book review by Ari Siletz

Iran: the next great civilization…again!

Entrepreneurial activities keep Dr. Kamal Azari quite busy, yet as a political scientist his mind is also occupied with Iran related issues. He has recently published a short book titled Axis of Hope in which he lays out his concept of an innovative form of community-centric government derived from his knowledge of Iranian history and cultural mindset. I visited his estate in wine country California to explore some of the ideas in his book.

When Azari began by praising Cyrus the Great and his successor, Darius the Great, I was tempted to dismiss his discourse as more of the usual anti-Islam rhetoric based on false nationalistic pride. It turned out that the political scientist is as positive about the early Islamic period in Iran as he is about the early Achaemenid period. Cyrus invented the ideal of inter-cultural tolerance and equality among races, making it a core characteristic of Iranianness to this day. Early Islam contributed to Iranian civilization by making social mobility possible in Iran. These two social factors, tolerance and the opportunity for social mobility have nurtured golden ages in societies whenever they have been practiced. To wit, the United States.

While it may seem obvious to the modern person that tolerating cultural difference is good policy and that the social mobility is desirable, this has by no means been obvious to people before the modern times. According to Azari, prior to Cyrus, military conquests were meant to subdue a people, extort their allegiance, make them worship different gods, eliminate their identity, or simply to plunder. Cyrus, on the other hand, was a liberator not a conqueror according to Azari. Some nations joined him without a fight. Cyrus allowed a people to retain their identity, to worship their own gods and to continue to develop their own art and culture. Cooperation rather than coercion was at the heart of the empire under Cyrus and his successor, Darius. Their leadership made possible for the first time in history a commonwealth of nations. This innovation in world politics was later emulated with varying degrees of success by empires like Rome and Britain.

As for early Islam, according to Azari it has been misunderstood. Many of Iran’s Arab conquerors weren’t even Muslims and, even if some were Muslims, the religion hadn’t developed enough of a cultural identity to characterize very much about an individual adherent. These Arab soldiers of fortune set up garrison towns inside Iran creating an economy that attracted and entangled native Iranian craftsmen and merchants. Since Arabs did not have a caste system like the Sassanids, the Iranians associating with them were coincidentally freed from the restriction of a society where “knowing your place” stifles innovation and creativity. Hence the flowering of Iranian culture in the following few centuries–for example, Khwarazmi, Raazi, Birooni, Ibn Sina, Farabi , Al Haytham and others.

At this point, historians usually blame the Mongol invasion for the loss of dynamism in Iranian culture, but Azari is among those who attributes the decline to the internal fragmentation that had come about before the Mongol invasion. In his attempt to secure a strong central government, the great Seljuq vizier Nezam ol Molk had attempted to promote a homogeneous and centrally legitimized clerical school of thought across the land. But the strategy backfired as local leaders each saw the opportunity to interpret the new Sharia laws to legitimize their own self-interested behaviors. Empowered by this sudden windfall of moral and religious authority these local leader became intolerant of dissent. Because of this, Islam in Iran lost its liberating influence as Iranians were no longer free to think for themselves or act according to their own conscience. After a century of political fragmentation, the Mongols encountered a nation without the will to fight back. It wasn’t the Mongols that defeated Iran, beginning a long period of darkness; it was loss of morale. Azari sums up the period immediately leading up to the Mongol invasion in this way: “It represented serious changes in rules regarding previously held right of free expression and personal interpretation of reality.”

Whatever the specific causes, civilizations eventually decline to make way for new civilizations with new flavors of thought. Today, Western civilization is also showing signs of decline, according to Azari. For example, the phenomenon of perpetual economic growth has already run into the barriers of natural resource depletion and serious environmental damage. It is unlikely that Western civilization can mend its ways because the very institutions that once vitalized it will resist change, as has been the case with previous declining civilizations. Banks and corporations facing limits on growth are inclined to cannibalize the rest of the civilization, not preserve it. If the West declines, opportunity is created for a new civilization to emerge. Since Iran has already demonstrated brilliant periods of civilization building in her history, she is a leading candidate for the role. Hope for a new tolerant and creative civilization may surprisingly come from the direction of Iran!

In the Axis of Hope Azari outlines a community based political system as a possible design of government for the new order. The design seems to recognize that sometimes centralized power is necessary. For example individual rights under the law cannot be left to the whim of local governments. A region populated mostly by ,say, Shiites should not have to power to discriminate against Sunnis. National defense, international commerce, and protection of shared natural resources should also be the business of the central government. Local governments are quite empowered, however. They will receive the taxes collected by the central government in one lump sum to allocate as they see fit. One region may spend more on housing than schools, another may allocate its share of funds the other way around. At the heart of all this organization seems to be a philosophy that the relationship between the individual and his/her community should create value for both.

Azari also imagines a National Trust where all national income, say oil export money goes. This money would be loaned to the various small communities to use for, say, healthcare as they see fit locally. The communities in turn pay back this loan so as to perpetuate the trust fund for future generations. Azari views such national trusts as a fourth branch of government along with the traditional legislative, judicial, and executive branches of a democracy.

Another interesting concept is Azari’s proposal for mandatory community work to replace local government workers. “We shouldn’t have to hire domestic servants to do our housework” he says, “so why should we hire civil servants to run the machinery of our local government?” To my mind, this approach obsoletes debates about small government. Government, it seems, can be small or big in proportion to how much of their time the populace is willing to spend running it.

I was able to read Axis of Hope during a six hour flight, so it flows well , is engaging and readily understandable. To fully explore the ideas, Azari admits, a much bigger book is needed. His intent, however, seems to be just to provide an outline for public discussion. To this end, Dr. Azari is preparing a website dedicated to discussing, refining and extending the thoughts expressed in Axis of Hope.


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