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 spoke with NPQ in 2002.
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 them.”
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, then what?”
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 around.
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 public?
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 and women.
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 to 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 can
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 a bit.
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 religious values.
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.