Autumn 2006 issue cover


Behind the Intellectual Lines

A report on Iran’s crisis of piety and mind.

​Cover photo of a mosque outside Yaz, Iran, by Kira Brunner Don. Cover design by Point Five Design.

By Ronald F. Thiemann

The high-definition television screen in the airport waiting room displayed a vivid red banner with the screaming headline “Crisis in Iran” as one world leader after another announced grave concern about Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. The channel was not Fox or CNN or MSNBC but the staid and conservative BBC World News. The airport waiting room was in a far corner of London’s Heathrow Airport, and I was sitting there last January next to a check-in desk that listed my destination as Tehran. If I hadn’t realized it before, I recognized at that moment that I was about to embark upon a significant international adventure.

I had been invited, along with my colleague Michael Fischer from MIT, to represent the National Academies of Science in a series of lectures in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The trip had been nearly a year in the making. Our first attempt to launch the trip—in September 2005—failed because the Iranian Embassy didn’t issue our visas in time, so the trip was re-scheduled for January 2006. Between the time I accepted the invitation and the time the trip actually took place, the Iranian political landscape had changed dramatically. In June 2005, to the surprise of virtually every international observer, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former mayor of Tehran, had been elected president and almost immediately brought to a halt the progressive atmosphere that had been growing in Iran during the last six years. In addition, he reactivated the Iranian nuclear enrichment program that the previous regime had voluntarily suspended and began using provocative rhetoric that shocked many Iranians and raised suspicions internationally that a new form of radical Shi’ism was resurfacing. As I write, these tensions have seemed to increase exponentially day by day, as the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict this summer has enflamed passions throughout the region.

I boarded that flight to Iran last January with both high expectations and minor misgivings. No one knew for sure what this new regime intended, and the heightened tensions created in the region by the Iraq war added to the uncertainty surrounding our trip. Michael had studied in Iran immediately before the 1979 revolution and was a fluent Persian speaker, so I felt reassured by his presence and experience. Still, neither of us knew for certain how much the political atmosphere might have changed since the summer elections.

Our long overnight flight from London arrived in Tehran just before dawn. As the plane taxied toward the gate, the first rays of the sun were peeking over the tops of the Alborz Mountains. Throughout the plane women began unpacking scarves and wrapping them around their heads and shoulders before leaving the plane, to dress in accordance with Islamic law. Soon we were standing in the long lines waiting to pass through passport control. I had previously traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and had visited Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, so I had familiarity with Islamic customs and dress. Still, I was reminded very quickly of the cultural differences, especially regarding gender relations.

Michael and his wife, Suzann, introduced me to a young Iranian woman they had met on the plane, a university-educated professional who works for a British bank in Tehran.1 Immediately upon being introduced I instinctively held out my hand in the customary Western greeting. The young woman suddenly jumped back with a start, turned her back to me, and cast a worried look around the crowded room. “You are in Iran,” she said quietly, “and women and men here do not shake hands. You must remember that.” Sheepishly I apologized, acknowledging that in my jet-lagged state I had reverted to the instinctual habits of an American.

We three Americans approached the passport station, and the official there indicated that he had received special instructions concerning our arrival. He took our passports and beckoned us to follow him. He led us to a small room and invited us to sit down and await further instructions. We weren’t quite sure whether we were being given vip treatment appropriate to guests of the Iranian National Academy of Sciences or greater scrutiny because we were Americans. After a wait of about 40 minutes, a young official came into the room with our passports in hand and asked each of us our father’s names. Upon hearing our responses, he smiled, handed us our passports and said, “Welcome to Iran.” We never did discover the reason for this delay.

As we gathered our hand luggage and began to climb the steps to the baggage area, the official called after us: “There has been a problem with the baggage from the plane. Please speak to the person behind the desk.” Upon reaching the top of the staircase, we saw a crowd of 50 or 60 people all trying to report lost luggage from our British Airlines flight from London. Again, Michael’s experience and language facility helped us to register our names and receive instructions concerning how to recover our bags. As it turned out, we were without luggage, and thus without a clean change of clothes, for three full days. And thus did our adventure begin!

We rode into Tehran from the airport with the young and cordial staff of the Iranian National Academy of Sciences. These young women and men would be our constant companions and guides during our eight-day stay in their country, and we would get to know them quite well. They were unfailingly helpful, efficient, gracious, and accommodating. The young women, dressed in black conservative but modern attire (the burka is extremely rare in Iran), exuded a sophisticated and cosmopolitan air. They were the primary organizers of the trip and they spoke excellent colloquial English. As we got to know them better we discovered them to be joyful, fun-loving, and exuberant people.

Tehran sits at the foot of the Alborz mountain range, and as the city has grown in size, building construction has crept up the face of the mountains like brown moss covering a granite rock. The morning was exquisite, with bright sun and brilliant blue skies illuminating a white mantle of snow that had fallen on the hills during the night. Our hotel was on the northern side of the city, perched high over the downtown area, overlooking the snow-covered peaks. Little did we know that this crystalline view would be our last, because brown pollution from traffic and industrial exhaust would soon obscure both the city and the hills from view. Tehran is in the midst of a huge population explosion, and international sanctions have made it extremely difficult for the Iranians to import or build automobiles with newer pollution controls.

This visit was part of an effort by the United States National Academies of Science to cultivate high-level exchanges with Iranian intellectuals and academics during this period of difficult governmental relations between the two countries. Our lectures were to focus on “ethics and public decision-making,” and I was asked specifically to address questions of the role of religions in such public deliberation. My lecture topics were “Public Reason and Ethical Decision-Making” and “Pluralism, Consensus, and Ethics: The Case of Embryonic Stem-Cell Research.” For the first lecture I focused on questions of the relation between religion and reasonableness, and offered an account of reason-giving in religion that I argued is compatible with the principles of both Christianity and Islam. For the second lecture I surveyed positions taken on embryonic stem-cell research in a range of religious traditions, and then offered a case study of the deliberations which led to the 2005 United Nations Resolution on Human Cloning, focusing on the unique role played by the Iranian delegation in reaching a compromise solution to a previous deadlock on this issue.


We visited several high-level Iranian institutions, including the Iranian Academy of Science, the Institute of Philosophy, Mofid University (in the holy city of Qom), and the Institute for Ethics in Science and Technology. Our lectures attracted large audiences and were received with great interest and intelligent response. My first clue about the intellectual seriousness of our hosts came in an “informal discussion” at an evening gathering at the Academy of Science on our first day in Tehran. In the course of answering a question about new developments in philosophy and religion at Harvard, I engaged the president of the institute in a long, enthusiastic, and complex debate (in English) concerning the relation between transcendental deduction and the notion of critique in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

I tried to approach this trip with as few preconceptions as possible, hoping to allow my impressions to be vivid and fresh. I was particularly struck at the interesting and important experiment of integrating scientific learning with a commitment to an Islamic state and culture. Iran’s universities seek to represent the highest standard of scientific research and teaching, while still maintaining the core convictions of Islam. Mofid University, the first university established after the revolution, struck me as similar to Wheaton College, the Christian liberal arts institution in Illinois, in regard to the central role Islam plays in shaping the curriculum. Shahid Beheshti University bears a remarkable resemblance to the University of Notre Dame in the manner in which it encourages intellectual diversity within the purview of Islamic belief and practice. Islamic institutions of higher education seek to integrate religious commitment into all aspects of learning, research, and teaching and thus struggle—as religiously based American colleges and universities do—to combine deep piety with rigorous scientific and intellectual inquiry.

Iranian intellectuals find themselves in the midst of a political sea change that has created a good deal of uncertainty and anxiety. The election of Ahmadinejad was a blow to Iran’s educated classes, and has significantly slowed a period of political, cultural, and educational progressivism. I was struck at how openly, though in private conversations, Iranian academics expressed disdain for the new president. Comments such as the following were common: “You know your President Bush is smarter than he appears. He plays the simple role because it appeals to his constituency, but in fact he is a shrewd politician. Our president, on the contrary, is every bit as dumb as he appears!” And: “The president’s handlers like to stress the fact that he has a doctorate. Yes, he does, but it is an engineering degree and he was a lowly assistant professor at one of our least distinguished universities.” Beneath this dark humor, however, lies genuine fear about the future directions of the country.

The 2005 elections revealed a growing class division within the Iranian population. One of the major themes of Ahmadinejad’s campaign was “social justice for all,” an emphasis that appealed greatly to working-class voters who felt they had been left behind by Iran’s newfound oil-fueled wealth. While the educated classes still hold positions of power, status, and influence, it is increasingly clear that the working classes can outvote them in almost any electoral situation. Working-class families are growing rapidly, while educated class families have barely 1.5 children per couple. As this population gap grows, so does the political power of the Iranian working classes.

Whatever differences may separate the classes in electoral politics, the Iranian people are united in defending their nation’s right to develop nuclear power. All Iranians feel threatened by American military might in the Middle East. There is widespread fear, indeed expectation, that Iran is next on the list of military targets following the invasion of Iraq. The nuclear program and the threat of a nuclear weapons program may be the only realistic deterrence strategy, and thus the nuclear-enrichment effort enjoys widespread support throughout the country.

Despite the worries about American military power, the Iranian people I met expressed remarkably warm sentiments about Americans. Prior to the revolution there were deep and strong ties between the United States and Iran, and many Iranians have families and friends in the United States. There are over two million Iranians currently living in the United States, so the connections between citizens of the two countries remain significant. How ironic, then, that American foreign policy and the dominant presence of Ahmadinejad threaten to undermine the bonds of friendship that have grown so strong over the last 50 years.

I am convinced that contemporary Iran possesses extraordinary potential for pioneering a new way of combining piety and learning, one that avoids some of the excesses of modern Euro-American life—the privatization and marginalization of religion, excessive individualism, the separation of the sciences and humanities, and so on. Iran represents a history and culture unique among Islamic nations—a vibrant pre-Islamic (Persian) past, a distinctive Islamic culture (Shi’a), a longstanding critical engagement with the West, an aesthetic tradition that suffuses every aspect of the society, and unusually high levels of education within the populace. But that fragile experiment is threatened both by radical forces within Iran and by an American foreign policy seemingly designed to alienate those Iranians most disposed toward friendship with us. As the terrible dance of sword-rattling continues in the Middle East, the urgency of the Iranian situation increases with each new rocket attack and war-mongering threat. Whether American leaders like it or not, Iran will remain a major power in the Middle East, so the need to understand and to support Iranian intellectuals is more imperative than ever.


By way of conclusion I want to report on three conversations that capture for me the poignancy of the current situation in Iran:

Conversation one: At dinner with the medical faculty of Shahid Beheshti University, I had the pleasure of sitting across from an oncologist who is pioneering efforts to use gene therapy for the prevention and treatment of colon cancer. This distinguished young physician spent the entire evening asking for theological advice concerning problems he faces as a scientist. By posing his dilemmas in philosophical or theological terms he demonstrated his deep commitment to integrate his scientific practice with his religious beliefs. “Given the remarkable predictive power of genetic mapping—I can predict the behavior of genes within 99 percent accuracy—am I a ‘practicing determinist’ despite my religious commitment to ‘free will?’ ” he asked. This question was asked with an intellectual seriousness almost unimaginable in a Euro-American context, in which scientists often ask such questions in a teasing manner in order to put theologians on the defensive. There was none of the playful challenging attitude one finds in conversations with Western scientists. The problem of determinism/free will was an existential issue to this man. In addition, he worried that genetic therapy put divine powers into the hands of the physician, a position deeply at odds with his Muslim understanding of divine agency. While this doctor continues to use gene therapy for the alleviation of human suffering, he does so with religious integrity and genuine concern to live an integrated and faithful life.

Conversation two: At a reception after our lectures at the National Academy, I had a lengthy conversation with a young law professor who had recently taken up a chair in human rights at Shahid Beheshti University. He and his family had for the previous 10 years lived, studied, and worked in Montreal, where he took his law degree at McGill University and then joined the law faculty there. His two children had spent their entire lives in North America and, with the exception of Saturday Persian classes, had little direct experience with Iranian culture. He had accepted the invitation to the chair of human rights in March 2005 after a long period of prayerful discernment with his wife. They became convinced that he could contribute more directly to the education and well-being of the Iranian people by moving to Tehran to work on human-rights education in his native country. By the time they arrived in Iran in the late summer 2005, however, the elections had taken place and the political atmosphere, especially concerning human rights, had changed dramatically. “Have I made the right decision in moving my family here?” he asked. “Is this the place where I will want my children to grow up?” Of all the academics I met in Iran, this lawyer felt the greatest need to continue his contacts with European and American intellectuals and to travel, if at all possible, to international conferences on human rights. Should the current nuclear crisis elicit sanctions that limit the travel of Iranian academics, this scholar could feel an increased sense of isolation and even desperation.

Conversation three: On our last evening in Tehran, one of the participants in our discussion at the Institute for Ethics in Science and Technology asked to have a private conversation with me following our lectures. This was truly a postmodern moment. I speak no Persian and my conversation partner speaks no English, but mirabile dictu we had both studied at German universities and so the conversation proceeded in less-than-perfect German. “I wanted to ask a question of you, but I was reluctant to do so in a public setting,” he began. For a full 15 minutes he then poured out his heart about the current political and religious situation in Iran. My responses were limited to an occasional “Ja, ich verstehe,” as he shared his deep concerns about the religious future of the younger generations. “These young people may be lost to Islam forever,” he said. “The West beckons them with material wealth and social status, while Iran offers them increasing social and political repression. How would you choose in such a situation? They follow the conventions of Islamic dress and custom because they are required to do so by law, but inside their hearts are hollow and cynical. We are losing an entire generation because we demand external submission without seeking submission of the heart. We have created a generation of unbelievers in our zeal to force conformity.” These final sentences were spoken as tears streamed down his face, and I could do nothing but nod in sympathetic silence.

There is a growing sense of pessimism among the academics and intellectuals of Iran, as external and internal forces conspire to overwhelm the delicate balance they seek to maintain between intellectual excellence and religious piety. These scholars have great pride in Iranian culture, history, and tradition, but they worry that the new populist political radicalism combined with the “shadow government” of the Guardian Council and the Revolutionary Guards could undermine this great and noble intellectual tradition. Tragically, American military policy fuels the very forces within Iran that work against those who seek a fresh engagement between Islamic and Euro-American philosophical and religious traditions. For me, the true “crisis in Iran” is the potential destruction of this fragile intellectual and theological synthesis within this beautiful, sophisticated, and complex culture. I do not know whether I will again have the chance to visit Iran, but I know that I must do whatever I can to support and encourage those whose struggles continue so to inform and inspire me.


  1. Please note that no names are given for Iranians discussed in this article. Their identities are shielded to protect them at this politically charged moment in Iran.

Ronald F. Thiemann is Professor of Theology and Professor of Religion and Society at Harvard Divinity School. He was Dean of the Divinity School from 1986 to 1998. He also is a Faculty Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations and serves on the steering committee of the center’s Joint Program in Religion and Public Life.

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