Contemporary Discourse on Modernity in Iran

Since the beginning of Iran’s contacts with the Western, and particularly European societies, nearly a century and a half ago, Iranian intellectuals, politicians and leaders have reacted to western norms and institutions in a variety of ways. Some have admired the West, praised its achievements and values and have tried to emulate and adopt many of its modern characteristics. Others have belittled and denigrated western culture and denied the validity of modern western experience for Iran. In the extreme, the reaction has moved from idealization to vilification of all things Western. From 1920’s onward, these reactions have been expressed with a view to the various projects aimed at modernization of Iran. The goal of modernization, including industrialization, adoption of Western techniques and scientific methodology and some, if not all, of its cultural and artistic norms, became the essential component of government programs in Iran from 1925 to 1979. Even the Islamic regime, despite its patently anti-western attitude and its protestations against the onslaught of Western culture, has more or less continued the program of modernization at least in some areas.

In the last two decades, however, the whole discourse on modernization has undergone a fundamental transformation. In the West, the process of economic and cultural globalization coupled with the emergence of new trends of thought on issues such as cultural relativity and diversity and post-modern developments, have contributed to the formation and spread of a new discourse on modernity. Likewise, in Iran both secular and religious thinkers and writers have launched serious discussions on the nature and properties of civil society, democracy, freedom and women’s rights with unparalleled urgency. Furthermore, it seems that the question most frequently discussed is not the relationship between Iran and the West; it is rather the way Iran must face, and interact with, the outside world as a whole and as an increasingly interconnected and unavoidable entity.

Jamshid Behnam
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