It is odd to begin an essay with a disclaimer, albeit a brief one. Yet I believe in this case it is necessary to do so. While a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Peyman Eshaghi co-edited a volume with me, entitled Muslim Pilgrimage in the Modern World (University of North Carolina Press 2019). I collaborated with him because he and I shared an interest in ritual and Shi‘i pilgrimage studies. I also believe the volume has contributed to a growing academic field. However, my main objective herein is not to defend his article, “Mourners in Common: Qassem Soleimani, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, and the ‘Pattern’ of Culture”—which was regrettably taken down by Jadaliyya on 25 November 2020. In fact, I find Eshaghi’s article problematic for two main reasons.
First, in my opinion, the article is reductive in its depiction of a country with multiple cultural registers across diverse social networks in both rural and urban settings. While depicting collective mourning experiences in response to the deaths of Qassem Soleimani and Mohammad Reza Shajarian, Eshaghi makes blunt generalizations about “Iranians” who are defined strictly in terms of a cohesive national character with Shia Islamic motifs. According to him, this national character is embodied in “apparently contradictory” cultural expressions that are in fact like “pieces” that shape a “comprehensive picture” once brought together. While correctly challenging the conceptual binary of secular-religious identity, Eshaghi sadly ignores those Iranians who did not share the same experiences he outlines in his study (i.e., the dual mourning of both Soleimani and Shajarian)—if one can even assume that such experiences of mourning were evenly and uniformly felt on such a generalized level. For instance, it is unclear how Balochi and Kurdish populations received and reacted to the deaths of Shajarian and Soleimani. Moreover, the use of social media posts is misleading since the discussed mediated expressions foremost represent the technology-savvy segment of the population who are actively engaged in the digital public.
Second, and closely tied to the first reason, lies the problem of cultural essentialism. Eshaghi employs an analysis of collective mourning that heavily relies on Ruth Benedict’s “pattern analysis” of culture, based on the understanding that a diverse society such as Iran can merge into core patterns of a solidified identity—one that is confined to psychological features and ultimately devoid of dialectical contentions. Benedict’s studies, in particular her 1946 study of Japan, were helpful to undo the racialized views of non-European cultures in post-war period. Yet her anthropology, somewhat following the Durkheimian model, essentially advocated a stable and harmonizing view of society as organic and self-contained, apparently most evident in smaller communities and non-European societies with distinct national cultures. Eshaghi’s article is an attempt to resurrect an old and problematic position that reduces societies to a relativist set of moral imperatives based on “personality types.” The Boasian limitations in viewing culture as essentially unique with character traits, relative to their geographic context, fails to see the broader interconnected and ambiguous histories that shape human societies in porous and dissonant ways.
I should note that Eshaghi is right to make connections between culture and society, but wrong to see such relations essentially based on patterned personality behavior. Certainly, it remains academically important to interpret histories and cultures of Iran or any other society, but to do so in a way that does not reify the very complexity the interpretation is supposed to correct through a distinct methodology—ethnographic or otherwise. An important task in this endeavor is to rethink the lifeworlds, the lived experiences, of Iranians from the points of view that have been excluded. This should be done not only to uncover the distinct perspectives informing those presumably “real” accounts of Iran, but also to offer alternative interpretations, and more importantly criticize the normative truths from marginalized discourses.
In light of the above reasons, I am deeply troubled to read Jadaliyya’s justification for taking down Eshaghi’s article. The reason, which appears to have been a hasty one, is based on the claim that “many readers” (who exactly?) of the article “have raised valid criticism that the article reads as an essentializing representation of Iranian society, culture, and/or politics and an uncritical assessment of Qassem Soleimani’s legacy.” As noted earlier, it is correct that the paper advocates an essentialist perspective. However, I utterly fail to understand how this justifies the decision to take down the article. Neither do I see the article endorsing or “having a eulogy” for Soleimani, since the objective of the piece as a research paper, though of questionable theoretical approach, was to discuss expressive features of mourning practices. Indeed, if essentialization is a reason to ban academic works, then I would not be able to make references or teach books such as Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, or Patrick Clawson and Michael Rubin’s Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos, or even classics such as Immanuel Kant’s anthropological lectures, where the revered German philosopher explicitly legitimizes biological racism. What Jadaliyya committed by taking down the article was to deprive scholars and students of Iran and also Ruth Benedict from a work that articulates a view that is rarely accessible in current academic and public discourses.
Eshaghi’s piece merits publication in Jadaliyya, which one should note is not a peer-review journal, for its unique perspective on a segment of the Iranian population that is consistently overlooked among many scholars of Iran. In my view, Eshaghi is shedding new light on this population, which he also participates in and depicts through limited ethnographic research. In fact, we could view the importance of this work in terms of an autoethnography, a self-reflective method of inquiry that would require the writer to recognize his/her experience and positionality through the narrative depicted in connection with broader cultural and social processes. Had Eshaghi positioned himself in the ethnographic account he narrates he would have delivered a self-reflective piece with considerable significance to several fields of analysis.
Yet one of the main issues that have caused my deep disappointment is that Jadaliyya has recklessly reacted to the demands of certain actors who somehow managed to convince the editors to take down the article in the first place. The call to shut down a different view that does not meet the standard of “knowledge” reeks of blatant hypocrisy that sustains an authoritarian logic. To put it bluntly, I fear those “many readers” who have demanded the article to be taken down. If Iran is bound to have a “democratic” future, and the term seriously needs to be defined in this imagined future, I sincerely believe these same “readers” (some of whom most likely have never read the article) will be the ones who will actively engage in acts of suppression and exclusion of views they deem to be “undemocratic.” The paradoxical objection to Eshaghi’s article cannot and should not escape the critical mind of Jadaliyya readers—that is: in order to have an open forum for discussion, we need to exclude those views that we strongly oppose. The danger here lies in the self-righteous claim to received moral standards, which is undermined by the very people who claim to uphold it.
The other troubling issue is the fact that the editors have invited people, including myself, to further examine the paper in a forum of responses. I assume this was done as a way to repair the damage done by taking down the article. However, the dangerous assumption here is that a paper such as Eshaghi’s requires special inspection, as though, as an abjection, the piece is a threat that needs to be separated, dissected, and further examined, perhaps to a point of expunction, from the normative body of knowledge. The very decision to single out this article and republish it only with responses is an exclusionary practice.
Here the double standard is all too obvious. I ask this simple question: Why not also include responses to another Jadaliyya article written by Rob Simms, “In Memory of Ostad Shajarian”? Simms’s basic understanding of Shajarian is summed up in the problematic claim that the late master’s works “centered on the intrinsic divinity of humans and harkened back to the pre-Islamic concept of mehr, a densely loaded archetype that at once connotes the Zoroastrian deity Mithra, the sun, kindness, mercy, compassion, service, responsibility and commitment.” The essentializing tendency in the above statement revolves around the reification of a pre-Islamic Iranian past that has somehow reappeared in historical continuity in the late Shajarian, “son of Iran, voice among the ancient voices of Iran . . .” I wonder if the same readers who demanded Eshaghi’s article to be taken down would also engage in a Twitter storm against an article that equally applies an essentialism of primordial nationalism. If essentialism is a criterion, then could the esteemed editors also recognize the publication of Simms’ article, in its “current form,” as a “mistake,” and furthermore would they feel the need to pair it with “a range of responses” as equally demanded for Eshaghi’s article?
And there is more. It deeply distresses me to participate in this forum, which involves the republication of Eshaghi’s article alongside critical responses, as though it is a legitimate act of scholarly exercise. It is not. What we are witnessing is precisely the reification of a knowledge boundary that positions those “many readers” into shadowy figures of authority and, worst, repression. This forum is a show trial.
Now I can only imagine the reader of this essay wonder as to why I am also participating in this forum if I find it so problematic. Please note that I have written this piece as an act of subversion. I see the arguments I have made so far as a disruptive act to the basic logic of the forum so as to hopefully bring attention to the double standards applied here. Even in show trials, a heckler has something to say.
Finally, I would like to remind those “many readers” that Jadaliyya in Arabic means “dialectic,” or better yet “controversy.” It is by the act of troubling the boundaries of normative truths, contingent upon history and social contexts, which we can reach a vibrant and open-ended understanding of the human condition. I urge the editors to ensure that a similar decision will not be repeated in the future.
I, along with many others, would like to continue to read and contribute to Jadaliyya as an inclusive platform for critical thinking, especially those views that appear most different from ours.