Gone with the West

  March 26, 2022   Read time 3 min
Gone with the West
During his state visit to the United States in 1961 the shah, hoping to obtain additional US military aid, tailored his speeches for his US audience.
Utilizing themes from Mission for My Country in his remarks at a state dinner in the White House, to a joint session of Congress, and at the National Press Club, he stressed the link between Iran and the West, Iran’s contributions to the West’s civilization and his role as a reformist. The Kennedy administration, however, was not swayed and continued to emphasize the importance of socio-economic reforms in order to achieve domestic political stability. As the shah propagated these views, beginning in the early 1960s, the state was confronted with intellectual and social trends that posed new political and ideological challenges. First, views of the West among the growing intellectual and educated classes evolved. These classes during Reza Shah’s reign and, roughly, the first fifteen years of Mohammad Reza’s reign themselves as ‘agents of the West and saw their role as bringing the positive West to the people’.
Moreover, state intellectuals and technocrats, believing in the masses’ cultural backwardness, had faith in the benefits of enlightened absolutism implementing Westernization. By the early 1960s intellectuals and publicists, many of whom began to suffer from an identity crisis, ‘ now saw it as their duty to inform the masses of the decay and spiritual difficulties facing the West’. They claimed that a spiritual and moral vacuum had emerged in Western societies in which people now led atomized and mechanized lives. The narratives coming out of these discourses underlined the need to find ‘an alternative to the West in the sense of moral values. Now that the West had a moral vacuum, the Eastern utopia must be characterized by its spirituality and morality’.
These intellectuals and publicists also stressed that Western political systems suffered from such a vacuum and therefore could not be an example of the future for non-Western peoples. In the international arena these political systems too had much for which they had to answer. The West’s geopolitical games were responsible for horrific global wars while its imperialism presented constant threats to the cultural, economic and geopolitical independence of non-Western countries. The most vivid examples were French resistance to Algerian independence, the escalating war in Vietnam and Western support for Israel. Last but not least was the US–UK-inspired coup d’état against Mossadegh.
Second, the sociocultural and moral changes resulting from Pahlavi Westernization were increasingly felt on individual and societal levels. Unease grew about the direction in which society was moving while these changes were increasingly disorientating. Intellectuals and publicists bemoaned a sensed precipitous decline in personal, and, in particular, sexual, morality and spirituality and the spread of conspicuous consumerism and materialism. Consequently, debates about the constitutive elements of Iranian authenticity intensified and began to compete with Pahlavi pro-West Occidentalism. These debates were dominated by (a) a belief in a crisis of identity resulting from Pahlavi Occidentalism; (b) the necessity to provide a definition of authenticity of Iranian culture and national identity as a counter-discourse to Pahlavi Occidentalism; (c) the need to return to such authenticity and identity; and (d) the achievement of social justice that communism and capitalism seemingly failed to provide.
Lastly, an underlying theme of these discourses was the need for political reform. On the one hand, a growing number of intellectuals and professionals saw in the absolutist Pahlavi state a force destroying Iranian authenticity and exploiting the country to its benefit and that of its Western allies. Here the legacy of Mossadegh’s overthrow as well as the close geopolitical relationship between the shah and the West, particularly the United States, loomed large. On the other hand, the growth of the state bureaucracy and security apparatus had resulted in a closed political space that prevented direct criticism of the shah’s domestic and foreign policies. Thus, non-state intellectuals, including those producing new Islamist discourses, in pursuit of political change believed that the ‘most feasible weapon against the regime’ was ‘attacking its lack of authenticity’. This intellectual anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism that grew from the early 1960s was expressed in films, books, scholarly articles and pieces in the popular press. Unable to criticize political conditions, intellectuals, publicists and activist journalists turned attention to domestic cultural and moral conditions emerging as a result of Westernization and to undermining the idea of the West’s civilizational superiority.

Write your comment