Reflecting on his childhood in Tehran in the 1980s, Hussein Banai realized something interesting. Liberalism—a political doctrine that promotes personal liberty, free markets, individual rights, and constitutional democracy—was all around him, but almost nobody was talking about it publicly. Because Iranians associated classical liberalism with colonial or quasi-colonial influence from the United Kingdom and the United States, they instinctively distrusted it as a foreign and imported ideology. As a result, liberalism’s emancipatory potential—especially in post-revolutionary Iran—was always in doubt, and liberals had trouble gaining ground as a political movement.
Yet liberalism’s native presence in Iran was undeniable, and its values and goals remained attractive for many of the same remains those values rose to prominence in the Western world. To many Iranians, liberalism provided a promising alternative to other dominant ways of organizing society, particularly royalism, socialism, and Shi’ism. This seeming paradox—a distrust of liberalism and an attraction to its values—provided fertile ground for Banai to explore in his most recent book, Hidden Liberalism: Burdened Visions of Progress in Modern Iran.
“What does liberalism in Iran look like? What makes it different than the American or Western version?” Banai asks. While researching, he realized, “It is a far more reflexive ideology, in the sense that it always has to provide an account of itself. It always has to acknowledge the burdens it carries.”
An assistant professor of International Studies in the Hamilton Lugar School, Banai is a scholar of democratic theory, US-Iran relations, and Iran’s political development. His analysis of liberalism in Iran has implications not just for Iran’s current political state but also for liberalism in other non-Western and postcolonial countries, where Western-associated concepts are often burdened with the history of colonialism, subjugation, and empire.
One of his findings is that liberals in Iran have adopted a different vocabulary to promote their ideas and speak specifically to Iranian concerns. Iranian liberals, he says, “have as their point [of departure] not liberal individualism [and] not liberal free enterprise, but rather meaningful sovereignty—recognition of equality, of marginality, and a sense of self-determination.”
In this sense, liberalism in Iran is a departure from Western imperialism, not an embrace of its motivating principle of conquering new territory to export ideas and benefit economically. While hidden from public view in certain ways, liberalism in Iran is still a strong presence. While there is no “liberal” party per se in Iran, his book considers other ways that liberalism holds influence. The presence of liberal wings of other parties, he says, is one way its influence has endured over the course of the last century.
As those in international relations consider ways that other Western ideologies in postcolonial societies are “burdened” with their colonial past, Banai’s work provides a necessary foundation.
His background prepared him well for a nuanced understanding of Iranian history and international relations. Banai immigrated from Iran to Canada a day shy of his 15th birthday, when he would have been required to start his military service, which neither he nor his parents wanted for him. His family settled in Toronto, where he went to both high school and college. Being fifteen years old in a very different country, where he did not know the language, was exceptionally difficult.
In high school, he says, “I was kind of a mute for two years, just listening and taking it all in and trying to kind of figure out what’s cool to say and how not to stand out.”
But there were benefits, and he learned important lessons. One was self-confidence and the ability to perform. One day, he says, his English teacher told him, “These [students] who were born here don’t know…what Macbeth is saying or what we’re reading in Hamlet. They don’t understand the words that are [in the play], but they’re performing [an understanding of] it. So perform the language.”
After that, Banai decided to perform a kind of confidence, and that led to him getting involved in theater club, writing, and other activities that pushed him outside what he was initially comfortable doing. He was soon accepted to a well-regarded college in Canada and was eventually hired as a speechwriter.
Now as a professor, he passes this lesson on to his students encountering difficult academic texts, especially those whose first language isn’t English. “Don’t be afraid to just kind of treat it as a performance first, and then find your way into understanding,” he says.
After graduating college and writing speeches, Banai started graduated school in international relations with the hope that he would figure out if he wanted to be an academic or work in government or the non-profit world. As he studied more, something surprised him: he was feeling pulled back to the study of Iran.
For a long time, he says, “I wanted to be as far away from Iran as possible, which is a typical immigrant experience. You just want to reinvent yourself.”
But his language skills, along with a deepening interest in intellectual history, political thought, and Iranian history—which he had not learned while growing up there—combined to make studying Iran especially attractive, along with the study of non-Western political thought. This interest led him to pursue an academic path, which has taken him from Canada to the UK to the US.
For more than a decade he has been involved in the Critical Oral History Project on US-Iran Relations, which brings together past policymakers from the US and Iran to have discussions about why they made the policy choices they made. By bringing government actors from both parties together, along with journalists and academics, the project seeks to explore the history of enmity between the two countries—as well as missed opportunities for reconciliation and cooperation—dating back to the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
The project has produced several books of oral history based on these intimate conferences. The most recent, The Narrative Trap: America and Iran’s Clash of Civilizations, is in the final stages before publication.
“The key motivation behind this project is to generate empathy in both Tehran and in Washington among policymakers,” he says about the project. The most recent book will have a wider audience, as it is written for the general public.
Aside from his research, writing, and historical work, Banai loves teaching. “Teaching is something that I find absolutely sacred about the American university,” he says.
At HLS, he teaches classes on empire, politics, and imperialism; an introduction to international studies; peace and conflict; and democracy in global politics. He has also just received the Outstanding Junior Faculty Award, one of only five assistant professors across IU Bloomington to receive the honor. This is the second time in three years that an HLS professor has received the honor. Professor Adam Liff from the HLS Department of East Asian Languages & Cultures was awarded it in 2019.
An international studies professor who has called four countries home, Banai has much to share with his field. And with the confidence he gained as a teenager in a new country, Banai has much to pass on to his students.