For North Americans whose only knowledge of Iran comes from news headlines, Iran appears a country of perplexing contradictions. It’s a theocracy—the face of its religious ruler Ayatollah Khamenei is an iconic bogeyman to the West—yet also a country that holds regular elections which produce often bizarre and idiosyncratic politicians. It appears to erupt regularly into democratic protest movements, with millions thronging its streets to celebrate reform and human rights, yet these same movements inevitably fall prey to the most brutal suppression and tyranny. Even the ways in which western countries engage with Iran appear contradictory—choking it with sanctions on the one hand, allying with it for regional stability on the other.
Laura Secor, a veteran journalist who’s been visiting and writing about Iran for over a decade, has at last produced a book which earnestly helps western audiences to make some sense of all these contradictions, and to understand the complex and vibrant political culture that lies beneath the superficiality of news headlines. Children of Paradise offers a remarkably well-researched and conceptualized political history of Iran since the Islamic Revolution, as depicted through the personal lives and struggles of many of its key characters.
“One of the delicious paradoxes of the Islamic Republic is its seemingly endless capacity to produce internal opposition to its own authoritarianism,” she writes. “No matter how many people or groups are cast out of the circle of power, those who remain continue to divide and to challenge one another.”
The book illustrates this irrepressible spirit of challenge, and the remarkable intellectual foundations on which it builds, in meticulous yet thoroughly readable detail. The book proceeds chronologically from the Islamic Revolution forward, maintaining an intellectual balance that keeps it both accessible to the general public and useful to more specialist scholars as well.
What the book reveals, too, is the importance for the rest of the world to learn about Iran’s struggle—not through the superficiality of politicized news headlines but through the words and efforts of its own people. Children of Paradise reveals the Iranian people and their struggles as comprising a tremendously important contribution to the global history of democratic, civil and human rights and it behooves people the world over to pay attention to the struggles being waged in that country.
While Khamenei and the security establishment wage a campaign of brutalization and suppression, the reform movements that inevitably spring up are still grappling in profound ways with some of the central debates of 20th and 21st century democracy: the relationship between secular state and religious institutions; how to balance the imperative of asserting national sovereignty and the struggle against western imperialism against the beautiful yet factionalizing diversity of a free civil society.
Secor’s account depicts an Iran in which the people’s desire for intellectual challenge has been met with a curious array of intellectual mentors. The country’s political and civic sphere has been profoundly influenced not by any standard canon of political theory, but by the curious and organic hodge-podge of intellectuals and theorists whose ideas Iranian students and ex-patriots brought home with them from studies and travels abroad. Other theorists have influenced debates through the curious vagaries of translation and publication, or by having unexpectedly slipped the censors’ notice long enough to become best-sellers.
The result is a country where theorists now largely unknown among general audiences in the West—Karl Popper, Martin Heidegger—became household names and pivotal figures around which political movements thrived and battled. The public yearning for intellectual ideas helps to understand why the Iranian security establishment has in recent years taken such pains to denounce contemporary philosophers such as Richard Rorty and Jurgen Habermas as agents of the CIA.
One of the many values of Secor’s book is the thorough degree to which she traces the intellectual roots and debates that shaped the political twists and turns of Iran’s past 50 years. It’s as much an intellectual history of Iranian political thought as it is a political history of Iran.
But political history it is, and Secor does a masterful job of leading the reader through the complex turns of political elections, protest and reform movements, and the various institutions which shape the struggle for civil rights in Iran, from the incredibly diverse—if often short-lived—range of media and newspapers to human rights groups, idealistic legal teams, and student activists.
The reader might at first feel that the history is one centred on male politicians and activists, and worry that Secor has ignored the struggles of the country’s women for change. Rest assured: women activists make their appearance in the final third of the book and the power of their struggle as depicted by Secor is enough to take one’s breath away. Featuring characters like Asieh Amini, a female journalist who waged a tireless struggle against stoning and juvenile executions, the struggles and sacrifices of women for change tower over those of the mainstream male politicians depicted in the preceding chapters.
The histories Secor tells are centred in the personal stories of many of the central and key players—politicians, clerics, journalists, activists, family members—many of them drawn into reformist struggles without any intention to become activists. She interviewed some in exile, and pieced together the lives of others through interviews with their friends and colleagues. The result is a history where the key political actors become familiars to the reader, alive in all their vibrancy, hopes, doubts and mistakes.
And their suffering. Children of Paradise is a harrowing book to read, and the reader can’t help but be reduced to tears on more than one occasion. The stories of torture, intimidation and murder of political activists make for brutal reading; as do the failed struggles of activists to save the lives of young children targeted for execution or aspiring young writers tortured and murdered in the night. These are painful and horrific stories that need to be read and told, and the reader cannot help but be affected by the reading in a deeply profound way.
Children of Paradise is a masterpiece of journalism and reportage; it’s also a masterpiece of political history, offering an unparalleled insight into the struggles and ideas shaping present-day Iran, and the historical events which brought us to this moment. The history ends off around 2012, but many of the same actors and ideas are those shaping Iran’s politics today.
Children of Paradise is a hefty book, but it’s a must-read. Compelling and full of detail, it’s important both to help share a deeper understanding of this country whose name plays so centrally in North American politics but which most North Americans actually know very little about, as well as depicting a centrally important page in the global history and struggle for human rights and democracy. As Secor eloquently writes in conclusion”
…it is a history of dignity and sacrifice that encompasses Iran’s revolution and stretches forward, beyond the visible horizon. Iran does not have a culture of passive citizenship, despite the best efforts of its rulers, past and present, to produce one. What it does have in many quarters is a restless determination to challenge injustice and to seize control of its destiny.
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