The poverty of dichotomous interpretations: Iran and beyond

Posted on | september 20, 2011 | No Comments

One reason that Historiography is a requirement for graduate students is so that they learn the different methodological, ideological, political, nationalistic, religious, cosmopolitan, secular humanist, and other approaches to history. The nation-state under the Age of Absolutism and then the French Revolution and nascent nationalism are to a large degree responsible for the ‘varieties’ of historical interpretations.

For example, there are literary thousands of books on the French Revolution written from very different perspectives. The student focused on historiography would find it difficult to believe that all the authors looked at the exact same events but drew such different interpretations and conclusions. How much common ground can we find in the interpretations of Jules Michelet, George Lefebvre and Francois Furet on the French Revolution. The same holds true of the Russian Revolution, as Boris Kolonitskii argues in “Russian Historiography of the 1917 Revolution”.

And the same would hold true of the American Civil War, the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, etc. If I am interested in the role of the workers in Paris in 1789, and in workers’ soviets in Petrograd in 1917, but I have no interest in the role of nobles that I assume all along are ‘the enemy’, my interpretation and entire outlook of the revolutions will be very different than the scholar who focuses on the positive contributions of the nobility to French and Russian society under absolutism. Anything that distracts from my thesis will be left out or disputed.

In a pluralistic society, everyone has a right to their ideological, political, and religious perspectives, and such considered interpretations can only be afforded weight on the merits – empirical data, reasoned arguments, and sound scholarly presentation. Having said that, the varieties of views actually enrich the interested reader’s understanding of the topic and it is far better to have different interpretations than to suffer the monolithic dogma of a single Truth! For this reason, I am in complete agreement with with Bertrand Russell regarding absolutes, namely, there are none including this statement. The idea of writing is not to inculcate dogma nor to indoctrinate, but to educate and that entails exchange of many views from whcih some type of time-bound synthesis emerges.

This ideal of plurality of perspectives was dealt a major blow during the Cold War that helped shaped public opinion on a world scale and it molded educational institutions in East, West and non-aligned areas. Dichotomous thinking became a way of interpreting everything from social sciences to humanities and arts, and even the hard sciences, and all because governments helped to mold institutions in such a mode. “Better Red than dead” was not just a slogan, but a way of conceptualizing the world, and it afforded meaning to otherwise meaningless existence of the individual who identified with a universal issue.

Just as it was impossible for most people in the West to see anything positive in the Soviet bloc countries under Stalin and successive Soviet regimes until Gorbachev, it was very difficult for mainstream die-hard Soviet scholars to see anything positive about the decadent West. The Soviet-American confrontation shaped the conceptual dichotomy to the degree that people could appreciate the Bolshoi on its merits, but could still castigate it as a ‘ Soviet propaganda tool’. Similarly, the Soviets could appreciate advancements in American science and technology on their merits, but dismiss them as ‘tools of imperialism’.

Because political dogma necessitated dismissing or at least distorting any positive development of ‘the enemy’, ordinary people, including many scholars, let alone opportunistic journalists and politicians, felt compelled to do their patriotic duty and castigate everything about ‘the enemy’; as though diminishing ‘the enemy’s’ achievements would automatically translate into ‘achievement’ for ‘our side’. The strange irrational line of thinking is that if nothing is ‘good’ about the ‘other side’ (the enemy), then everything is great about our side.

Combined with poisonous nationalism, such dichotomous thinking is so deeply inculcated into the minds of people even today that they are hardly capable of thinking otherwise. Instead of a Cold War based on the Soviet-American confrontation, we have the absurd ‘war on terror’ and instead of large enemies we have smaller ones like Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela.

The political tone sets the pace for society at large, including intellectuals who would find it difficult to say anything positive about Iran if they have accepted the ‘Axis of evil’ dogma. Similarly, Iranians who have accepted the dogma of the Islamic Revolution, such as it has evolved to this day, would find it difficult to see anything positive about the West; and this includes everything from decadent hedonistic lifestyles to an imperialist foreign policy. But is this all there is of the West, that simplistic and nothing else? The same argument goes for Western critics of Iran, of course, who see nothing positive about it because they oppose the regime.

Iran has made incalculable contributions to civilization from ancient times to the present. Iran has made enormous progress in the last 30 years, despite overwhelming pressures from the US, and this is to its credit. The area of nuclear energy, an area that I have spoken out in favor of Iran’s right to pursue a nuclear energy program, is so controversial that many in the West use it to castigate everything about Iran. However, as much as I find it appalling for the IAEA to have unjustly targeted Iran for political reasons alone, I cannot be blind to Iran’s human rights record, especially with regard to women. It may very well be true that Iran is Shangri La for women under the Islamic revolutionary regime, and none of the human rights violations that I have stated are true; in fact, I accept that they may be propaganda to undermine the regime and that I am merely repeating propaganda.

If that is indeed the case, why is it that when one “Google’s” the heading “Women and Human Rights in Iran” more than 60 million postings/hits appear and it is so difficult to find material that praises the regime for its treatment of women? The web is free for all to express their views, so why do we have an avalanche of criticism on this topic, whereas there are favorable essays on other topics, ranging from foreign affairs to economic development? Let us confront the real issue here which is not the regime, for those come and go, but the enduring human cost of women under a patriarchal society maintained in order to keep a social and political order in place for as long as possible.

There are scholarly books and articles on the subject, taking into account religion, traditions, nationalism, and material civilization imposed on the country through economic modernization. How one reads and interprets works on women in Iran depends not necessarily on what the authori is trying to convey, but on the reader’s preconceived notions about Iran and about women. Therefore, if one is hostile to anything “Iranian” or hostile to ‘women’ seeking gender equality, then the conclusions will be shaped by those preconceived notions.

By contrast, if one is religiously devoted to Iran, any criticism about anything Iranian is similarly colored by such patriotic devotion. How does the dichotomous mode of thinking help the reader understand the human condition? Unless one is a devotee of Soren Kierkegaard’s EITHER OR, a philosophical work that sets out to strictly separate life’s hedonistic road from the ethical one, it really serves no purpose to embrace the dichotomous interpretative road on social science and humanities issues.

AUTHOR: Jon Kofas
E-MAIL: jonkofas [at]


Leave a Reply

  • agriculture (29)
    book (3)
    briefing (16)
    business & trade (21)
    child (92)
    consumption (3)
    corruption (20)
    crime (152)
    culture (30)
    defence (15)
    deforestation (6)
    democratization (54)
    demography (6)
    Discovery (5)
    drugs (73)
    Dutch foreign policy (3)
    economic (105)
    education (28)
    effectiveness (3)
    election (64)
    embassy news (1)
    emergency (8)
    energy (42)
    environment (144)
    Eurasia (36)
    Europe (36)
    fair trade (5)
    flora & fauna (24)
    foreign aid (28)
    foreign embassy in the Netherlands (2)
    foreign policy (56)
    gender (17)
    global (270)
    globalization (5)
    health (95)
    history (19)
    homosexuality (4)
    human rights (309)
    hunger & food (20)
    immigration (3)
    infrastructure (28)
    intelligence (7)
    interview (26)
    Latin America (214)
    list (5)
    media (64)
    Middle East (358)
    Millennium Development Goals (21)
    minorities (41)
    movement (38)
    multilateral organizations (40)
    narration (5)
    natural disasters (9)
    Netherlands (31)
    NGO (20)
    NL-Aid (8)
    Northern Africa (187)
    Northern America (130)
    nuclear (4)
    opinion (37)
    Pacific (2)
    peacekeeping (1)
    politics (129)
    poverty (27)
    racism (2)
    raw material (30)
    reconstruction (1)
    refugees (20)
    religion (23)
    remembrance (3)
    research (11)
    revolt (186)
    Royal Dutch Embassy (1)
    sanitation (16)
    slums (2)
    South Asia (451)
    South-east Asia (112)
    study (19)
    Sub-Saharan Africa (446)
    technology (14)
    terrorism (90)
    tourism (6)
    trade (11)
    transport (6)
    Updaid (1)
    war & conflicts (145)
    war crimes (36)
    water (40)
    whistleblower (8)
    women (54)

    WP Cumulus Flash tag cloud by Roy Tanck requires Flash Player 9 or better.

Page 1 of 11