BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

slowly disappearing from my view

This book was a recent “win” for me in the “Early Reviewers” program, although how “early” it is, having been out for over half a year at this point (with a hardcover edition that carried a cover price of $116.95!) is something to be questioned … perhaps the publisher is looking for readers to consider this much more reasonably priced paperback.

I'm not sure what I anticipated when requesting Hamid Dabashi's Iran, The Green Movement and the USA: The Fox and the Paradox, but it wasn't what the book ended up being. This is a strange package, with various sections each having a different tone, and most trying to fit into some part of a “teaching story” parable.

The book starts with a fable of the fox and the aging lion king, with Iran being the fox and the US being the aging lion. The central premise of the book appears to be that America has been lured into a place where no matter what it does in relation to Iran, it makes Iran stronger and damages our interests in the region. The author is extreme in his dislike of the Bush administration, which he argues to be evil, Christian Crusader, fascistic and stupid all at once (and if I wanted to hear that, I'd dial up CNBC). Obviously, a guy who came from Iran, got an advanced degree in Islamic Studies (OK, among other things) and ends up teaching at an ultra-liberal east coast university is likely to have a different view on the Middle East, but most of the front part of this book is a walk “through the looking glass” where the few points of sanity in the region are painted as demons and the bug-eyed lunatics are made to seem the good guys.

He does point out that the very regimes that previous US administrations had set up to be checks to the Islamic Republic of Iran have been the recent “regime change” targets in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has provided the Mullahs with a wide range of motion, both locally and through their influences across the region in general.

About halfway through the book, however, he changes gears and starts looking at philosophical questions, dragging up an opponent of Socrates, by the name of Thrasymachus, who appears to have argued that the true role of the citizen is to oppose the state, and starts building a case for the Green Movement having an organically integrated role in the Iranian Republic. This is put in context with a rambling look at Iranian political history, regional geopolitical trends, and various intellectual streams involved in both. He does a good job of disabusing the assumption that there is an inherent binary between the secular and the (fanatically) religious, basing this in large part in the romantic writings of various women involved in the movement. He posits a “cosmopolitan” culture which is the true underlying pattern for the Iranians, and that the current theocracy is as much an affront to that as anything, and traces how (utilizing assorted external “emergencies” the Islamists managed to eliminate all opposition and take over nominal control of the country. I say “nominal” here because it is argued that the present regime there lacks the legitimacy of popular support, and that the Green Movement is largely about returning to a multi-faceted “cosmopolitan” culture.

The further one gets into the book, however, the less Dabashi convincingly links it to parallels in the parables, and the more “professorial” his prose becomes … here's a particularly egregious example:
The internal dynamics of Islam itself has historically broken it down into its discursive, institutional, and symbolic forms (or, if preferred, its doctrinal, ritual, and communal formations) – all complementing or competing with each other, and contributing to make Islam a constitutionally multifaceted and cosmopolitan culture, and thus dialectically denying any one component to assume a dominant or exclusionary status. Polyfocal has always been the discursive disposition of Islam, just as the languages and cultures in which it speaks have been polyvocal, and the geographic domains and domesticities of its historical manifestations polylocal. The polyfocality of the Islamic epistemic cultures has spoken and written itself in conflicting nomocentric (the law-centered Sharia), logocentric (the reason-centered Falsafah), and homocentric (the human-centered Tasawwuf or Irfan) languages and lexicons.
One other interesting aspect (which he introduces, oddly enough, via a discussion on Cyberspace) is the multi-calendrical time sense in Iran, where “Persian”, “Islamic”, and “Western” calendars are overlaid on each other providing elements of symbolism which can be used in defiance of the imposed regime.

Again, the book sort of wanders, from an anti-US/Israel tirade at the beginning thought a look at the philosophical groundings of the Green Movement in the middle, to a rather “professorial” exposition of cultural elements at the end. The initial efforts to create parallels with classic teaching stories peters out, but is replaced by a parallel showing the oppressive Islamist regime in Iraq in pretty much the same position in relation to their own people as America is to Iran … any action, hostile or accommodating, serves to weaken its stance and strengthen the opponent's. It never reaches much of any closure, but I guess that's to be expected, given the fluidity of the political reality in that part of the world.

This seems to be new in paperback, but it's not available at much of a discount anywhere (the after-market price no doubt driven up by the insanely-priced hardcover!), but I'm guessing you'd have to be pretty focused on the subject to want to “go there” anyway. I'm glad to have read this, as it certainly brought up stuff I'd not considered, but it's hardly a volume that I'd recommend to more than a handful of folks I know!

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Tags: book review
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