Iranians’ perspective on the west
Question: What do Iranian people think about the western countries and people?
Hi Bas. First, I should thank you for sharing your idea with me when I asked you: “In your opinion, what can I post on my blog for non-Iranians who want to know more about my country?”, and you replied “what do Iranians think about western countries/culture/people?”. I personally found this question intriguing but a very hard-to-answer question. Why? Because as you know, Iranian people- like people from all other countries- have different opinions about different things. To make everything easy, the first decision I made was to write down my personal idea about the west. One of the other things I did was to ask one of my friends to give me an idea about how to answer your question. He suggested me to categorize Iranian people, based on factors such as religion and political bent, and answer the question according to the category in which people are placed. First, I liked his suggestion and tried to write the post based on his opinion, but every time I tried to do so, I got into trouble. I thought something was wrong. So now, after some trials and errors and thinking a lot, I would like to write about things that “determine” the way Iranians see the western countries, but before talking about the determinants, I would like to bring up another question:
Do Iranians really think about the west?
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
In this paragraph, I write the answer to this question based on my personal belief: I guess you have heard about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1). In a nutshell, Maslow categorizes human stages of needs to “physiological”, “safety”, “belonging and love”, “social needs”, and “self-actualization”. He suggests that humans can move forward to the next stage of needs if they satisfy their current need, and the final goal of the human, based on his theory, is to reach the fifth stage, which is “self-actualization”. According to his theory, we can say that if one does not feel safe or has trouble in meeting his fundamental needs, he will probably not think about the higher level of needs. Now, let me make use of this theory to answer my own question: if I were one of the Iranians who had several problems, for example, if I were working round the clock to earn a pittance, or if I had a chronic disease who costed me several dollars in a month, could I think about the west and my idea about it? If I were hungry and could not buy anything to answer my needs, could I spend time to think about the west? The answer of these rhetorical questions are clear for both of us: “no”. Before closing this part, I should note that I believe that we can find exceptions of this theory. In fact, there are a few people in the world who have trouble in meeting their basic needs, but they care about their higher needs, and they think about questions like the one I am trying to answer.
What are the determinants of Iranians’ opinion about the west?
We, as Iranian people, are influenced by the matters similar to the ones that affect the people’s minds around the world. I think some of the things that shape people’s ideas in the 21st century include religion, politics, media, history, to name a few. Here is the important thing: the degree to which each of these determinants play role in shaping up our beliefs depends on many things, including the people we are in close contact with, the amount of time we spend on reading books, the place we have been raised up in, etc. (see the next headline). In this article, I am going to tell you more about these determinants, but before doing so, I have to bring up another opening paragraphs to complete my introduction.
Do we think about the west or we accept the ideas that westerners provide?
Some of my friends and I assume that many people in Iran see the west as a place that only these great things are found in: wealth, health, peace of mind, nice people with their smiles on their faces, benevolent politicians who care about their people, nice weather, beautiful destinations, gorgeous people, and the other good things in the world. In many people’s opinion, a western country is a place in which all the people obey the law of their own volition, in which no one offers and accepts bribes and there is no financial corruption of any kind, in which most people are well-educated, etc. In fact, many people believe that all the good things that we could have but we rarely find in our country, including many great things I mentioned above, are found in the west. To them, here looks like a hell, so getting a permanent visa to live in one of the western countries looks like getting the permission to get into the heaven.
Where does this kind of thinking about the west come from? I guess some of these ideas come from the media which bombard us with positive images from the west and refuse to tell us what the real “advantages” and “disadvantages” of the western countries really are. In my opinion, western media which target the middle-eastern audiences show the bright side of the west and conceal the dark side of the west intentionally. Besides media and movies, there are other things that make us think positive about the west, including technology. If not all, most of the young people in Iran are interested in using the technologies that have been developed in western countries. The majority of young people use things such as mobiles, laptops, watches, etc., that have been made abroad. As I know, travelling to Europe or the USA is what many people wish and find favorable, and I guess one of the reasons is that besides the beautiful nature of some of the European countries that attract all people around the world, the high technologies and developed cities that exist in Europe and America are amazing for Iranians.
Another source of these ideas are the people who have emigrated to the western countries from Iran. Indeed, many of those people do not talk about the dark side of their decision concerning immigration. Some immigrants only rave about the good things they experience in the country they have moved to, and they do not talk about the negative side of it. I guess the reason for this biased speaking is that they do not want other people to depict them as losers. Unfortunately, some of us, who live in Iran, readily believe “everything is great in western countries” idea.
I believe that the people who only see the bright side of life in the west are mostly the ones who do not do research, do not read enough books, or do not learn from the other different sources. Unfortunately, I assume a great number of people are from this group.
Conversely, there are some people in Iran who do study, do research, do not accept what they hear without giving thoughts on. I guess they have a more realistic look at the world, including the west, but as I mentioned, they are in minority.
In the following paragraphs, I am going to talk about the factors that determine the way Iranians see the west. As you know, these things determine the way we see the west if we are not in the group of people who readily accept what they hear about it (first group). These are determinants for the ones who do research, read, and think about the west:
Iran is a country in the middle east, and middle east is an area which Abrahamic religions were founded and fostered. Even before rise of Islam in Iran, Iranians used to pay attention to religion. Before Islam, many people of Iran would practice Zoroastrianism, a religion which was founded in Iran many years ago by an Iranian prophet, namely Zarathustra. About 1400 years ago, the prophet Mohammad was born and lived in the country which currently is called Saudi Arabia, located in south of Iran. Our prophet Mohammad never commanded Muslims to attack Iran, but after he passed away, Iran was invaded by the military forces of Muslims. As far as I know, Iranians did not accept Islam rapidly, and some of them refused to accept Islam as their new religion, but over time, more and more Iranians became Muslims. Frankly saying, even though I know some historic facts about my country, I still do not know why and how a lot of people changed their religion at the end. Maybe we say they converted to Islam due to Muslims- the invaders- and their forces, but how can we justify the fact that Iranians decided to remain Muslims when the pressure of military forces were gone? In my opinion, Islam had some things for the people who were the victims of Sassanid dynasty kings’ and Zoroastrian clergymen’s tyranny for many years, and I think it still has. By the way, this is what happened: most of Iranians accepted Islam at the end of the day. Now, after passing fourteen centuries, most of the people in this area are Muslims, and if they are not, they are at least influenced by Islam.
Islam is a religion which does not limit its rules to only personal life styles. In fact, not only does Islam pay attention to the personal affairs (such as prayers, etc.) of people, but it also cares about the public life of people. Let me shed light on what I said by giving you examples of two of the things that Islam cares about: hijab and avoiding alcohol consumption.
As you know, many of the practicing Muslim women wear hijab. There are many different ways for women to wear it, and it can differ based on the country in which the women live or the local customs that they are committed to, but the principle of hijab is the same: keeping hair and other body parts (except the face and the hands) hidden from men but the ones who are their close relatives, such as the father, the uncles, and the husband. In Iran, wearing hijab in public places is mandatory, but this rule does not apply to all Islamic countries. For instance, most people in Turkey are Muslims, but wearing hijab is optional. But putting it in a nutshell, regardless of the rules of different countries, Islam itself does care about hijab.
The other thing that Islam pays attention to and wants all of the faithful Muslims to avoid is drinking beer or any other alcoholic beverages. Drinking these kind of drinks is considered a great sin according to our religion. As a result, Islam wants Muslims not to drink alcohol whether in their privacy or in public. As I know, in Iran, the act of drinking alcohol in public can cause the person to get into a deep trouble, but similar to what I said about hijab in the paragraph above, drinking alcohol can be legal in some Muslim countries (but very few I guess) like Turkey. Similar to what I wrapped up about hijab above, putting aside the rules of few countries that are more liberal, Islam strongly demands Muslims to avoid drinking alcohol.
As I mentioned above, the examples I noted in the previous paragraphs are only two of the many things that make Islamic countries different from non-Islamic ones. You can find other things that make Islam different from other Abrahamic religions, especially from Christianity, by searching on the net. Now, based on the examples and the other things you may find on the internet, I guess you can readily come to the conclusion that some of the practicing Muslims, including Iranians, may believe that they should keep their distance from some of the things that non-Muslims do. Right?
But now, before putting an end to this section that dealt with religions, I would like to take your attention to another important factor that separates Muslims’ world from the non-Muslim ones: while many of the Islamic rules have remained the same as its first days, the world has changed a lot. As you know better than me, many things have changed after renaissance in Europe and other countries with western cultures. Not only do the changes have not stopped, but also these changes happen in a more rapid pace these days than before. For example, even though the following actions have become more acceptable to people around the world these days: same-sex marriage, pre-marital sex, gambling, usury, etc., Islam still strongly opposes them and wants its followers to get away from these things. In other words, the gap between how most of people around the world are living and how practicing Muslims “should” live is widening.
In contrast of what I said about the rigidity of Islam in many areas, I believe that “Muslims have changed a lot in Iran”, or it might be better to say that “many people, especially youngsters, who are considered Muslims due to their parents’ Islam do not practice it anymore”. It is crystal-clear that many people in Iran want to get free from the rules of Islam and Islamic countries. For instance, there are a lot of women wanting to get rid of their hijab. So of course, unlike practicing Muslims, many Iranians who are not committed to Islam have a more positive attitude toward communicating with non-Muslims, living in western countries, where they can do what they want and be who they really are without being worried about the consequences of their lifestyle.
In a nutshell, for the people who really think, religion is an important factor to determine their perspective on the west. Practicing Islam and believing in the rules of it or standing against Islam and its rules make people think differently about the west. To many of the practicing Muslims, the west is not the best place, the heaven, to live in. Also, many of the ideas that are publicized as necessary parts of freedom, such as same-sex marriage or … are not acceptable for practicing Muslims. On the other hand, for many of the people who do not want to obey Islam, the west and the values it advertises are totally acceptable. As a result, living in the west and living like many westerners is what those people wish.
What do our media imply regarding people’s satisfaction of our regime in Iran? Based on our national media, everyone is satisfied with the regime.
What do the media which are against Islamic republic of Iran imply? No one is happy with the regime.
Which of these implications are true? None of them. There are a lot of people interested in the current regime of Iran, known as Islamic republic of Iran, and there are many others who are against it. And there are also some people like me who neither stand with nor stand against the regime, and they only agree partially with the ideologies of the Islamic republic and oppose some of them.
So now, if you know about the ideology of the Islamic republic, you can find out how Iranian people, including pros and cons of the regime, think about the west. You may ask “what are the ideologies of the Iranian regime?”, and that is normal, because nobody expects you as a person who have never been in Iran to know about them. Well. It is even hard for me as an Iranian to clarify such a thing, but I guess knowing the Iranian foreign policy motto can help you to get an idea: “neither East, nor West, Islamic Republic”. If I want to go through more details regarding policy and foreign affairs, I can add that Iran opposes countries such as the USA and Israel and wants to reduce the power of these countries in the middle east. It is also clear that Iran stands against the allies of the USA in the region, one of which is Saudi Arabia. Concerning economy, the Islamic republic has always tried to introduce Iran as an anti-capitalism country after the revolution in 1979. There are also many other ideologies that Iranian regime has adopted that you can find on the net.
Now again, I want to ask some questions about the media:
When you turn on the TV and suddenly come across a channel such as Press TV (an Iranian channel in English), or other Iranian national channels, showing something about Iran, what do you see? I guess you watch some scenes of some people in Tehran’s streets demonstrating against America and Israel and putting the flags of these countries on fire. The people are shown to support the Islamic republic.
And when you open the websites of the news agencies such as BBC, NBC, Euronews, etc., what do you read and what kind of pictures do you see? You might come across some articles showing that Iranian people are demonstrating against the Islamic republic with placards in their hands that contain some sort of words and sentences, showing how dissatisfied they are with the regime.
I wrote the sentences above to conclude that we should not easily believe what the media offers us. Most of the news channels, websites, etc., report biased information because of their conflict of interest. The truth is that Iranians do not think the same about the regime’s ideologies. Some of them take part in the demonstrations to support the regime, while some others want to bring the regime down as soon as possible. Also, there are some people like me who have never been in a protest for or against the Islamic republic.
In sum, based on what I said, it is easy for you to make a conclusion that the majority of Iranians who stand with our regime do not have a positive attitude toward the west, its culture, its economy, etc., while most of the people who are against the regime have a more positive attitude toward it.
I do not know where to start and where to put an end regarding the history of Iran’s relations with the west. It is really hard for me to write about such a thing. Here, I only familiarize you with some of the most historic facts:
As far as I know, even though Iranian people would do trade with both the east and the west many years ago, most of the people did not know exactly about the lifestyles of people out of Iran. For example, Jean Chardin, who was a French traveler in the 17th century, has said in his book that many Iranians know almost nothing about Europe. As he has stated that even people who surrounded the Safavid Shah of Iran knew very few things about Europe:
Whenever the ministers and courtiers talk about Europe, it is crystal-clear that they do not know what is happening there, and they know nothing about what is happening out of Iran’s borders. They think Europe is a small island in the North Sea that does not have any interesting places to visit; as a result, Europeans explore the world to see the beautiful places that they are deprived from seeing in Europe.
The graveyard of the Iranians killed in the battle of Chaldiran, Ardabil, Iran.
But things changed over time. Iranians got to learn more about the west in the following centuries, especially in the Qajar’s dynasty (around 200 years ago). Even in the Safavid’s time (around 400 years ago), there were some people who got to learn about the developments of the west earlier than many others. Those people were the ones who fought against Ottomans in the battle of Chaldiran. In that battle, Iranians used traditional weaponry, while Ottomans gained advantage over Safavids by their advanced weaponry. In Qajar’s dynasty, Naser al-Din Shah tried to modernize Iran with some reforms and failed in getting people to accept these reforms. In contrast, the Pahlavi regime did the reforms in a way that changed the lifestyles of many people.
I think I gave you some keywords to search about the history of the Iran-west relations, but now, I would like to talk about some of the historic events that contributed to the tensions between Iran and the west very briefly: although Iran has never been colonized by European powers, it has been under influence of the powers, including Russia, the UK, and the US. The role that these countries have played in our country has been detrimental. As it takes too many pages for me to write about the roles these countries have played in Iran, I invite you to only take a look at these two keywords instead: Anglo-Soviet Invasion of Iran AND 1953 Iranian coup d’état. Of course, the influence they have had in our country is not limited to these two events.
I believe that the Iranians who are more familiar with the history of Iran and the Iran-west relations have more realistic, or even pessimistic perspectives on the west. In contrast, the ones who know few things about history may have more optimism about the west.
What is currently going on:
Putting aside the history of the Iran-west relations in hundreds of years ago, the way that the western countries have treated us after the 1979 Islamic revolution has played a critical role in the way we see the west, as well as the way we see the Iranian regime. Here, I would like to talk about one of the most important things in the Iran-west relations in the recent years: sanctions.
After 1979 revolution, our country has always been under the pressure of sanctions that the western countries imposed on our country (2). Even though some of the western politicians say that the sanctions are against the Iranian regime and they do not affect the Iranian people, almost of us here, more or less, have been affected by the sanctions the west had imposed on our country.
The way people react to the sanctions that the west have imposed on us differs: some people blame the west, saying that they have been brutal to Iranians. On the other hand, some people believe that it is all the Iranian regime’s fault that has led it to be sanctioned. However, I should note here that I guess sanctions generally affect the way we judge the western governments, not the western people.
Overall, the way that the west has been treating us after the 1979 revolution has, of course, impacted how we see the west, especially the western governments.
What should you expect when you visit Iran?
I listed above some of the things that contribute to shaping attitudes of Iranians toward the west. As I mentioned, Iranians might have many different, and opposite views, on this matter. But I guess the answer of the question above that is “nothing but hospitality”.
Considering history, if you take a look at the book of Jean Chardin, you can find some of his notes about hospitality of Iranians. If you also watch some of the videos that Youtubers who had traveled to Iran have recently uploaded, you will also find many of them saying Iranians were kind to them and they had great time being here.
Further questions to be answered:
Ok. Although I did not talk about my personal view on the matter, I guess it is enough for this post. I may talk about my attitude towards the west in another post. I also may bring some quotations from our theoreticians regarding the west in other posts. Moreover, the ideologies of the Iranian regime with regard to the west might be a great topic to bring up; I may cover it whenever I have more knowledge about it.
The other thing I should mention is that I could not list all the determinants; as a result, I may need to update the post after you and my friends will have read the post and given me feedback on it.
All in all, like the people around the world, Iranians—if they can or have an interest in thinking about the question you asked— have different opinions about west and western culture. In theory, the way Iranians see the west depends on many factors such as their religious, politic, knowledge of history, and other types of backgrounds, but in practice, when most Iranians see foreigners, including people from Europe and America in Iran, they are more curious about the person rather than judging him/her based on where he/she has come from.
Thank you for your great question. I hope I have answered it in a good way.
1- Read more about it here: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
2- You can search and read the story of “Iran Nuclear Deal” on the net as an example of how the west has treated us in the last ten years.
I took the picture of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from here.