The Islamic Revolution From the Shah to the Spice Girls
Masoumeh Ebtekar, the highest-ranking woman to serve
in the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is vice president for
environmental affairs. For years, she has been active in Iran as a leader
of women's rights and is an immunologist by medical training. When Iranian
militants seized American diplomats as hostages in the US Embassy in 1979,
she was the militants' chief spokesperson.
She agreed to talk with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in Switzerland as part
of President Mohamad Khatami's appeal for dialogue with the West.
NPQ | When President Mohamad Khatami called recently
for a "dialogue with the West," one imagines that he had in
mind some Iranian intellectuals sitting down to discuss the clash of civilizations
with Samuel Huntington.
In fact, opening to the West will not mean a dialogue with Harvard academics,
but a dialogue between Islamic values and postmodern mass culture, with
MTV and the Spice Girls. Is Iran prepared for that? What does Islam have
to offer the West in this dialogue?
MASOUMEH EBTEKAR | The doors of the world today are wide open,
whether we like it or not. Our youth, like those in other societies, are
attracted to the seeming glamour of this entertainment culture. "Aren't
we allowed to have any fun in an Islamic society?" they ask. "Is
Islam a religion that prohibits everyone from enjoying life?" Indeed,
it is a challenge to the Islamic revolution to find another model of enjoyment
and fulfillment than the casual, carefree, sensate lifestyle "Hollywood,"
to use the catchphrase, promotes as universal.
This is also an issue of cultural diversity. Must we all conform to Hollywood's
view of human nature, which mostly stresses what is base rather than noble
in humanity? What about human dignity, particularly in the portrayal of
women as little more than sex objects? Isn't there something more to existence
than consumer status and a few moments of pleasure in a life that is otherwise
empty and meaningless?
I think the basic legacy of the postmodernist, consumer culture of the
West is to enjoy life for the moment at the expense of not thinking about
the rest of society or the future of the world, as if, somehow, it is
possible just to take a perpetual vacation from reality. Essentially,
it is living without responsibility.
The greatest tragedy of the 20th century is carried within this Hollywood
culture: life deprived of its spiritual dimension.
Maybe this lifestyle is due to the fact that people feel powerless over
their lives. And since they can't change things, they feel they should
just enjoy their brief mortality and forget about all the rest.
This kind of lifestyle is closely linked to other phenomena in the Western-dominated
world-violence, drugs, environmental degradation, sexual exploitation
and even slavery through the sex trade in Asia. Even rap music-originally
a form of expression of dissatisfaction with this culture-has become absorbed
in it and is now itself an expression of violence and licentiousness.
Other than the enormous profits the Hollywood music industry is making,
and the brief distraction for troubled youth it provides, what does it
all amount to?
Has the lifestyle of the West given the younger generation anything to
cherish in their lives? Has it given them any self-esteem or identity?
Has it opened their hearts to others or to nature?
After the few minutes of enjoyment, the feeling fades within you, leaving
a hole where the soul is, an emptiness.
NPQ | What is the alternative?
EBTEKAR | The alternative is spiritual enjoyment that transforms
your inner being and gives you a direction in life, a meaning. The alternative
is an enduring satisfaction that connects you to all of God's creation,
rather than just feeding your selfish ego. Religious values offer a guide
for living that is not just right for yourself, but for humanity as a
whole. It provides a sense of peace, instead of the restless compulsion
of always seeking more stimulation through ever greater consumption of
goods, entertainment and new experiences.
Spiritual joy is profound and lasting.
I think that so many in the younger generation are looking for this peace
and love, and they can't find it in consumerism. I remember seeing an
interview with a group of teenage boys on "60 Minutes" about
why they used drugs. One of the boys said, "I just need a couple
of moments of peace in this life, and when I take those drugs, I find
In speaking of the drug problem in the West today, one might turn Karl
Marx on his head and say, "Opium is the god of the masses."
There are also many forms of physical enjoyment that don't degrade human
dignity, like sports of all kinds. Imam Khomeini often talked of the enjoyment
of classical music. But the kind of degradation which flows from unlimited
sensate culture-I've mentioned, for example, the sex trade and sexual
slavery-is where we have to draw the line.
NPQ | The "clash of civilizations" you see, then, is
not a clash between Islam and the Christian West, which Harvard Professor
Samuel Huntington proposed, but a clash that pits Islamic values, the
values of Pope John Paul II and the Orthodox Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn against
the culture of Madonna and Michael Jackson?
EBTEKAR | Exactly. In fact, we believe that all divine religions
come from the same source. And one day, they will all again merge together
in a global religion, creating an ultimate solution for humanity.
The human being of the 21st century has two main challenges: the self
and nature. The individual has been entertained and deceived into embracing
a culture dominated by pleasure and lust. Moral degradation is the result.
However, nature cannot be so easily deceived. We already are, and will
be, punished by nature for the excesses committed against the environment.
That is why I believe the moral and spiritual dimension of life will be
revived as more important than economics, science and technology in the
next century. Islam, I believe, will provide a model of the integration
of the mind and the heart, which we previously thought could not come
together. Materialism and spiritualism can be accommodated, as can this
world and the hereafter.
Many people are already asking, "After we are satiated by consumerism,
NPQ | Must religion and state always be fused in Iran? As Iran
becomes more democratic, do you see the possibility one day of a separation
between state and religion?
EBTEKAR | There is a large majority of Islamic intellectuals who
believe that Islam is intrinsically a political religion. There are so
many principles and edicts that would be left unattended if Islam shed
its political dimension. Greater democracy in Iran has indeed confirmed
the population's embrace of this view.
In Iran, Islam has never been imposed. It arose through acceptance by
the people. In the elections a few months ago, more than 90 percent of
eligible voters took part. This is striking not only for Iran and the
Arab world, but for the West, where voting participation, as in the United
States, is only about 45 percent of those eligible.
If people didn't want Islam, it would be meaningless to impose it on them.
Faith is not a function of political power in Iran, but the other way
NPQ | You are a leader of women's rights in Iran, which is why
you were chosen to join the cabinet of President Khatami. What, concretely,
does feminism mean in Khatami's Iran?
EBTEKAR | We don't use the term "feminism" in Iran because
it connotes a certain Western definition that includes sexual, and even
gender, liberation. But if you take the word literally to mean the restoration
of women's rights, of her equal status and dignity as a human being, then
we can proudly say that we have advanced greatly.
From the early days of the Islamic revolution, Imam Khomeini always stressed
the equality of women in society and the necessity of making the voice
of women heard in political life. The importance of this central message
of the revolution somehow wasn't heard in the West, even though many of
the other Islamic leaders in Iran at the time opposed Imam Khomeini's
views. He made it clear there was no religious obstacle to women's full
participation in social and political affairs. He opened the way for women
in Iran, including into positions of decision-making.
I remember when the more conservative mullahs and the more non-religious
traditional forces in society wanted to maintain walls between men and
women students in the classrooms at the university. Imam Khomeini ordered
the walls destroyed and said, "There is no reason that men and women
cannot study together."
This was tremendously important for all of us women. The university is
such a sacred place, that to remove the walls there was, really, to remove
all the walls that kept women out in Iranian society. Today, as a result,
there is a large and important class of professional women in Iran.
NPQ | If women are so free and equal, why must they cover up in
EBTEKAR | As the Koran says, modest dress is to the benefit of
women, not something imposed by men. The Islamic covering of women is
only part of a comprehensive framework of social relations between men
The point is to avoid one sex being exploited by the other. The point
is that men and women should be treated equally as human beings. We don't
want to end up in a predicament-like we hear so much about today in America
and even Washington-where women are harassed in the workplace.
This is what we are trying to avoid in Islamic society. We cannot claim
we are ultimately successful. But modest dress is an alternative model
of social relations that has more and more resonance for other societies
as men and women work together side by side in situations of equality.
Women are intellectuals, artists and workers-and they should be looked
upon in that perspective, not just as the opposite sex. Whether we like
it or not, the way we dress-promiscuous or modest-sends a message about
how we want be regarded in society. I'm sure many women around the world
understand that equality with men and modesty of dress go together.
NPQ | So women in Iran have more dignity than women in the West?
EBTEKAR | Well, I would say they have more opportunity for dignity.
For example, in Iran the media cannot use women in advertising. They are
not portrayed in any form as a tool to sell products. The West does not
like to talk about the sex trade in Asia, but it is part and parcel of
the way the media exploit women for commerce.
We have a different perspective. Through the revolution, God has given
women the chance to come into the social sphere and reach their human
potential with dignity.
NPQ | Can women and men pray together in Iran today, as, for example,
they cannot at Muslim funerals in Turkey?
EBTEKAR | Yes, men and women can pray together in all spheres.
When the rest of the (male) cabinet prays at meetings, I pray with them
together in the same room.
The problem for women in Islam is that we have sometimes relied on tradition
and custom, and not the spirit of the faith. This is why we have been
critical of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Men and women are complementary genders. They have different rights pertaining
to their different responsibilities in society. But God created men and
women as equal, especially in prayer.
More and more, across the Muslim world, things are changing. There is
no religious basis for the separation of women and men in prayer or their
inequality in any other aspect of life.
NPQ | Is President Khatami's call for a dialogue with the West
real or a political gesture?
EBTEKAR | Dialogue today is not a hollow gesture but a necessity.
And in this globally interconnected day and age, dialogue with the outside
world means dialogue within and vice versa.
That is why President Khatami has initiated a dialogue within Iranian
civil society as well, which, like the outside world, has different tendencies.
There are very different points of view within Iran about whether civil
society or the state should have the greater role. There are differences
about the extent and limits of freedom of expression.
I would say, though, that the trend of opening up is irreversible. This
is not only because of the strong electoral mandate President Khatami
received, but because of the natural evolution of human understanding
toward tolerance. The revolution is institutionalized now, so it can relax
NPQ | Would you say that the Islamic revolution in Iran has moved
from its defensive phase to a phase of cultural reconstruction?
EBTEKAR | Well, we are still under the economic pressures of the
embargo. But culturally, yes, we are in a new phase of establishing a
mature identity. This is especially important for the younger generation
that did not directly experience the founding events of the revolution.
There is a gap between my generation and theirs that must be bridged.
This is our most important dialogue. It is part of the cultural reconstruction
of which you speak.
My generation faced political and military domination of the West. We
had to deal with the Shah. The younger generation must face, as you say
metaphorically, the Spice Girls. Today, the West doesn't have to deploy
its armies and naval fleets, only its satellites and TV broadcasts.
In some sense, that can pose an even deeper threat to Islamic values.
That is why our greatest challenge is to convey to our youth Islamic spiritual
values as a counter to the postmodern impiety of the West while, at the
same time, becoming more tolerant of their desires.
NPQ | You were the spokesperson for the militants who took Americans
hostage in 1979. Do you regret that? Do you chalk it up now to the radicalism
of your youth?
EBTEKAR | No, I don't regret that. It was part of the revolution.
You can't see it in a personal perspective, but only in the perspective
of a national revolution. From that point of view, it was a very natural
event. It was not rooted in vengeance. Nor was it an attempt to humiliate
America. The revolution was struggling to get on its feet, and some people
were trying to stop it.
Times have changed, though the values of the revolution continue. So has
the context. At that time, the West looked at the revolution as a short-term
phenomenon. Twenty years later, it remains standing and is evolving toward
tolerance and democracy. At the same time, the world is turning back toward
As President Khatami has said, we are prepared now to coexist and even
cooperate with America. But we no longer feel we have to depend for our
future on its definition of how the world must be organized.