Civilizational Share of Iran and Shiism in Foreign Policy: Part II

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Mohammad Jafar Mahallati
Presidential Scholar at Oberlin College, USA; Former Iranian Ambassador at the United Nations

Part II

4. Configuration of concepts and categories in foreign policy

The major areas of ethics and politics are getting unprecedentedly close at academic circles and are almost mixing with each other. As a result of this development, certain paradigms as well as categories in international relations, political science and applied ethics are gradually changing. Those who have witnessed the end of the Cold War era are quite familiar with this kind of political developments. The scholars on international relations and political activists slept one night and when they woke up the next morning, the Soviet Union was gone taking with it the credibility and relevance of almost half of the theories on which political science and international relations were built. The Cold War had ended and with it died many of the terms and concepts which were related to the Cold War. It was very difficult for the observers of international relations to adapt their minds to this rapid and amazing reality and development. It was not easy to suddenly forget about common terms which were previously in everyday use.

In the United States, the country which was apparent winner of the Cold War, some politicians continued to criticize one another for many years to come noting that their rivals were still entangled in the worldview of the Cold War era and in the grip of issues which were long outdated. For this reason, some theorists decided to coin new terms in order to make it easier to talk about the ongoing situation with more precision.

The coinage of new terms and presentation of new concepts, which had already begun in the West, was slower in the remnants of the Communist world. However, like certain second-hand technologies which are usually imported to the countries in the developing world, the old and outdated political terms produced by the West have been unfortunately in use for many years following the Cold War in countries that are mainly importers of these terms and concepts and where less effort is made to innovate ideas and paradigms of their own. For example, many political experts still stick to the viewpoints of Thomas Hobbes, who believed that conflict and confrontation was intrinsic to international relations. Such scholars still repeat the same old paradigm that ‘nations have no permanent friends or enemies in international relations, but everything is determined on the basis their interests.’ It is not wise to reduce the most important incentives and motivations of human beings to ephemeral material interests.

Why friendship should not be taken as an intrinsic trait of human beings with animosity as an acquired trait, and why should we sacrifice our future to the negative relics of the past? A few years ago, a biologist named Robert Maurice Sapolsky wrote an article in the Foreign Affairs magazine published in US announcing that according to genetic studies, conflict, confrontation and tendency toward hostility is not part of the biological code of creatures. This actually put an end to a long-held notion and cleared the Nature form the intrinsic tendency toward war and conflict.

Perhaps a few other examples will shed more light on this issue. As we know, the fundament of the existing international relations, as mentioned in the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, is tolerance and good neighborly relations. These principles have been established into a dominant paradigm of international relations in the past half a century and still account for the lion’s share of the dispute settlement and peacemaking discourses across the world.

The idea of mutual tolerance is mostly built on this concept that since countries are intrinsically apt to conflict and confrontation over limited resources, they should be encouraged to tolerate one another on the basis of common interests. In other words, it follows from the tolerance theory that other countries and “other entities” are generally in conflict in normal life, but since tolerance toward others will ensure relative interests of everybody, the sole solution for countries is to tolerate one another. The term “tolerance” has a negative connotation and indicates that something difficult should be done; something that countries wish they could have shunned doing by the lack of existence of the “others.” It is quite clear that this theory stems from a negative worldview in which the existence of the “other” is tantamount to threat and nuisance. Just see how basically different this viewpoint is from the viewpoint presented by the Quran which has considered the existence of the “others” as a cognitive blessing which helps one to define his/her identity through observing differences. According to a Quranic verse, the existence of the “others” both at personal level and at the national or group levels is a requisite, not a threat, which should be tolerated. The existence and the very diversity of the “others” is a blessing, which should be embraced. I was the host to a scholar of International relations and Media studies, Mr. Gustavo Niebuhr, who is related to two renowned American theologists. He has recently published a book titled “Beyond Tolerance” in which he has challenged and criticized the negative connotation embedded in the concept of tolerance, which has been also adopted as the conceptual foundation for the Charter of the United Nations. Tolerance is a good virtue only when violence becomes the norm. But in the beginning of 21st century, it does not fit human dignity to take violence as a norm. Why should we not stick to the Quranic theory, which says the existence of the “others” is a blessing instead of paying obsessive attention to outdated theories, which put the highest stress on the intrinsic conflict among the human beings?

As a result of the rapid closeness between applied ethics and the political science, we are currently witnessing that, for example, scholars of modern political science have conducted serious research on the application of forgiveness in politics or gratitude in politics. The author took part in a class on Forgiveness in Islamic and Christian Traditions offered last year in association with one of my colleagues who is a professor of the Christian theology. Unfortunately, I could not find a single academic textbook which would take a methodological approach to this issue and be written by a Muslim either in Persian or English. On the other hand, non-Muslims have written tens of useful books on the application of forgiveness in politics written in English. The author could not even find a single article on this subject from the viewpoint of Islam. Do not such research themes – which are so useful at academic circles as well as in foreign policy making and which spearhead new opinions in related field – deserve to receive serious attention by Muslim academic institutions?

It should be admitted that many of the ongoing political discourses in Iran are, at best, extremely justice-based. However, many domestic and international experts on ethics are increasingly admitting that justice is the floor of ethics and morality, not its highest goal. The ceiling for ethics is bounty (tafaddul) which promotes virtues of friendship, mercy, forgiveness, generosity and magnanimity. The applications of these virtues in foreign and international relations may sound a bit unrealistic and romantic, but we cannot deny that Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi did apply these high virtues in politics and succeeded to go beyond their national goals.   

5. Dynamism of subject in foreign policy

One of the most important issues in foreign policy is that basic developments related to subject matters of this field should be under precise supervision and study. As for the relations between Iran and the United States, which were the subject of a recent session hosted by Iranian Diplomacy website, the main question is “would it be possible to compare the United States today with what it was during the Cold War era, or has the United States undergone substantial changes in its socio-political essence and in its orientation towards domestic and international politics?” If major changes, which have taken place with regard to the political identity of the United States during the past 10 years, are not taken into account, any foreign policy approach to this country specifically one conceptually based on Cold War mentality, would be out of place. The reelection of Mr. [Barack] Obama [as the President of the United States] clearly indicated that the white-supremacy ideology of the United States’ has actually gone through major transformation. The failure of the Republicans, who had made historically the highest investment to help their candidate win, should be taken as another proof to this claim. At the same time, it should be noted that the dire economic conditions in the United States have by no means been satisfactory to the American public. Yet they voted for President Obama. The change in the American socio-cultural identity, of course, had been predicted by Mr. (Samuel) Huntington, the mastermind of the “clash of civilizations” theory. He had warned for example that before long, the majority of the people in the United States would be speaking Spanish. This has not precisely happened, but we have an ideologically different America than we had a few decades ago. We should have in mind, that during the recent election in the United States, only in the state of Florida a hundred and fifty thousand Muslims participated in the presidential election.

The question is why the state of US-Iran relations has not undergone serious reconsiderations given the change of factors on the ground? Why changes in realpolitik have not lead to development of a new discourse in Iran’s foreign policy? Why the Cold War mentality still prevails and provides a secure space for foreign policy postures. There are few important observations, which should help us in our understanding of modern America.

Today, the biggest cultural foundation in the United States in terms of annual budget is the Carnegie Foundation whose budget per annum is several times bigger than the annual budget of some developing countries. The foundation is headed by an Iranian American called Vartan Gregorian. He had been born in the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz and from an Armenian religious background. The interesting point is that Mr. Gregorian’s academic specialty is studies on the Islamic civilization. He has even written a book on this subject, which is being taught at Islamic civilization courses in the American universities. From the viewpoint of an Islam scholar, he has eloquently presented many of the positive contributions of the Islamic culture in world civilizations.

Perhaps few people know that the developers of the biggest shopping mall in the United States, the Mall of America, were two Iranian Jewish brothers known as Qermezian family. Many more names can be added to make this list longer. They include Pierre Omidyar the founder and chairman of the eBay auction site, which is the biggest Web-based center for selling and buying in the world. The head of the Harvard Fund, which managed billions of dollars of the Harvard University’s budget, was an Egyptian who resigned his post after being invited to a better job.

The above examples as some guides pointing to various dimensions of the social fabric of the United States should help a better understanding of this country and the development of a relevant foreign policy toward it.

6. The Foreign Policy Action or Reaction

Since the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded Egypt in late 18th century, up to the present time, a period of more than 200 years of colonialistic policies by Europe, in particular, and the West, in general, has passed. During that relatively long period, Islamic countries have been mostly passive and reactive in their foreign policies both due to the West’s aggressive policies and as a result of domestic social crises inside the Muslim world. It makes no difference whether those policies were aimed at repelling aggression, or adopting the model of the Western political systems, or whether they increased hatred for or infatuation with the West; in both cases Muslim countries were passive and at best reactive. At present, the bipolar world system of the Cold War era is history and the majority of the Islamic countries have been emancipated from direct and indirect forms of colonialism. Meanwhile, the Middle East, in particular, has seen great changes in restoring its identity since the Arab Spring. This seems to be a great time for the Muslim world to give up its reactive foreign policy, which focuses more on settling past scores rather than to look into future opportunities. This policy leap requires a foreign policy vision, which must depart from the two-century old reactive practices across the entire Muslim world. It must be bold enough to come up with innovative concepts, take action through good understanding of the dynamic nature of foreign policy issues, and create a new discourse in order to be successful in achieving its national, ethical and international goals. The ethical, theoretical, and artistic fundaments of the Islamic civilization are full of propositions which if correctly extracted, can give birth to new discourses within the framework of international relations.

7. Application of Persian literature and its rich ethics of friendship to foreign policy

There is at least one clear reason that the Persian literature is one of the richest literatures in the world when it comes to friendship and ethics of friendship. This reality, as said before, stems from the fact that approximately 80 percent of the prominent works on classic mysticism in the history of Islamic thought have been written in Persian. This short piece is not a good place to explore the reasons behind this phenomenon. Whatever those reasons, they leave no place for skepticism about the huge potential of this literature for producing new discourses and paradigms in international relations.

The author clearly remembers that when the United States was supposed to put an end to the ban on the import of the Iranian carpets in late 1990s, a creative carpet merchant published a full-page advertisement in the widely circulating New York Times newspaper, which cost him USD 103,000. The ads just consisted of a single line of poetry by 13th century Persian poet Mowlana Jalaleddin Rumi, which summed up the entire concept of a comprehensive political theory in a single line;

Beyond the border between correct and incorrect,
Is the rendezvous where “we” meet “you.”

This single line of poetry can do away with prejudiced judgments as well as prejudgments, thus, paving the way for an active diplomacy to take charge. In a justice-based diplomacy, that is, a variety of diplomacy whose maximum achievement is the realization of justice, the highest emphasis is put on the best way of punishing enemies and settling past scores. In this diplomacy, human dignity and his deep interest depends on fixing the course of history through retaliation and redistribution of goods. The highest amount of energy is put into mending the past rather than caring about the future opportunities. In more clear terms, the conventional justice diplomacy whose most ambitious goal could be the rule of law and counter balancing the asymmetries of the past in the bilateral or multilateral relations does not provide the shortest way to human happiness. A legalistic system focuses on controlling chaos. This is good as long as chaos is the norm rather than exception. To draw an analogy, the principle of “an eye for an eye” in private law is a minimal and low-grade principle in the Islamic jurisprudence. The first recommendation and punishment administered by the Quran in case of physical harm and loss of life is “an eye for an eye.” However, at the sublime level of ethics, forgiveness is recommended. Older viewpoints do not believe that forgiveness and mercy has any in public law. Modern theories of forgiveness in politics have doubted this, noting that forgiveness in politics can be the key to civilizational promotion. A mention should be made here of the political model presented by the former South African President Nelson Mandela. He managed to enforce an effective mechanism for the introduction of forgiveness in the public policy and also successfully implemented it. From an ethical viewpoint one may claim that although justice is desirable, it should be looked at more as a deterrent than as a goal for execution. This is what the Iranian woman, Ameneh Bahrami, who was victim of an acid attack, did within the framework of the private law. As soon as she made sure that the perpetrator was punishable by retaliation, she changed her mind about the verdict and pardoned the man who had splashed acid on her face and ruined her life. By making sure that justice was accessible, she then turned into a much higher level of moral action and pardoned the criminal. The same principle can be applied to international relations. A special discourse can be prepared within framework of international relations in which justice is a starting point, not the finishing line and such a discourse is, indeed, what the human relations of 21st century entails.

The author took part in the first conference on dialogue among Muslim and Jewish religious scholars which was held a few years ago in Belgium. There, I heard a line of poetry written by the famous poet, Bidel Dehlavi, which was read to me by a Bangladeshi participant. I think this single line encompasses an entire ethical theory in the context of personal, group, and international relations:

Bidding farewell and reunion each have their own pleasure,
So, you may depart one thousand times and come back one hundred thousand times.

Last year, I read out the same poem when praying in a university graduation ceremony as I was addressing the outgoing graduates. I told them that it was a complete ethical formula of democratic behavior. From this viewpoint, departure and separation does not mean that there is no more opportunity to come back. Here, friendship and unity is the main principle with separation and departure being exceptional and temporary. Separation does not mean alienation or animosity. One can become separated and distance from another, but still be welcomed upon return. Separation sometimes gives meaning to returns and proximities. Relations between two countries can sometimes become less engaging and intense without turning into hostility. In the past, when the Cold War culture overshadowed international relations, such remarks would have appeared romantic and emotional. It was in the same spirit that President Bush once said: “you are either with us or against us.” In such a limited worldview, there is no grey area between the absolute black and white. However, the ethical foundations of international relations are being reviewed and revised and although it will take a while before new norms and values are established, a robust trend of normative change has already started and is gaining momentum. An active and progressive foreign policy cannot merely engage in interaction with the modern world using old-fashioned subjects, discourses and viewpoints. The speed at which everything is being renovated as well as the rapid pace of creativity in all scientific and theoretical fields is amazing. As a result, the world is witnessing rapid expansion of museums which in addition to antiquated objects are also displaying antiquated viewpoints.

8. Islam in the West and share of Shiism in its expansion

As we know, attention to the study on Islam by academic circles in the United States has greatly increased especially following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by the West almost by default increased demands for courses on the Islamic teachings cultures and traditions across America. The increasing demand for expertise in Islam created a boom market for Islamic scholarship. By visiting the websites, which display advertisements for academic careers such as the one run by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), one can easily see that there are annually 40-60 openings for Islam studies in the Western universities.

On the other hand, launching courses on the Islamic teachings will increase the need for textbooks in these fields which, in turn, will encourage new books to be written and new researchers to be engagedin Islamic studies. In other words, the academic establishment, in order to survive, should produce Islamic knowledge and that production should be carried out in accordance with all the standards of the critical scientific work. Another point is that such Islamic knowledge produced in non-Muslim societies, naturally gain a comparative dimension. As a result of this process, the very fine Islamic knowledge produced in the West finds impressive market in parent Islamic countries. It would suffice to pay a visit to bookshops in Iran to see how translations of books on the Islamic knowledge, which have been published in the West, have hot sales. For example, we know that an American scholar Michal Cook of Princeton University has authored the best book on the comparative study of the Islamic principle of “Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong”. This book has already received two different translations and many publications. The book, Sufism: A Short Introduction, which has been authored by the American scholar William Chittick is among the best books which provides a methodological survey of Sufism for undergraduate students. One can firmly assert that there is no Persian equivalent for such books. The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity, by Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr summarizes Islamic viewpoints for undergraduate students in the most comprehensible way possible. As for the conversion of Iranians to Islam, the book written by Richard Bulliet has the first say. With respect to the comparative history of Islam, books authored by Marshall Hodgson and Lapidus have no parallels in Persian language. With regard to forgiveness and pardon in Islam and Christianity, the only methodological work available is written in English by a Syrian Christian, Shawkat Moucary with no input from Shi’i perspective. With respect to the ethics of war in Islam, other than the book written by Salehi Najafabadi, no methodological work has been produced and published in Persian language. I have not detected any scholarly work on peacemaking in Islam.

The thriving production of Islamic knowledge in the West calls for widespread relations between Western students of various branches of the Islamic knowledge and the countries in the Middle East, or the Muslim world. For this reason, various Islamic countries like Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Syria and others have organized Arabic language courses for the Western students and as a result, a remarkable number of students visit and study in these countries. The offspring of the Muslim emigrants in the West have also decided to establish Islamic institutions in those countries after reclaiming their Islamic identity and have been showing increasing enthusiasm for more interaction with their ancestral countries.

As such, Islam has been experiencing a qualitative and fast expansion in the West. This is the final point which completes the aforesaid eight introductory statements in this article. Given the Richard Bulliet’s edge theory, it seems that a new phase of Islamic Civilization is in the making in the heart of the West. One of Iran’s immediate foreign policy concern at this juncture must be the share of Shiism in the development of this nascent civilization. It would be wise to ask how proportionate is the share of Shiism in producing Islamic knowledge in the West?

One does not need to be genius to reach the conclusion that if there is no positive foreign policy and interaction between Iran and the West, the role of Shiism in the growth of Islamic society and knowledge in the West will be undermined. The reason is quite clear. To produce knowledge, you need both teachers and students. Also, both the teachers and the students would have to be constantly in free interaction with the subject of their research. If the students of Islamic knowledge in the West are not able to freely travel to Shia countries and take part in local classes, and engage with local cultures, they will not have enough motives to conduct research on these countries. In addition, as future experts in these fields, the future outlooks of their careers will be bleak.

The question now is whether the foreign policy of a Shia state can remain indifferent and passive to this important issue? While the Islamic civilization is finding a new wing, which it can use to fly toward new horizons, what is share of Shiism in this historical flight, and through which mechanism it is supposed to be achieved?

We know that, for example, Saudi Arabia has spent a lot of money and made hefty investments in opening Islam study courses, programs and chairs in various universities of the United States. In one instance alone, eight chairs were established at two universities of Harvard and Georgetown through the investment of a Saudi prince. It is improbable that so much investment has been carried out without attention to the aforesaid propositions.


The eight introductory notes which have been laid out in this short article have focused on the following points and questions:

1) Throughout history, the Iranian culture has played a great role in the making and spreading the Islamic civilization. In other words, the Islamic civilization, especially in the eastern part of the Muslim world, has been largely an Iranian civilization. Can an efficient foreign policy approach be able to ignore that historical background in political equations, or on the contrary, it should try to help the Iranian civilization to maintain its contact with its historical field of influence?

2) The Shia culture has played a huge part in the political and institutional growth of the Islamic civilization which is by no means proportionate to its share of the Muslim population. That role has been most prominent especially with regard to the development of sciences, arts as well as rational Islamic knowledge. Can a Shiite foreign policy overlook the share of Shiism in the growth of the new generation of the Islamic sciences and societies in the West?

3) Turkish societies, which have been historically known best for their military administration, are rapidly moving in the direction of cultural interactions with the world. In view of this fact, the most important manifestation of the Iranian national power which will naturally weigh heavily down on the foreign policy cannot be non-cultural.

4) Iran and the Iranian culture have been the cradle and carrier of the Islamic civilization and have contributed to the production of sciences, arts, literatures and Islamic knowledge far more than its size and numbers. As a result Persian culture enjoys very powerful theoretical, philosophical, institutional, literary and humanitarian assets that should be used in making a better world for all countries and cultures. Iran’s ideal foreign policy therefore cannot be reduced to focusing on short-term interests of a limited geography.

5) While Islamic knowledge is being produced with remarkable and unprecedented speed, volume and quality in the West, the prospects for the growth of a new civilizational wing of the Islamic world is already on the horizon. It is not improbable that what had happened in the early centuries after the advent of Islam through intermingling of the Iranian and Byzantine cultures with Islam, would be repeated once more in modern history.

6) The Iranian and the Shi’i worldviews are known to be the principal factors in the promotion of humanism and rationalism in the course of the history of Islamic civilization. This role must continue even with deeper intensity and dedication. Achieving this goal however, requires foreign policy makers that are civilization-conscious. A myopic and tunnel vision foreign policy that focuses merely on ephemeral, economic, political, ideological, and factional propositions will not serve Iran or Islam. An Iranian foreign policy must be a civilizational foreign policy.

Part I: Civilizational Share of Iran and Shiism in Foreign Policy