Iran’s President Ahmadinejad is becoming a regular topic of discussion on the news (and even on Letterman), often depicted as the clueless and fashion-challenged leader of a backward Middle Eastern country. Appearances, as we know, can be deceiving. From Iranian-American author Hooman Majd, we learn just how little most of the Western world understands about Iran, its political intricacies, and the personalities that hold sway in that country.
Like all successful politicians, Ahmadinejad represents something to the people who elected him. In this case, that something is freedom. According to Majd, Ahmadinejad’s
“message of independence from East and West, plays well not only to his Iranian audience, who overwhelmingly support his uncompromising stance on the nuclear issue… but to a wider audience across the Third World that sees in the Islamic Republic a successful example of throwing off the yoke of colonialism and imperialism.”
As a symbol and an advocate, Ahmadinejad is hugely successful among his own people. As Majd points out, the man is wilier than we realize. While we in the West were outraged by Ahmadeinjad’s denial of the Holocaust, he was actually turning the situation to his advantage. “[Ahmadinejad] had in effect said to the Europeans… that he couldn’t believe that Europeans had been or could be such monsters…. ‘Surely you’re a great civilization,’ a sentiment that could only compel the Europeans, and particularly the Germans, to respond in effect, ‘No, no, no, we were. We really were monsters.’”
While examples such as this point to Ahmadinejad’s mastery of ta’arouf (flattery that is seldom sincere and can sometimes result in the recipient/victim actually insulting himself), Majd does not credit the President with the sort of power and influence one might expect for his position. Ultimate power is in the hands of the Supreme Leader (currently the Ayatollah Khamenei), who has at his command the full force of the Revolutionary Guard. This well-equipped and well-trained corps serves and is loyal only to the Supreme Leader, who “has given them much control over the economy of the country…. [they] are involved in everything from oil… to the import-export business.” In other words, the money lies in the hands of the Supreme Leader and those with whom he chooses to share it, so it behooves everyone – including President Ahmadinejad—to pay homage to him.
Does every Iranian believe in the doctrine of the Islamic Republic? Certainly not. Readers will likely be surprised to learn just how much dissention there is in modern-day Iran, as reported by Majd in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ. There is an understanding, however, that public life and private life are entirely separate: behind the walls of his home, a man (or woman) is free to express any sentiments he wishes. The public face of Iranian society is something altogether different.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran is the remarkable similarities between Iranians and Americans. Politicians speak in platitudes and generalities, propaganda is rampant, there is an ethnocentric vibe, cell phones are all the rage, and the people are immensely proud of their country.
Author Hooman Majd is a respected journalist, but more importantly for the credibility of this book, he is fully acquainted with Iranian culture. The grandson of an ayatollah and the son of an Iranian diplomat, Majd often serves as translator for President Ahmadinejad. These connections allow him into the inner sanctums of various Iranian leaders as well as ordinary Iranian citizens who, while puzzled by his goals, still trust him with their stories.
With a foot in both the U.S. and Iran, Majd shares an inside look at Iran’s culture, history, and people that will surprise and possibly stun many readers. He knows how to tell a story completely in a few words, by creating vignettes that work like haiku, building images in the reader’s mind that continue to evolve on their own. The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran comes along at just the right time, when cultural and political differences between Iran and the rest of the world make understanding more critical than ever to our survival.