Breaking the monolith of “the Muslim world”: Azar Nafisi at Hunter College

You may not know much about Azar Nafisi, but you almost definitely have seen her book.


Reading Lolita in Tehran, a beautifully written and increasingly necessary memoir on the great potential of literature for a free individual.

Nafisi visited Hunter College February 21, 2017 as part of the college’s Distinguished Living Writers series. Along with some white wine, Nafisi joined Colum McCann to discuss the nuances of empathy, truth in fiction, and how great works are confirmed by acceptance by a group radically different from the creator.

Nafisi’s thoughts on “the Muslim world” were particularly illuminating for me. From 1979 to 1997, Nafisi taught English literature in Iran until she was compelled to leave by an increasingly the Draconian measures of The Islamic State. When she finished her Ph.D in the states, Americans didn’t refer to the “middle east” so much as individual countries in that region. After she returned, Nafisi noticed phrases like “the Muslim world” and “the Middle East” were everywhere. Somehow Americans started to imagine the 1 billion plus Muslims in the world as a monolith. 

Listening to Nafisi, it’s hard to believe that this generalization is anything other than lunacy. “The Muslim world,” Nafisi said, robs these countries of their distinct history. It excuses Americans of having to acknowledge the richness of other worlds. And it’s just plain inaccurate: Indonesia and Malaysia are both predominantly Muslim countries, but they are more distinct from each other than Germany and France.

When we do know more about the history of “the Muslim world,” it’s impossible to think of the region at a monolith. Nafisi shared the story of Ferdowsi, the 11th century Persian poet, and author of Vis and Rāmin (a model for Tristan and Iseult) in which a female protagonists asserts her agency against a man’s wish to have multiple wives by defending adultery for women. This is centuries before Chaucer’s Wife of Bath showed a similarly caustic tongue. In fact, adultery wasn’t illegal in Iran until 1979.

“If ISIS and Shi’a law is my culture, then slavery and segregation is yours.”

– Azar Nafisi

Each country is too diverse within itself to justify a notion of “the Muslim world.” And when you compare the east and west, it’s vastly more complicated than many in America originally believed. Nafisi’s mother was one of five women to serve in the Iranian parliament in 1963. This was eight years before Swiss women had the right to vote. “We don’t need to be westernized,” Nafisi said. Iran and neighboring countries have a unique, rich culture of their own.

Nafisi noted how frequently Americans conflate culture and religion. They are radically different, and if anyone did that to Americans we would think they were crazy. If you’re a protestant in Oklahoma, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’re a rabid Packers fan. But these are the weak (and false) associations Americans throw on “the Muslim world” constantly. These assumptions ignore the fact that there are hundreds of specific denominations within Islam. In Iran alone, religious minorities include Sufi and Shia Muslims, seculars, Sufis, Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, Bahá’í, and Yarsanians. Imagine lumping in Roman Catholics with Pentecostals. It’s just inaccurate, but phrases like “the Muslim world” encourage these collapses of culture and religion, and of denominations within a major religion.

It’s a very unjust and inaccurate way of looking at the world, one that statements like “Violence is just part of Islamic culture” seem like a platitude when it’s actual a crazy statement and the quintessence of bullshit. What would America look like if that type of blanket thinking was placed on it? “If ISIS and Shi’a law is my culture,” Nafisi said “then slavery and segregation is yours.”

People who see any brown looking person as a terrorist forget that thousands of Iranians lit candles for victims of 9/11 and were jailed for doing so. Unless we leave our echos chambers, we’ll never hear about men wearing hijabs in protest of the law or more than a million women protesting the enforcement of it. (The debate over the hijab is a debate over freedom of choice. Nafisi fights for the right of women to wear the hijab in the west, and the right not to wear it in the east).

Nafisi was adamant that to resist the continued monolithic thinking of “the Muslim world” or “Muslim ban” we have to find the cultural objects that expand American’s thinking of geography and history. And we should spread this knowledge aggressively.

“We shouldn’t be on the defensive when the right is with you. Don’t be offended, be offensive.”

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