Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic, by Michael Axworthy

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Middle East expert Michael Axworthy debunks many Western myths about Iran and its history, giving readers a more detailed and unbiased picture of the Islamic Republic. 

Michael Axworthy was head of the Iran section at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office between 1998-2000. In addition to this he is an author, academic and commentator who has written for Prospect and The Independent. Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic provides a history of Iran since 1979.

For most of us in the West, Iranian politics is seen through the prism of our red hot media, where nuanced reporting must step aside for items sure to shock and outrage. The job Michael Axworthy gives himself is to try and show Iran through the eyes of its own people and to hence put the country’s politics in better perspective. He shows Iran more as it really is, rather than as we suspect it is.

In Iran, religion and politics worked together to create a new form of government, the Islamic Republic. (Axworthy provides a short classical history of Iran to put the events of 1979 in some sort of context.) As a point of comparison, the book often refers to the French and Russian revolutions, giving readers an idea of the momentousness of the Iranian Revolution. Axworthy also shows how Western meddling (notably the British and Americans) has had its pernicious influence. But Iranians managed to overcome this and are understandably proud of their political achievements and independence:

Before the revolution and the war, Iran’s history for centuries and decades had been a history of humiliation, powerlessness, foreign invasion, occupation; of foreign interference and foreign domination, and Iranian politicians and governments that had connived at foreign interference. It is difficult for non-Iranians fully to grasp the deep frustration and resentment at that.

Michael Axworthy has written a great primer on Iranian politics and culture that provides genuine help to the bewildered in trying to understand Iran, its history and deep religious roots. The book is balanced and points out major Western misconceptions and misunderstandings. For example, we like to misinterpret Iranian religious beliefs, but Axworthy sees a positive in the faith of its people:

...the deep religious principles of Shi’ism provided a moral rock on which to base resistance to political expediency and abuse of power - and thus a source of hope.

Axworthy also highlights how in rich countries citizens aren’t confronted with complex morally  decisions:

In many Western countries, for many of us, we have it easy and have become morally lazy, relativistic and cynical. In Iran, the essentials of right and wrong, freedom and repression have been everyday matters of discussion and choice.

This book will appeal to anyone seeking a clearer, more realistic picture of Iran. Highly recommended!

Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141046235  RRP: $22.99

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