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Interview with Geneive Abdo and Jonathan Lyons, authors of Answering only to God: Faith and Freedom in Twenty-First-Century Iran

By Ali Moayedian,

Answering only to God
Authors: Geneive Abdo and Jonathan Lyons
ISBN: 0-8050-7299-3
Publisher: Henry Holts and Company, New York

I found your book a great source for understanding today's Iran. It provides a good historical background on the politics, religion, and the various movements involved that have shaped Iran or are struggling to change the direction the country is heading to. It seems you have interviewed quite a number of Iranians during your stay in Iran in writing your book. So thanks for giving us a chance to interview you now for a change!

Geneive Abdo and Jonathan Lyons
Photo Credit: Chris Usher/Apix

Q: Did you ask for the assignment in Iran, or the opportunity appeared and you went for it?

A: We very actively sought the assignment in Iran, beginning in the Spring of 1998. We arrived that June. President Khatami had been elected less than one year before, and Tehran was a very exciting place to be at the time. We had expected to chronicle the success of the Iranian reform movement, with Khatami as its symbolic head. As you know, things did not turn out that way.

Q: How did you become interested in Iran? Was that because of Geneive's Lebanese heritage perhaps?

A: Geneive, who was born in Texas to a Lebanese Maronite family, was just completing her earlier book on Egypt, No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam (Oxford University Press). She had been immersed in a society caught up in a grassroots Islamic revival. While Egypt was developing an Islamic society from the bottom up, Iran had had an Islamic system fashioned from the top down.

Q: When did you plan writing this book? Since Geneive had already written a book on Egypt, I guess Iran, as the center of Shi'ite Islam, must have been the perfect candidate for a follow-up book?

A: Yes, Geneive's research on Egypt and my own tenure as bureau chief in Turkey for 4 1/2 years meant we had a solid grounding in Sunni Islam. We thought it was important to try to understand the Shi'ite world, as well. Iran was ideal for this.

Q: What has been the reaction to the book in Iran? Or is it too early to answer this?

A: It's too early to tell. As far as we know, at least a few copies are in circulation, mostly among a few of our friends and contacts. We are still waiting for their "reviews."

Answering Only to God:
Faith and Freedom in Twenty-First-Century Iran

Q: How has the book been received by Iran followers, both in the West and in the Middle East?

A: Iran watchers, in the United States and particularly here in Washington, are generally "allergic" to the notion that religion, in this case Shi'ite Islam, can be a primary factor in political and social life. As a result, many have found our determination to focus on the clerics and their world as a way of understanding Iran a bit of a surprise.

Those without a personal stake in the current debate about Iran and U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic have been very enthusiastic about the book. Also, a number of scholars from the United States and abroad have praised Answering Only to God. At one conference, a professor of religion from Harvard walked up to us and said how much he loved the book. He then walked away. That made us feel good.

Q: Do you see any significant changes since you left? There has been more arrests, and more disillusionments, as evidenced by the latest election. But we have also witnessed the release of Ayatollah Montazeri from house arrest and the overturning of Aghajari's death sentence. But has there been any fundamental changes in your opinion?

A: No. If anything, our findings have been strengthened further by subsequent events. For example, we were the first Western correspondents in Iran to write that Khatami had failed, beginning with his July 1999 speech in Hamadan effectively disowning the student demonstrators who had risked their lives in the pro-democracy protests. We were roundly criticized by other Western reporters and analysts and by some pro-reform Iranians at the time. One British journalist once called us apologists for the hard-liners. In retrospect, we were 100% on target. Now, everyone agrees the mainstream reform movement is finished.

Of course, it is important to note that there have been some important changes beneath the surface. The recent protests, with their radical demands on limiting or even removing clerical control over society, would have been unthinkable without the "free press" movement of 1998-2000 and without the 1999 protests. Here, at least for a time, Khatami and his allies were very successful: they created a press that took debate over many of the pressing ideas of the day out from behind the walls of the seminaries and put them before the reading public. This was very important, even if it was a short-lived phenomenon.

The demographics of Iran are changing, as well, with more and more educated young people who will be seeking political and economic power. But that does not change our fundamental assessment -- that fundamental reform will take years, that Iranians' commitment to Islam and to their basic cultural values must be respected, and that the theological contradictions inherent to the Islamic Republic must first be resolved among the clerical caste.

On both a personal and political note, we were very pleased to learn that Ayatollah Montazeri was released from his house arrest. He recently sent us an e-mail, saying we had performed a great service for the people of Iran and for the Muslim world. We plan to frame this and keep it on our wall, because it means a lot to us. You may recall, we were the first to interview him at length (by fax) about his views on the Islamic system, reform, and the role of the Supreme Leader. We believe Montazeri will prove a seminal figure in Iran's contemporary history, and he is a major figure in our book.

Q: Do you think the two bills presented by the reformists to increase the president's authority and to allow freer elections will be approved. And if they are, with some modifications perhaps, will they fundamentally change the system to the liking of the people? Or democracy is simply not possible within this system?

A: The constitution calls for a Guardian Council, which is now dominated by the Supreme Leader and his allies in the clerical establishment, with the power to veto any law passed by the elected parliament. Supporters see this as central to the Islamic system, which they call a "guided republic." While there is a mechanism, also in the constitution, to resolve deadlocks between these two bodies, in practice it does not respond to the popular will. Either the power of the Guardians must be watered down, as some mainstream reformers want, or the clerical elite must undergo a transformation to become more tolerant and pluralistic, something progressive clerics advocate.

But it is important to remember that these and other shortcomings are not necessarily the fault of Islam or of an Islamic political system. In other words, we believe it is very possible to construct a system that allows for a significant degree of popular sovereignty, while maintaining Islamic values and traditions. It is really a matter of religious interpretation and who is given the authority to interpret Islam. Iran's hard-liners want a monopoly on religious interpretation, but there is nothing in the holy texts that supports this claim. That's a long way of saying, yes, democracy is possible -- but not under current conditions.

Q: Unlike United States, European Union is engaged with Iran in dialogue, and they are also pushing harder for reform and human rights there. Based on your experience in Iran, which policy do you think is more effective?

A: It is often overlooked that Iran, for all its economic hardships and social problems, has done a pretty good job of getting along without the United States. And this in spite of U.S. sanctions. It has rich oil reserves, an educated and growing population, good technical skills and a rich history and culture. It's not clear, what the United States has received for its punitive policy toward Iran. Lately, the rhetoric coming from Washington has weakened the reformist forces in Iran by making them appear to be U.S. stooges. Finally, the U.S. is deeply concerned about Iran's nuclear intentions. But it has no constructive way to influence that policy. So there is a contradiction between U.S. support for a popular uprising against the Iranian government, which has played into the hands of the hard-liners, and Washington's concern that a hard-line regime in Tehran will build nuclear weapons. We can't say much about the European approach, but it's clear that U.S. policy on Iran has failed.

Q: There are people, mostly outside, who are strongly opposed to demands for incremental improvements in Iran and see any policy other than a regime change as helping the ruling clerics. But reading your book, one gets the feeling that most Iranians are not looking for a regime change, at least not in that sense?

A: Everywhere we went, we made certain to ask people from all walks of life what they wanted. We tried to listen very carefully, and not to impose our own values or aspirations. What we found was a consistent desire for an Islamic system of government, but not this system. And there is much debate over how that system would work, what it would look like. But the import from the West of a liberal, secular democracy, does not figure in these calculations. In fact, there is every reason to believe it would be resisted bitterly. Don't forget, the Islamic Revolution was essentially a cultural revolution and a rebellion against foreign values and foreign domination.

Q: What do you think about the US policy of regime change? How effective do you think this policy is in bringing democracy to the region and to Iran? And if this policy is not successful, how costly would it be to the region and to US?

A: I think we've addressed that already. In brief, there are many encouraging trends toward reform across much of the Muslim world, but none can benefit from "regime change" imposed from the outside. Historically, the United States was the leading critic of Europe's colonial grip on the region. Now the roles have been reversed, but the outcome would prove no more successful. The Islamic world has to find its own way.

Q: How do you think the presence of US forces in Iraq will affect the politics in Iran? And do you think the downfall of Saddam is working for or against the government/people in Iran?

A: It is too early to tell just how long the U.S. remain in Iraq -- and in what form. If the resistance remains at its current level, it is hard to see how President Bush would want to face a re-election campaign in 2004 with persistent casualties in Iraq. In that case, the chances of a strong role for Iraq's majority Shi'ites would be a natural outcome. That does not mean that Iraq would go the way of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iraqi Shi'ism has quite a different character, and the holy city of Najaf never really accepted Khomeini's vision of absolute clerical rule, in his reading of velayat-e faqih. Besides, this ideas has been discredited in Iran and will have to be re-examined and refined. As a result, there is no real "Iranian model" to export to Iraq, even if the Shi'ites of the south wanted it.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq -- and the rhetorical attacks on Iran that have accompanied it -- has strengthened the grip of the hard-liners in Tehran, for it appears to vindicate their anti-colonial, anti-American discourse. It also allows them to portray any dissidents as puppets of the Americans. This is not helpful.

Q: We see many conflicting signals from both US and Iran. There are talks of cooperation between the two governments, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. But there are also talks of hostilities and of Iran being the next US target. What's your interpretation of these?

A: Many in Washington want to have a relationship with Iran that meets U.S. needs but doesn't really take into account Iran's own interests or values. With regards to Afghanistan, this was not really a problem. Both had deep opposition to the militant Sunni Taliban. But there are also tensions over the area around Herat, where a warlord with close links to Iran holds sway.

Having removed unfavorable regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a certain sense in the U.S. capital that such "regime change" is a viable policy elsewhere. Like Iraq, they are using Iranian exile politicians and talking heads, like the son of the Shah or Rob Sobhani, to convince Americans that the regime is falling and the people of Iran are dying for U.S. intervention. Polls suggest this is working, which must alarm the rulers back in Tehran.

Of course, this is not the case and there is no "pact" between the Iranian people and the Bush administration to dismantle the Islamic system. The failure of post-war Iraq policy seems to have been lost on advocates of forcible "regime change" in Iran; and war in Iran would make Iraq and its aftermath look a walk in the park. Whereas Iraq was run like a criminal enterprise under Saddam Hussein and his circle, Iran has elements of a civil society and its government has a form of legitimacy. Resistance would be stiff. Right now, things are in flux in Washington, and there are some signs that Bush's political advisers will be careful to prevent any escalation as they prepare for the next election.

Q: There seems to be a gulf between Iran and US, but at the same time there is a lot that links Iranian and American people. There is the past 50 years of history, that is filled with sweet and sometimes bitter memories for the two peoples. And there are also between 1 to 2 million Iranians who have made US their home but have strong attachments to Iran. What is the best way to bridge the gap between Iran and US?

A: Iran and the Iranian people have to work out their own political and social structures. Frankly, this is unlikely to include the vast majority of Iranian exiles in America, most of whom are secular in outlook and refuse to come to terms with the true nature of their native land. This will take time and there is no magic bullet that can resolve tensions and animosities that date back, for many, to the 1953 CIA coup that restored the Shah and to the revolution that the coup helped produce.

Q: Assuming that bringing a true democracy in Iran requires major changes in Iran's constitution and political system, how likely do you think it is that these changes will happen in a peaceful manner? Will the hard-liners ever accept a true referendum?

A: Any changes that are successful and long-lasting must be the product of peaceful, social change. Iranian society is not prepared for the upheaval of another revolution. Nor is there a coherent ideology or vision of what should come next. This is why today's student protests are doomed to fail. The 1979 revolution was the fruit of decades of agitation, preparation and debate within many disparate factions, of which the militant clerics around Khomeini was just one group. There were also workers groups, the liberal Islamists, the secular nationalists, the armed militias, etc. Nothing like that exists today. Don't forget, simply having an unhappy populace is no guarantee of revolution. If it were, we'd have revolution around the world.

However, the hard-liners are politicians, too. Just after Khatami's 1997 landslide, they were in disarray and some around Khamenei were prepared to compromise with the new president. But the reform movement was not ready to take advantage of the opportunity and the moment soon passed. They were too timid and they repressed their more radical and ambitious allies, which turned out to be a fateful move, because they were more interested in power than in true reform. The reform movement must also work within the religious discourse to resolve the underlying theological questions that retard reform and bolster the hard-liners. Clerics like Mohsen Kadivar and Abdollah Nouri, both students of Montazeri by the way, can play an important role here.

Q: Do you see the Iranian people being able to bring change by themselves and with no more than moral support from outside?

A: Yes, for the reasons discussed above.

Q: Your book was very timely. It's addressing the politics of Iran as the center of Shi'ite Islam, and it came out at a time when Islam is being attacked in the west as the main source of violence in the world. How do you view this characterization of Islam and how do you think this will impact the relations between Islamic and Western countries?

A: It has poisoned relations between the Islamic and Western countries, and between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West, for years to come. And it is getting worse here in America. The result, is a hardening of attitudes by the non-Muslim majority and a search for a new, more authentic identity among minority Muslims. American society will be paying the price for generations.

In all the finger-pointing after 9/11, one group escaped: the journalists, pundits and academics who should have been educating the American public about the struggles and tensions within the Islamic world, and about the true essence of Islam. This would have insulated the public, to some degree, against the manipulation and propaganda that has fed the so-called war on terrorism. It is easy to see why the Muslim world sees it as a war on Islam, for that's exactly what it is.

Q: Let's talk about your personal life experience in Iran? As westerners, how easy was it for you to live in Iran and mingle with the population?

A: Life in Iran was a challenge, despite our many years in the Middle East and other foreign countries. People were always very warm and welcoming. Many were tickled that we were American citizens. At one anti-American rally, young girls stroked Geneive's hair and giggled with joy. They had never met a real American. Due to social custom and political realities, however, it was hard for us to meet socially with anyone but the westernized elite. The most interesting and influential people would only meet us in the more formal setting of an interview or appointment.

Q: It seems you had established close friendship with some people over there. Have you maintained contact with any of them after you left?

A: As you know, we were forced to leave Iran suddenly, without saying good-bye to the many brave and insightful people who helped us with our research, or who befriended us along the way. We regret that.

Q: Your interview with Ganji while he was in prison caused a firestorm followed by your quick departure. Would you like to talk about that?

A: As you are aware, we have presented our account in our book and, earlier, in some newspaper articles. We feel this covers the matter. You know well that everything connected with Iran has a highly emotional character, and we prefer to address more important social, political and religious issues.

Q: Do you wish to have done things differently in regards to the interview? And was the interview so explosive that it was worth the firestorm that followed?

A: The "Ganji affair" was never really about Ganji. The reformers around Khatami were upset that we were critical in print of their movement. And the hard-liners never really accepted the idea of permanent Western correspondents. At the end there was no one to defend us. But two other factors were also at work. Many in power never forgave us for breaking the information blockade around Ayatollah Montazeri. Also, with the crushing of the independent press, our reports became the basis for Persian language broadcasts back into Iran each evening. This made us players, against our will or intent, in the domestic political struggle. It was really a matter of time before we were pushed out.

Q: Do you wish to have done anything else differently? And are there things you wanted to do and other subjects you wanted to cover in the book that you weren't able to?

A: We always wanted to see Takht-e Shamshid (Persepolis). We had planned to travel in the spring of 2001 to see all the places we had missed among all the work. But we had to leave suddenly in February.

Q: Would you like to go back for more visits?

A: We have been barred by the authorities from returning.

Q: Any other comments?

A: Thank you, Ali, for your interest.

Thanks for your time!

... Payvand News - 7/11/03 ... --

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