In 1979, Iran became a revolutionary theocracy. Since then, to the outside world, the country has been identified with repression, false confessions, brutality, torture and worse. But as journalist Laura Secor demonstrates in her compelling, enlightening and often disturbing Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran, there is another aspect of the country’s modern history, a “revolutionary impulse as complexly modern as the society that produced it.” These are the heroic efforts of ordinary citizens who exhibit extraordinary courage in endowing the Islamic Republic with their dreams, who embody “the soul of the matter, the experience of politics as it is lived.” They have not moved to overthrow the government but instead challenge injustice, encourage electoral participation and push the government to function in the best interests of the populace.
Between 2004 and 2012, Secor made five trips to Iran, where she observed four elections. Her extensive research included interviews with over 150 people, both inside and outside the country, about conditions there. They ranged from journalists and bloggers to philosophers and political operatives, most of them activists and survivors of imprisonment and torture. Almost all of her interviewees have been forced to leave the country.
The story of Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the republic that followed “is not only—perhaps not even primarily—a story about religion,” she writes. It is about politics and identity, about social division and cohesion, the convergence of many streams of thought and activism.
Among the many examples of bravery and idealism profiled in the book is Abdolkarim Soroush, a lay theologian who argues that religious knowledge, like all human knowledge, is subjective and open to question. He believes the Islamic Republic made a fatal mistake in emphasizing Islamic jurisprudence over every other aspect of Islam. Soroush was seriously threatened because of his views.
Anyone who wants to better understand the modern history of Iran as it has been lived by people there should not miss Children of Paradise. It is an insightful mix of first-rate reporting, eyewitness accounts and intellectual history, told in a style that holds us in its grip from page to page.