Research Proposal: Modernity the Discourse

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Modernity

The discourse of modernity is unfortunate in that it tends to entail a certain hostility to non-Western cultures. This type of discourse and its inherent hostility operates to exclude non-Western cultures from meaningful participation in the modern world. Simultaneously, it articulates a desire to indeed include them under the condition of "civilization." Modernity seeks to both whitewash and civilize non-Western cultures to resemble the West.

"Instrumental in the ideology of colonialism, this configuration continues to wield a powerful influence in contemporary theories of the Orient and of modernity. The assumption of modernity privileges Western cultural and moral dispositions, defining modernity in terms of Western cultures and historical experiences" (Mirsepassi, 9). The trope of modernity is concerned with the concept of the "West" as representative of progress. Non-Western cultures and traditions, on the other hand, are considered at best as lagging behind, and at worst as a hostile and incompatible paradigm in terms of modernity.

During the nineteenth century, developments in Iran, as in many other parts of the global south, led to a division "into two parts: an elite class, drawn into the cultural orbit of the West through political and economic ties, and the mass of people. The former designated themselves as "modernized" and "Westernized" while the latter were seen as "traditional" and "backward," with this binary corresponding invariably to the divisions between rich and poor, ruler and ruled" (Milani, 25). This division led to a blatant elitism within the Iranian state under the Pahlavi dynasty, which was itself influenced by imperial modernized ideals.

There is an inherent irony in this discursive turn: the revolution in Iran was fought emphatically for modernity and all of its promises as a social ideal; it was however also focused against the distorted version of modernity first imposed under Nasir al-Din Shah, and later by the Pahlavis. This betrayed every humanistic principle that modernity supposedly represented. Yet modernity under the three Shahs "was no mere deviation or corrupted moment in an otherwise morally pure design; the discrepancy between ideal and reality under the Shahs and the dictators like them is a revelation of the interlocked "other" face of modernity" (Mirsepassi, 17).

The association of modernity with the West was countered by nationalism in the form of a struggle against the absolute monarchy. This represented a quest for a new state of liberalism and progressive ideas without the constraints of colonial domination. From the beginning of his political career, Muhammad Mussaddiq was aware of Iran's domination by Britain, even though it was not formally a colony, Iran was dominated by Britain. This domination was accomplished by institutions such as the British embassy, an effective institutional component of the Iranian polity, and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which acted as the main pillar of British domination. "As an act of his office between 1951 and 1953, Mussaddiq gained great popularity for nationalizing Iran's oil industry, wresting from the British invaders one of the final vestiges of its colonial hold" (Abrahamian, 279). Mussaddiq believed that colonialism in any form -- regardless of whether it manifested formally or informally -- brought about social decay and resulted of economic and political backwardness. It must also be noted however that neither Mussaddiq or others like him were frightened of modern ideas and techniques -- in contrast to the religious establishment - or mesmerized and captivated by them. They followed a rational and realistic route towards understanding Iranian and European societies, along with a belief that consistent progress was only possible through comprehensive and synthetic change. This belief entailed a firm belief in freedom, law, and democracy, to an even greater extent than their faith in technical progress. According to this belief, technical and socio-economic progress had to involve the people's consent, conviction, and co-operation. After his death, Mussaddiq's memory remained for Iran as a symbol of independence. This symbolic connotation had a certain power as opposition to the Shah and the West. It resurfaced during the 1970s until it was revolutionized by new ideas and images after the 1979 revolution.

In present-day Iran, Iranian 'nationalists' are considered as direct descendents of the Democratic and constitutional era by the Islamic Republic, precisely as they were in the Mussaddiq era. This is however a grudging acceptance. The supporters of the Islamic Republic consider the divine plan for the creation of the good society, implicit in the Koran, as central to their culture. Their reaction to nationalism is therefore somewhat skeptical, as towards a secular phenomenon rejecting all that is sacred to Islam.

Further fuelling this skepticism is the fact that nationalism and liberalism alike are manifestations of the Euro-American culture. Those supporting Khomeini therefore regarded it as deserving of nothing more than total rejection. Modernity and many of its distinct associations became anathema. As such, these aspects were identified most closely with western impropriety and cultural genocide against Islam. The increasing importance of the Islamic force, strengthened by a defensiveness its leaders had come to regard as necessary, resulted in the establishment of present-day Iran, its importance and its identity. Possibly the best representation of this is an act that both secured Iran's independence, but also embroiled the country in an endless struggle for autonomy.

The culmination of this is the Islamic revolutionary movement of the sixties and seventies, which can be regarded as an attempt to seriously challenge the discourse of modernity. Ironically, the Islamic revolutionary movement was affected by the very discourse it aimed to challenge. Islamic discourse is therefore inevitably an internal dialogue with modernity. In this, Islamic discourse has not completely abandoned the principles of modernity, leading to an impeding and contradictory internal discourse. This contradiction can be viewed as a driving force in the dynamic search for modernity since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

The main thesis of my study suggests that Iran's experience with modernity should be understood in terms of a process involving aspects of modernity conducive to emancipation and those conducive to domination. In this dialectical process, different elements of modernity often vied with each other, leading to different phases in the development of the new civilization in Iran. Furthermore, at different times, different aspects of modernity were developed and elaborated by different social groups. In this way, the early reformist intellectuals of the late nineteenth century, at least in their theoretical approaches, placed more or less equal emphasis on the democratic and positive aspects of modernity. From the Pahlavi era, there was a shift in emphasis to the instrumental side of modern civilizations. Similarly, Islamic theocrats developed their approach to place great emphasis on expanding and deepening the potential for the liberation and empowerment of Iranians in the twentieth century.

Historical Background

The long rule of Nasir al-Din Shah brought about the encounter of Iran with Western modernity. This shook the existing Iranian sense of cultural identity and community to the core. Imperial cultural hegemony was on the rise. Iranian despots tended to be in awe of the West, basing their sense of political security on the pulse of the Western powers rather than the needs and desires of their own people. This sense of awe and need for security often resulted in great costs as a result of an attempt by these leaders to cultivate a modern image of themselves in the eyes of the west. This ambivalence over identity created core problems in the Iranian relationship with the Western powers. Whereas "xenophobia nationalists and religious fundamentalism harbor narcissistic illusions of ethnic or religious grandeur, some advocates of modernity foster a cult of self-denigration and illusory notions about the perfect West… On the other hand, all social issues modernity hurls into the public domain were ensnared with colonial politics" (Milani, 25).

England continued its invasion in 1872, with a British company buying a concession from the Qatar ruler for the exclusive right to run Iranian industries, exploit its farm lands and mineral resources, develop its urban transportation systems, and establish its national bank and printed currency. "The British statesman Lord Curzon would call this the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industry resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has ever been dreamed of, much less accomplished in history" (Kinzer,62). Nasir al-Din Shah sold the majority of Iranian industry to British Imperial for only 15,000 pounds. British power was further secured by terms requiring Iranian tobacco farmers to sell their crops at prices set by the British Imperial Company. Furthermore, smokers were obliged to buy tobacco only from shops that were part of the British retail network. The end of the century saw increasing public discontent erupted on a mass scale, ensuing in the tobacco crisis of 1891-1892. The conflict of the traditional religious discourse with modernity became increasingly clear, as a general strike was encouraged by a religious fatwa against the use of tobacco. This expanded into a state-wide boycott.

When Nasir al-Din Shah "contracted with a Belgian company to construct a rail road from Tehran to the shire of Abdul Azim, cart drivers… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Modernity the Discourse.  (2009, April 17).  Retrieved July 17, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/modernity-discourse-unfortunate/777282

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"Modernity the Discourse."  17 April 2009.  Web.  17 July 2019. <https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/modernity-discourse-unfortunate/777282>.

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"Modernity the Discourse."  Essaytown.com.  April 17, 2009.  Accessed July 17, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/modernity-discourse-unfortunate/777282.