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Book Review: The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: the Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd

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Why is it so easy to criticize or even damn what I don’t understand? I would like to think the cause is that I’ve been misled by someone other than myself. Maybe it was a news article in the paper or maybe it was a commentary I heard by a “reputable” anchor person on TV. Or maybe it was a special TV broadcast by the President of the United States calling Iran part of “the axis of evil.”

After reading The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: the Paradox of Modern Iran, I must confess to author Hooman Majd and the Iranian people that I was misled about Iran. I was swayed by the news media; but what really bothers me is, I did nothing to learn accurate facts about the people of Iran. Modern Iran (formerly Persia) is a composite of many complicated elements which I knew little or nothing about.

According to The Aytollah Begs to Differ, the all encompassing influence affecting the seventy million Iranian people is their firm belief in their Muslim religion. It is not a Sunday only faith. It is a daily religion whereby the vast Iranian population attempts to emulate the lives and thinking of their Ayatollahs. These men are high ranking clerics known for their scholarship in Islamic studies, philosophy, logic, ethics, and their interpretation of a just life according to the words of Allah.

Religion and prayer play an important role in everyday Iranian life. Shia Islamists including current President Ahmadinejad have long believed that a twelfth Imam or spiritual leader/prophet from the distant past (circa 974 C.E.) will appear at the end of days beside Jesus Christ who will follow him. This Imam is thought to be a Messiah: Imam Mahdi.

At Jamkaran, a pilgrimage site about ninety-six miles southwest of Tehran in the city of Qom, each Tuesday visitors drop petitions in a well. They believe that the spirit of Imam Mahdi might favor their requests. Some pilgrims believe he mixes with them anonymously in human form.

Since his first election win in 2005 President Ahmadinejad has donated millions from government funds to the Mosque at this site, and according to The Aytollah Begs to Differ, he refers to hidden Messiah Iman Mahdi in every speech hoping he will arrive soon, in body, to right the injustices of the world.

Iranians love to talk politics. Author Hooman Majd tells a story that clearly delivers his message that Iranians want to be respected as a nation.
1) They want to govern their own country without interference.
2) They wish to solve their own problems without interference.

Majd tells of riding in a cab with a friend while talking politics with an older cab driver. The driver readily boasts that if any country invades Iran, everyone will fight the invaders including himself. If I remember correctly, the driver was sixty-eight years old.

In spite of what has happened during recent elections where Ahmadinejad stands accused of reporting false ballot counts, Iranians still consider their country to be a democracy—not one fashioned after the United States, but a decent theo/democratic country nonetheless.

The protests of thousands seen on TV after Iranians heard the election results were caused, not so much because citizens disliked Ahmadinejad, although they may now, but because he usurped their democratic right to vote. This truth came about when Iranians realized it was logically impossible for him to beat other candidates including Mir Hossein Mousavi by an eleven million vote margin factoring in voter turnout.

Author Hooman Majd claims that The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, alluded to these votes in a sermon, “but failed to concede … that the only way to cheat by eleven million votes was to never count them in the first place.” True to their religion under Allah, perhaps Iranians may feel that world events are irrelevant under His Holy Will.

Today, Iran’s democracy moves on. Accurate election results may never be known. But what would irk Iranians more than the troubled election would be “meddlers” from any country, especially the United States — or even worse, Iranians educated in the United States, tainted by our ideas of democracy, attempting to tamper with or influence the religious/political course of modern Iran.

If change is to come, come it will but from within Iran and at the right time! In spite of Ahmadinejad’s election where Iranians took to the streets in protest, it would appear that a relative calm is in place. The Aytollah Begs to Differ states they Iranians are not seeking another revolution like 1979. They believe those days are finished. What they want is recognition of their democratic rights to bring about the freedom to enrich and manage their own prosperity in the future.

This book is excellent reading material for anyone who, like me, was ignorant of what Iranians have achieved for themselves since their revolution 30 years ago (1979) and what they hope to have in future years. At present, Iran is problematic for the United States mainly because of misinformed politicians and a general lack of education on the part of Americans.

For sure Ahmadinejad despises all things American because our nation boasts the right way a democracy should operate and attempts to proselytize it — maybe conquer and enforce it might seem more accurate.

Hooman Majd writes with accuracy, fluency, and humor. I enjoyed his comparison of Iran’s Supreme Leader with the pope, both claiming infallibility. He also talks of a website which posts questions for an Ayatollah to answer. Quite often, his response included the word “repent.” Majd wrote “Digital confession … The Vatican should get in on this.”

I would hope that politicians, governmental bureaucrats, President Obama and his staff would read The Aytollah Begs to Differ. Accepting another nation and all the apparent contradictions within its complicated system of democracy, would be a giant step toward bargaining for world peace.

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