The Shah and the Imagery of the Occident

  March 19, 2022   Read time 5 min
The Shah and the Imagery of the Occident
In 1961 the shah published, Mission for My Country, which was ghost-written by Dr Donald Wilhelm, Jr., a visiting US professor of political science at Tehran University.

In it, the shah portrayed himself as a forward-looking transformative ruler determined to broaden the reformist path opened by his father and fine-tune the approach to Westernization and pro-West Occidentalism his predecessor initiated. Certainly no one can doubt that our culture is more akin to that of the West than is either the Chinese or that of our neighbors the Arabs. Iran was an early home of the Aryan race from whom most Americans and the peoples of European are descended.

On the whole from the point of view of race we are separate and distinct from the Arabs who are Semites. Our language belongs to the Indo-European family which includes English, French, German and other major Western tongues. … Of course Iranians over the centuries married with other peoples from other races. When the Arabs conquered Iran a great number of Arab words entered the language but the authenticity of race and the characteristics of the language did not change; it has remained. … Our culture is the oldest continuous one racially and linguistically linked to that of the West.

The shah’s views of history that formed under the influence of Reza Shah’s proWest Occidentalism, along with his feelings of insecurity resulting from Iranian backwardness relative to the West which come across strongly in this book, made Aryanism and Iran’s role in Western civilization essential elements in his conceptions of Iranian identity.

Mission for My Country showed that pro-West Occidentalism remained hegemonic and that the practical process of Westernization remained a positive albeit challenging path to the future. In the conclusion to the chapter ‘Westernization: Our Welcome Ordeal’, he wrote: In a country such as our Iran with all of its ancient heritage and customs, fundamental and rapid changes naturally bring difficulties and hardships. But these struggles and difficulties must be tolerated and handled in order to achieve Westernization. But I will never accept that we lose our rich ancient heritage.3 On the contrary, I have every confidence that we can enrich it. … Selective and judicious Westernization can help us towards the goal of democracy and shared prosperity; that is why I refer to it as our welcome ordeal.

Yet, the shah also hinted at the differences in Iran’s and the West’s cultural characteristics that would be included in Pahlavism and Rastakhiz discourses. When I travelled to the Far East in 1958, I was reminded of a sagacious remark by Mr. Lester Pearson, Canada’s former Minister of External Affairs. ‘Coca-Cola,” he said, ‘is no substitute for Confucius’. I think that suggests the dilemma of many of the world’s economically less-developed countries that have encountered difficulties in implementing Westernization. Iran is an example of a land with a culture that is much older, and in some ways deeper and mature, than the countries of the West. In some ways Western countries can teach us the principles of their new civilization while perhaps Iran can acquaint them with its significant and influential ancient civilization and teach them some vital elements.

The shah juxtaposed a popular conception of the West based on consumerism and materialism with a recurring conception of the East, and in this case Iran, that stressed a long rich history, ancient culture and deep spirituality. This claimed cultural difference has been propagated by nativist groups, from German Romantics and Russian Slavophiles to Rabindranath Tagore in India and Kakuzō Okakura in Japan. The shah, however, articulated this difference while claiming that Iran was a racial– cultural member of the West. Therefore, this perceived cultural binary between the West and Iran is not portrayed in essentialist terms while Western culture is not propagated as an existential threat to Iranian authenticity. Rather, this difference was presented as an opportunity for both sides, coexisting under the West’s civilizational umbrella, to reach a higher stage of the human condition by adopting the best each side had culturally to offer.

We are both adjusting the technology to our culture and our culture to technology. And here lies a clue to a new kind of pioneering … I foresee that my country may help provide leadership in the world-wide quest for a fresh synthesis of East and West, old and new. This synthesis would not only bring Iran to the level of the West but also set the conditions in which ‘we will rise to a higher level’ of development and civilization than that attained by the West.6 Despite this mention of a unique role for Iran and cultural binaries between the conceived West and East, the shah’s main emphasis remained on the racial–cultural link with the West that rendered secondary the other discursive elements of identity: Our cultural links with the Western democracies have a record that is centuries old and is not similar to fleeting flames of love. The people of the West during the many past centuries have borrowed much from our culture and we too have integrated some elements of their new culture and civilization into our own and today our goals and those of the democratic countries of the West are identical and this equality of ideals is a source of pride for us and for the countries of the West. … Whenever I look at the ancient and rich history of my country several unique points attract my attention. For example, Iranians are known for having personal independence. … In this respect we are similar to the French … (and) the Americans. It is for this reason that Americans and Iranians are compatible with each other.

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