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Colonialism and Its Discontents in Modern Iran

Panel VII-25, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
  • This project argues, even though twentieth-century Iranian intellectuals conceptualized their social discontent differently, and the critiques are scattered around different concerns, there is nonetheless a commonality that is shared across the selected critiques. I propose the selected social critiques of twentieth-century Iranian intellectuals can be interpreted as constituting different formulations of cultural alienation. I propose that Iranian intellectuals perceived alienation to be the result of a cultural translation from a European source to be out of context in Iranian society, and thus, partially or fully incomprehensible. In this research, I will ask how the main approaches of the twentieth century Iranian intellectuals to Western modernity can be understood with theories of translation—specifically the triple schemes of translation: word-by-word, sense-for-sense, and transposition— and how these approaches compares with relevant thoughts by both the postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon and also by Frankfurt School critics, such as Walter Benjamin. Furthermore, this project explores the popular representations of the dandy as an agent of Eurocentrism and an out of tune translation in the context of Iran’s social history. Several twentieth century intellectuals described those individuals estranged from Iranian culture and familiar with European cultures and languages as dandies. The dandy came to be representative of the embodiment of alienation. I argue, dandies were perceived by their critics as performing a translation (or a copy) of European people in Iranian society without making much sense in the target society and culture of Iran. I ask what understanding of cultural translation was the basis of the critiques of the twentieth-century intellectuals who mocked dandies for being a translation (or copy) of European people in their anticolonial gestures, and how their critiques relate to prevailing colonial and anticolonial discourses. By investigating twentieth century literature and political thought the project explains the circumstances under which intellectuals considered cultural translation an enrichment of culture, and those in which they considered it a condition for alienation. The project explores the role of gender norms in shaping intellectuals’ social discontent, and the ways in which social anxiety over effeminacy in the modern era led some intellectuals to fear for the future of the nation.
  • Based on a large array of petitions from the National Iranian Archives, the paper offers a historiographic revision of the constitutional revolution in a thorough attempt at history from below. The general historiography considers expansion of the public sphere, freedoms and rights, secularization, institutionalization of parliamentarianism, elections, and constitution writing as that movement’s greatest democratic achievements. Intellectual history, the contemporary erudite press, and the global discourse of Enlightenment are central to the construction of this narrative. Analysis of petitions complements this narrative in a radical new way. Attending to the public practices of petitioning and organization through associations (anjumans), the study offers an expanded definition of the public sphere, rights, agency, and political freedoms in practice. Furthermore, it tackles a question never answered adequately: why was the Iranian public in awe of the Assembly? The movement originated in the public call for the houses of justice throughout Iran, a demand that resulted in a parliament after intelligentsia’s intervention. Yet, the public continued to treat the Assembly as a house of justice and a place where the petitioners addressed the source of justice for redress of grievances. This institution, better known as the majlis-i mazalim within Islamic history, was now addressed collectively and not individually. Furthermore, petitions everywhere carried a remarkably consistent message: an end to the onerous local taxes. The Assembly, despite initial reluctance to assume a traditionalist role, soon went along out of fear of losing public trust. Its compliance provided the public with an astonishingly direct communication line with the highest civil authorities in the land such as the ministers and Prime Ministers. The petitions thus initiated intense bargaining and negotiations between the cabinet, the local officials, the Assembly, the public, and the local associations resulting in an untold number of small and large local victories. Beyond managing to moderate the taxes, the public replaced many hostile local officials (e.g., the governors, tax collectors) with favorable ones and checked the notorious local elites’ activities, among other gains. In the process, the public attained a new sense of agency often in cooperation with the local associations and their national networks. The practice of collective petitioning, and national exposure of demands through multiple venues (the Assembly, the popular press, other associations, etc.) signaled an alternative public sphere in the making. The study exposes a new democratic culture of politics that emerged ironically by recourse to traditional means.
  • The telegraph was introduced to Iran by the British in the 1860s as a means of improving their communications with their newest, and what would be their most important, colony, India. The line initially connected Tehran and Tabriz. Then it was gradually expanded to the other provincial capitals. Naser od-Din Shah developed a fondness for the device, to the extent that he had a unit set up in his palace so he could more easily receive and send messages. The telegraph, naturally, improved the government’s ability to communicate with the provinces. That was exemplified in the fall of 1880 when a large Kurdish tribal force invaded the Iranian province of Azerbaijan from Ottoman Anatolia. That became one of the most important events during his long reign. The shah, although situated in Tehran, which lay over 600 kilometers away from Tabriz, and even father from the western portions of the province where the incursion occurred, was involved in regular, and sometimes daily, telegraphic exchanges with his officials in the province. This paper will employ newly available primary Persian documents consisting of the telegraphic messages exchanged between the shah and officials in the province of Azerbaijan and elsewhere in Iran will look at those telegraphic with the aim of examining how the shah employed the device to enact government policy toward defeating the incursion. It will subsequently also show how he reacted to the incursion and the nature of his involvement.
  • In 1904, the government of British India sent a commercial mission to the southeastern provinces of Qajar Iran. This Mission was composed of a select group of specialists led by Arthur Hills Gleadowe-Newcomen (1856-1928), who was an officer in the British army, member of the Royal Geographical Society, and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. The North India Chamber of Commerce and the India Tea Cess Committee sponsored this mission with the express goal of developing stronger commercial ties with Iran. Newcomen was to survey the state of commerce in Iran, explore obstacles to the region’s natural development, expand Indo-Persian trade, introduce Indian merchants and goods to potential customers, and to collect statistics. The 156-page report produced by the Newcomen Mission is a fascinating document, full of detailed information and recommendations on creating a productive space in Iran by creating a modern ecology. Even more remarkable, we have a covert Persian counter-narrative to this Mission’s report. The Qajar government was understandably wary of the activities of a group of British commercial agents roaming about unsupervised in the remote corners of its southern provinces. They arranged for a military attaché to accompany the mission, which Newcomen credited with helping to make introductions with important people and dealing with logistical challenges. What he was unaware of was that the military officer, Mirza Riza Muhandis, was also reporting back on their activities to the court in his own counter-narrative while also subtly subverting their access to information and discouraging people to speak with them. Read together, Newcomen’s Report and Muhandis’ counternarrative highlights tensions in the goals of an early form of developmentalism, between a model built around the needs of a tributary state promoting taxable activities, and the interests of the sponsors of this mission to deploy technical knowledge and capital to direct a flow of resources. Each envisions a different political ecology, transforming nature into something useful for a set of political or fiscal goals. While sharing a mutual interest in development schemes, especially in improving irrigation, transportation, communication, and light processing of things like carpets, the underlying goals behind these schemes reveal some of the underlying tensions over what it means to create a modern Iran.
  • This paper examines the engagement with Marxism in the political thought of the Iranian revolutionary Ali Shariati (1933-1977), who is widely considered to be the seminal theorist of the Iranian Revolution. Shariati’s intellectual engagement with Marxism has hardly been examined in depth by English-language scholarship, but is deeply insightful for both the theoretical analysis of colonialism and for illuminating the novel ways in which Marxist theory was transformed by non-European thinkers theorizing in contexts markedly different from Western Europe. My paper reconstructs Shariati’s analysis of colonialism as an economic and social regime which turns the colonized into mere “consumers” of Western commodities as well as social values and culture. Under the colonial division of labor and the accompanying social hierarchies, Shariati argues, colonized peoples are unable to engage in the free and conscious act of creation. Reconstructing his critique of colonialism as a homogenizing system of forced consumerism, which destroys the particularity of colonized communities, I situate Shariati in a global genealogy of Marxist humanism, while foregrounding his links with African anti-colonial thought and Catholic liberation theology. The concept of the colonized as a “consumer” articulates a distinctive critique of colonialism which places the human ability to create at the forefront. I pursue a methodology combining an examination of intellectual lineages of concepts and theories (typical of intellectual history) with close reading and textual interpretation of primary texts, particularly Shariati’s untranslated writings.