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

Sunday, February 17, 2013

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

Part I


The relationship between culture, civilization and foreign policy of countries is not a linear relationship. As a result, these three factors, which have been more influential than other factors in shaping the human destiny are not located along the same line, but have circular relations and, therefore, have counteracting effects on one another. The foreign policy of every country can be used as a vehicle to promote the culture and civilization of that country. On the other hand, a country’s culture, especially in democratic regimes, can enrich the contents of that country’s foreign policy and make it succeed.

It is therefore no surprise that at brilliant junctures of the political history of Islam, powerful and effective governments have taken advantage of those diplomats in their foreign relations that were culture-oriented and came from among prominent scientific and literary figures. This reciprocal relationship between culture and politics has been both used to good effect and misused at certain occasions.

A common instance of the misuse of that relationship in our time is the invention of the term “Judeo-Christian culture.” It was first coined following the World War II as a form of apology from Europe for its historical mistreatment of the European Jews and was later established in the public opinion of the continent. In reality, however, the history of relations between the Christian Europe and the Jews has been marked by various kinds of abusive behavior toward this religious minority. By and by, even the Jews came to believe that they share the same culture with the Christians. As such, they easily forgot that it was the second Muslim caliph in the 7th century AD followed by the Muslim military commander, Salahuddin Ayyubi, who emancipated Jews living in Jerusalem from the a full century of domination by crusading Christians. Similarly, when Jews were massacred and expelled from Spain in big groups during the 15th century, and also during the 18th and 19th centuries in other parts of Europe, it was the Ottoman Empire which offered them safe haven and security. It is quite strange that even some Christians have forgotten about this historical background and have been promoting the big hoax of “common Judeo-Christian culture.”

Even in the United States, the country which became gradually more involved in global politics due to its increasing power following the World War II, the aforesaid fabrication and the purposive cultural and political construct gained more popular acceptance. As a result, for example, most Americans forgot or do not know that the first country which recognized the independence of the United States in the history of this country was the Muslim nation of Morocco. In reciprocation, the first treaty of peace and friendship that was signed between the United States and another country in US history was with a Muslim nation in 1787. The agreement had been already signed by the most prominent of the US leaders, that is, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1786. It is important to note that in a statement connected to the treaty that was issued by President John Adams, he emphatically paid respect to Muslim culture and faith.

There are many other examples about the mutual relations between culture and politics, which cannot be elaborated in this short article. The main goal here is mostly to focus on the future, rather than the past, and to show that those who fabricated the “intrinsic conflict between the Judeo-Christian and the Muslim cultures” actually aim to exhaust a good part of energies of the Muslim world on ideological and religious conflicts. They also want to show that sporadic conflicts between the United States and some Muslim countries are innate to the American culture and even more importantly, intrinsic to the entire Western civilization. In doing so, they want to fan the flames of confrontation and conflict on both sides, thus, benefiting military industries and war lobbies. A more important goal of this article is to prove that certain diplomatic mechanismsand approaches inspired by cultural elements within the Iranian and the Shii cultures have great potentials to help the way out of this dangerous big hoax.

Eight introductory statements and one conclusion

Although the scope of this article is very limited, the vastness of the topic requires me to get to the conclusion through eight introductory statements.

1. Civilizational Share of Iran across the Muslim World

Richard Bulliet, the prominent professor of Islamic and Iranian history at Columbia University, in the United States, has written in his important work, Islam: A View from the Edge, that although Islam as a new religion has an Arab core, what is known as the Islamic civilization over a wide geographical expanse extending from Morocco in the west to China in the east is, in fact, the product of Iranian and Byzantine cultures which adopted the Islamic worldview. In other words, the vast and lasting civilization of Islam was constructed by cultures on the periphery of the Arab nucleus. Bulliet gives credit to Iranian culture for being behind about half of the expansion of the Islamic civilization. He says many years before the city of Neishabour was ran over and razed by Mongol invaders, long spells of draught and agricultural problems had forced many Iranian scientists to migrate to other countries, including Egypt and the Levant and they later founded schools and scientific circles across the geographical expanse of Islam.

Metin Kunt, the contemporary Turkish scholar, published an important article a few years ago in which he said two out of all civilization building factors have played the most important part in shaping the 1,000-year of Islamic civilization following the rule of the Turkish Seljuk governments. The first factor was the military administration of Turkish armies with the second factor being epic poems written by the famous Iranian epic poet Ferdowsi in Shahnameh (The Book of Kings). Of course, these two factors have apparently nothing in common and establishing a link between them seems somehow awkward. However, Kunt has explained that relationship by noting that although the Turkish military strategies helped sustained vast conquests, it was Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, which presented a model for fair and ethical behavior to all Muslim royal courts and prompted them to lend their support to promotion of culture and arts.

No big effort is needed to prove this fact because we all know that, for example, the administrative language in royal courts of the Ottoman, the Mughal and the Safavid empires; which together dominated a vast area from Europe to East Asia in the early 16th century, was Persian. At present, there are inscriptions in Persian on the walls of Topkapi Museum in Istanbul as well as among major feats of architecture in India, including the mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal, the favorite wife of Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal in New Delhi build between 1632 and 1653.

The fact that the Persian language has been the language of religious diplomacy between Islam and Hinduism should be by no means taken lightly. Muhammad Dara Shikoh, the erudite son of Shah Jahan (died 1069 AH/1659 CE) authored Majma-ul-Bahrayn (The Mingling of Two Oceans) as one of the most valuable works on the proximity among religions in Persian. The book, which was written about four centuries ago, has taken an epistemological approach to interfaith relations and shows that there are similarities between fundamental viewpoints of Islam and Hinduism and, therefore, there is no intrinsic and irresolvable conflict between these two religious faiths. Significantly the epistemological religious approach is presently considered as a very effective diplomatic mechanism for conflict prevention and resolution in global diplomacy.

The renowned American political analyst, Fareed Zakaria, recently published an article in which he addressed the American politicians on the necessity of reducing tension between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States. He pointed out that the importance of Iran in the Middle East is not merely due to the country’s economic and political advantages or abundant energy resources, but Iran is the centerpiece of a wide civilizational domain which extends from Iraq to China. He emphasized that a large number of languages in West and Central Asia are in fact branches of the Persian language, which are under heavy influence of the Persian literature.

Indeed many books can be written about the significant role of the Persian language in the vast expanse of the Islamic Civilizationsince its inception up to the present time. It is noteworthy to point for example that by approximation, more than 80 percent of the texts on the Islamic mysticism are in Persian.

The crucial question is that how such cultural factors are parts of the Iranian foreign policy making? Ignoring culture both as goal and as a means in the Iranian diplomacyis but a great injustice to historical and civilizational interests of Iran and the Islamic world which will be very difficult to make up for and its compensation will take more than a few generations. Reducing Iran’s national interests to political, economic and temporary factors will not only deal a heavy blow to spiritual and civilizational heritage of Iran, but also fails to help even those political and economic goals.

2. Share of the Shiite Culture in Islamic Rationalism and Humanism

The medieval Shii culture and politics, which was mainly formed in Iran, Iraq and Egypt has left considerable impression on various aspects of the Islamic civilization. Shii influences were not proportionate to the ratio of the Shia population in the entire Muslim demography. During the Shia century, which approximately spanned the interval between the middle of the 10th to the middle of the 11th century CE (roughly from the middle of the 4thto the middle of the fifth century AH) when the Buyids ruled Iran, Fatimid Caliphs ruled Egypt, Hamdanids ruled Syria, and Qarmatisruled Bahraina great number of Muslim scientists, polymaths and literatures surfaced. Their numbers relatively exceeded those in later eras of the Islamic civilization. They included such famous figures as Avicenna, Ibn Miskawayh, Ferdowsi, Al-Biruni, al-Mawardi, IbnHaythamand many more in many fields of science, philosophy and literature. This is not only true about history of thought, but also about history of institutions. Let’s not forget that the Al-Azhar University,currently the most important center of the Islamic learning in non-Shiite parts of the Muslim world, was originally established by theShiiteFatimids, as the most important scientific research center with the largest library in the entire world at the last quarter of 10th century CE. It was the same center, which was later used as model for a number of the most creditable modern universities such as the Oxford University founded around 1096 CE.

Lenn Goodman currently teaching at Oxford has written a book about history of humanism in the Islamic history. In that book, he has introduced the Shiite century as the source of many philosophical, literary, jurisprudential, ethical, and historical works that represented and promoted Islamic humanism. He names the great Shii thinker and theologian ShaykhMofid as one of pioneers of humanism and rationalism in Islamic theology.

There have been many speculations about why the Shiite century has been the origin of so much developments and innovations in the Muslim world, but I believe that one theory seems more credible than the others.  According to this theory inShii thought, the person who interprets the text of the divine text is as important as the text itself. Such an approach paves the way for free, critical and innovativethinking. It is because of the importance attached to human free intellect that the Shii jurisprudence has considered it as the fourth major source of religious law (after the Book, Sunna, and Consensus) as opposed to analogy (qiyas) that is the fourth source of the Sunni jurisprudence (Islamic law).

There seems to be a clear relationship between humanism and Shiism, which can explain the main reason behind the appearance of a great many of literary figures and other scientists during the Shii century.

Having the above characteristics of the Shiilegacy in mind as well as the fact that presently Iran, followed by Iraq are representing the Shii culture and politics in the world, one may ask whether it is possible or reasonable for the foreign policies of these two countries to be configured and implemented without due attention to civilizational propositions of Shiism? In other words do Shii powers presently act as agents for promotion of rationalism and humanism in international relations?

3. The Soft power-Hard power Equation in Foreign Policy

As we know, the establishment of Umayyad rule in Andalusia in the present-day Spain by an Umayyad prince and in the later years of that dynasty led to the rise of one of the most advanced European - Islamic civilizations which lasted for about 800 years and left behind glorious civilizational heritage. We know for example that the European romantic literature is highly impressed and formed by authors and scholars of the Muslim Spain.

In the course of time, political division and spread of tribal wars overcome the strength of cultural institutions and led to final collapse of the Muslim rule in Andalusia and Cordoba. On the opposite side of history, we know that the formation of the most populous Muslim country, namely Indonesia, took place by Muslim merchants with mystic tendencies who traveled to Southeast Asia through the Iranian civilizational domain, and converted large numbers of local people to Islam without being supported by any political or military institutions. It is a very important question as to why the Islamic Andalusia gradually converted back to Christianity while Indonesia not only became Muslim but also shifted the Muslim population weight from West Asia to East Asia. This question has preoccupied the curious minds of many researchers of the history of civilization. Perhaps the same question has prompted the late scholar, Mohammad Hossein Tabatabaei, to point out in his interpretation on the Quran, Tafsir al-Mizan that if the huge force spent on political and military conquests in the early centuries of Islam had been spent on cultural affairs, the Muslim world would have been probably vaster and more powerful today.

The above conclusion can be translated in foreign policy terms as the following: it is a great mistake to consider military power as the most important sign of a nation’s strength. On the opposite, the real symbol of national power, as put by Joseph Nye, is the magnitude and the quality of soft power or cultural power that it wields.

Geoffrey Howe, the former British foreign secretary, explained this point through a symbolic gesture at a diplomatic dinner banquet, which was held at the Natural History Museum ofLondon. He ordered the dinner tables to be arranged under the huge skeletons of dinosaurs. Then, in his short address before the dinner, he told the audience that despite their huge bodies and big claws and teeth, dinosaurs were finally extinct and erased from the natural history of the world in the struggle for survival and were replaced by weaker, but more intelligence creatures. He added that although the British Empire is small in size and lost its geographical expanse, it has learnt a good lesson from the natural history and instead of relying on military power has put more stress on its soft power resources. In this way, he said, Britain has not only preserved its true power in international scene, but has increased it.

Of course, there are many interpretations and definitions for soft power. It is certain that the scientific knowhow of every country is part of its soft power. However, more important than that is perhaps the factors that take part in the process of global culture building. As put by Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist of the New York Times newspaper, the global communication network known as the Internetand the increasing speed of information transfer from one country to another has actually made the world flat.

As a result, the focus and the dynamics of global competition among different cultures has also changed and taken a new direction. I believe that observing the world day of lovers, or Saint Valentine's Day, will in the long run serve to increase the soft power of the United States much more than, for example, the Microsoft. As the speed at which people have access to modern sciences increases, the question of how to influence the cultural rituals of people around the world becomes more important in the foreign policy approach of a given country than reproduction and transfer of a foreign technology. For example, globalization of the Norouz festival and its accompanying rituals can be one of the greatest foreign policy achievements of Iran.

With the expansion of civilizational dialogue and their mutual influences across the world, development of information networks, and increased self-sufficiency of ordinary people across the human society, ideologies and religions can only talk to each other through the use of an indirect language, especially the language of arts. Therefore, the world is starting to move from a scientific and technologic rivalry toward an artistic and literary one. I don’t think that there has been a greater achievement in the history of Norwegian diplomacy than the establishment of the Nobel Prize. Nobel is now a huge institution that shapes the image of the Norway in international relations.

John Adams, the second president of the United States and one of its founding fathers has eloquently summarized the above points in a short statement. Addressing American politicians and the military soon after the independence of the United States, he said his generation should pay more attention to military and political issues so that their offspring could focus on science and economics, so that their children could concentrate on artistic and literary matters. In other words, he was telling his audience that artistic and literary production is the acme of a country’s civilization.

As for Iran, there is no doubt that the Iranian poetry and carpet are among the most important civilizational products of the country and other products lag way behind them in terms of quality and global significance. Now, we must think about Metin Kunt’s remarks on the influence of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh in shaping 1,000 years of the Islamic civilization, and be concerned about the fact that the Iranian carpet is losing its global markets. Both (poetry and carpets) are symbols of the Iranian soft power and, thus, important issues for the country’s foreign policy.

To be continued…

طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم