What Went Wrong After Islam's Golden Age

In early 1979 the authoritarian and much-disliked regime of the Shah of Iran collapsed, to the rejoicing of left-wing groups everywhere in the West. Quite by chance, I was to dine in those same days in Princeton with the renowned historians Fritz Stern and John Elliott, plus one other scholar. The fourth dining partner arrived late, apologetic and a little rueful. He had given a radio interview earlier in the day, warning that the shah's overthrow by Muslim clerics would lead not to social improvement and democracy but to theocracy, intolerance and clerically controlled mayhem.

 

This was not a popular opinion. A fellow professor, distinguished in the field of international law but knowing little of Iran, deplored such conservatism and pessimism. And many Princeton students were outraged, since they were sure that the Iranian people, freed from the shah's yoke, would join the modern, anticapitalist, freethinking world. The gloomy, skeptical scholar was surely mistaken, and should feel ashamed of himself. No wonder he was a little rueful.

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