Iranians must reclaim their proud tradition

Iranians today need to look at their own traditional values to build a political system worthy of their proud history

What can Ferdowsi's 1000-years-old work teach Iran today?
Peter Kohanloo
On 19 February 2013 10:52

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently forewarned Iranians against criticizing the upcoming June presidential election. Such criticism, he said, would only embolden the country’s enemies. That the ayatollah felt the need to muzzle Iranians five months ahead of schedule is further proof that the Islamic Republic is one in name only. Just as in previous years, the election’s outcome will be determined in advance.

Yet the Iranian regime’s reformist wing is being equally disingenuous in calling for free and fair elections. The reformists’ clever definition of a competitive election is one in which only they – along with other Khomeinist factions loyal to the theocratic dictatorship – can participate. In other words, the reformists prefer to maintain the status quo.

Meanwhile, some elements within the exiled opposition have resurrected their decades-old electoral-boycott campaign. Although principled in theory, their strategy offers no viable path forward in resolving Iran’s deepening crisis. The regime will still be standing the day after the election – as in 2005 when many Iranians avoided the polls and again in 2009 when large numbers of them eagerly casted their ballots.

It isn’t surprising, then, that many Iranians are disillusioned about their political future. Amid rising repression, a deteriorating economy, and growing international isolation, Iranians thirst for effective leadership that can outline a clear path to change. The absence of credible and trustworthy democratic leaders, however, has only exacerbated their feelings of hopelessness.

So how can Iranians overcome this impasse? Where can they look for guidance in such trying times? What source can they rely on to restore their self-confidence? And which qualities should they seek in a new generation of leaders that will help them achieve their dream of secular democracy?

The answers to these questions lie in a set of enduring values intrinsic to the Iranian psyche – principles that not only inspired, but also sustained a uniquely Iranian civilization.

The most prominent of these values happens to be the most ancient – the belief in individual choice. For millennia, Iranians practiced a faith that promoted the notion that a person has the freedom to accept or reject good. Zoroastrian scripture specifically mentions the power of both men and women to declare their choice between good and evil.

One passage, for instance, translates as follows: “Hear the best with your ears and ponder with a bright mind. Then each man and woman, for his or herself, select either of the [following] two choices. Awaken to this Doctrine of ours before the Great Event of Choice ushers in.”

The corollary to this is the development of a good mind, which enables the person to distinguish between right and wrong. A fundamental tenet of Zoroastrianism is that one can only achieve a good mind by striving for it. It follows that the acquisition of knowledge through disciplined effort is necessary for developing this trait.

The emphasis on knowledge and wisdom is ingrained in Iranian civilization to such an extent that it has survived the cultural transformation that occurred after the Arab invasion. The revered Iranian poet Ferdowsi illustrates this point in the opening verse to his epic Book of Kings where he writes: “Now in the name of God whose power controls wisdom, and has created human souls…” Ferdowsi’s decision to begin with such carefully chosen language suggests that certain bedrock Iranian values nonetheless remained.

Another fundamental Iranian value is the importance of good governance. One of the keys to good governance is the promotion of tolerance and pluralism – two essential concepts without which a democratic society cannot function.

The model for good governance is that established by Cyrus the Great, whose respect for religious minorities and nationalities marked a watershed in human history. His legacy has influenced America’s Founding Fathers, who have created the oldest and most successful democracy the world has ever known.

For example, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams once wrote: “I have been disappointed in the review of Sir John Malcolm’s ‘History of Persia.’ Those cunning Edinburgh men break off at the point of the only subject that excited my curiosity: the ancient modern religion and government of Persia.” This fascinating interaction between Adams and Jefferson, who himself owned two copies of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, shows the admiration some of the U.S. Constitution’s Framers held for Cyrus and his benevolent rule.

Yet another cherished Iranian value is that of the ethical way of life. Some might argue that in contemporary Iran such virtues are not as highly sought, and that Iranian society has lost its way. The reality, however, is that the rise in unethical behavior, such as lying, cheating, and stealing, and the prevalence of corruption are direct results of the regime’s unaccountable nature and its moral bankruptcy.

In fact, ethical virtues are imbedded in the Iranian soul. For instance, the heroic characters in Ferdowsi’s Book of Kings are always those who attempt to live by an ethical code. A poignant example is provided by the tale of Siavash, in which he was faced with two choices: Follow the orders of his father, the Iranian king, thereby breaking his promise to his defeated enemies and slaughtering his unarmed captives, or disobey the king and bear the consequences. Siavash ultimately chose to uphold his word by refusing to carry out his father’s orders. But by doing so, he risked his crown and his life.

Why does it help to return to these timeless ideas? Because, as the American philosopher Allan Bloom has written, the quest for human freedom must be tethered to a tradition. “The active presence of a tradition in a man’s soul gives him a resource against the ephemeral, the kind of resource only the wise can find amply within themselves,” Bloom wrote.

Iranians today need to look at their own traditional values, not nostalgically, but as a living set of prescriptions. Only then will Iranians be able to transcend their crisis of confidence and build a political system worthy of their proud history. 

Peter Kohanloo’s writing has previously appeared in The Weekly Standard, Foreign Policy, and Canada’s National Post

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