Tracking Iranian cosmopolitan options: At home and abroad

By Bruce Lawrence, Duke University and Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakif University, Istanbul

* This essay has been republished for the “Islam and International Order” workshop with the gracious permission of SCTIW Review.


A Review Essay of

Lucian Stone, ed., Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Spheres of Belonging, Suspensions: Contemporary Middle Eastern and Islamicate Thought, Bloomsbury, 2014.

Ali Mirsepassi and Tadd Graham Fernée, Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism: At Home and in the World, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

On the eve of Iranian-American negotiations about nuclear options for the Islamic Republic of Iran, it might seem strange to look at Iranian cosmopolitanism, but here are two recent books on the theme of cosmopolitanism, and the authors/contributors for both are mostly Iranian. Since Iranian identity figures in the title of one, Islam in the title of the other, the unsuspecting reader might reasonably expect some convergence in the subject matter. At the very least, one would anticipate a significant overlap in the issues raised, sources cited, outcomes charted, and actions favored.

Yet none of the above happens. The disparities between Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism and Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism inform not only the contentious nature of the key word they share—cosmopolitanism—but also the difficulty of having even an academic discussion about what are cosmopolitan options in the real world, in the everyday life of citizens whether in the Middle East, specifically Iran, or in North America, specifically the United States but also Canada.

Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism has numerous contributors. They represent a broad spectrum of Iranian intellectuals who have immigrated to North America. Their disciplines include history, political science, comparative literature, philosophy, and religious studies. The chapters are wide ranging in topics, from citizenship and democracy to dissidence and martyrdom. Women as well as minorities find their voices among these contributors, and the volume as a whole lives up to the hope articulated by the editor, Lucian Stone, in the Introduction: “to critically examine cosmopolitanism with specific reference to the Iranian nation-state, Iranian history and culture, and the lived experience of Iranians” (15).

But what does it mean to be a hyphenated Iranian, that is, an Iranian-American? And what does it mean for different generations of Iranian-Americans, not just those who migrated in the late ’70s on the cusp of 1979 Iranian Revolution, but for their children, the next generation of Iranian-Americans? One contributor takes up this challenge frontally. Farhang Erfani, a specialist on Ricœur who teaches Philosophy at American University, provides an extended meditation that he titles, tongue in cheek: “Cosmopolitanism: Neither for, Nor Against, to the Contrary.” It is a brilliant satire on the conceits and dead ends of contemporary philosophy, but it also conveys a heavy dose of self-criticism, even and especially leveled at the title of the volume “Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism.” There is no single, monolithic iraniyyat (notion of Iranianness) either at home or abroad. While “the younger generation is thrilled by anyone advocating for Iranian-Americans,” seeing the hyphen as “a cultural passport to being an official minority,” Erfani locates himself “at the bottom edge of the previous disintegrated generation that is suspicious of the dash and considers it a cultural surrender. Not at home [in the US], this older generation has no hyphens, no center, and is suspicious of all messages”(156).

And that suspicion extends beyond labels to the agency of those who claim to be Iranian exponents of cosmopolitanism. Far from being confident critics of Western triumphalism, neo-colonialism, and unbridled capitalist hegemony, Iranians in North America are compromised by their location. Their energy and efforts pale next to those of Iranians at home, those staying and resisting in the Islamic Republic of Iran. “We cosmopolitans, the Iranian community abroad—our situation is nothing in comparison to the courage of our fellow protesters.” Efrani argues, “The Green Movement and the Arab Spring are better ‘Events’ than anything Badiou fathomed and are more democratic than any neocon imagined. They are however fragile given our impoverished vocabulary. They have made it clear they do not seek to emulate the West and for the most part do not want fundamentalism. Yet, past that, there is little to no vocabulary to address their concerns” (153).

The central tension is between belonging and longing. All who identify as Iranian claim a past that embraces nearly three millennia. It was Persians who challenged Greeks, conquered most of the Mediterranean world, endured the Arab conquest, and then created an Iranian epic, the Shahnameh, as well as Iranian Shi’ism. They forged a series of empires that endured until the modern period of first European, then American global hegemony. Traces of that past shape the linguistic, ethnic, and religious diversities that inform several essays, but there are three further essays—Chapters 4, 5, and 6—that provide the core of the counter thesis to counterfeit cosmopolitanism in Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism. Each seems to point beyond the dilemmas of identity and definition that are finely etched yet never resolved in the essays mentioned above. Each holds up a notion of cosmopolitan longing: the negative or feminine cosmopolitan in Shahla Talebi’s essay, the tragic poet as renovated cosmopolitan in Jason Mohaghegh’s chapter, and the obstinate Armenian as the underside of cosmopolitan Iran in Nasrin Rahimieh’s meditation. All three authors provide literary tropes that harness analytical insight to performative power.

Especially defiant of the status quo, and the state that enforces it, are poets like Shamlu who confront violence with violence. Motivated by “impenetrable rapture in the will to demolition,” the contemporary Iranian poet becomes “the last unequivocal administrator of urban violence (heralding extinction itself)” (116). It is to be sure, according to Mohaghegh, an apocalyptic calling, one that seeks through destruction to “purge the mania of several centuries” (118). The pushback against this necrophilic longing is the daily intensity of wrestling with memories and histories that both converge and collide from a shared Armenian/Iranian background of two literary figures, one, Rahimieh, an Iranian-American professor of literature, the other, Zoya Pirzad, an Armenian-Iranian writer of fiction. Instead of Shamlu’s cataclysmic end, this is more a tale of sutures, trying to make sense of Armenian minority identity over five centuries, with special accent on the heightened level of suspicion directed to Iranian-American scholars, artists, and intellectuals since the June 2009 uprising (the so-called Velvet or Green Revolution), which preceded the December 2010 (Jasmine Revolution) in Tunisia and its sequels elsewhere in the Arab world, and arguably also in Turkey (Taksim Square in June 2013).

In sum, there is no coherence about the meaning of cosmopolitanism as a project or an identity within the essays of Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism, but its several contributors do raise similar issues: who defines cosmopolitanism, what are its prospects, as well as its limits? And it is the hyphen or the dash – Iranian-American, at once Iranian and American – that signals how no single political form or physical location can preempt the tension that Iranians feel both at home and abroad.

It is precisely the absence of the hyphen or dash in the second volume, Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism, which makes it so much less compelling as a contribution to cosmopolitanism studies than Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism. Even though Mirsepassi is an Iranian-American sociologist teaching at NYU, Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism seldom mentions Iran. It would be the height of neo-Orientalist essentialist logic to suggest that every Iranian intellectual must write about his own country. I am not making that claim. There are, after all, more Iranian doctors and engineers than there are intellectuals in Western Europe and North America, and most of them do not address their national or cultural legacy in their professional labor. But Mirsepassi is not just an Iranian-American sociologist who deals with Iran; his most recent monograph, prior to Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism, was titled: Democracy in Iran: Islam, Culture, and Political Change.[1] The name “Iran” drops out of the present volume, but the key concepts of Islam and democracy are both retained, and so one would expect some link, if only tangential, to Iranian evidence and actors, events and issues in Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism. They are hardly visible, and certainly not central, to the book.

“Islam” itself appears as an empty signifier, a notion without substance, in Mirsepassi’s approach. His is a meta-theoretical endeavor to chart what he claims will be a methodological breakthrough in Islamic studies: to “comparatively juxtapose three prevailing theoretical discourses that have profoundly affected contemporary concepts of tradition, cosmopolitanism, and democracy in Islamic countries today” (6).

When we are at last told what Islam is, it is through the translation into English from the introduction to a French dictionary on the Qur’an. In what amounts to reductionist malfeasance, we are given the following as though it is shockingly new information: “The fact that only 15% of the world’s Muslims are Arab, … that half of the world’s Muslim population is in the Indian subcontinent… that none of these countries are familiar with the Arab language [sic] or culture. The immense majority of the world’s faithful are illiterate, with even the literate minority not necessarily understanding Qur’anic Arabic… Islam is in reality the many and contradictory worlds that Muslims experience through a linguistic and cultural multiverse in the course of living their Islam” (88).

The above boilerplate redaction of ground level obstacles to Muslim cosmopolitanism comes only after we have already been told what is the solution to the problems of the Muslim world. They reside in the genius and the labor of one immigrant scholar. He is the Algerian-French linguistic philosopher and Islamic theorist, Mohammed Arkoun. Mirsepassi introduces Arkoun as “the late Algerian thinker” who “followed the pluralistic line of thought opened up by Tagore” (31). Because Arkoun was “a decidedly cosmopolitan thinker,” with “a passionate issue [sic] of responsibility in everyday speech,” it is he who provides the model “to open a critical space grounded in commitment to democratic practices, flexibly anchored within the ethics of the everyday, and linked to immanent problems of cosmopolitanism and justice, without being framed in terms of absolute priorities” (33).

Mirsepassi rules out both the hyphens in Arkoun (he was a French-Algerian intellectual) as well as his close link to the Iranian philosopher, Abdelkarim Soroush. Instead, we are told, that despite the geopolitical, educational and social hurdles confronting actual Muslim societies, the leadership of Arkoun can herald a new day for all high-minded Muslim scholars and activists, wherever they live, whatever their local challenges. If one places society before the state and emphasizes “the creative powers of the everyday lifeworld” (31), one can perceive how Arkoun charts an emergent paradigm, first “articulated by Dewey and Sen and practiced by Gandhi” (35). It marries moral virtue with the everyday, the indispensable building blocks “to form the basis for any popular democratic movement in contemporary societies” (35, emphasis mine).

But how does this vision relate to the circumstances of today, the disparities and despairs of 2015? The image is there for all to see, announces Mirsepassi. It “has also been the most positive and revitalizing image to be spread to the entire world through its experience of the Jasmine Revolutions”(35). The Jasmine Revolutions? Otherwise known as the Arab Spring, the Jasmine Revolutions, like the Green Movement in Iran, pepper the general prescriptions offered in Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism but are never scrutinized. One must go elsewhere to find out about the stakeholders in those revolutions (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria), or the players or the timelines, but also the shifting outcomes. In short, while Mirsepassi calls for attention to the everyday, and to the everyday lifeworld of Muslim societies, he is long on Euro-American theoretical approaches and short on the local details and issues that inform each of these—and other—societies throughout Asia and Africa.

But the greatest disappointment of Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism is its conclusion. Even after lauding Arkoun, Mirsepassi announces that in the end “this new cosmopolitanism is [nothing less than] an extension of specific elements of nationalism” (207). What is needed, we are told, is “to embrace the more discursive-practical ideals of home in a more positive form of nationalism,” that is, to “imagine belonging as combining the virtue of citizenship and a wider global community, while extending democratic and nonviolent forms of ethical politics” (208). In short, nationalism becomes the carrier and the crowning achievement of cosmopolitan belonging.

The failure of Mirsepassi’s work is both theoretical and practical. He leaves out all the native intellectuals on behalf of whom he is claiming to speak, and he provides a solution that reverts to state over society, even while claiming that everyday citizenship involves “extending democratic and nonviolent forms of ethical politics.”

It is in the fractured elements of the often-clashing voices in Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism that we find an actual echo of the pragmatic problems of imagining, then living, then surviving in everyday life worlds. Cosmopolitanism remains an ideal rather than a reality, a process not a product, in contemporary global exchanges. Its Iranian accents are at once multiply displayed and openly fractious. They relate to North America as well as to Iran. The hyphen endures.

Bruce B. Lawrence is a professor of Islamic studies emeritus at Duke University and an adjunct professor at Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakif University, Istanbul. He is the author of several books, most recently Who is Allah?.

[1] Ali Mirsepassi, Democracy in Modern Iran: Islam, Culture, and Political Change (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

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