The condition of intellectuals in Iran

Part 1: Islamic conquest to 1942

Bagher Momeni

One could equally speak of "the calamity of Iranian intellectuals".

If we extend the term to include thinkers and scholars in previous epochs, the description of calamity can be extended even to the remote past. Such were the Majian Gaumata (died 522 BC), Mani who founded Manichaeism (276-215 BC), Mazdak founder of the egalitarian religion Mazdaism (died in the first half of the 6th Century AD) among countless other pre-Islamic thinkers and social and intellectual reformers put to death at the hands of Archeminian and Sassanian kings and Zoroastrian high priests.

Turning to the 13 centuries since the Islamic conquest of Iran the number of intellectual thinkers and reformers who died at the hands of autocratic kings and religious reaction are truly uncountable.

Silenced in their prime

Some walked up the scaffold, were stoned to death or were beheaded before they were even 40. Ibn al-Muqaffa’ Abdollah Ruzbeh who translated the classic Kalileh va Dimneh and some Manichaean texts and many other works from the pre-Islamic Iranian language Pahlavi to Farsi was killed in 756 AD on orders of the Caliph Mansur accused of polytheism and Manichaeism. He was about 36 years old. Philosopher and mystic Ein al-Qozzat Abdolah Abulma’ali (1098-1131 AD) was hanged as a non-believer aged 33. Shahabeddin Sohrvardi (1153-1191 AD) philosopher and illuminati theologian was strangled aged 38.

Seven centuries later Seiyed Ali Mohammad Bab (1821-1850 AD) religious reformer and claimant to being the resurrected Mahdi 1 was shot at the age of 29 and many intellectuals close to him, including the early feminist woman warrior-intellectual Fatmeh Qarr’at al-Ein (1817 - August 1851), were slaughtered along with thousands of Bab’s followers. The irony was that the order for the massacre came from another reformist intellectual - the then Chief Minister Mirza Taghi Khan Amir Kabir, himself murdered some years later at the orders of the Shah.

Half a century later Iran enters the chapter of the Constitutional Revolution (1905-8) which for the history of intellectual life registers nothing but calamity. The first young victim was Mirza Jahangir Khan Sur Esrafil (1875-1908) pioneer journalist, strangled at the orders of the absolutist monarch. His crime was to support the constitutional monarchists. The last in this line was Dr Taghi Arani the many-layered Marxist intellectual and teacher who was arrested for being a communist and after suffering a long period of torture was deliberately infected with typhus in prison and died on January, 4 1940. He was only 35.

Different routes to silence

But if we go beyond the young pioneer thinkers the caravan of deaths is beyond counting. Two examples: in 775 AD al-Moqanna’ Hashem ibn Hakim and his white-shirted followers in Khorasan and Transoxania (modern Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) committed suicide and one and a half centuries later (922 AD) his red shirted followers were hanged after being defeated in a 21-year struggle.

The tragedy appears in different forms. Legend has it that Hassan Sabbah (died in 1124), Khajeh Nizam al-Mulk (1017-92), and Omar Khayyam (1050-1123) were school mates. The first rebelled against the ruling powers and founded the Ismaili Shi’ite sect and took to assassinating political opponents 2. The second rose to become the chief minister under the Mogul king and reorganised the state and religion in the kingdom and ironically died at the hands of an Ismaili assassin sent by his old friend and the third withdrew into astronomy, poetry, overhauling the calendar, and satisfying himself with grape-water, heavenly and earthly beauties. It was only decades after his death that some of his heretical philosophies saw the light of day.

If the above story of a shared schooling has little historic credibility, there is a more recent example of social comrades ending up in totally divergent paths. All three started their political career by spreading progressive ideas of democracy, the rule of law and liberation from absolutism. In their different ways all three were prevented from fulfilling their historic role - enlightenment: pioneer journalist Mirza Jahangir Khan Sur Esrafil was murdered in his youth (see above), Said Hossein Taghizadeh (died 1969) rose to become minister and senator under another autocratic Shah, and Ali Akbar Dehkhoda (1880-1965) withdrew into his mountain of ancient books 3. This pattern is repeated again and again. The pioneering intellectual is either murdered, joins the system of authority or withdraws into obscurity.

The same tragedy reappears in another form especially in the second half of the 19th century: exile Among the many dozens one can name Iran’s first playwright, Mirza Fathali Akhundzadeh (1812-1878) who introduced political theatre to Iran, Abdol-Rahim Talbof (1834-1910), Mirza Malkam Khan whose paper Ghanun (law) influenced the Constitutionalists enormously, and Mirza Agha Khan Kermani (1854-1896) all highly influential in forming the ideas which culminated in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-8. All of them spent most or all their life in exile.

Some of our intellectuals suffered what, for a thinker, is tantamount to a living death: being unable to communicate your thoughts. The pioneer of the Iranian modern novel, Sadegh Hedayat (1902-1951), modern Farsi poetry, Nima Yushij (1897-1959) and modern Iranian theatre, Abdol-Hossein Nushin all had only a brief moment in time to blossom: the short breathing space between the departure of one dictator (Reza Shah) and the appearance of another (his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi). Hedayat committed suicide in Paris, far from his people, Nushin was exiled to the USSR where there was no place for his artistry and spent his time studying Iranian epic poetry until his lonely death in exile, and Nima withdrew to the silence of seclusion for the remainder of his life.

Works destroyed

Exile or imprisonment also caused yet another tragedy for the intellectual: their neglect or destruction of their works. Akhundzadeh’s fear of being associated with his book Maktubat was so strong that, despite living abroad, it was first published in the Soviet Union in 1924, 46 years after his death. It had to wait for almost a century after his death to see print in Iran, and then in secret, away from the eyes of the censors and only in a limited edition of 500. The fate of Mirza Agha Khan Kermani’s books were even more tragic. He himself was beheaded by the order of the autocrat Mohammad Ali Shah. His book, "Three Correspondence" (Seh Maktub) appeared abroad in a limited edition of 1000 in 1992, a century after his death. A second book "One Hundred Lectures" (Sad Khatabeh) is still in hand-written form in a handful of large libraries or gathers dust in the attic of some admirer.

Tragedy did not just hit those who swam against the tide. Even those who helped the authorities subjugate other intellectuals did not escape the sword. I have already alluded to the great reformer and moderniser Mirza Taghi Khan Amir Kabir, who had his wrist cut in 1852 by order of Naser’eddin Shah whose Chief Minister he was. More recently Ali Akbar Davar, the brain behind Reza Shah’s autocratic rule and organiser of Iran’s modern bureaucracy and judiciary, committed suicide on orders of the Shah in 1936.

Forward to the past

What happened to Iranian intellectuals bears little comparison to their fate in the West. In the West society evolved naturally and the intellectual developed alongside it, struggling against, and gradually pushing back or defeating home-grown reaction and autocracy. The intellectual realm was gradually extended in an atmosphere that became increasingly free.

Iran’s history has repeatedly and at frequent intervals gone through major upheavals. Over the last 1400 years the country has been the scene of numerous invasions from culturally more backward tribes: Arab, Turk, Mogul, Afghan. The country saw major upheavals and numerous cultural relapse.

At a time when Europe was stepping into the era of enlightenment Iran entered an age of cultural darkness with the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1732). During the whole of this period all thought was religious, without a single exception. Not for one moment does a spark light up the air.

Moreover, unlike his/her European counterpart who looked ahead, the Iranian thinker always looked back to a past that they had lost. Intellectuals gave their life, sometimes literally, in order to keep or recreate what they had once possessed. The conquerors not only prevented the natural growth of civilisation, but inevitably imposed their own more primitive culture on the country. The clock was, so to speak, turned back again and again .

For Iranian intellectuals the struggle for social progress was often no more than a return to roots and the ideas of their predecessors: for ideas that were ceaselessly and everywhere searching for the victory of light over darkness. Hundreds of renowned thinkers and dozens of large sects with a variety of beliefs were accused of polytheism because they turned to their past culture and civilisation. And because they wanted to restore Manichaeism and Mazdaism 4 to Iran. These were religions which in contrast to the unitary nature of Islam believed in the duality of creation in the form of light and darkness, the ceaseless battle between the two and the ultimate victory of light over darkness. The duty of humankind is to help the victory of light in its struggle. It is no coincidence that the whole of Iranian literature is suffused with hatred for the night and a greeting of the dawn, which sadly continues up to the present.

Barring brief instants of historic time, our intellectual has always lived in the night, has spoken in hatred of the night and has been in struggle against the night. A recent example is the father of modern Iranian poetry, Nima Yushij. He has over ten poems with names including the word night, not counting dozens of others where the poet shivers in fear of night and awaits dawn. In only two poems, appearing in a seven-eight year brief interlude in a life of over 60 years, does the cock crow, the night flee and dawn arrives.

The Constitutional Revolution 1905-8

If the European intellectual left behind the dark ages and the Inquisition finally and for ever with the enlightenment, their Iranian counterpart, who in the space created by new ideas now steps into the path of the Encylopaedists and carries the title of "enlightened thinker" (Monavvar al-fekr), begins a new era in his/her life’s tragedy and a new struggle between light and dark.

Time has, apparently, not changed. The door revolves round the same axis. The motion of history, as the poet Hafiz said, "is on the same character and manner as was". Our intelligencia has at this stage left behind the Arab, Turk and Mogul occupations, has absorbed the whole historic experience into him[her]self and has achieved a blend of civilisation, that while reflecting all their influence, remains uniquely his or hers. Driven by his/her intellectuality and a very human and natural desire to push forwards s/he is attracted to the culture and civilisation which had developed in the West in an open climate and through a process of global give and take.

But now our intelligencia does not face primitive forces of invasion and occupation. Instead s/he faces the invasion of Western neo-colonialism, having at its disposal the most advanced achievements of human civilisation, and trying to harness the craving of the Iranian "enlightened thinker" for those very achievements to its own self-interests.

A new calamity is about to begin; everything becomes topsy turvey and the Iranian intellectual is pulled left and right by several grinding stones:

Some take refuge with the colonialists against the despot and others with reaction against the colonialist. Our intellectuals, almost despite themselves, stumble from one pothole to another. Some turn to nationalism. Others advocate Islamic unity. Yet more turn back the clock a thousand years, and identifying with exiled Zoroastrians of ions ago, call the ghosts of the Arab conquerors to combat. Or fascinated by mere appearances they mistake the mirage for modern culture and civilisation. These either become stuck in a dead end or tumbled down the slippery slope of decay.

In the midst of such confusion there are a mere handful of intellectuals who draw a clear line between themselves and colonialism, despotism, and reaction by lighting the torch of advanced civilisation in the heart of society. A tragic destiny would only be natural for such Promethian characters. They either cried out in the wilderness or lost their head.

Akhunzadeh’s writings gather dust in his attic; Yusef Mostashar al-Dowlah was blinded by having his book repeatedly banged on his head, Mirza Agha Khan Kermani was beheaded; Malkam lived in exile all his life. Even the reformist aristocracy like Moshir al-Dowlah and Amin al-Dowlah had to leave their ministerial post under pressure of religious and political reaction.

Despite all this the movement for a constitutional monarchy5succeeds through the direct or indirect influence of such intellectuals. The despotic monarch packed up and left and the field was opened up for opinions to be expressed. Alas! The era of freedom and circulation of views was brief, too brief. The revolution caused instabilities mixed with muddled thinking and plenty of conflict. The setting was set for the emergence of a new despot.

Darkest of dark

The colonial powers helped set up a new autocrat spiced with the colours of modernism. The new dictator, Reza Shah, established his rule by suppressing progressive movements in various parts of the country and killing their leader-intellectuals such as Sheikh Mohammad Khiabani (1880 - September 14, 1920), Haydar Amu-Oghlu (killed 1921), Colonel Mohammad Taghi Pessian (murdered October 4, 1921). Reza Shah combined trappings of modernism with a ruthless thought terror in ways only possible in a modern state The new ruler, whose main business was to protect the interests of the greatest colonial power of its time in Iran, 6 also had to act as a dam against the spread of the new communist ideology that had now taken over Iran’s northern neighbour and had been welcomed by progressive and democratic Iranian intellectuals.

A new problem was introduced into the intellectual life of the country. Some progressive intellectuals became confused by the modernising face of the new dictator. In its pursuit of centralisation and totalitarianism, the new regime on the one hand launched military campaigns against feudalism and to put an end to the chaos caused by the warlords. On the other, as part of his superficial modernisation of the state, Reza Shah launched a campaign against the power and interference of the Shi’ite clergy and organised the new state bureaucracy. Faced with these actions a section of the progressive intelligencia become relatively paralysed. The revolutionary intellectual faced an added problem. S/he now has to stand up, at one and the same time, against both reaction and a modernism closely linked to the dictator.

In this way on the eve of the establishment of a modern dictatorial order the Iranian intellectual has to grapple with a new tragedy. Some liberal intelligencia belonging to the old aristocracy withdrew as soon as the dictator tightened his hold. Others, as we discussed, knowingly or unknowingly, welcomed the advance guard of the new order. Yet others rose up against it and bit the dust in their efforts to circulate their independent views.

One after another, Mohammad Mossadegh, Soleiman Mirza Eskandari, Mohammad Ali Forughi 7 withdrew to their homes. The poet Aref Ghazvini (1879-1933) died alone after years of forced internal exile under guard. Mohammad Reza Mirzadeh Eshghi (1893-1924) 8 was assassinated at the age of 33 for the sin of propagating revolutionary thought and a love for freedom. Mohamad Farrokhi-Yazdi 9 (1888-1939) died in the prisons of the modern autocrat accused of socialist tendencies as did Taqi Arani 10, in the same year, for being a communist.

Violent or tragic death was not confined to the anti-dictatorship, revolutionary socialist or communist freedom lover. Anyone with an independent view or free thought, even if they stepped along the same intellectual-political path as the autocrat, was condemned to death merely for their individuality.

An example is Mohsen Jansuz (1914 - March 12, 1940) who was arrested aged 25 and shot on the totally trumped up charge of armed rebellion against the monarchy and attempt against the life of the crown prince. His main crime was to have nationalist-chauvinist ideas which he had discussed with some close friends. He had also translated Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Yet within a short while after taking power, Reza Shah’s regime had itself given sway to nationalist and chauvinist views and at the same time openly displayed Germanophil tendencies. The dictator’s rage could not tolerate an independent intellectual with character, even when in the service of his own ideas.

Similarly, Ali Akbar Davar, one of the Pahlavi king’s most faithful servants, architect of the modern state and the founder of the most important new organs of this state, was ordered to commit suicide.

Only a few independent-thinking individuals survived these dark years: those mainly spreading safe and divisive ideas. The modern autocrat was busy reining in their power and influence of the clergy. He therefore needed to give space to intellectual activity along the limited lines of some types of nationalism, modernism and secularism. A number of progressive nationalist and popular intellectuals fell into this trap. They mistook a superficial modernism for intellectual and cultural development, or anti-Arab and anti-Islamic Iranism for an anti-imperialist nationalism. Even such enlightened intellectuals as Sadegh Hedayat, Zabihollah Behruz and Bozorg Alavi11 were not immune from this fallacy and, to various levels, devoted their intellectual energy to it.

The most persistent example of these who wasted his energy for a period was the historian Ahmad Kasravi (1890-1945). Yearning for a "clean language" he spent years cleansing the Farsi language from Arabic words, and fought hard against Sufism and Shi’ism. He even went so far as to introduce a new religion and put himself forwards as a prophet.

His work may have attracted the nationalist, and somewhat superficial, appetite for anything new of some in the younger generation. Yet it was not out of step with the intellectual system of the dictator. For this reason the autocrat did not obstruct his activities. Yet even Karsavi did not escape death. After the occupation of Iran by the Allies in 1942, in the interregnum of freedom after the dictator was removed, he was stabbed to death by two fanatical Muslims right inside the Justice Ministry. They did so without fear of being caught or punished.

The fear and intellectual sterility of this period of Reza Shah’s dictatorship is starkly reflected in some of the surviving literary works of the time. Nima, in the closet of his home, shouted in dread:

Where on this murky night shall I hang my tattered garment

In this murky night, which lasted twenty years, those intellectuals who had something to say either wallowed in their own blood, disappeared into a corner of total silence, were led up deviant by-roads, or placed their thought and intellect entirely at the service of the autocratic order and in glorifying the dictator.

One can perhaps claim that at no time in our history has the calamity of the intellectual been as grave. During this period not a single progressive creation in art, thought or literature was offered to Iranian society. The talents that, so to speak, stepped into being during this period had to wait until Reza Shah’s totalitarian rule was dismantled. For a period, the intellectual life of Iran went into a deep coma resembling death. If the World War had not taken place and Iran not occupied by the Allies, there is no knowing how long this deathly crisis of the intelligencia would have lasted.

The last part of this article will be published in the next issue

1 The Shi’i version of Islam believes that the leadership of Muslims passed down along a direct line from Mohammad - the Imams. The 12th Imam, Mahdi, was occulted in 10th century AD and will return to lead the faithful to the day of judgement.

2 The Ismaili used impregnable mountain forts as their base and sent their assassins to eliminate political opponents. The term "assassin" is attributed to their practice of allegedly giving hashish to the assailants before they were sent off on their mission.

3 Dehkhoda compiled a massive and most authoritative Farsi dictionary

4 Religion founded by Mazdak during the reign of the pre-Islamic Sassanid king Anushiravan whose basis was extreme egalitarianism

5 The Constitutional Revolution which ended the absolutist monarchy and introduced a constitutional monarch with an elected lower house, the Majles.

6 Great Britan was the dominant colonial power in the Middle East. Although Iran was never directly colonialised, the colonial powers, and in particular Imperial Russia and Great Britain repreatedly intervened in the internal affairs of the country. Reza Shah was installed with the help of the British. See Between the Two Revolutions, Ervand Abrahamian, Princeton, 1982.

7 Mossadegh, later became nationalist prime minister nd was deposed by a CIA coup in 1953, Soleiman Mirza was a founder of the Tudeh Party, Foraughi becaame prime minister on a number of occasions during the inerregnum of democrtric freedom after the Allied invasion.

8 Poet and jounalist

9 Poet and journalist. In Reza Shah’s prison his lips were sewn together.

10 Marxist philosopher and teacher who is considered the intellectual founder of the Tudeh Party which he did not live to see.

11 All progressive writers


Calamity of Intellectuals in Iran

Part 2, 1941- present

Glimpse of dawn

Bagher Mo'meni

The allied invasion of Iran in 1941 put an abrupt end to the "murky night"1 of Reza Shah’s reign. Over the next twelve years hidden and imprisoned tallents resurfaced. A new generation of intellectuals were born full of the passion for life. It was to greet this dawn that the father of modern powtry Nima Yushij, now released from the fear of the night sang:

to the secrets flees the blind night


dawn arives, the cock crows

This also is the time Sadegh Hedayat comes out of his cocoon and instead of the melancholia of The Blind Owl or the agonizing death of the Stray Dog 2 speaks about The water of life, attacks fascism in Velengari (carelessness) and writes about the evolution of life and human society. In the visual arts, Nushin found a new and innovative theatre with The Bluebird, Gogol’s The Government Inspector and Montessera and educates a huge wave of young artists in his artistic-intellectual school.

The intellectual of this time rides his or her boat on the wave of the mass-worker movement and rowing and dancing sings his3 way towards a horizon of joy. New ideas have space to expand. Creativity blooms everywhere. The intellectual climate, reminiscent of the warm days of the Constitutional Revolution, 4 but at a higher plane and from a more progressive vantage point, rediscovers its own destiny. The mass movement, now epitomised in the Tudeh Party, becomes the haven for progressive intellectuals of whatever variety and brings them all together under its wings. The intellectual create associations through and around this party and find a direct link with the people and are in turn influenced by them. These are years of creativity and the growth of art, culture and ideas. A new generation of intellectuals join those who were silenced in the Reza Shah and enter the scene. The intellectual of this era is essentially "left" and under the influence of progressive socialist views.

Historic dysjunction

Yet the intellectual movement of this era is also afflicted with a number of maladies: historic disjunction. A deep crater made by 20 years of dictatorship had separated the intellectual of this era from the history and experience of the constitutional movement. Attracted by new ideas, and even wallowing in them, made them alien to the ideas of previous Iranian thinkers. New ideas were copied hastilly and without deep thought encouraging an intellectual dependency. An intellectual dependency not just to crude borrowed concepts, but a fascination with foreign thinkers, became an infectious general malady. Moreover, the intermingled and chaotic thinking made dizzy our intellectuals, who came from different horizons and very varied social bonds. These all cause a crisis whose mal-consequences only surfaced much later.

With the growing movement for nationalising the oil industries in the late 1940’s 5 the intellectual movement takes on a new breadth and lustre. Yet, while it encouraged a new intellectual movemnet, it also sharpened the borders between Tudeh and nationalist thought.

Too much politics?

The intensity of events, and the rapidly evolving political scene in the 40’s meant that politics ruled intellectual life. While this had a positive aspect in that it brought the intellectual and the masses into closer contact. The influence was in both directions. It did, however, bring with it a problem. The intellectual was tainted with the blight of over-politicisation and a general diversion to trivialities. The the power of thought was to a large extent wasted on petty political conflicts or even in errors and deviations.

In any case this era of progress and refinement did not pass without its potholes. The first blow was the defeat of the democratic movements in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan 6 The more fragile of the intellectuals lose their optimism. When the second blow is delivered in February 1949, and the the Tudeh Party was banned after an assassination attempt on the life of the young Mohammad Reza Shah many more left the scene in dissapointment. The coup d’etat of August 1953 was the last and most effective blow. 7 A black veil of dictatorship once again descended on the political scene of the counrty. The thinking and cultural space of the country went into another phase of darkness.

The first blow which buried the Azerbaijan and Kurdistan autonomous republics also began the splits in the intellectual line-up. The clash and conflict of these groupings peaked during the movement to nationalise the oil industries where the nationalist and Tudeh party came into ever greater conflict. The bitter battles in politics and thought paralised a significant section of the intellectual life of the country. Some of those who left the Tudeh party is weakened somewhat or led along deviant paths. A notable example is the fate of Khalil Maleki. Having split from the Tudeh Party, he obstinantly wasted an enormous amount of energy responding to the political blows of that party. In the end, tired and alone he melts away.

Two years later the banning of the Tudeh party and the arrests that followed, forced many intellectuals to abandon real and living action to flee the country. These included Iraj Eskandari, Reza Radmanesh, Ehsan Tabari and many of Tudeh leaders. Many others lose hope in the new political atmpsphere and in one way or another become paralysed.

Of the political leaders Ghazi Mohammad, head of the Kurdistan Democatic Party and briefly president of the Mahabad Republic, is hanged (March 30, 1947). Later after the coup which overthrew the nationalist premiere Mossadegh (August 1993) Hossein Fatemi 8 who had been savagaly wounded when government thugs arrested him was executed on a stretcher (November 10, 1954) and Khosrow Ruzbeh was led to the firing squad leaning on a stick (May 11 1958)., weakened by the gunshot wounds inflicted during the chase which ended in his arrest.

Another long tarry night

And the long tarry night swallows up society and Forugh Farrokhzad sees how the intellectual:

in the dark panick-ridden street,

squashes underfoot

her heart

like something rotten 9

Such was the darkness that reigned that even if a light flickered in the distance, the poet doubtingly warned:

that bright spot,

is the eye of wild wolves

And the night was so cold and biting that it robbed sleep off the poet’s eyes. Sohrab Sepehri, who normally moved above the clouds, feels that in the desert of the silent and asleep

the night...

moves across the seconds

with the slowness of a lament

And the poet decidig on flight involuntarilly searched for his shoes wispering:

there is a smell of migration

my pillow is filled with the songs of swallows’ feathers.

The tragedy was that even those intellectuals who took to migration were becoming fossilised or rotting awy in their place of exile.

In this new murky night, now accompanied by a severe winter, and a cold that erodes life and reason not everyone has the legs for flight and exile. Those who stayed behind in the country are fearful. They avoid from one another, collars pulled up. The intellectual is sterile, dissilusioned, hopeless, and helpless. His mind frozen over and her cry snuffed in the throat. The intellectual either faces the firing squad, rots in prison or takes refuge in seclusion and opium:

Mohammad Hossein Shahyar, who once wrote victory choruses for the victors of Stalingrad, Fereidun Tavalloli who with his new and original satire had made fun of the whole apparatus of power, ad Akhavan Saless who wanted to write epics of the heroics and balads of the hopes, crawls from the bitter cold of the totalitarianism to the brazier and burns his life away if the crackles of opium: he writes laments and recites verses of fear. The poet, his only friend and companion his shaddow, faces one of only three alternatives:

The first, a road of drink, comfort and joy

soaked in shame, but facing garden, town and habitation.

Route two, half shame and half fame

if you raise your head, turmoil, and if you hold you breath peace.

The third, the road of no return, no end.10

Yet there are intellectuals who chose neither the road that leads to drink tainted with same nor had the courage to raise their head and face turmoil nor the legs that takes them to the perilous road of no return and without end.

Many of these went on to negate and reject their past. They cursed the lies and deceptions of the past, yet see nothing ahead but a mirage. Inevitably they make themselves, in the words of Akavan Saless "a guest of wine, opium and hashish"

The tragic tale of the intellectual in the era Mohammad Reza Shah’s autocratic rule does not always end in repentence, self-rejection, withdrawal, and intoxication. There aree others who make up for past privations when they followed progressive ideals now give their whole being to serve the despotic new order. Their attacks are more savage than the original elements of the autocracy. They vault, many steps at a time, up the stairs of social and political power.11

The confrontation, and resulting discord and hostility, between the two main currents of intellectual life in Iran - left and nationalist - wasted the intellectual energy of the country. This battle became even more capacious in the new era.

The newly reinstated autocracy attacks leftist and socialist thought with all its might while giving enough reign to liberal and nationalist thought not to pose any danger to itself. In turn, the nationalist, who blamed the defeat in the movement for nationalising the oil industry on the Tudeh Party uses up all its energy against the ghost of its old rival - ironically now totally thrown out of the political arena. Anti-leftism becomes a real current of thought right up to this day. This part of the intellectual force of the country, which should have pointed its arrows on the apparatus of despotism, is totally squandered, caught up as it is in a vulgar politicism and a long-lasting enmity and bitterness.

White revolution

The age of the imperial White Revolution 12 lasted for a decade. With a new aristocracy which controls everything and which plunders the national wealth new social forces raise their head. The nouvea-riche turn the sixties into a period of total sterility tainted by of intellectual pretentions and posturings. The apparatus of the autocrat, led by the Shah’s wife, Shahbanu, takes a number of new intellectuals looking for fame and fortune under its wings. There are numerous glittering state-sponsoned cultural and artistic events. The despotic court spreads a table full of new and coulourful western foods, and attracts a number of newborn intellectuals who have yet to learn to walk, with its colourful toys and papier-machets.

There are others join this oppulent and colourful table, without content, knowing full well what they do. They gurgling and regurgitate half-digested Western thoughts which they had swallowed uncooked. This is an era of deception, of treachery and there are many like Raviz Nikkhah who while encouraging the modern corrupt and hollow imperial culture organise the campaign to ridicule progressive thought and culture. 13

There were others who mistook cafes such as Riviera in the capital’s fashionable Naderi Street for Montparnasse and Saint Germain. There they spent hours in interminable discussions, over a glass of beer, on "art for arts sake" or other spontaneously thrown up cultural and artistic school. There weer many small cultural or artistic circles, usually around a well known guru, which discovered a new genius every second and persented their brillinat creation to society. This was how the intellectual movement of Iran became a mere intellectual game and snobism became its main characteristc.

The religious intellectual

A new creature - the "religious intellectual" - stepped into this chaotic mess. He rapidly grew and drew trength because of the carelessness, and also the deliberate connivance, of the dictator. The dependent autocrat still felt that the real danger to his rule came from the progressive ideas of man, including Marxism and socialist tendencies. He therefore turned a relatively blind eye to this new development. After all the religious intellectual might be able to slow or prevent the spread of these leftist thoughts. Religious reaction used this opening to send out its forces.

Gradually hatred for the autocrat and the new classes he had created and fattened became strong among the people and in particular among the mass of educated youth. Yet the Shah had savagely repressed the progressive intellectual and vanguard movement, and at the other end of the spectrum a corrupt movement, pretending to intellectualism, was serving the apparatus of power. One of the faces of this hatred for the despot, therefore, took on an opposition to the culture and civilistation of the West and to intellectuals and intellectualism. They called on the anti-Tudeh nationalist intellectual to take their side. At the same time reactionary religious circles send out their forces with an xenophobic and anti-progressive bent.

They combined in their more acute and extreme form to create two currents born of the same blood: against westernisation and for religious reform. They found an enthusiatic audience among the generation of youth who were against imperialism and the dependent-capitalist dictatorship. The spokesman of the first, Jalal Al Ahmad, had been at various times a Tudeh member, a nationalist-Third Forcer,14 the born-again Shi’ite convert. The other was led by Ali Shariati the new theorist for religious renewal who called the Iranian intellectual a fake copy of their European counterpart, acting as a "guide" to neo-colonialism.

This current occupied a section of the intellectual space of the country for less than a decade. Al Ahmad and Shariati both drew swords on intellectuals and intellectualism and exhorted enmity with the West and all the achievements of human civilisation. They preached a return to the reactionary past. Our religious "intellectual", the advocates of a return to the past, tries to brighten up his mouldy commodity by using statements from some disgruntled and disillusioned Western intellectual or some of the backward new Third World thinkers, either writhing under racist humiliation or in an anti-colonial struggle which has yet to shed its initial rawness and immaturity.

Thus a large part of a new generation which entered the realm of thought, revolting against the neo-colonial rulers, sickened by the phony glitter of the dictatorship and angered by the intellectual snob, went astray and followed the wolf mistaking it for sheep.

The existing intellectual vacuum led another group of the younger generation to search for progressive thought in any hole. They fell prey to those who sold brass for gold. Many freaks and deformed creatures came out of these schools.

Suring this decade pseudo-modernism and snobism at one level, intellectual reaction at another and pure charaltanism masquerading as empty progressiveness at a third level encircled the unofficial intellectual atmosphere of the country.

The disstareous effects and consequences of this murky night and severe winter and the scene settings of this endless emptiness on the world of the intellectual was described in many poems and writings. A few years before her premature death in 1967 Forugh Farrokhzad wrote:

the sun was dead...

all the same life panted in secret. And some

....instead of flowers in the earth in their gardens

sewed machine guns and granades

and some

cover up

their tiled ponds

and the tiled pond

without wishing it

are secret stores of gunpowder

and children .... fill

their school satchels

with tiny bombs 15


And suddenly the wall of political autocracy, and reactionary and modernist thinking cracks. The guerilla movement announces a new era in the life of intellectualism in Iran in the eve of the 1970’s. A wave of intellectuals line up in its defence.

The apparatus of autocratic power sets out to crack brains with even greater ferocity. Prisons fill up, particularly with the younger generation of intellectuals and artists. Many of the nascent intellectuals are destroyed even before they can stand on their own feet. Others meet an early death by a variety of means.

Parviz Puyan and Hamid Mo’meni die in street gunfights, Mohammad Hanif Nejad and Khosrow Gol-Sorkhi are executed by firing squad, Bijan Jazani and his fellow prisoners are murdered in secret. 16 New prisons are being built, and embraces those who write without permission of the neo-colonial autocracy. Within these physical and mental torture is permanent. A significant section of progressive intellectual force of the country is spent in either organising or justifying the armed struggle. The weapon takes the place of thought.

On its side reactionary religious forces also become more active against modernism, and the bourgeois imperialist reforms of the ruling order. Yet the Shah’s apparatus of power, while dealing even more savagely with the radical revolutionaries, turns a blind eye to a large part of these forces, and even at times enlists them as allies against the revolutionaries.


In these circumstances the advance guard of the revolution emerges on the horizon. The apparatus of the dicatator bargains in panic with religious circles and the leftover fossils of nationalism in order to stop the radicalisation of the revolution. When the revolution ultimately arrives, the radical revolutionary forces are sidestepped in the transfere of power. This was not surprising as over the years the birds of dawn had been slaughtered while vampire bats were allowed to live and grow.

A new era, one of religious reaction, followed the revolution of 1979. It was an era of darkness and mediaeval ignorance. The mass democratic revolution is baptised as the Islamic revolution and gives birth to a bastard child named the Islamic Republic of Iran. Those intellectuals who had in one way or other survived the bleak winter of absolutism were the victims of black-shirted "hezbollah" and "jondolah" 17 even before they could find themselves.

Attacks by the religious fascism started with book-burning, closed the universities in the so-called cultural revolution and rapidly spread to closure of newspapers of all kinds, and imprisonment and murder of any independent thinker who dared to move.

The country witnessed an extension and development of the imperial autocrat’s individual and mass murders to mass slaughter of intellectuals, political activists and opponents and even opponents of the Islamic Republic in thought alone. An exodus unknown in Iranian history began. The educated and intellectuals in their thousands and thousands left for Europe, USA, Canada, Australia and anywher else that would take them. According to one estimate in the first five years of the revolution 7,400 academics left the country. The intellectual who for whatever reason stayed behind feels the sword of Domocles on his/her neck even when asleep.

The question is not over intellectualism, progress or modernism. The very act of thinking or pretending to think carries the death penalty. Representing the creator of the world, the velayet faghih 18 "thinks" for everyone and in place of everyone. And the and pasdaran of Islam (revolutionary guards) search the deepest receses of ones homes in case a glow worm had hidden itself there. To think and to love are haram (forbidden) and the words thinking and love are the words of kofr (heresy):

they smell your breath

in case you had uttered I love you;

and the poet who should cry out love

at every cross road

and light beakons on hights

warns with a fearful whisper

"hide love and light in the closet of your home" 19

A prolonged exile, and dispersion afflicts the intellectual community with a variety of maladies. Many tire and become downhearted. Others spend their time on trivialities. Some survive by grinding their teeth at fellow exiles. A group kneel at the alter of their conscience and pass their time lamenting and asking for forgiveness for past deeds. Some sophistically whisper reconcilliation with the wardens of ignorance and darkness ruling Iran today into the ears of others. Some sink into sufism and mysticism, while others slowly melt into the cultural and scientific community of the host countries. Finally there are those who seek the decayed bones of their Arian ancestry in the dust bowls of time.

Only a handful persist in singing battle hymns, without any assurance that they are being heard by the addressees. Even fewer are those who are reconstructing themselves without any assurance that their intellectual stores are up to the task of responding in time to the needs of Iranian society today and tomorrow.

Religious intellectual

But inside the country, hatred for the religious Islamic government grows as each day goes by, despite the killings and the pressures. People are falling out not only with its policies, but even with its convictions - which are no other than Islamic instructions. It is in this bedlam that a phenomenon called "religious intellectual" surfaces to save Islam and attracts a section of the younger generation for whom the world of progressive thought has been closed and who has been denied any chance to think freely. This phenomenon is embraced even more avidly as it is vehemently opposed by the ruling ultra-reactionaries. Where the velayate faghih rules, even a Muslim cannot think, criticise or express any views.

A new danger, the "religious intellectual", therefore threatens the newly reborn intellectual society of Iran. It is here that the role of the progressive thinker inside the country becomes difficult and complex. The true intellectual, for whome the constant threat of death has not been removed, will continue to defend the idea of free expression of all ideas (including the free activity of the religious reformist). Yet he or she must, with a particular delicacy, to oppose those religious teaching with a misleading message. We must not allow the Iranian intellectual society to once again find itself disarmed by such vulgar schools of thought as "westoxification" and "progressive Islam". 20

The other danger facing the progresive intellectual is to run away from ideology. This has become fashionable among some of our secular intellectuals, drived there by the presence of a religous government in Iran, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socio-political developments in some socialist countries. Disillusioned by the official socialist ideas, some now label as ideological all Islamic religious deliberations and beliefs. By ariving at a negation of all ideologies, they unconsciously disarm themselves, and others, in the battle of ideas.

New resistance

There is another side to the rising schools of religious reform and their confrontation of the executive and cultural appartus of the Islamic Republic. They demonstrate the complete bankruptsy of the present regime’s policy of attacking culture and intellectualism.

The non-religious intellectual is also braving the very real dangers to poke their heads out of their shell. Critical critical views are openly being expressed, often dressed in a variety of guises, and widely disseminated. They are struggling to erect cultural-intellectual institutions. There are an increasing number of ndependent publicatins precariously expressing theri opostion to the reactionary and autocratic cultural and intellectual policies of the regime. Newspapers published abroads are being accessed inside the countrydespite the difficulties. Even more interstingly some of the banned books published abroad are being reproduced in substantial numbers inside the country and are secretly distributed and passed around from hand to hand. All these sow the seeds of hope.

It looks as if a new era of intellectual resistance has begun. Its fundamental characteristic is a serious struggle against religious thinking in all aspects of intellectual social and political relations. During the run-up to the Constitutional Revolution at the beginnig of the century and in the years of the absolutist rule of dependent capitalism the problem for the intellectual was the existence of political absolutism. They therefore ignored the negative role of religion, or did not think a serious struggle with it neccessary. At times, the intellectuals recruited the religious elements in their battle against the dictator.

Today, the actual opponent of the intellectual is the clergy and Shi’ite religious thought. And today’s struggling thinker or writer is well aware of past damages on Iranian society, and its intellectuals, by such superficially attractive theses as westoxification, and "religious reform and revival".

The real intellectual in today’s Iran is strictly secular and favours the institution of a civil order. While loving his/her country and nation, s/he opposes false- and ultra-nationalism, which ominously also stands to grow in its opposition to religion. He is anti imperialist and anti-monarchist because he has tasted the bitter taste of both. Being global she remains Iranian, and will use mankind’s progressive achievements in thought and culture, without any obligation or dependency to the various global intellectual power centres, to raise the level of thought and culture among her own people.

Regardless of his own view, he is scrupulously democratic and believes in dialogue and criticism because s/he has learnt from all the experience that thought can only exist in a free and democratic space allowing criticism and dialogue among opposing beliefs. Being a democrat also means that our intellectual also retains a critical view to the political and intellectual power which rules, even if elected by his/her choice.

Today’s real intellectual does not gladden the heart of reaction and imperialism by an anti-left fever and hatred. He or she will understand that no intellectual judgement or deduction is possible outside, and un-influenced by, an ideology. Therefore, s/he will only not oppose ideology but, accepting as a principle that all intellectual anxioms are relative and changeable, will rely on ideology to guide him-her in the exchange and challenges of thought.

Most importantly the intellectual in whatever political line-up they occupy tries to digest the distant and recent past history of iran, avoiding the prejudices of any politics or school of thought. It is only in this way that the historical fissure which rules the intellectual society of our country can be bridged. They will step into the future and higher planes by using past experience. We can be sure that if intellectuals of this calibre prepare their war against the religious fascism ruling Iran without doubt in the end light will conquer darkness and reason ignorance.


1 Where on this murkey night shall I hang my tattered garment" cried the poet NimaYushij

2 Buf-ef Kur and Sag-e Velgard are both short novels by the pioneer of the Farsi novel

3 For the sake of neatness the masculine and feminine is used interchangeably throughout and is gender-neutral and encompases both sexes.

4 see the part 1 iran bulletin no 17, 1988 no1

5 See Ervand Abrahamian Iran between two revolutions Princetown University Press 1982.

6 Short lived Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan and Democratic Repubic of Mehabad were bloodilly supressed by the Shah’s army in December 1946. See Abrahamian ibid

7 The coup was engineered by the CIA and deposed the nationalist premiere Mossadegh and brought the Shah back into power on the back of the army. Another dark veil decended on Iean’s intellectual scene.

8 Fatemi was Dr Mossadegh’s foreign minister, went into hiding after the coup and was arrested and sentenced to death.

9 Iran’s greatest female poet later commited suicide

10 From the poem Chavoshi by Akhavan Saless

11 Two examples are Parviz Natel Khanlari, poet, writer and close friend of Sadegh Hedayat, who in the guise of Shah’s Minister of Education castigates the governmet for their "irresolution" against the uprising of 1963. Or the Minister of Justice, once head of Tudeh Party provincial committee in Fars, now proposes the stting up of "counter-revolutionary courts" to punish the rebels.

12 The Shah introduced a series of reforms, including land reform in the 1960’s which aimed at finalising the capitalist transformation of the country. These were named by him White Revolution to distingush them from the "red" variety. See Abrahamian ibid, Fred Halliday Iran: Dictatorship and development Penguin Books, London 1979; Nikkie R keddie Roots of Revolution Yale University, 1981.

13 UK educated Nikkhah, was originally in the Tudeh Party but broke with it after the Sino-Soviet split. He was arrested accused of plotting to kill the Shah. After a number of years in prison he turned. On his release he became part of the Shah’s propaganda machine. He was executed after the Islamic revolution.

14 An off-shoot of the Tudeh Party after the Sino-Soviet split. As the name implied it was attached to neither.

15 Selected from Ayehaye Zamini (earthly verses)

16 Puyan, Momeni and Jazani were founders of the Fadaii Organisation of Fadaii Guerillas of Iran, Hanif-Nejad founded the Organisation of Peoples Mujahedin of Iran, the poet Gol-Sorkhi was accused of plots to kill the Shah and was executed. The Jazani and eight others were murdered after OPEC foreign ministers were taken hostage in Algiers in 1975.

17 The names of organised thugs and security elements who attacked every profressive or even independent literary or artistic institutions: bookshps, publishers, street corner booksellerss, street theatres and universities.

18 the Iranian constitution gives unlimited power over all aspects of society (velayat) to a just and supremely knowledgeable religious jurisiprudence (faghih)

19 From Ahmad Shamlu, "in this dead end" - altered and rearranged

20 Westoxification (gharbzadegi) was the title of Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s influential book which decried all thoughts coming from the West as being enslaving and attacked the Iranian intellectual for being the road builder for Western imperialism. See also Ali Rahnema, Pioneers of Islamic Revival, Zed Books, London 1994, and Fred Halliday, Islam and the myth of confrontation IB Taurus, London 1995.