How Can You Listen to Those Bastards?

Conversations with a Marxist publisher in Tehran

Bidoun: In the history of European thought, envy has been disregarded as something ugly and despicable. Do Iranian high cultural traditions concur with this opinion?

Mahrokh Mosta’ari: I’m not an authority on European thought, but in the case of Iran, yes, it’s been regarded as an emotion that is low, unworthy and revolting, even demonic. Whether you look at theology, spiritual doctrine, classical literature and poetry, or the long traditions of practical and theoretical moralism, envy is considered a deeply and intrinsically negative force. Look at Sheikh Farided in Atar Neyshabouri, or Emam Mohamad Qazali, or Allameh Majlesi. Even Khomeini mentions envy in his book Sahefeye Noor (World of Light), where he defines it as a deeply repulsive sentiment.

On the other hand, we have to say that competition was never considered problematic around here. Even as far as official government is concerned, competition with the West is something quite necessary. We need to prove that anything they can do, we can do better. We need to disprove any notions of racial inferiority by proving our worth to the world.

Bidoun: Can envy mean anything different in Marxist thought?

MM: Again, if it’s competition you’re talking about, then of course. Contradiction and competition are the very engines of world history. Envy, however, is a problematic concept to use historically. For it actually implies that you’re wishing for your rival’s demise, rather than for your own well-being. I don’t like it much as a term.

Bidoun: In this issue of our magazine, we argue that it’s unfair to pathologize envy but worship wealth and power.

MM: True, but that’s a contradiction that is not quite as pronounced in Iran. Here, being wealthy is frowned upon. For thousands of years now, our cultural values have been those of modesty and humility. If you have a swanky car, you don’t flaunt it; you hide it. I agree that is changing rapidly, but we still have a heritage of centuries and centuries of being urged to pity the greedy, not envy them.

Bidoun: Someone coined the term “missile envy” with respect to Iran. To be fair, wouldn’t you say that if you want have a sovereign, independent state in the region, you need to be able to threaten your adversaries with credibility?

MM: Your question has a political bias with which I deeply disagree. It’s an old-fashioned, fossilized way of phrasing things, a political cliché you encounter everywhere from Lenin to Franz Fanon to Nasser. Independent from what, and from whom? What’s the rational use of this kind of sovereignty? Isn’t Indian nuclear power another new form of dependence, of colonialism? Look at the collapse of the Soviet Union. The arms race is a trap we must avoid. Propaganda machineries the world over are telling us we must arm ourselves to avert disaster. How can you listen to those bastards? According to official figures in the news, the nuclear program has cost us $22 billion already. In the meantime, we have 14,000 street kids in Tehran alone, five million junkies in the country, and some ten million citizens under the poverty line. Those are the official figures; other estimates count twice as many Iranians living in poverty.

Bidoun: With respect to the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, would you say there is such a thing as invasion envy at work in Iran?

MM: No, not envy. On the contrary; in Iran, you sense that most people are relieved that Afghanis and Iraqis are developing a democracy. They wish them well. After all, it’s in our own interest that such developments bear fruit. What more can an Iranian intellectual ask for?