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Outside looking in inside looking out

I arrived in England as a keen Iranian sportsman at the end of 1978, receiving my student visa at the airport. Besides this there was not much else I could claim for myself. I wanted to study and given the global reputation of the UK for providing the best education, I chose Britain. Thus, I arrived full of hope and the desire to do my best. I felt happy; I was in control of my own destiny in the land of opportunity and meritocracy. Growing up in the Iran of the second Pahlavi regime, other than excelling in sports, I learned very little about the world, including Iran itself. Because of my sporting focus, I grew up developing a non-view of the world and my place within it. At the same time, having come from a working class family background, I was involved in the cultural life of people like myself. Hence, as a Muslim, I took part in religious gatherings throughout the year. fishfish However, partly because of my own lack of curiosity, I had never been introduced to the historical role of religion in all areas of Iranian life (personal as well as political, national, and later, international politics). Schools did not teach this history and even in the mosques I had never seen it referred to directly until 1978. By the time I left for the UK, people were rising up against a government that appeared invincible. Although I did not understand what was happening, having spent part of my childhood in the then impoverished south of Tehran, I understood why people wanted change. As the name of Ayatollah Khomeini became better known, I became increasingly determined to learn more. I arrived in Britain well aware of the injustices that were affecting all levels of Iranian society. With the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and its thundering reverberations around the world, a new and more meaningful chapter of my life began. At first and for some years afterwards, this was accompanied by an identity crisis. Who was I? What did it mean to be an Iranian in Europe as the Islamic revolution unfolded? I had good reason to ask these questions: on arrival in the UK a few weeks before the revolution I was treated with courtesy. Within weeks of the revolution changing attitudes in England became visible. I was branded an Iranian Muslim with revolutionary ideas and a suspicious ideology. I was amazed at how easily events over which I had no control could make people see me so differently. I had become an outsider, since in Iran I had missed the revolution and in England my perceived status ranged from untrustworthy to terrorist. I had many questions. I thought that

if a society like Iran before the Islamic revolution could collapse almost overnight, then that society must have been built on very shaky foundations. I thus became interested in finding out how societies were built and what their constituent parts were. I wanted to know what made one society different from another, what made one stronger or weaker than others. For this reason, I decided to study sociology.

After a 17-year delay, it was here that I developed some understanding of what it means to be an outsider. The outsider has the disadvantage of being a perpetual foreigner but s/he also has the advantage of possessing a wider, deeper picture of reality (George Shultz, The Outsider). As I began my sociological education, I quickly became aware that sociology itself was a modern child of a much older parent: philosophy. I followed this path, obtaining an honours degree in philosophy and sociology in 1997. Unfortunately, none of my official education had answered any of my questions. All I had learned was how to research, rather than learn about social philosophy or how societies are built. After the revolution, the Western political establishment and mass media portrayed the newly formed Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iranian people in a negative light, a trend that has continued ever since. In response, I became even more determined to learn about the role of Western powers in the modern world, particularly in Iran. I needed to learn more in order to develop a better understanding of human and social sciences. Thus, I embarked on my private study which continues to this day. Importantly, my research revealed the compelling and irresistible pull of religion in all cultures. Indeed, many doctoral theses published in Western universities make a direct comparison between the influence of religion and that of philosophy on human existence. By and large, they conclude that religion is infinitely more powerful than philosophy. Thus for me the discourses coming out of the Islamic Republic of Iran represent an alternative voice and an essential message for Muslims and non- Muslims alike. To expose powerful countries that influence our everyday lives seems to be the first step in understanding them. I have become an observer looking at the world from my (outsider’s) philosophical, social, cultural, and political perspective. This has also turned me into a polemicist. Today, thirty-five years after my arrival in the UK, I understand a good deal about the role of the West in having shaped the current world order (or disorder). I have learned about how societies are built. For example, society, at least in the West, relies on a rigid, stratified system, and, despite all pretentions to the contrary, is an unfair and restricted system for the majority of its own population, never mind outsiders. Yes, there are many opportunities here but little meritocracy (at least for an outsider). I also understand that there are definite and visible interests that specifically plan social programmes, (especially in areas of economy and culture) precisely for the purposes of maintaining those interests. This is why most global wealth has ended up in the hands of a tiny minority. From the viewpoint of home affairs, just one deep and careful look at consumer, popular, and political culture is enough to enable us to recognise who the beneficiaries are in that culture. Similarly, on a larger scale and from the viewpoint of foreign affairs, one look at the war industry is enough to tell us who benefits from wars. All of this is a far cry from my imagination, thirty five years ago. Incidentally, as a by-product, my private studies have enabled me to learn a good deal about modern British history too because this history is intimately bound to the history of modern Iran, as is the case wherever the British Empire went. Thus, I have utilised my outsider status to positive effect in order to increase my knowledge of the world and my place within it. Having integrated into English society and culture (as well as being a professional sports instructor, I am also a primary school music teacher), yet having kept my Iranian identity, I am still the outsider, recognised through a constructed, distorted image that the media have produced about Iran and the Iranian people during the last thirty-five years.

Hassan Lotfi was the national Iranian diving champion for fourteen years, a participant in the Tehran 1974 Asian Games and many world class competitions. He is a two times world
masters diving champion.

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