During the Pahlavi era when the streets of Tehran were punctuated by daily demonstrations and shops closed down due to strikes, the Shah became increasingly confused about what was happening. None of his advisers could alleviate his anxiety and bewilderment, and the reports of his security services failed to reduce the confusion he was being plagued by. Then the Shahbanu (emperor), Farah Pahlavi, suggested that her husband consult a professor in social sciences whom she had known for some time; a man named Ehsan Naraghi. The Shah asked his personal secretary to provide him with a report about this university professor, and after studying the SAVAK intelligence report he found that Naraghi had been arrested several times for criticizing the regime. In fact he had long launched accusations against it, once as a communist and another time as a sympathizer with the Islamists, and even though Naraghi was a prestigious professor of sociology who worked in academic and international organizations such as UNESCO, the Shah was not reassured. Despite all this, the confused Shah, perhaps out of frustration, eventually met with this academic who had been critical of but necessarily opposed his policies, in order to listen to his advice. They met a total of eight times and many years later, out of respect for his relationship with the Shahbanu, Naraghi published the details under the title: From Palace to Prison: Inside the Iranian Revolution (1994).
Two weeks ago, Professor Ehsan Naraghi passed away in Tehran amidst a government and cultural silence. A request to bury him in the section of Behesht-e Zahra cemetery devoted to senior figures was rejected, after the chairman of Tehran city council refused to issue a permit. It is true that Naraghi withdrew from the cultural scene over the past two decades, but his presence can still be felt not only through his significant works but also as an example intellectual integrity.
Anyone watching the Arab uprisings that have swept the region since 2011 would realize that the events caught the political regimes off guard, and shook a number of politically stable countries to varying degrees. There is no doubt that some have realized too late that the frenzy on the street in more than one Arab country has begun to recede slightly, and the hasty hopes that took off on what has been called the “Arab Spring” have faded quickly under the light of reality, after the dust settled. In Tunisia stones have been thrown at the elected president in memory of Mohammed Bouazizi, whose death triggered—as we are meant to believe—a series of popular uprisings. Tunisia is suffering economically in light of weak governance and the escalation of political differences between the opponents of yesterday. As for Egypt there is a case of sharp political division and violent clashes in the streets. Some estimates suggest that the amount of those wounded during the first six months of the first ever elected president exceed those who fell during the weeks leading up to the departure of the Mubarak regime.
I am not writing here to criticize the “revolutions”, this is another matter. However, it is unfortunate that with regards to these events mentioned here and others, a number of intellectuals in the Arab world and the West bear responsibility whether directly or indirectly. There are the intellectuals who blessed and enthused what had happened, and then returned to criticize it later without acknowledging the initial mistake in their interpretation. Perhaps this is something natural in the human psyche, but there are also intellectuals who sought—and even contributed practically—to nourish the revolutionary climate. They volunteered their support for the leaders and parties who today they claim are working against the constitution and national unity. Those who later discovered the gravity of what they did are excused, but the intellectuals who are still betting on the political conflict being resolved through the force of the street are still participating in the incitement of violence and chaos.
Returning to Naraghi, intellectuals in the Middle East desperately need to become acquainted with the idea of an intellectual who is not a revolutionary but at the same time does not lose hope of reform even as he sees the regime falling apart. Unfortunately, some Arab intellectuals before the uprisings were looking to enact reform and commercial openness, and stressed the need to work from the inside to correct the imbalance in religious, social and political infrastructure, but after the “Arab Spring” they simply transformed into preachers of the revolution. Naraghi believed that the concept of cultural compliance that had infiltrated the region was highly damaging because it was the foundation of political and ideological partisanship, at the expense of the scientific method based on neutrality and complete independence from the influence of power and authority, whatever the source. Thus he directed significant criticisms towards revolutionary intellectual personalities such as Ali Shariati. Naraghi revealed that the burning thirst of this revolutionary, ideological generation of personalities such as Shariati had led to the magnification and fabrication of ridiculous tales. For example, Shariati did not meet with Jean-Paul Sartre or Louis Massignon, and he did not teach some of the sociologists he claimed to have.
Naraghi was a realist intellectual; he believed in the objective requirements for change, the nature of the relationship that governs political forces and the partisan trends that drive them. He was clever to differentiate between slogans intended to mislead—or exploit—in a political manner and those that actually expressed the genuine demands of a group of people. In his books and few speeches Naraghi criticized ideological intolerance. He believed that revolutions eliminated the possibility of dialogue between social components, and he advocated the need to connect with the ruling authority in order to achieve reform and bridge the gap between popular demands and governance. Naraghi embodied this approach in the days when he would provide advice to the Shah in the darkest of circumstances, and then after the 1979 revolution when he refused to insult the Shah or spread rumors about him despite pressure from the revolutionaries. For that he was jailed for three years before being released, with unfair rulings issued against him to punish him as a “remnant” of the former regime. Despite this, Naraghi did not transform into an enemy of the ruling regime in the new Islamic Republic, instead he continued to offer criticism and encouragement to reform, pointing out that the solution lied in convincing the mullahs that their model of governance was not valid, and that they ought to accept gradual reforms until Iran emerged from its revolutionary crisis.
Unfortunately, in the Arab region the word “reform” has become somewhat suspicious after being tarnished by regimes such as Gaddafi’s in Libya, or al-Assad’s in Syria. Who says that corruption and exploitation to address “reform” justifies the revolutionary model of governance in Egypt or Tunisia, and who says that an intellectual must abandon the scientific method to become a revolutionary?
In his book Naraghi recounts what the Shah told him during one of their conversations: “So people think that if Khomeini comes to power, they will be any better off? What economic program is Khomeini going to carry out to improve their lives? I’m certain they will lose even what little they have…I really fail to understand these people. It is as if they have completely taken leave of their senses”.
In truth, it is possible for the enraged street to lose its mind for some time, and it may be a while before the peaceful citizen returns to a minimum degree of logical thought. Yet it is regrettable that some intellectuals lose their minds under the spell of the revolution without even realizing it.