Marty Kaplan: Iran no-spoiler alert

So where are we in the Iran narrative?

I mean no disrespect to the victims of Iran’s terrorist clients, or the existential fears of Israelis and world Jewry, or U.S. security interests in the Middle East by calling it a narrative. Real events do happen in the real world, but people can’t help trying to fit them into larger stories.  We love to connect the dots.  Storytelling isn’t some atavistic remnant of our pre-scientific past; it’s how our brains are hardwired.

Today, with the advantage of hindsight, a reasonably explanatory Iran narrative would connect these dots:  In 1951, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalizes the British-owned oil industry.  In 1953, Mossadegh is ousted in a coup arranged by the CIA and MI6, and we put the Shah on the throne.  In 1979, he – and we – were thrown out by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Shia revolutionaries, and it’s been ugly between us and them ever since.  Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad never denied his desire to see Israel annihilated, which made it especially scary that he was barreling toward a nuclear bomb.  But our sanctions hurt Iran.  He was thrown out, and Iran got a new president, Hassan Rouhani, who sent Jews Rosh Hashanah greetings.  He said he would come to the table, and now there’s a deal.

Good deal, or bad deal?  Here’s where hindsight fails us.  We don’t know the ending of the story yet.  So we have to figure out a way to tell the story going forward without knowing whether Geneva will be the coffin nail in Israel’s security, or if it will be more like the destruction of Syrian weapons, a sign that talk can sometimes be at least as effective as, and always less costly than, military action.

There’s no question facts will play a part in how we rate the deal, but there’s too much input bombarding us to process as data.  What will win the day isn’t the power of facts, but the power of one story or another to feel right – yes, an emotion; we will retroactively find the facts we need to make our path to that feeling seem rational.

The public sphere is where competing storylines slug their way out, it’s where politicians, journalists, experts and yakkers connect the dots, find patterns and fashion narratives.  We take all that in, spoiler-free, in a state of genre-blindness, not knowing whether we’re watching a tragedy or an adventure play out. 

This process is often accused of being powered by political ideology, moral bias, religious dogma or personal psychology, and all that may be true to some degree, but I think the underestimated driver is our innate need for narrative.  Once upon a time isn’t kid stuff; it’s species stuff.

However, stories that feel right may be clueless about reality.  We are chronically required to revise the patterns we see in the past because we’re forced to absorb history’s hairpin turns.  At any given moment, there’s a fair chance that the stories we tell ourselves about the world are goofy.

My first job after graduate school was at the Aspen Institute, which was then deep into a relationship with the Shah of Iran and his wife, Empress Farah Dibah.  In September 1975, their Pahlavi Foundation’s generosity enabled Aspen to invite more than 100 guests to a week at the Aspen Institute/Persepolis Symposium, with trips to Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran, during which the Shah showed off his reforms and the richness of Iranian cultural history.  The Institute reciprocated by inviting the Shabanou to Aspen, where she (and I, a peon) attended a trout fry on the Roaring Fork River under the eye of SAVAK sharpshooters.  Locals nicknamed her the Shah Bunny.

I can’t find the coffee table book about Iran that I scored during her visit, but I did turn up “Iran: Past, Present and Future,” which arose from the Persepolis Symposium.  Maybe it’s unfair to compare the book with what actually happened in reality, but as for Iran: Past, the name of Mohammad Mossadegh does not appear in the book, and as for Iran: Future, Islam is also MIA.

I forget that level of ignorance is normal.  That’s how untrustworthy our stories are.  That’s also what creates an opportunity to appeal to our passions.  President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry may say the Geneva agreement is a short easing of some sanctions in exchange for a delay in Iran’s nuclear program, during which more negotiations can occur.  But for the counter-narrative to that, there’s Texas Republican John Cornyn, who tweeted, “Amazing what WH will do to distract attention to O-care,” proving that the senator is himself something of an expert on distracting attention. 

To other storyteller-critics of the accord, like Prime Minister Netanyahu, the dot that threatens to come next after Geneva is continuous with a narrative that began in Munich in 1938, with Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler; includes the story of Gush Etzion, where Jews living on land they purchased from Arabs in the early 1920s were massacred in 1948; and now threatens to conclude with Israel’s nuclear annihilation. 

For Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, too, “The Geneva mindset resembles a Munich mindset: It would create the illusion of peace-in-our-time while paving the way to a nuclear-Iran-in-our-time.”  Yet though “>he calls in his new book, “My Promised Land,” “the dark secret of Zionism”: “the nation I am born into has erased Palestine from the face of the earth.” 

By contrast, a recent

Jihad follows twisted path from Afghanistan to Israel

The path of jihad begins in a cave on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. From there, it takes a dizzying spin through Iran, wends its way through the Middle East and then settles, inevitably, in Israel.


The Other Shiites

The invitation to the gala event came out of the blue, from a woman I had never met, belonging to a group I had never heard of, part of a religious sect I knew nothing about.

Naturally, I accepted.

The evening was billed as, “A Journey Along the Cradle of Muslim Civilizations: Based on the Eleventh Century Travels of Nasir Khusraw.” It was presented by His Highness Prince Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismaili Council for Western United States. Since Sept. 11, we have all been pursuing a continuing education in Islam, but this name, Ismaili, was new to me. The woman who extended the invitation, Dr. Nur Amersi, the council’s communications chair, explained that the Ismaili are a small sect within the Shi’a denomination of Islam. They follow the liberal teachings of Agha Khan, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the 49th hereditary imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. I askedAmersi, a Tufts University-trained veterinarian, why I hadn’t heard more about these Shiites. “There aren’t very many of us,” she said.

The night of the event, March 27, my wife and I entered thestunning Orpheum Theatre downtown. Amersi was there, greeting us and an arrayof Jewish and Christian representatives. There are several thousand Ismailis in California, and they have regularly put on an annual theatrical spectacle asa way of educating their children and bringing together their community. Butonly in the past two years, explained chapter president Anwar Mohammed, did thecommunity open up the celebration to non-Muslims.

“We think it’s important to show a different face of Islam,”he said.

The result was a warm and welcoming reception, a peek at theperfect world: Christians, Catholics, Jews of all denominations and Muslimschatting volubly and extending handshakes over platters of delicious MiddleEastern food — all kosher. L.A. Mayor James Hahn pointed out that as the city’spopulation becomes majority immigrant, such demonstrations of cultural bridgebuilding are not just ideal, but imperative.

The performance itself was a kind of pageant of Muslimhistory through liberal eyes. I couldn’t help but notice that when theperipatetic Nasir Khusraw, a Muslim Benjamin of Tudela, arrived in Jerusalem,the play presented a version of that hotly contested city’s history that was asbalanced and open-minded as one could imagine. At a time when Shiite leadersand followers in Iraq are presenting a violent and incendiary face to theworld, the question again popped into my head, Why hadn’t I heard more aboutthese Shiites?

The Ismaili spiritual leader is the Aga Khan, a descendent,according to the group’s history, of the Prophet Mohammed through his grandson,Ali.

Ali’s descendants, known as the Fatimids, founded Cairo inthe 10th century, making it their capital, and produced a 200-year period ofrenaissance in Islamic culture that spurred contributions to arts, science andphilosophy. This came to an end when first Saladin, then the Moguls, defeatedthe Fatamids and dispersed their followers across the globe. There are about 14million Ismailis in the world today — about the same as the number of Jews.

Their leader encourages intellectual freedom, tolerance andeducation. The men and women we met at the Orpheum were engineers, doctors,lawyers and entrepreneurs. Their children attend the best schools. They praynot through imams but according to liberal texts disseminated by theHarvard-educated Aga Khan himself. 

The Ismaili, then, is a sort of Reform Jew of the Muslimworld. But it seems that proportionately, Ismailis are as few in number amongMuslims as Reform Jews are as plentiful among Jews.

This fact has not been lost on those Muslims who have spokenout on behalf of liberalism in their faith. Irshad Manji, author of “TheTrouble With Islam,” has pointed to Ismailis as an example of the liberalpotential of Islam. At the same time, she is clear that such potential is farfrom having been reached.

“The problem is that these denominations are absurdlyperipheral within the world of Islam,” she said in an interview senior producer Deborah Caldwell. “All of them deserve to havemore theological influence than they actually do.”

Manji, herself a marginal figure within mainstream Islam,went on to draw the parallel even more sharply: “In the world of Islam,Ismailis tend to be better educated, more entrepreneurial and morephilanthropic than most other Muslims…. As a result of those traits, they arealso often accused of being Jews. In fact, they are often called, ‘the Jews ofthe Muslim world.’ And it’s not surprising that being accused of being anIsmaili is the second-biggest accusation that I get, second only to what –being accused of being a Jew.”

There is some group in every religious tradition thatgravitates toward absolutism. There are Jews who would embrace the Ismailis butreject their own Reform brethren, and we know there are Muslims who prefer toalloy their hard-line faith with militant nationalism, the results of which areon the evening news. 

I’m under no illusions that Ismailis will become the Islamicmajority. But, in our continuing education about Islam, it’s important not toneglect the lessons they have to teach.