Modernity the Discourse of Modernity Research Proposal

Excerpt from Research Proposal :

The already shaky relationship between the Qatar state and Iranian society was further undermined by the Western exploitation of Iranian resources during the second half of the nineteenth century.

From 1918 until 1921 "British subsidies kept the government afloat, and British military and administrative advisers attempted to reorganize Iran's army and to manipulate the various political factions within the country to British advantage" (Cleveland, 185)*. When Britain added insult to injury by offering Iran a loan in exchange for exclusive advisory privileges, anti-imperial demonstrations broke out in several cities. Widespread discontent grew further. The Qatar government was regarded as ineffective and pro-British. A determined military commander finally took action and put a stop to the chaos.

Reza Khan used the political climate to advance from the position of commander and chief of the army in 1921 to that of the shah of Iran in 1925. His election overthrew the Qatar dynasty. Under his newly-founded Pahlavi Dynasty, Reza Shah pursued a program of reform towards the creation of a strong central government. "To lessen possible opposition, Reza Shah imposed severe restrictions on the clergy and the craft guilds who were by tradition accustomed to considerable autonomy" (Arasteh, 104)*. In a bold move in 1934, the Shah issued a decree to secularize property and deprive the clergy of its wealth and power. Civil law came to take precedence over Islamic law. The Shah also outlawed and discredited Islamic nationalist movements and Shiite popular religious practices. This simply replaced one type of repression with another. The distance of the government from the society it was supposed to serve was extended by such measures. In addition to the above, public religious expression was forbidden, and especially those that entailed pilgrimages to Najaf and Karbala in Iraq. Citizens were also forbidden from attending the religious dramas and processions associated with the month of Muharram. The guild's activities were restricted by only allowing them to meet under police supervision.

In addition to such restrictive and often violent tactics, the Shah also attempted to force modernization upon his country by introducing Western clothing styles for men and women. European clothing was important in large quantities, and sold cheaply to citizens to encourage and enforce the new styles. The changes that this forced modernity entailed, including the unveiling of Iranian women, resulted in subsequent gendered and racialized notions.

"The authoritarian state imposed through the construction of a coercive public patriarchy based on obedience and loyalty to it as father and king. However, the nation became a site of contestation since it included only those willing to join the project of Westernization and modernization and marginalization those of deviating from it" (Kaiwar, 205). Although an agent of change, the new state was iconic of enforced Western modernity. The change was neither natural nor in accordance with the wishes and desires of leadership entities such as the ulama, the traditional guilds, or the tribal khans. As such, the society was European in appearance but remained traditional at heart.

An understanding of the Iranian revolution can be gained by recognizing that the country's recent history is also affected by the modernist imperialist narrative. While the United States enjoyed a normalized relationship wit Iran during the Pahlavi rule, the Shah's unpopular and undemocratic modernization projects recontextualized the very meanings of modernity in Iran. The negative connotations of these concepts were exacerbated by the cultural elitism of the "Westernized Aryan" minority and the authoritarian state apparatus.

"This scheme inherently linked "tradition" with failure and pointed out a single road to prosperity and power" (Mirsepassi, 11). In this way, the local culture was explicitly delegitimized by an outside party, namely Western modernity. Rather than enforcing the changes envisioned by the Shah, this led to a civil reaction of the Iranian people toward the singular universality of their own culture and practices. This is particularly relevant for our purpose in this study, as such a division led to the complete loss of the Shah's state power and the legitimacy of the ruling class in pre-revolutionary Iran.

The systematic suppression of secular opponents created a political vacuum for the emerging Islamic movement, and a platform for its attempts to articulate an alternative to the oppressive Western models of modernization introduced by the Shah. The Shah's goal was to rebuild Iran in the image of the West or, at any rate, in the image he had of the West. He refused to democratize the Iranian polity, and would offer the same
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response to any opposition view: "Democracy is the invention of the "blue-eyed world" and does not fit the Persian political landscape." (Milani, 18)

Eventually, the Muslim clerics were the first instigators of revolution, fueled by the perception of the Shah's inequitable rule. The clerics swelled both intellectual and public resentment of the Shah and his practices into a full-fledged revolution. The religious forces in the country, in their zeal to oppose the rise of secular humanism, systematically equated modernity with unsavory colonial and western influences. "It was precisely this beguiling rhetoric that convinced many secular democrats in Iran that Ayatollah Khomeini was a progressive critic of modernity and colonialism" (Milani, 10).

In this context, new competing and conflicting cultural strategies of selfhood began to emerge. "Religious forces, suspicious of change, advocated social and spiritual isolation. Only a culture enveloped in divine wisdom, they argued, could survive the satanic verses of modernity. On the opposite extreme were the advocates of cultural transubstantiation who encouraged a total submersion of Iranian culture into the paradise of European civilizations" (Milani, 52). Confounding this individual battle was the peculiar problem of the new stage of modernity in Iran.

The Occident and the Orient: Looking through the Orientalist Lens

Modernity in the West is frequently seen as evidence of its cultural superiority and creativity, thereby its ascendancy over other parts of the world since the era of European colonialism and to the 19th century. This is a paradigm playing an especially prominent role with regard to the relationship between Western and Eastern culture. "Orientalism" as an academic discipline and a way of thinking emerged as an overarching vision. This vision homogenized non-Western culture and societies into a single rather than diverse concept. Regardless of any specificity separating the differing people of Asia, East Asia, and North Africa, their commonality, according to Orientalist thought, can be found in the fact that they were fundamentally different -- and inferior to - the West.

This study aims to investigate the representations of Persia in a number of canonical and non-canonical texts. The theoretical framework is based upon Edward Said's analysis of orientalism. It is argued that the case of Persia instances the heterogeneous and striated character of orientalism ('representations' rather than 'representation' in the title). It is shown that, while a number of relatively similar set of motifs and topoi, mainly derived from classical tradition and contemporary travel writing, circulate in the works of the three authors included (Sheen, Morier, Nasr al Din Shah), they are differently inflected and serve different thematic and ideological purposes.

In what follows I will discuss issues in Morier's Hajji Baba novels as the culmination of 'oriental tales' in both thematic and stylistic terms. What makes the Hajji Baba novels masterpieces of orientalist work, is above all Morier's ability to 'pass off' 'partial accounts' of Persia, which he presumes to have noted during his stay there as 'the whole story' (dysfunctional government, social injustice, being out of pace with 'modernity', etc.). Thus, in England, Hajji Baba, and to some extent the other Persian members of the embassy, are provided with an 'opportunity' to be educated away from their 'oriental' mode of life and thought: the journey from 'ignorance' to 'enlightenment', from Persia to England, is both physical and intellectual.

To depict this 'darkness,' Morier 'familiarizes' details from Persian life -- cultural 'codes' ('recorded' in his Journeys) -- for his readers. This 'deciphering' of the then 'little known' Persia informs the orientalist project of the Hajji Baba novels; even as orientalism itself presumes to 'decipher' the Orient. Morier's art resides in an ability to make the 'deciphering' appear 'realistic', to 'naturalize' the 'Persian' cultural codes in the of making them 'known' ('decoding' them), and also showing that, 'strange' though they are, they are 'natural' to the way of life, the mode of thought and behavior, in the (Islamic) East. In other words, these codes become orientalist 'coda'; the final, 'conclusive' remarks on Persian / Oriental life. As an example, having read the first two pages of Hajji Baba (Hajji Baba's birth and education!), the reader 'knows' something about 'kerbelai' and 'hajji' (and their respective importance), religious education and 'Saadi' and Hafiz being the most popular Persian poets (HB, 1-2). Through the subtle irony that permeates the novel, from the very beginning something of the 'moral…darkness' of the Persian is also implied.


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