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Traditional society persists long past its best-used-by-date in the Middle East due to subsidies from the oilfields or, in the case of Palestine, from the United Nations. Rural folk who long since would have left the land and its rigid habits of mind remain suspended in time like living fossils, watching as the world leaves them behind. Rural Persia voted with one voice to hold the world at bay, and elected Mahmud Ahmadinejad as the country’s next president. It is pointless to complain about vote fraud and intimidation; there is no doubt that Adhmadinejad won the votes of Iran’s rural poor.
“Almost no one in Washington expected the landslide victory of the conservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, as Iran’s next president,” wrote David Sanger in the New York Times on June 26. Yet the surge of support for the ultra-Islamist mayor of Tehran should be no surprise.
From an economic standpoint, Iran is a changeling monster, an oil well attached to an iron lung, as it were, maintaining with subsidies a rural population that is no longer viable. Oil and natural gas earn US$1,300 a year for each Iranian, roughly a fifth of per-capita GDP. The Islamic republic dispenses this wealth to keep alive a moribund economy. Government spending has risen by four-and-a-half times during the past four years, financed via the central bank’s printing press, pushing inflation up to 15% per annum, while unemployment remains at 11%.
Note: Years are Persian equivalents, beginning in March
Source: Bank of Iran
Iran’s poor want more of the same policies, albeit with less skim for the elites, and that is what Adhmadinejad promised them. Rural Iran will support the Islamists, because the Islamists will support them for ideological reasons. The young people of Tehran may look to the West with hope, but their cousins in the countryside see only the ruin of their way of life. If the traditional economy disappears, will Iranians produce better manufactures than China, or program computers like the Indians? Their fate would be economic emigration, like their neighbors the Turks.
Poverty is not the issue. The 17 million Iranians who cast their ballots for Ahmadinejad voted to remain in poverty, with a bare minimum of security provided by the Islamic state. On the contrary, they cannot imagine their lives outside of traditional society, in which Islam regulates every facet of existence. Fewer than three-quarters of Iranian women can read, that is, fewer than half of rural women are literate. The country has only one phone line for every five people, a fifth as many as France. Most of the country remains sunk in misery, but the humblest Iranian farmer still has the pride of a conqueror in his heart.
That is the great gift of Islam, which offers much more to the faithful than the ordering of traditional life. It promises to impose the system of traditional life upon the world. Islam is the vengeance of tribal society upon the cosmopolitan empires, first against the Sassanids and Byzantines, then against the Holy Roman Empire, and now against the West. The Muslim does not cower in his village waiting for the inevitable encroachment of a hostile world, but seeks to impose his will on the world. As I wrote elsewhere (Does Islam have a prayer? May 18, 2004),
Islam acknowledges no ethnicity (whether or not one believes that it favors Arabs). The Muslim submits – to what particular people? Not the old Israel of the Jews, nor the “New Israel” of the Christians, but to precisely what? Pagans fight for their own group’s survival and care not at all whom their neighbor worships. A universalized paganism is a contradiction in terms; it could only exist by externalizing the defensive posture of the pagan, that is, as a conquering movement that marches across the world crushing out the pagan practices of the nations and subjugating them to a single discipline. If the individual Muslim does not submit to traditional society as it surrounds him in its present circumstances, he submits to the expansionist movement.
That is why Adhmadinejad’s belligerent attitude towards Iranian nuclear weapons cannot be separated from his charitable stance towards the country’s rural poor. Islam promises not only protection against the threatening world, but the opportunity to force it to submit to Islam’s own standards.
Ahmadinejad’s victory leaves American policy in an untenable position. To the extent that the United States enhances the military prowess of Iraq’s Shi’ites to the level required to suppress Sunni insurgents, Iran may harvest the political benefits. Iraq is now led by Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s Da’wa party, which operated in exile out of Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War. At a Baghdad news conference with Iran’s foreign minister on May 18, al-Jafaari said in English, referring to the 138,000 American troops in Iraq, “Let me add that the party that will leave Iraq is the United States, because it will eventually withdraw. But the party that will live with the Iraqis is Iran, because it is a neighbor to Iraq.”
In their provincial smugness, President George W Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice understand none of this. The more the Middle East opens its political process to the will of the people, the worse things will be for Washington.
It is not that the people of Iran are wrong about Admadinejad, like the people of Lebanon about Hezbollah, or the people of Gaza about Hamas. Rather, they are the wrong people to begin with, in that their lives as presently organized are not viable in the modern economic world. Iraq’s Sunnis, I observed recently, commit suicide bombings at a rate not observed since Japan’s kamikaze, because the present state of affairs offers them nothing but misery and humiliation (Why Sunnis blow themselves up, June 13, 2005). For the peoples of the Middle East, extremism, terrorism, and even suicide attacks represent an asymmetrical bet. What the United States offers by way of democracy and modernization is an abyss with no bottom; fighting one’s way out offers at least a slim chance of success, particularly if one builds nuclear weapons.