Among the Believers

What Jalal Al-e Ahmad Thought Iranian Islamism Could Learn From Zionism

Israel’s faithful: praying in Jerusalem, September 2004. (Gil Cohen-Magen / Courtesy Reuters)

In the early 1960s, Jalal Al-e Ahmad was one of Iran’s leading literary celebrities, a writer whose works deeply impressed the dissident clerics who would go on to found and lead the Islamic Republic. Born to a devout family in Tehran in 1923, a boy in the bazaar, Al-e Ahmad had drifted away from the faith and eventually earned a degree in Persian literature. He flirted with the communist Tudeh Party of Iran in the 1940s but broke with it for being too pro-Soviet; then, he helped found (and later left) a workers’ party that supported Mohammad Mosaddeq, who was elected prime minister of Iran in 1951. After the 1953 coup that toppled Mosaddeq, Al-e Ahmad succumbed to pressure from the shah’s regime and renounced politics entirely, publishing a letter “repenting” for his prior participation. He returned to his roots and seemed to find his vocation, becoming famous throughout Iran as a novelist, essayist, and underground polemicist, especially for his 1962 book Gharbzadegi, or “West-struck-ness” (published in English as Occidentosis or sometimes Westoxification).

Gharbzadegi presented the West’s technology and individualism -- which he saw as little distinguished from its consumer capitalism -- as a kind of disease. This sickness, Al-e Ahmad argued, was being spread in Iran by the shah and his old colonial sponsors as they industrialized the country. The disease was all the more insidious for the way it fed on common ambitions -- for enrichment, knowledge, and equality -- in order to undermine traditional Islamic ways of life based on humility and family cohesion. For Al-e Ahmad, authenticity lay in the village, in rug weaving, in the mosque. “We have been unable to preserve our own historiocultural character in the face of the machine and its fateful onslaught,” he wrote.

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