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March 16, 2002

Intriguing parallels Israeli pundit Shlomo Avineri discusses how Iran is both an exporter of terrorism and one of the most interesting places in the Islamic world. Because they actually have contested elections, they have real politics, despite the constraints imposed by the mullahs. Because they interpret Islamic law to forbid male doctors treating women, Iran’s rulers have trained more female doctors than the Shah did; mortality in childbirth is among the lowest in the region. Fascinatingly, Iran’s rulers have also figured out an Islamic rationale for aggressively promoting birth control, saying “we want educated Islamic families, not just large Islamic families.”
Iran presents a complex, sometimes confusing picture. But anyone who knows European history can identify a parallel: the Calvinist, Puritan revolution. The Calvinists of Geneva, or Cromwell’s Puritans, were—like the mullahs of Teheran—biblio-centric, with a Holy Book as their model for the ideal society. Their society was meant to be puritanical, frugal, non-permissive, with laws against conspicuous consumption and luxuries. It was also anti-feminist, anchored in patriarchal family structures.

Because the Calvinists did not accept a Church hierarchy, they—like the Iranian Shi’ites who are not part of the Sunni majoritarian universalism—based their legitimacy on the community of believers and so introduced elections. But once you hold real elections, different modes of interpretation of the Holy Book become possible and legitimate. Suddenly, there exists a mechanism for participation, control, dissent (limited as it may be) and the introduction of innovative strategies that seek to legitimize change within a traditional context.

In Europe, after all, Calvin’s Geneva—an autocratic theocracy, more similar to Khomeini’s Teheran than to any other regime—eventually developed, through English Puritanism, towards modern parliamentary government. Indeed, in Britain until the 1820’s only members of the Church of England could vote in Parliament or be elected to it.

Via Junius, which continues to be one of the most interesting blogs on my daily browse. [12:08 PM]
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Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2002, 07:56 PM:

As a friend of mine once said in quite another context, "Flowers grow from shitheaps." Some good may come of the greatest evil.  Some important medical facts (I mean the kind that have since saved lives and alleviated suffering for untold millions) were discovered in those hideous Nazi experiments, for example.  Worth it?  By no means; nothing can justify such abuses.  But if even a tiny bit of good can come from so monstrous an evil as that, surely it must also come from Iran.aaThat said, this gives me hope for Iran.  Maybe fundamental (npi) good sense will prevail there eventually?aaCromwell, by the way, is a name to conjure with among some Irish-Americans (myself included).  I have one word for you: Drogheda.  And yet good came even of him.aaThe destruction of the World Trade Center?  Wow.  That's tough.  But office space is already starting to be more evenly distributed around the city, which is good for the places that are getting it; also good for transit riders, who are less crowded if people are going every which way.  That has its downside, too: my company, for example, is moving my division to Hoboken, which is bad for the city, however good it is for me (I'll have a 15-min walking commute).aaDon't take me for Pollyanna, or worse, for an Optimist (one of the stupidist philosophies ever developed).  It's more of a "hooda thunkit" reaction for me.  Also, it shows how little the outcome of human effort has to do with the intent.  Turning Titanic, etc.aaAs Mary Renault once said, again in quite another context: "A man doing one good against his own will: that shows the hand of a god."