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To change Iran’s future, examine its past

By Sheda Vaseghi, on August 25, 2009

To change, Iranians need to look within.

Notes taken from a 1984 Harvard interview with a prominent Iranologist Dr. Richard N. Frye may be of interest to Iranian nationalists contemplating the recent uprisings of their fellow countrymen against the Islamic Republic. In my opinion, his views about Iran and its people provide some insight as to the social and cultural catalysts leading to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The following is based on my analysis of that interview taking into consideration subsequent events since 1984.

From 1969-1975, Dr. Frye was head of Asia Institute at the Pahlavi University in Shiraz. With an exciting opportunity to teach in Iran, he anticipated having classrooms filled with eager Iranians wanting to learn about their glorious past. Instead he found Iranians neither interested nor encouraged to learn and teach their ancient history. His unbiased observations and honest opinion about Iranians expressed during this interview are both eye-opening and provocative forcing Iranians to look within as they fight for a secular democracy.

According to Dr. Frye, prior to the 13th century Mongolian invasion, Iran was very different from the Far East in that kings did not pay homage to holy men. But afterwards, holy men expected the Persian king to be humble. Contrary to what apologists for the Islamic Republic claim, Dr. Frye states in Islam, religion equals state. He adds there are really two Islams: one is Arab where the head of state and religion are one, as the Caliphate; the other is international Islam where state and religion are separate and for which Iran was the leading exponent in the 9th and 10th centuries. The separation of religion and state had been true in Iran since the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 B.C.E.). The present Islamic government in Iran is the Arab type.

According to Dr. Frye’s vast knowledge of Iranian history, a typical Iranian leader is charismatic, never wrong, all responsible, and all powerful. In Iranian culture, a leader must have power, since that is what Iranians understand. Based on this characterization, people can easily shirk their responsibilities towards their nation causing leaders to make all decisions and bear all consequences. Democracies cannot form if the majority does not participate. Dr. Frye claims throughout the entire Iranian history issues have been either black/white or good/evil. His analysis would render factual, unbiased study by Iranians of their historical events and personalities very difficult. Without a healthy approach to history, the nation cannot build on its accomplishments, heal its wounds, and keep up with its contemporaries.

Dr. Frye feels a major problem with Iranian culture is lack of enthusiasm and motivation to push or support changes which makes it difficult to get anything off ground. He assumes this is because everything has been told to the common people. Interestingly, this lack of motivation by Iranians was one of the main complaints by Reza Shah Pahlavi (1878-1944) during his radical modernization movement.

Dr. Frye wanted ancient Persian language, history, and archaeology to be taught by an Iranian staff at Pahlavi University, but because these courses were not taught before, he had a difficult time finding anyone. He was shocked at the poor standards of pre-Islamic studies. Political science was virtually non-existent and students were hardly taught anything about neighboring countries. Instead emphasis was put on science and Islamic studies, but not social studies or humanities.

According to Dr. Frye, democracy requires the “ability to make mistakes” and admit to the mistakes. He feels this frequently is not the case in Iran. Tehran is the powerhouse of the country, and there is little regard or respect for people outside of Tehran. In his opinion, there was a “Tehran versus rest-of-the-country” mentality. Although now because of the internet young people are changing.

Dr. Frye immersed himself in Iranian culture to understand it better, because he believes that is the only way to understand a people. He explains that the Shah’s regime wanted to modernize Iran quickly with a shock and a lot of money, but this strategy did not take into consideration the peasant population. According to Dr. Frye, the Shah’s economic plans created a large middle class, but a greater portion of this class did not have the values of Western education, making them feel left out of the ferment in the intellectual movement of Tehran. The neglected villagers moving to the cities could not assimilate. An explosion was impending. Dr. Frye feels now with the Islamic Republic everything has turned “upside down,” but in the long run, law and order will prevail as everywhere else.

From the amazing milestone of the 1906 Constitutional Revolution replacing absolute monarchy with representative government to the unprecedented social and economic growth of 1960’s and 1970’s under the late Shah to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 which overturned 80 years of Iranian struggle for modernization and secular democracy, the vilayet-e faqih (rule by a religious leader) has been declared un-Islamic. It is imperative to note how scholars such as Dr. Frye dedicated to learning and teaching Iran’s history characterize its people and culture. Their observations should be used as a positive tool to recognize and address social and cultural weaknesses so the nation is no longer vulnerable to self-destructive paths.

Sheda Vasseghi has a Masters in Ancient History with emphasis on ancient Persia. She handles public relations for and is a member of the Azadegan Foundation. Ms. Vasseghi is a regular contributor to political magazines such as

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This Articl published in the Iran Quest this is a courtesy copy to the original article.








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