The Ambivalent Modernity of Iranian Intellectuals

This article tries to address the following question: Why and how did Iranian intellectuals manage to embrace modernity while at the same keeping a critical distance from it? By chronicling the history of “Westernization” in Iran, the author maintains that Iran’s modern intelligentsia was inspired by such imported Western ideas as constitutionalism, democracy, nationalism, self-determination, secularism and socialism. Yet it is also equally true that their embrace of the West was overwhelmingly guarded, qualified, and utilitarian. Even as Iranian intellectuals tried to embrace modernity and adopt its extensive vocabulary, they did not cease paying tribute to tradition. The curbing of the pioneering fetters of modern thought was part of the defensive arsenal of a traditional society uneasy with modernity. Hence, by and large, the Iranian intelligentsia viewed their procurement of Western modernity as an adulterous affair or a Faustian bargain, which they could neither openly brag about nor necessarily be proud of. Furthermore, having an inadequate knowledge of Western history and a tenuous grasp of Western philosophy meant that the intelligentsia could not fully comprehend the organic complexities, the multilateral character, or the ultimate implications of Western modernity. Therefore, their consistent preoccupation with the questions of “identity” and “uprootedness,” and their widespread proclivity to advocate discriminate assessment, modified adaptation, and qualified assimilation of the West is fully understandable.

The paper concludes by maintaining that the current reassessment of the status and values of modernity is gradually changing the contours of the Iranian intellectual life by mutating it in the direction of celebrating an eclectic consciousness and a plural identity, which, in the long term, is the best cultural safeguard for democratic practice.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi
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