Iran, Ketman and the Bomb

As I was reading through Czeslaw Milosz’s book “The Captive Mind” I came across a curious concept. In describing the state of mind of Polish intellectuals forced to live and work under communist totalitarianism, Milosz borrowed an arcane principle from Persian/Islamic/Shiite tradition – namely the idea of Ketman (or Kitman elsewhere). This is an old idea which has roots in pre-Islamic Persian culture but which has made its way into Shi’a Islam specifically. It is similar to the principle in Islamic jurisprudence called “taqiyah”; the legal right to be duplicitous in order to safeguard yourself and your family. The ideas are however a little different; taqiyah involves the denial of one’s Muslim faith when faced with persecution. Ketman takes a different twist on this; the idea of manipulation of ones aggressor while appearing to be subservient. It would seem to extend to areas beyond religious persecution. Specifically it focuses on the juridical idea of “secrecy and concealment”. Legal lying. If in the United States we have our fifth amendment, the Persian/Islamic/Shi’a have ketman. The famed (and controversial) French diplomat Arthur Gobineau – after living in Persia for years in the 19th century – described it this way:

“Ketman fills the man who practices it with pride. Thanks to it, a believer raises himself to a permanent state of superiority over the man he deceives, be he a minister of state or a powerful king; to him who uses Ketman, the other is a miserable blind man whom one shuts off from the true path whose existence he does not suspect [while] … your eyes are filled with light, you walk in brightness before your enemies. It is an unintelligent being that you make sport of; it is a dangerous beast that you disarm. What a wealth of pleasures!”

Much of the reflection of Ketman has focused on its use to challenge fundamentalist Islam – such as the Iranian theocracy with its mullah’s and morality police. It is the “dissimulation accompanied by a feeling or moral superiority of the oppressed vis-à-vis the oppressor”. A good example , “alcoholic ketman, whereby even those Iranians who do not touch the bottle make sure to have wine or liquor, often homebrewed, in their houses, for the benefit of guests — a small etiquette of defiance by the abstemious.” This view on Ketman as it relates to the resistance against the Mullahs is probably a result of the particular interpretation given by Milosz which resonates with those trying to make their lives in oxygenless totalitarian systems. And it certainly comes to play in the efforts of the valiant Iranians seeking to avoid acid attacks and hijab laws and the Ayatollah’s thought police.

Nevertheless, looking at Gobineau’s description my mind took a different route, immediately jumping to the recently legislated “nuclear détente” between Iran and the United States. Could the Iranian revolutionary government be engaged in Ketman vis-à-vis the United States, with us playing the role of the “oppressor”? Are we the “dangerous beast being disarmed?”

Food for thought.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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