THE FUTURIST: You are regarded as a proponent both of women’s rights in the Muslim world and of Westernization. How have recent events changed your views of the influence of Western culture in Iran? On the one hand, there is evidence that students in Iran were using mobile technology to organize protests following the 2009 Iranian presidential election. (Most of the people “tweeting” about it, however, were from the United States.) On the other hand, the Iranian government has used that same technology against protesters. Does mobile tech like cell phones and the Internet make the fight against authoritarianism easier or more difficult? What are the pitfalls?
Azar Nafisi: You see the adverse effects of technology in America itself. It’s become a challenge to turn information into real knowledge. The United States is becoming a superficial culture. But right now, inside Iran and other repressive countries, this technology is far more advantageous to the people than to governments. The Internet and cell phones are allowing the Iranian people to connect to the world through human-rights sites where texts about democracy are available. These texts are read and translated widely in Iran. I’ve connected with hundreds of Iranian students to learn about what’s actually going on there. A similar phenomenon is playing out in China. But the continuance of this progress requires the help of companies like Google and Yahoo.
THE FUTURIST: Looking more broadly, the current tension between the United States and Iran has become a dispute over technology — does Iran have the right to the same nuclear weapons capability that the United States has possessed for more than 60 years? Isn’t it hypocritical for the West to claim it’s seeking to aid the cause of progress when it is literally standing in the way of knowledge sharing on this issue?
Nafisi: Don’t get me started criticizing the problems of Western U.S. foreign policy; this isn’t among my criticisms. We should put our efforts into taking these weapons out of the hands of all countries, whether Pakistan, Iran, or North Korea. Yes, Ahmadinejad mentions this supposed double standard, and nuclear weapons are dangerous in America’s hands, just as they are in anyone’s. But the United States is far more open and democratic than is Iran. The system in the United States is more reliable. The government is more accountable than that of the Iranian regime. I can trust it more. But I don’t feel good about America or any other country having nuclear weapons.
THE FUTURIST: You’ve said: “At the beginning of the [Iranian] Revolution, not only the Islamists but also the radical left were all very set in what they wanted and the way they saw the world. As the revolution progressed, two things happened to the young Islamists. One was that the Islamic Republic failed to live up to any of its claims. Apart from oppressing people and changing the laws, and lowering the age of marriage from 18 to nine, [the Islamic government] did not accomplish anything economically, socially, politically, or in terms of security.” Today, as part of the so-called Green Revolution, thousands of Iranians are directly challenging the results of the latest presidential election. Do you think the Green Revolution’s aims are more realistic? Do today’s rebels stand a greater chance of success? And what’s the most important thing the 1979 revolution has to teach the Iranian rebels of today?
Nafisi: I was one of those starry-eyed optimists as well. But the new movement is mature. The Iranian people have paid a very high price for the mistakes of 1979. The most important lesson: If you’re going to join a revolution, you have to have as clear an idea of what sort of government you do want as what you don’t want.
The second lesson they appear to have learned is that democratic ends should be achieved through democratic means. The government won’t allow it. I have hope, but I’m not overly optimistic. The government is savage and terrified. The political leaders who would favor democracy, both in Iran and abroad, are now followers of the new movement, whose strength comes from the spontaneous actions of the people themselves. It’s truly a grassroots phenomenon.
What does this show? That Iran has a strong civil tradition. But there are times you need leadership and strategy. I expect the government will continue to kill and jail anyone who comes to the front.
THE FUTURIST: In your new memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About, you write: “Looking back at our history, what seems surprising to me is not how powerful religious authorities have been in Iran, but how quickly modern secular ways took over a society so deeply dominated by religious orthodoxy and political absolutism.” Why do you think that was, and what does it say about the potential spread of Western ideals and Western notions of democracy in Iran and throughout the Muslim world?
Nafisi: Iran has a unique history; it goes back 3,000 years to the beginning of Zoroastrianism. Even now, the Islam practiced today in Iran is mixed and mingled with pre-Islamic traditions. The Iranian New Year is celebrated on the first of March; the names in the calendar are Zoroastrian deities. We are a multicultural society, with different religions, different traditions, living side by side. This provides the flexibility the country needs to accept the new.
So many people think changes and modernization in Iran just came from the West. I think the old system of monarchy just stopped working. The time of Western ideas coincided with a period of crisis. At the start of the last century, Iranians were bringing novels and theater back to Iran, but they were also boycotting foreign goods and fighting British imperialism. The history of the West in Iran is one of cultural and economic exploitation.
On the other hand, you have a close relationship culturally. This persists. The most important political leaders of Iran in the twentieth century were secular. And the most important of these was Mohammad Mosaddeq. The Ayatollah Khomeini hated him as much as he hated the Shah. Mosaddeq was religious but secular in governance, and his influence remains considerable.
When you talk about genuine, multiculturalism, you need a political and civil system that extends rights to all. You see that in the United States itself. There are people who think the country is Christian in nature, but this is a stagnant view. The Founding Fathers were Christian — they mention God — but without freedom of religion, no country can claim to be multicultural.
THE FUTURIST: What do you see as the likely future of Iranian–U.S. relations? What future would you like to see?
Nafisi: The problem lies with both sides. It’s to the advantage of the United States to have full diplomatic relations, but it’s not in the regime’s interests to make peace. The regime sees U.S. culture as the most dangerous weapon. An embassy in Iran, with people lining up to apply for visas, doesn’t help them maintain power. But the United States has been tactical and simplistic in its approach. It’s reduced its perception of Iran to the regime.
The United States has vacillated. I think the correct policy is pursuing dialogue with the regime, but also creating a dialogue with the Iranian people.
My ideal future is one that features genuine interaction and dialogue well beyond the government level. The problem is that connections right now aren’t through personal contacts but through governments. If people in the United States became more concerned with the human rights of the Iranian people, this would be a positive step. I’ve been looking for ways to create a connection between the two peoples. I do this through my books and through my teaching. I was first introduced to America by Huck Finn. I want people to come to Iran through Firdausi, a poet. Perhaps I can help with this. Art and literature should not be bound by nationality.
THE FUTURIST: Paint us a picture of the year 2020.
Nafisi: I hope that developments in technology, particularly visual and virtual reality, will bring us closer together. Imagine people across countries and continents “walking” into each other’s homes thousands of miles away. If we can create this experience through technology, the world will become a better place. I’m terrified of a future where we use gadgets, devices, and little amusements to shut ourselves in, to isolate ourselves. But new technology can actually serve the cause of empathy. If a girl is shot in the street in Iran during a protest, and a girl across the world can see it — can put herself in the place of her comrade across the sea — a tragedy becomes a victory for humanity. ❑
About the Interviewee
Azar Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran (Random House, 2008) and Things I’ve Been Silent About (Random House, 2008). She is a visiting fellow and lecturer at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, www.sais-jhu.edu.
This interview was conducted by Patrick Tucker, senior editor of THE FUTURIST magazine.
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