played in modern Iranian history?


What has “modernity” implied for Iranians? What about “the West” and “Westernization”?


How have definitions of local community changed in the processes under way here? How have various states tried to “create Iranians”?


Viewed from an Iranian perspective, what might we think of Charles Maier’s alternative narratives of the twentieth century? What competing narratives have played out in the Iranian experience? What is the revolutionary narrative?


Why has Iran undergone such a remarkable demographic transition since 1979?


How far does modern Iran fit the familiar picture of totalitarianism?


Is the process of “Seeing Like A State” different when the guiding ideology is so explicitly religious as it is in Iranian Islam? Do bureaucrats and policymakers operate from the same assumptions as in the secular West, and make the same blunders?


What role did gender changes and conflicts play in shaping modern Iran? How have women coped under the various regimes? Please note that Keddie has a LOT to say about women’s issues – check out the index. How far do her findings support or contradict standard Western stereotypes?


What do you think of concepts like “Islamic Fascism”, particularly in the context of the post-1979 regime? How far can the analogies be sustained?


Some questions specifically about Islam and religious matters


How far do Keddie’s accounts of Islam and Islamic politics support or contradict standard Western stereotypes of the religion? What analogies, if any, can we see to fundamentalism in other faiths, especially Christianity?


Why did Iran’s particular religious traditions prove so difficult to co-opt or accommodate?


How far was the radical Islam of the late twentieth century a modern invention?


Can we legitimately use the word “medieval” for the political/religious set-up described here?


Why did political Islam revive so forcefully during the 1970s?


Was the Iranian revolution purely a religious movement, a social and political movement, or all of the above?


How important is the Iranian Shi’ite cult of martyrdom and sacrifice in shaping political realities? What role do apocalyptic beliefs play in the “real world”?


What might Benedict Anderson make of the trends described here, especially when they are much more overtly religious than the issues he normally discusses?


Critical question: how far can the Iranian experience be extrapolated to help explain Islamic and/or religious extremism elsewhere, or is it purely a matter of local political traditions and experiences? Is the Shi’ite tradition unique or distinctive in this regard?


Usual other questions: What other criticism would you have of Keddie’s work? What other questions might you ask of the material? What other interpretations might you offer? Does her work show any obvious biases or slants? What, if anything, can you glean about her personal ideological stances?


And finally, two quotes to consider, about the course more generally, and the role of religion:

“Will some Gibbon of Mongol race sit by the shore of the Pacific in the year A.D. 3000 and write on the ‘Decline and Fall of the Christian Empire’? If so, he will probably describe the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the golden age when outwardly life flourished as never before, but when that decay, which resulted in the gradual collapse of the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries, was already far advanced.”

Walter Rauschenbusch, Chr1stianity And The Social Crisis (1908)


And finally, another piece of apocalyptic from Lord Macaulay, writing in 1840, on the Roman Catholic Church:

“She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's.”