In the mesmerizing “Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran,” Laura Secor captures the extraordinary intellectual and political ferment of a country where millions of people chafe under authoritarian rule. She finds that many Iranians insist on reviving questions of national identity that a quasi-theocratic Shiite Muslim regime insists were resolved with the 1979 revolution and subsequent establishment of the Islamic Republic. “To the extent that the postrevolutionary state has tried to deny the multiplicity of its origins and to suppress the engagement of its people,” the author remarks in this, her first book, “its course has followed an arc of tragedy.”
“Children of Paradise” recounts the history of dissent in the Islamic Republic, homing in on revolutionaries who have lost their zeal and now even question their original goals, as well as men and women who have come of age in an ostensible utopia from which they feel profoundly alienated.
In the former category, we have Abdolkarim Soroush, an Islamic philosopher who played a major role in the closure and reorientation of Iranian universities mandated by the top-down “Cultural Revolution” of the early 1980s. Soroush, advocate of an absolutist Islam, later underwent a remarkable metamorphosis. He would come to argue, in Secor’s paraphrasing, that “religious knowledge . . . altered and shifted — expanded and contracted — with the circumstances of history and the development of science and other fields of understanding.”
But men like Soroush are only half the story. Secor observes that “the revolutionary regime had cultivated a garden it was ill-equipped to tend: young people, educated women, and new members of the middle class all challenged the Islamic Republic that had nurtured their growth.” She profiles, among others, cerebral and politically committed journalists Shahram Rafizadeh and Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, fearless student leader Ali Afshari, and Asieh Amini, an activist against the death penalty for minors and the continued practice of execution by stoning.
Secor, who lives in Brooklyn, covered Iran extensively for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and other publications between 2005 and 2012. To be sure, the author’s focus emerges as Tehran-centric. And she fails to round out her narrative by surveying stalwarts of the regime, leaving the uninitiated with little grasp of the extent to which it enjoys popular support. Yet her coverage of dissident currents proves most informative and includes arresting portraits of well-known figures such as the late Ayatollah Ali Montazeri and unsung younger activists such as the bloggers who took the state to task for its complicity in the assassinations of dissidents. Reformists of both kinds hoped for great things with the election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997, but he proved timorous in the face of the hard-liners.
Worse was to come. As Secor explains, the regime’s “determination to stave off a ‘velvet’ overthrow would become both paranoid fixation and carte blanche for internal repression.” Many of the younger people profiled by the author were jailed and tortured (some not for the first time) for having a connection to the “Green Movement,” which arose in reaction to the 2009 presidential election — widely perceived as rigged — that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Needless to say, the movement itself was mercilessly crushed.
It is worth considering the possibility that the Iranian state’s continued oppression of disaffected youth will drive more of them to outright secularism. “Children of Paradise” provides an account, at once comprehensive and intimate, of the varied forms of domestic opposition unintentionally engendered by the Islamic Republic. It is a substantive and deeply affecting work, and may one day boast the added historical value of providing a window into the politico-intellectual arena of a pre-democratic Iran.