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Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran by Shireen T. Hunter ACMCU Occasional Papers July 2014


Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran by Shireen T. Hunter

ACMCU Occasional Papers July 2014


Hunter

Dr. Shireen T. Hunter Shireen T. Hunter is Visiting Professor at the Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. From September 2005 until February 2007 she was a Visiting Fellow at the center where she conducted research on reformist Islam, a project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. She is also Distinguished Scholar (Non – Resident) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., with which she has been associated since 1983 (Director of the Islam Program, 19982005; Senior Associate, 1993-97; and Deputy Director of the Middle East Program, 1983-92). She is Consultant to the RAND Corporation; and she was Academic Fellow at Carnegie Corporation (2000-2002). From 1993-97, Dr. Hunter was Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels, and also directed CEPS’ Mediterranean Program. While at CSIS in the 1980s, she also taught courses as Professorial Lecturer at Georgetown University, Adjunct Professor at George Mason University, and holder of the Louis L. Goldstein Chair at Washington College (1989). Dr. Hunter’s areas of expertise include the Middle East (especially Iran and the Persian Gulf region), the Mediterranean, Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus (North and South), Islam and politics and society and she has done extensive work on North-South relations, energy (Persian Gulf, Caucasus, Central Asia), developing-country issues (political, social, economic, security), and Islam (Russia, Europe, the US). Prior to joining CSIS, Dr. Hunter was a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution (1979-1980) and Research Fellow at the Harvard University Center for International Affairs (CFIA). From 1966-1978, she was a member of the Iranian Foreign Service, serving abroad in London and Geneva. She attained the rank of Counselor and served from time-to-time as Charge d’Affaires of the Iranian Mission to the United Nations in Geneva. Dr. Hunter was educated at Teheran University (BA and all-but-thesis for a doctorate in international law), the London School of Economics (MSc in international relations), and the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva (PhD in international relations). Her books are: Iran Divided: Historic Roots of Iranian Debates on Identity, Culture and Governance in the 21st Century, Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming September 2014; Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era: Resisting the New International Order, Praeger, 2010, Reformist Voices of Islam: Mediating Islam and Modernity , (ed &contributor) M.E. Sharpe, 2008, Islam and Human Rights: Advancing a US-Muslim Dialogue (ed.), CSIS Press, 2005; Modernization, Democracy and Islam (co-ed. and contributor), Praeger 2005; Islam in Russia: the Politics of Identity and Security, M. E. Sharpe, 2004; Islam: Europe’s Second Religion (editor), Praeger, 2002: The Future of Islam-West Relations: Clash of Civilizations or Peaceful Coexistence? CSIS/Praeger, 1998; Central Asia Since Independence CSIS/Praeger, 1996; The Transcaucasus in Transition: Nation-Building and Conflict CSIS/ Westview Press, 1994; Iran After

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Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Khomeini Praeger, 1992; Iran and the World: Continuity in a Revolutionary Decade (IUP, 1990); The Politics of Islamic Revivalism (editor, IUP, 1988); and OPEC and the Third World: Politics of Aid (Indiana University Press, 1984). Her books have been used widely in courses in major US and foreign universities. Her book, The Future of Islam and the West, has been translated into Persian and Arabic, and Modernization, Democracy and Islam into Arabic and Islam in Russia into Persian. Her major monographs include The Regional and International Politics of Rising Sectarian Tensions in the Middle East and South Asia, ACMCU Occasional Papers Series, July 2013; The Algerian Crisis: Origins, Evolution, and Implications for the Maghreb and Europe (CEPS Paper No. 66, 1996); Turkey at the Crossroads: Islamic Past or European Future? (CEPS Paper No. 63, 1995); Gulf Cooperation Council (editor, CSIS, 1984); Internal Developments in Iran (editor, CSIS, 1985); and The PLO After Tripoli (editor, CSIS, 1984). Dr. Hunter is the author of more than 30 book chapters and 40 articles in many leading journals, including Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Middle East International, Washington Quarterly, Harvard International Review, The Brown Journal of International Affairs, Columbia Journal of International Affairs; The Oxford Journal of Islamic Studies, SAIS Review, The Middle East Journal, Third World Quarterly, OPEC Review, World Today, Middle East Insight, Relazioni Internazionali, Current History, Security Dialogue, The International Spectator, Transitions, Orient, Turkey Insight, Arches and Central Asia Monitor. She has written many op-ed articles for various newspapers, including the Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times. Dr. Hunter has lectured widely in the United States and abroad, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, World Affairs Councils, Town Hall (Los Angeles), Young Presidents Organization, Foreign Service Institute, Defense Intelligence Agency, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, USIA (Germany, India, Israel, Algeria, Denmark, Australia, and Kuwait), the Marshall Center, Navy Postgraduate School, the U.S. Air Force, Reserve Officers Association, leading universities throughout the U.S., a wide variety of corporations, and professional groups like the Middle East Institute, the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Aspen Institute, the American Association of Slavic Studies, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the Middle East Institute, the Asia Society, Freedoms Foundation, the Istituto Affari Internazionali (Rome), the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, International Peace Research Institute (Oslo), Middle East Centre (St. Antony’s College, Oxford), and the Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies (Tel Aviv University). She has participated in the World Economic Forum (Davos) and in World Policy Conference in Evian (2008). She has testified before Congressional Committees (House Foreign Affairs, House Defense Appropriations) and the Helsinki Commission. She was an Onassis Foundation Fellow at The Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP - 2000) and Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies (2004). She is an editor of the Journal of Southeast European Studies and is on the editorial board of Global Dialogue and International Politics.

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Dr. Hunter has traveled extensively in Europe, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union (Russia, Caucasus, Central Asia), China, and Japan (In Azerbaijan she was an election observer). She has consulted for the Board of International Broadcasting and for a wide variety of U.S. and European corporations (especially in the energy sector). Dr. Hunter is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has lived in the United States since 1978 and has been a U.S. citizen since 1985. She is fluent in English, French, Persian, and Azeri Turkish, and also has a working knowledge of Arabic.

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Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Introduction Among Muslim countries, Iran is unique in that its pre-Islamic language, culture and traditions have largely survived the Arab/Islamic conquest of the country in 642 C.E, and are still alive and relevant to its peoples’ day to day life. Since the early days of the country’s Islamization, the resilience of Iran’s pre-Islamic cultural traditions and language has caused a degree of conflict between the Iranians’ Islamic and Iranian poles of identity and culture known respectively as (Islamiat), and (Iraniat), and has resulted in a bifurcated sense of national identity. Over the centuries, the Iranians have struggled to reconcile these two competing poles of their identity; they have largely succeeded in this endeavor, and today most Iranians consider themselves both Iranian and Muslim, and simultaneously feel loyal to Iran and to Islam. Nevertheless, since the early days of Iran’s Islamization, some Iranians have identified more with Islam than with Iran and its pre-Islamic traditions, while others have remained more loyal to Iran. Those Iranians who have gravitated most to the Islamic pole of the country’s identity, Islamiat, have favored Iran’s complete Islamization and the elimination of its pre-Islamic traditions and even language, and hence also a degree of the country’s cultural Arabization. By contrast, those gravitating towards the Iranian pole of their identity, Iraniat, have favored safeguarding Iran’s pre-Islamic language and traditions, and at times, their resurrection. They have not seen loyalty to Islam as demanding their complete abandonment of their pre-Islamic culture and language, and certainly not Iran’s cultural Arabization. For most of Iran’s history, because of the following factors, this rivalry between Iran and Islam for the loyalty of the Iranian people and as the foundation of the country’s national identity had remained mostly irrelevant to dynamics of power and politics in the country: First, until the modern era, throughout the world, power, in general, was mainly based on coercion, and rulers seldom needed to justify their rule by recourse to arguments based on bonds of common identity. If there were any efforts at justification and legitimation of power, religion based arguments and common religious bonds were often used; Second, after the Arab invasion and, despite the emergence of a number of Iranian origin local dynasties in the following centuries, Iran was mostly ruled by Arab and Turko-Mongol rulers. The Qajar dynasty was the last of Iran’s Turkic rulers. The situation changed, when by the dawn of the 19th century, Iran encountered the Europeans and modernity, and began its own efforts at reform and modernization. By the late 19th century, because of Iran’s modernization efforts, although very modest, issues of national identity and its cultural foundations, and hence the old Iran versus Islam debate had surfaced. More consequential for Iran’s long term evolution, the issues of identity and culture had become linked to those of power and politics. As the process of Iran’s modernization accelerated in the 20th century, the linkage between identity and culture and power and politics also grew closer. Because Iran’s modernizers gravitated towards the Iran pole of the Iran/Islam divide, emphasized

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Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage, and used nationalism as state ideology, the modernization process deepened the Iran versus Islam divide. The modernizers’ Iran centered discourse angered religious classes, especially the clerical establishment. Over time, they developed their Islam based discourse on these issues. The Islamic revolution was partly the outcome of the growing Iran/Islam dichotomy, and partly reflected the Islamists’ revenge on the Iranists. Following the success of the Islamic revolution, the new Islamic regime embarked on what were nothing short of a cultural revolution aimed at the Iranian society’s re-Islamization by: 1) introducing a more restrictive and intrusive type of Islam than had ever been the case; 2) campaigning against Iran-based nationalist tendencies and symbols, including notions of national identity and culture, by among other things banning the use of non-Islamic Iranian first names, discouraging the observance of preIslamic traditions, and even some efforts at physically harming Pre-Islamic historic sites and; 3) reshaping the country’s legal, political and economic structures according to a supposedly Islamic blueprint. The Islamization of Iran’s political and legal structures was successfully achieved. However, because of the following reasons, Islamization of the cultural and identity related realms only partially succeeded: 1) The deep rooted nature of Iranian traditions; 2) The strength of nationalist sentiments in the country in the sense of the love of the country and attachment to Iranian traditions; 3) External events, especially Iraq’ attack on Iran in September 1980. This attack galvanized the Iranians in defense of their country and punctured the myth of Islamic solidarity promoted by the new government. It even forced the Islamic regime to somewhat relent on its anti-Iran campaign, and; 4) Growing disenchantment with the Islamic government’s performance, and its failure to create a more prosperous and just society than the one that had existed before. Consequently, by the late 1980s, the total cultural Islamization project had failed, the government’s anti-nationalist campaign had subsided, and there was some revival of Iranian nationalism, and even some of the country’s Islamist leaders betrayed some measure of nationalist feelings. By the early 1990s, the old debate about the respective roles of Iran and Islam in the formation of the country’s national identity, culture and its value system had resurfaced.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: The Unlikely Nationalist and His Iranian School of Thought (Maktab e Irani) Despite some revival of Iranism and Iranian nationalism, until 2010, references to

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Iran as the basis of national identity and culture had remained vague. More important, no Iranian concepts or Iran based discourses were advanced as the foundation of an alternative basis of identity and culture, and hence also of value system, with potentially significant ramifications for issues of power and legitimacy in the country. Therefore, the relative revival of national sentiments had not generated any intense debate or acrimonious exchanges between the proponents of Islamism and those of Iranism. Nevertheless, before the outbreak of the latest round of debates on this issue, the former president, Muhammad Khatami, had on occasion warned that the polarization of the country’s debate on identity and culture around the rival notions of Iran and Islam would be highly damaging to it’s unity and stability. The situation changed in 2010. That year two developments occurred, which resurrected the old Iran-Islam debate, and led to intense and acrimonious exchanges between the country’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as the proponent of a new neo-nationalist Iran based discourse, and key political and clerical figures as the guardians of the Islamist orthodoxy. These events were: 1) the return to Iran of the famous Cyrus Cylinder, arguably the first declaration of human rights, which was issued by the Achamenide Emperor Cyrus upon his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C.E., and the ceremonies related to it; 2) the talk by President Ahmadinejad and his controversial adviser, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, of an “Iranian School” of thought (Maktab e Irani), and the introduction of the idea that Iran is Islam’s best manifestation. Given the fact that the IRI’s cultural revolution had not been fully successful, and the Iran/Islam debate had remained, albeit mostly dormant, the following questions arise: why did Ahmadinejad introduce his neo-nationalist thesis, and why the Islamists’ reaction to his talk of Iranian School was so intense and the exchanges generated by it so acrimonious? The answer to the first question is that with the growing popular disenchantment with the Islamic regime’s performance and hence its Islamist cultural and political discourse, including even its reformist variety, the erosion of religious values, and decline in overall religiosity in the country, a need was felt for a non-Islamist discourse as the foundation of a new political and cultural system. Moreover, the growing divergences and competitions within the IRI’s ruling elites had increased the temptation among some groups to find an alternative to the dominant Islamist discourse with which to challenge the IRI’s current power elite, including the Supreme Leader. In the 1990s and early 2000s, reformist Islam was the chosen discourse of that segment of the elite that wanted to change the existing power equation. In the mid and late 2000s, Islamic reformism was mixed with a more liberal discourse by elements of the elite. In 2010, the Iranian School was the chosen tool of President Ahmadinejad to challenge the system, and eventually to establish his own control. As to the second question, the answer lies in the fact that the growing popular disenchantment with the Islamic regime’s performance and hence its Islamist ideology, had intensified the Islamist elites’ sensitivity to any ideas that challenged the dominant orthodoxy upon which their power is based. Given the deep-rootedness of

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Iranism and its rich traditions, resorting to an Iran based alternative discourse could appear particularly threatening to the existing power structures.

Triggering Events behind the Latest Iran versus Islam Debate In 2010, the famous Cyrus Cylinder was returned to Iran and put on display for popular viewing during a ceremony attended by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During these ceremonies, Cyrus’s style of governance and his benevolent treatment of the conquered peoples, in particular, the respect shown by Cyrus to their religious rights was much praised and held up as the sign of the Iranians’ humane values since ancient times. To assuage the sensitivities of the Islamists, Ahmadinejad, also put a Kafia, which is a symbol of support for the Palestinian resistance, around a likeness of Cyrus and indicted him into the Basij.1 Such gestures, however, did not pacify the Islamists, and they responded strongly and negatively to the events and statements associated with them. The Speaker of the Iranian Parliament and a rival of the President Ahmadinejad, Ali Larijani, in a scathing attack, said that why should the Iranians look to Cyrus’s behavior for guidance in governance and in humane treatment of others when they have the example of Imam Ali.2 He also mentioned Imam Ali’s letter to the governor of Egypt, Malik Ashtar Nakhaei, as the best guidance for governance. The commander of Tehran’s Muhammad Rasoul Allah army strongly opposed the Cyrus Cylinder, because, according to him, it was against the teachings of “Imam” [Khomeini] and “Aga” [Supreme Leader Khamenei]. More ominously, he implied that he was expressing the views of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.3 The advancement of the idea of the “Iranian School” of thought (Maktab e Irani) by President Ahmadinejad and his controversial adviser, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, generated even greater controversy, because it was a much more systematic effort to present an Iran-based alternative to the regime’s Islamist orthodoxy.

Principal Characteristics of the Iranian School A brief survey of the characteristics of Ahmadinejad’s Iranian School will demonstrate why the Islamists reacted so strongly and negatively to it. These are: 1) Iran is a self contained and old civilization. The land and people of Iran have always had civilization, including in the pre-Islamic era. This view refutes the Islamist notion that all pre-Islamic civilizations belonged to the era of darkness and ignorance;4 Reports have indicated that president Ahmadinejad’s controversial adviser Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei was instrumental in bringing the cylinder to Iran.

1

2

The first Shia Imam and the fourth of the Rightly Guided Caliphs.

“Farmandeh e Sepah e Muhammad Rasoul Ullah Tehran: Ba Manshour Kourosh Mokhalefim/Dar Ma’araz e Yek Tahdid Nezamie Jedi Gharar Gereftehim” (Commander of Tehran’s Rasoul Ullah Army: We Are Against the Cyrus Cylinder/We Are Facing a Serious Military Threat) 4 October, 2010 at: http://aftabnews.ir/prtdon0fjy0zo6.2a2y.html

3

“Iran Yek Maktab Ast/ Beh Mashaei Etemad e Kamel Daram” (Iran Is a School of Thought/ I have Full Trust in Mashaei)

4

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2) Iranian civilization is monotheistic, ethical and humane. Ahmadinejad articulated this point by saying that “Iran is the center of divine thoughts and ideals”;5 3) The principles of Iranian civilization have universal application, because according to Ahmadinejad, Iran is not merely a geographical concept. Rather it denotes a value system based on monotheism and humanism and other virtues; 4) Iran is the holder of the true message and promise of Islam in the form of Shi’a Islam. These characteristics of the Iranian school, coupled with other statements of Ahmadinejad, such as the claim that Iran is the center of the true and undiluted Muhamedan Islam (Islam Nab e Muhammadi), and emphasizing Iran’s role in the development and spread of the Islamic Civilization,6 and advancing the idea of an Iranian Islam (Islam e Irani) explain the intensity of the Islamists’ reaction. A number of Islamist clergy, military leaders, and politicians attacked the Iranian School and Ahmadinejad. They accused the President and his adviser of “Nationalist” tendencies (Melli Garaei), something which has been anathema to the Islamists in Iran, because they view such tendencies as threatening Islam’s position among the people, and hence its dominance of the country’s cultural and political spheres. The commander of the Iranian Armed Forces, General Hassan Firouzabadi, called Mashaei’s statement a deviation and a crime against national security.7 Meanwhile, Ali Mutahari, the son of the late Ayatullah Murtaza Mutahari, accused Mashaei of repeating the words of the enemies, meaning the enemies of the Islamic revolution.8 Referring to another Mashaei statement in which he had said that the Iranians should fill their hearts and souls with love of Iran, Mutahari asked: “Should we [the Iranians] fill our hearts and souls with love of Iran or love of Islam?” He then added that every creature loves its place of dwelling, but the humans’ honor lies in their commitment to an ideology or school of thought.9 In a later interview with the news site, KHBARONLINE, discussing the ideas of his father, he attacked the very concept of nationalism and nationhood. He said his father opposed such notions because they are against Islam.10 Some religious clerical figures went so far as saying that Iran is a mere vessel (Zarf) for the substance (Mazrouf) which is Islam. He MEHR NEWS , 11 August 2010 at: http://www.mehrnews.com/fa/News/Print.aspx?NewsID=1132128 5

Ibid.

6

Ibid.

7

“Ezharat e Mashaei Enheraf va Jorm Aleih Amniate e Melli Ast” (Mashaei’s statement is deviation and a crime against national security) FARS NEWS AGENCY, 10 August 2010, available at: http://www.farsnews.net/rpintable.php?nn=890591350

8

“Mutahari: Mashaei Harf Doshmanan ra Tabligh Mikond/ Islam Faraghomi Ast” (Mashaei is propagating the enemies words/ Islam is Transethnic) MEHR NEWS, 10 August 2010available at: http://www.mehrnews.co/fa/NewwsView.aspx?ID=News1590387&Lang=p

9

“Mutahari’s Criticism of Mashaei : Maktab e Iran Ba Chashni e Umanism Harf e Dowpahlu Ast”(The Iranian School With a Humanistic Flavor Is an Ambiguous Statement), Tabnak, 14 November 2010, at: http://www.tabnak.ir/fa/print/130750 “KhorafehGaraei, Koroush Garaei, Maktab e Irani Masaeleh e Zohour va Andisheh e Ostad Mutahari Dar Goft e Gou Ba Ali Mutahari” 4 May, 2011, at: http://khabaronline.ir/print-148590.aspx

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warned that the Iranians should be careful that the substance (Islam) does not suffer in favor of the vessel (Iran).11 Ayatullah Javadi Amoli reminded everyone that it was Islam which gave Iran honor and greatness. Others, like the Head of Iran’s Academy (Farhangstan) which is responsible for the safeguard of the Persian language, Gholamali Hadad Adel, reminded everyone that the only school of thought acceptable to Ayatullah Khomeini was that of Islam. He added that, therefore, talk of an Iranian school is against his teachings.12 Others accused the proponents of the Iranian School of Humanist tendencies, and of being adherents of Freemasonry, both serious charges in the Islamic Republic. In response, Ahmadinejad defended his position and expressed support for Mashaei. He rejected accusations of nationalist tendencies, and said that those who made these accusations did not want to accept that Iran had always had a great civilization. Instead, they insist that “the Iranian nation in the pre-Islamic era had no culture and civilization”.13 He accused some of his critics of having an allergic reaction to the word Iran.14 He added that it was because of their superior culture that the Iranians chose the true Islam, namely the Alavi [Shia] Islam, which is practiced in the Islamic Republic.15 In his later statements, he continued to refer to Iranian themes. In a trip to Sistan and Baluchistan province, he talked about how when Firdausi, the eleventh century poet, set about to “revive Iran’s identity” he used the legend of Rustam, the Iranian Hercules, who was from Sistan.16 For the remaining of his presidency, he continued to cause controversy by similar statements. In a trip to Tajikistan in March 2012, for the celebration of the Iranian New Year, Norouz, he said that Firdausi saved Islam from oblivion. In response, some clerics retorted that even Firdausi himself had not made such claims, and had only credited himself for having resurrected the Persian language and Iran’s pre-Islamic history. These exchanges also reopened a long standing debate, especially popular within the Iranian Diaspora since the revolution, about whether there should be an Iranian interpretation of Islam (Islam e Irani),17 or Iran should be totally Islamic, or in other Saad Ullah Zareei repeated this theme: See: “Hoviet e Islami Ma Bar Hoviet Iraniman Aulaviat Darad” (Our Islamic Identity has priority Over Our Iranian Identity) FARS NEWS, 19 April 2011, at: http://www.farsnews.com/printable. php?nn=9001300573 High ranking cleric critical of the Iranian school includes Ayatullah Makarem Shirazi. Safi Golpayegani, Mesbah Yazdi among others.

11

“Islam Tanha Maktab e Mord Ghaboul Imam Khomeini VA Rahbari Ast? Enfekak Iran va Islam Hadaf e Doshman Ast” (Islam is the only school accepted by the Imam and the leadership[Ayatullah Khamenei], MEHR NEWS, 10 August 2010 at: http://www.mehrnews.com/fa/News/Print.aspxxxxxxxxxx/NesID=1131579

12

“Iran Yek Maktab Ast/ Beh Mashaei Etemad e Kamel Daram” (Iran Is a School of Thought/ I have Full Trust in Mashaei) MEHR NEWS , 11 August 2010 at: http://www.mehrnews.com/fa/News/Print.aspx?NewsID=1132128

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“Ahmadinejad: Baziha Beh Kalameh e Irani Hassasiat Darand” (Some people Are Allergic to the Word Iranian), Tabnak, 25 October 2010, at: http://tabnak.ir/fa/pages/print.php?cid=127169

15

Ibid.

16

See: “Dastur e Rais Jomhour beh Azaye Heyat e Daulat Darbareh Lozoum e Negah Vizheh Beh masael e Sistan Va Baluchistan” IRNA, 13 April 2011,

17

The late Henri Corbin the French Islamologue first used the term Iranian Islam when he entitled his four volume work “En Islam Iranien”.

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words, an “Islamic Iran” (Iran e Islami). Clearly, the Islamists prefer an Islamic Iran. They view talk of an Iranian Islam a ruse by nationalist and other non-Islamist elements to undermine Islam in Iran. The Iran versus Islam debate continued unabated and became even more intense in early 2011 in the run up to the pre-Islamic Iranian New Year (Norouz) on 20 March. This time, the controversy revolved around the issue of official celebration of the Iranian New Year with the participation of the Heads of States of those countries where Norouz is also celebrated. In 2010, these celebrations were held in Persepolis, but strong opposition from clerical figures and others, who wanted the celebrations to be cancelled all together, forced the government to hold the celebrations in Tehran and in a more subdued manner.18 One pretext used to criticize the celebration of the festival, was that it coincided with popular uprisings in the Arab world and the suffering that they were causing to Muslim peoples.19 Others objected to the costs involved.20 However, the opposition of a number of religious and lay figures to Norouz went beyond the question of its official celebration, which they likened to the Shah Era celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian monarchy. They questioned the very appropriateness of observing such a so-called pagan festival in an Islamic society. There were, however, some lonely voices among the clergy, such as Ayatullah Haeri Shirazi, who supported the celebrations21 and so did the Supreme Leader so long as the festival’s spiritual aspects, which, according to him, have been condoned by Islam, were emphasized.22 Until the late spring 2011, the Iran-Islam controversy had remained a largely cultural debate, albeit with significant political undertones. The political dimensions of this debate are reflected in Ahmadinejad’s speech during the unveiling ceremonies of the Cyrus Cylinder with its emphasis on the peoples’ freedom of choice etc. Such a speech could be and was interpreted as a challenge to the position of the Supreme Leader. The political dimensions of the debate became more evident when tensions 18

Some called on the government to stop “ these Jaheli practices”, and others used the popular uprisings in a number of Arab states and urged the government to stop celebrating Norouz while other Muslims are struggling and some even dying. See for example: “ Ayatullah Gharavi DarGoftegou Ba MEHR: Bargozari e Jashn Jahani e Norouz Laghv Shavad” ( Ayatullah Gharavi in a Conversation With MEHR: Cancel International celebration of Norouz) MEHR NEWS AGENCY, 19 March , 2011, available at: http://www.mehrnews.com/fa/Newsprint.aspx?NewsID=1276716

19

See for example: “Bargozari e Marasem Norouz Rouhieh e Dictatorhaye keshvar haye Moslman Ra Taghviat Mikond” MEHR NEWS AGENCY, 16 March, 2011 at: http://www.mehrnews.com/fa/NesPrint.aspx?newsID=1275725

20

“Hazineh e Baraye Jashn e Norouz Faghed e Mashroueiat Ast/ Jashn Norouz Laghv Shavad”, (Expenditure for Norouz Celebration Lacks legitimacy/ Norouz Celebration Should Be Scrapped) MEHR NEWS AGENCY, 16 March 2011 at : http:// mehrnews.com/fa/NewsPrint.aspx?newsID=1275703

21

Hemayat e Ayatullah Haeri Shirazi Az Bargozari Jashn e Jahani e Norouz”, Aftab News, 22 March, 2011, at: http://www. aftabbnews.ir/prtfmdymw6d0ja.igiw.html

22

In a speech that he gave during the 2010 celebrations he said that many in Hadiths Norouz has been praised. See: “Jashn e Norouz Dar Kalam Magham e Moazzaam e Rahbari) Norouz in the Words of the Supreme Leader) IRNA, 16 March 2011, at: http://www.irna/Print.aspx?NID=30302668 in 2011 in a meeting with the pilgrims of Imam Reza in Mashhad he said that Norouz was a good opportunity for movement in an Islamic direction. See: (Norouz e Irani Forsat e Moghtanami Ast Baraye Harakt dar Samt Va Souye Islami”. FARS NEWS AGENCY, 21 March 2011, at: http://www.farsnews.com/printable. php?nn=9001010172

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emerged between the Supreme Leader and the President over the dismissal of the minister of intelligence, Heidar Moslehi, by Ahmadinejad and his reinstatement by the leader. Following the controversy over the dismissal of the minister of intelligence, the Iranian School was declared a deviationist and anti-revolutionary movement (Jarayan e Enherafi), and its proponents came under significant pressure from sources close to the Supreme Leader.

Direct Communication with the Mahdi What made the Iran versus Islam debate even more acrimonious was the more or less simultaneous introduction by Ahmadinejad, again supposedly under the influence of Mashaei, of the idea of the possibility of direct communication with the Mahdi. Such an idea, if accepted, would eliminate the need for the clergy, including a Supreme Leader. In other statements, Mashaei went further by referring to mystical and even gnostic ideas of the Perfect Human Being (Insan e Kamel) as the source of justice and love. In response, important clerical figures warned that such talk could lead to other heretical movements within Shiism, as it had happened with the movement of Bahaullah, the founder of the Bahai religion, in the 19th century. In short, Ahmadinejad’s neo-nationalism, together with his theory of direct communication with the Mahdi, posed a fundamental challenge to the very foundations of the Islamic system. By 2012, the intensity of the Iran versus Islam debate had subsided, and the departure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2013 helped its further eclipse. However, the debate has not ended. For example, in the run up to the June 2013 presidential elections, some candidates and some key clerical figures, notably Ayatullah Muhammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, admonished the voters to vote for those candidates whose loyalty to Islam prevailed over their loyalty to Iran. Similarly, the head of the judiciary, Ayatullah Sadegh Larijani, opined that “We” [Iranians] are Muslim first and Iranian second.” Nor is the debate likely to end soon and, because of the following reasons, it can even reemerge with greater intensity: First, the Islamists’ particular narrative of Iran’s history, culture and identity are divorced from its historic realities; Second, the current system has proven incapable of effectively responding to Iran’s and its people’s needs and aspirations. This is not to suggest that an Iran based discourse would necessarily become dominant in the country. Nor is it to suggest that such a discourse would be a reworked version of the Pahlavi era nationalism, or that it would stand a better chance of responding to Iran’s needs and challenges. It is merely to say that such a discourse will be a viable competitor to other discourses, such as conservative and reformist Islam, and western style liberalism currently vying for influence among the Iranian people. In light of the above, a discussion of the contours of the latest Iran versus Islam

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Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran

debate, its antecedents and, in general, the historic evolution of Iran’s national identity and the relative roles of Iran and Islam in its formation and in shaping the country’s value system would be a useful exercise. Such a discussion could also help in understanding similar debates in other Muslim countries since the 19th century. More broadly, such a discussion could help elucidate the role of religion, as compared to other elements of identity such as ethnicity, language, territory, in the formation of national identities, the fashioning of value systems, and hence in shaping political cultures and institutions. As the foregoing has illustrated, the controversy triggered by the advancement of the idea of Iranian School has many dimensions. One relates to the question of the foundations of Iranian identity and culture and the relatives roles of Islam and Iran in its formation. The other and more consequential dimension of the debate relates to the close connection which has developed between identity and culture and power and politics in Iran, thus making any debate on identity relevant to questions of who should rule in the country and upon what basis.

Foundations of National Identity: Ethnicity, Religion or Something Else? What constitutes the foundations of nations and hence national identities? Do nations and national identities have some foundational and lasting basis, or are they constructed and thus fluctuating? These questions have long been hotly debated among experts in the field resulting in a division of opinion between the Modernists and the Primordialists/Essentialists. Different strands of the modernist perspective, including the Constructivist, view nations, and hence national identities, as outcome of multiple economic and political forces and, therefore, as essentially constructed to serve the interests of particular elites. According to Ernest Gellner, economic factors, especially the requirements of growth –oriented industries, is at the core of modern nations. According to Gellner, these modern nations proceeded to develop a sense of national identity through a variety of means, including, mass education and development of myths and traditions in order to forge a single and dominant national identity.23 Therefore, “the construction of national identity is a self conscious and manipulative project carried out by elites who seek to secure their power by mobilizing followers on the basis of nationalist ideology.”24 One upshot of this view of nations and national identities is that the latter should not be seen “as something fixed, but something that is continually negotiated and renegotiated.”25 The outcome of the above understanding of the nature of national identities, 23

On Ernest Gellner’s views see his:, Nations and Nationalism, Oxford: Blackwell, 1990

24

Craig Calhoun, Nationalism, Buckingham: Open University Press, p.30

25

Richard Mole, “Discursive Identities: identity Discourses and Political Power, in Richard C. Mole (ed.) Discursive Construction of Identity in European Politics, New York: Palgrave, 2007, p.4

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especially the close connection between the process of identity construction and elite power interests, is that those elements within a society who want to challenge the existing power elites and alter the existing power structure must first undermine their particular narrative of national identity and offer their own version. By contrast, the Primordialists/Essentialists believe that “national and ethnic communities are the natural unit and integral elements of human history.”26 They also emphasize ethnic origins of nations and hence national identities. According to them, common ethnic background, often accompanied by linguistic and religious similarities and attachment to a particular territory is the foundation of nations and national identities. These ties, and hence the sense of nationhood and national identity, is further strengthened by shared myths of common descent, struggle against hostile others and traditions of everyday life.27 However, neither the purely Primordialist view nor a totally Modernist view of nations and national identity alone sufficiently explains these phenomena. Clearly, nations and national identities in the modern era owe much to the constructive work of various elites, although not necessarily always the elite in power. Nevertheless, as noted by Anthony Smith, while nations and identities can to varying degrees be considered as constructed phenomena, they are not created ex nihilio. Rather they are rooted in pre-modern ethnic groups. In short, while much about nations and national identities in modern age is constructed, most of them are nevertheless based on some kind of ethnic, linguistic, or religious basis.

Religion as the Foundation of National Identity It is generally accepted that societies, including nations, achieve some measure of cohesion and solidarity not only by virtue of real or constructed myths of common ethnic origins and history, but perhaps more so, by virtue of shared values and cultures. Historically, shared values and cultures of societies were rooted in religion, and it has been only in the last three hundred years that secular values have posed a significant challenge to religion–based value systems. However, even in largely secularized societies, many elements of the dominant secular value systems have their roots in these societies’ religious traditions. Moreover, even in highly secularized societies, a majority of the population still identify themselves with some religious traditions. For example, in a poll conducted in 2001, seventy two percent of the British, one of the most secular nations of Europe, identified themselves as Christians.28 Furthermore, common life styles of various societies, which by all accounts are important components of national identities, are based largely on religious beliefs. For example, many important stages of life, such as birth, marriage and death are regulated by some form of ritual very often 26

Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Sates, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986, p.12

27

Clifford Geertz and Pierre van den Berghe are among the Primordialists.

28

“British Humanist Association Bus Ads Target Cultural Christians Ahead of Census” Christian Today. 23 February 2011, available at: http://www.chritianitoday.com/articledir/print.htm?id=27569

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Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran

linked to a particular religion. Major religious events are also observed as important national occasions.29 In some cases, the birth of a nation and advent of a religion to a particular country and people coincide in the national memory. The best example of this case is the French identification of the birth of their Nation with the advent of Christianity in France in the form of the baptism of Clovis in the 5th century C. E. In 1996, the French government described the baptism of Clovis as “the founding act of France.” This shows the importance of religious factors in the formation of national identities even in an almost militantly secular state and society such as France.30 Russia is another country where the national identity of the people is strongly linked to Orthodox Christianity, an identity which to a great degree has survived seven decades of Communist atheistic indoctrination and rule.31 However, historical evidence also shows that religion alone does not provide sufficient levels of solidarity to members of a society if other elements, such as common ethnic and/or linguistic bonds, are missing, although religious differences could divide peoples who share close ethnic and linguistic ties. A good example of such a case is divisions within the peoples of what used to be Yugoslavia—Serbs, Croats, Bosnians–who ethnically and linguistically are almost identical but are divided by religion. Religious wars in Europe, notably the thirty year wars, also pitted kings and princes of the same or close ethnic groups against one another. By contrast, common religious beliefs serve to strengthen other ethnically/linguistically based bonds. This factor also explains the fact that often religions are identified with particular ethnic groups, although there are Universalist religions, such as Christianity and Islam that cut across ethnic boundaries. However, even in this context, Christianity is mostly identified with Europe and the Americas, Islam with Arabs and Buddhism with Asia. Other bases of collective identity, notably class, have proven even more inadequate as the building blocks of national identities. Extreme class–based antagonisms within a given society does tend to undermine national cohesion but class interests alone are insufficient basis for the formation of strong national identities, or for transcending ethnic differences. In addition to ethnicity and religion, other principal building blocks of nations and national identities are the following: 1) a collective proper name; 2) a myth of common ancestry; 3) shared historical memories; 4) one or more differentiating elements of common culture; 5) an association with a specific homeland; 6) a sense of 29

See: Anthony Smith, The Cultural Foundations of States, Oxford: Blackwell, 2008

30

This issue, however, was very controversial in France especially that it coincided with the visit of Pope John Paul the second to Reims where the baptism of Clovis took place. See: Gail Russell Chaddock, “ Ancient Hero Clovis Stirs French Debate, Christian Science Monitor, 18 September 1996 available at: http://www.csmonitor.com/1996/0918/091896.intl.intl.2.html Moreover, until the advent of the French Revolution Catholicism and the view of French kings of themselves as the defenders of the faith was an important part of French national identity. See, Anthony D. Smith, The Cultural Foundations of States, pp.98-102

31

On Russian identity see among others: Timothy McDaniel, The Agony of the Russian Idea, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996, and Wayne Allensworth, The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization and Post-Communist Russia, Lanham, MD, Rowman and Littlefield, 1998

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solidarity for significant sectors of the population.32 In short, modern notions of nations and national identities owe much to conscious efforts of elites at what has come to be known as Nation Building. Nevertheless, such efforts have succeeded only in cases where there were sufficient building blocs, such as common ethnic roots, history, culture and religion.

The Foundations of Iran’s National identity: Ethnicity, Language, History, Culture, Religion? The concept of an Iranian nation and an Iranian national identity in their modern meanings are of a relatively recent origin, they date back to the turn of the 20th century or at the earliest to mid 19th century. The conscious construction of both also is closely linked with the rule of the Pahlavis (1926-1979). However, among the nations with a long history, Iran, is one of the few where the above–noted basic ingredients for the formation of a nation and national identity have existed for millennia.

The Centrality of the Persian Ethnic Group and Language Early history of Iran has been that of Empire, beginning with the founding of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Achamenide. Empires by their very definition are multiethnic and the Achamenide Empire was no exception. However, the Achamenide Empire, despite lacking the “…debasement of foreigners typical of Egyptian art …or of Assyrian reliefs…” was nevertheless based on a clear ethnic hierarchy as evident in Darius’ inscriptions in Bistoun. During the Achamenide Empire, the Persians held the central position in the structure of empire,33 followed by the Medes a close ethnic relative of the Persians.34 Following Alexander’s conquest of the Achamenide Empire, for nearly five hundred years Iran was ruled by Greek dynasty of the Seleucids and the Parthians, an Iranian but non-Persian, ethnic group. The founding of the Sassanid dynasty in 224 C. E. with roots in the Fars (Persis) province heralded a new era of Persian revival. It was also during the Sassanid rule that the concepts of Iran (Eran or Eranshahr) as a territorial and politico-cultural entity and Non-Iran (An –Eran) describing the nonIranian world emerged. This centrality of the Persian core of Iran’s national identity persisted, despite recurring foreign invasions and considerable cultural changes. As noted by Anthony D. Smith “The Persians at least from the Sassanid period were subjected to conquest by Arabs, Turks and others, were gradually converted to Islam and experienced more than one influx of immigrants. Yet, despite all the changes of collective identity a 32

Anthony D. Smith, National Identity, Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1991, p.21

Anthony D. Smith, The Cultural Foundations of States, p.54

33

According to the legend related by Xenophon Cyrus’ mother Mandana was the daughter of the King of Media. So Cyrus was Medo-Persian

34

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Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Persian sense of distinctive ethnic identity persisted and at times received a new lease of life.”35 To this must be added that the strength of the Persian identity and culture was such that it exercised a significant attraction for the invading groups, most of whom became culturally persianized.

Religion In Iran’s long history, there has always been a close connection between identity and religion. In pre-Islamic Iran, Mazdaism, and its later version Zoroastrianism, was closely linked with Persian identity. The Persians did not view themselves as the Chosen people as some other ethnic groups of the antiquity like the Jews. Nevertheless, Darius, the Achamenide emperor, in his inscription in Bistoun claims that his victories were made possible by the grace of Ahura Mazda, thus implying that Ahura Mazda had chosen him and the Persians as the beneficiaries of his grace. In the Sassanid era, Zoroastrianism became even more closely identified with Persian identity. It also formed the basis of Iran’s ethical and legal in addition to religious character and institutions. However, with growing schisms within Zoroastrianism, and the emergence of new religions, such as those of Mani and Mazdak, religion at times also tended to fracture rather than solidify a sense of national identity. Since Iran’s near complete Shiiazation in the 16th century, religion again has been an important component of its national identity.

Historic and Symbolic Heritage A pool of common historic and symbolic heritage has throughout history helped cement a sense of national identity in Iran. This symbolic heritage has even exercised attraction for Iran’s invaders. They often have tried to appropriate it to themselves, and in the process have become to a degree culturally persianized. In this context, the memory of the Achamenide Empire, and in the post-Islamic era, that of the Sassanid Empire has been particularly powerful. For example, the Sassanids clearly claimed descent from the Achamenids and set upon restoring their empire. According to some sources, even some Arsacid (Parthian) kings, such as Ardavan (Artabanus), also sought legitimacy by claiming the Achamenide legacy.36 Later in the Sassanid era, especially at the time of Khosrow Anoushirvan, (Chosroes of Immortal Soul) there was a conscious effort at gathering and writing the history of Iran and demonstrating continuity between the Sassanid rule and earlier, especially Achamenide, dynasty.37 Later, under Yazdgerd III this Sassanid era account Anthony D. Smith, National Identity, p.26

35

36

Anthony D. Smith, The Cultural Foundations of Nations, p.86

37

Ibid.

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was recorded in Kwaday Namag (The Book of Lords), which was used by the post Islamic poet, Firdausi, to write his epic Shahnameh (The Book of Kings). The fact that Shahnameh for a thousand years has been read in Iran and is viewed as the symbol of Iranian national identity illustrates the importance of this common historic and symbolic heritage in the formation and survival of a distinct Iranian national identity.

The Linkage between Territory, Ethnicity and Culture The identification of a people with a particular territory is considered to be essential to the formation of nations and national identities. For many people, their land has even a sacred quality. Iran is among those countries where a long history of identification between a people and culture on the one hand, and a particular territory on the other, has existed over a very long period of time. The mythical land of the Iranian peoples mentioned in the Zoroastrian holy book, Avesta, also has a near sacred quality since it is thought to have been blessed by Ahura Mazda. Over its long history, Iran has lost many of its territorial possessions. Nevertheless, the concept of Iran Zamin (the land of Iran) has persisted and used even by Iran’s foreign conquerors. Iran’s current territory includes most of its historic lands, notably those which could be considered as the heartland of Persian/Iranian civilization. This territorial continuity, despite periods of subjugation by foreign forces, and the more or less correspondence of the territorial and cultural/linguistic borders of Iran have been important components of its national identity.

Common Culture, Folklore and Way of Life All scholars of nationalism and national identity, including those who view national identities as essentially constructed by elites, agree that the existence of common culture, folklore and way of life facilitates the formation of national identities. The above–noted factors have certainly been important in the fashioning of Iran’s national identity in its present form. These cultural factors have both pre-Islamic and Islamic, especially Shia, roots, the combination of which gives Iran its distinctive character. Among the pre-Islamic traditions whose persistence after the country’s Islamization have helped to safeguard a distinct Iranian identity, the following stand out: 1) the pre-Islamic solar calendar and the names of the months which correspond to Zoroastrian angels; 2) the pre-Islamic Iranian New Year, Norouz and other events associated with it like the ceremonies of the last Tuesday of the old year, known as Chahar Shanbeh Souri, which involves the symbolism of fire and its purifying properties and is widely observed; 3) Shab e Yalda or the feast of the winter solstice which has strong Zoroastrian religious undertones, and is also widely observed while other pre-Islamic festivals, such as Mehrghan, have been mostly forgotten. 21


Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Since the country’s near complete Shiiazation in the 16th century C.E. rituals connected to Shiism, most notably events around the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the second Shia Imam, in 680 C. E. and the occasions of the birth and death of Shia Imams, have greatly contributed to the development of a religious folk culture shared by most Iranians, and hence have played an important role in the formation of Iran’s national identity. What the foregoing implies is that Iran’s national identity includes both pre-Islamic Iranian and Islamic (Shia) elements. Since the formation of the Safavid state in 1501, until the mid 19th century, these Iranian and Shia elements had been mutually reinforcing. But a clear dichotomy begun to appear by the turn of the 20th century as a result of Iran’s encounter with Europe and modernity. This dichotomy still persists, as reflected in the latest debate noted earlier. However, a degree of duality and ambivalence had existed in the Iranians’ sense of themselves and their history and identity, as early as the post Arab/Islamic conquest of Iran and the end of the Sassanid Empire.

Iran, the Arab Invasion and Islam The more conscious juxtaposition of Iran and Islam is a recent phenomenon. However, conflict within the Iranian soul regarding the Iranian and Islamic poles of its identity has deeper roots in the Arab defeat of Iran in 642 C. E., and a high degree of identification of Islam with Arabism. The Arab/ Islamic victory over the Sassanid Empire shattered Iran’s territorial and cultural unity and introduced a new element, Islam, to the country. This new element eventually became the main pole around which Iranian society would revolve and its rhythms would regulate all aspects of life in Iran. The Iranians ultimately managed to retain a separate language—closely linked to the Middle Persian of the Sassanid era—and many of their cultural, artistic and political traditions. They even greatly influenced many aspects of the Islamic Civilization. But they were also deeply influenced by Arabic language and script and Islamic legal and ethical notions. As noted earlier this survival of many aspects of Iranian linguistic, historical and cultural heritage, together with Islam’s all encompassing influence, provided rich material for a dichotomous relationship between concepts of Islam and Iran, and hence for a dualistic and bifurcated sense of identity among Iranians. In terms of reconciling their old traditions and their new faith, the fact that many of the Iranians’ old cultural traditions had religious—Zoroastrian—undertones was particularly problematic, because their new faith considered these traditions to belong to the era of darkness and paganism (Jahiliah). Moreover, ultimately, many Iranians could not completely separate the advent of Islam from their humiliating defeat at Arab hands, and hence their ambivalent attitude towards Islam.

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Diverging Narratives: Arabizers versus Iran Loyalists Since Islam’s arrival to Iran, two different narratives have existed about the manner in which Islam spread in Iran and the impact of Arab/Islamic conquest on Iran. The first narrative is favored by the Arabizers and the second by Iran Loyalists. According to the narrative favored by the early Arabizers and today’s Islamists, recognizing its superiority and eternal truth, Iran and the Iranians accepted Islam with open hearts, and that Islam has brought nothing but benefits to Iran. They maintain that Iran’s intellectual and cultural flowering began with Islam’s introduction to the country. They view the pre-Islamic Iran as a corrupt society and polity ridden with unjust class structure, immoral behavior and king-centered despotism. Interestingly, the so-called reformist Muslims also share this view. They also dismiss even partially favorable accounts of pre-Islamic Iran as mere fabrication of “Zionist Historians”. Moreover, the Islamists deny any mistreatment of the Iranians by the conquering Arabs. The second narrative favored by the early Iran loyalists and today’s nationalists, sees the pre-Islamic Iran and its traditions as the paragon of all that is good and sublime and denies any positive impact of Islam. The reality however is that neither of these narratives correctly reflects historical facts. The Islamists/Arabizers view that ancient Iran had no redeeming features, and that the Arab/Islamic victory brought nothing but good to Iran and that the Iranians accepted Islam spontaneously without any pressure is clearly wrong. It is true that, partly because the Zoroastrian religion did resemble many aspects of Islam, over time, the Iranians accepted Islam fairly easily.38 For example, it has been said that the Iranians just replaced Allah and Iblis or God and Satan with Ahura and Ahriman. Moreover, the spread of Christianity in Iran before the coming of Islam had introduced basically Semitic religions to Iran, and therefore Islam’s discourse was not totally alien to the Iranians. Moreover, Judaism and Christianity had borrowed many Zoroastrian concepts, which, in turn, through them had influenced Islam. The upshot of all these factors was that Islam did not appear too strange to the Iranians. Also, by the time of the Arab invasion, the Sassanid Empire was much weakened economically and had become socially and religiously more fragmented, partly as a result of the emergence of new religions and religio-social movements, such as that of Mazdak. Additionally, folk Zoroastrianism in Iran had been polluted with the fatalistic creed of Zurvanism thus making the people accept the Arab/Muslim take over as pre-ordained and inevitable.39 Zoroastrianism had greatly influenced Judaism who had also affected many aspects of Islam. For example notions of heaven and hell and day judgment according to some were taken from Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism had also influenced Christianity. In fact, according to Professor Cohen it was as a result of contact with Zoroastrian priests who had fled to what is now Syria and Palestine the idea of Messiah, which is an important tenet of Zoroastrianism, was introduced into Judaism and created the expectation of the appearance of a Messiah. See, Norman Cohen, Cosmos, Chaos and the Origins of Apocalyptic Thought, Hartford: Yale University Press, 1993

38

39

Development of Zurvanism in Iran was the direct result of the impact of both Babylonian and Greek religious influences. These turned the optimistic Mazdaism of Iran into the dark notions prevalent in Babylonia and also aspects of Greek religions

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Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran

However, the view that there was no resistance and no revolts in Iran against the Arabs and the new faith in Iran is not supported by historical evidence. There were many revolts, and many more fled the invading Arabs and their brutal rule.40 There was also what in the contemporary parlance is called terrorism, such as the assassination of Arabs, including the Second Caliph, Omar, by an Iranian slave. Additionally, as is the case with any spread of a faith through invasions, often conversion was in order to get protection from the conquerors, or exemption from exorbitant taxes imposed on the non-believers, to protect one’s property, or even gain money and position under the new rulers. The position that Arab/Muslim victory did not harm Iran is also untenable. Arab invasion and rule caused much damage and loss of wealth and property in Iran and undermined its intellectual foundations, albeit not as much as the later Turko-Mongol invasions did. Iran since the time of the Sassanid emperor, Shapur the first, had become a major center of learning. For example, the University of Jundi Shapur had become a refuge for many Greek, Roman and Christian scholars. This tradition had become stronger during the reign of Khosrow Anoushirvan who had given refuge to many Greek and Nestorian philosophers, physicians and scientists fleeing the repression of Byzantine Emperors. For example, many Greek scholars came to Iran when, largely for religious reasons, Byzantine Emperor, Zeno, closed the schools in Edessa in 489 C.E., and when Justinian in 529 closed the Schools in Athens.41 In fact, Anoushirvan had a reputation as a philosopher king among the Greeks. Although many of the Greek philosophers who came to his court were eventually disappointed with him, they were impressed by the fact he had read Aristotle and Plato and discussed their views with them. In addition to this Greek knowledge, in Sassanid institutions there were works of the Iranians’ own wisdom and history. The Arab invaders and later rulers destroyed this entire intellectual heritage as evidenced by the ruins of the Sassanid capital, Ctesiphon, now in Iraq. It is, in fact, remarkable how much the Iranians managed to save of these Greek and other works and translate them into Arabic. It was this Sassanid legacy which formed the foundation of the Islamic philosophy and sciences complimented by the Greek and other works translated by Christians, including some Persian Christians. The Sassanid era Khaneh e Danesh (The House of Knowledge) was the model for the Islamic Dar ul Hikmah. Nor is it any wonder that the largest number of scientist and philosophers of Islam’s golden age were from the Eastern part of the Islamic world. Moreover, had it not collapsed, the empire might have regenerated itself, as it had done before as under Anoushirvan after a period of disturbance. with their concept of inescapable fate (Moira in Greek). Greek tragedies are tales of such inescapable fate. 40

For examples of such revolts see: Abdul Husain Zarrinkub, “The Arab Conquest of Iran And Its Aftermath” in Richard N. Fry (ed.) Cambridge History Iran, Vol.4 The Period from the Arab Invasion To The Saljuq, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975

41

On Jundi Shapur’s origins and development and demise see: Cyril Elgood, “ Jundi Shapur- A Sassanian University, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol xxx11, 2 November 1938

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In short, the Arab invasion ended the possibility of the Iranian society’s organic transformation. Moreover, as Islam developed various sects and judicial schools, sectarian differences plagued Iran at times leading to conflicts, such as those between the Hanafis and Shafeis during the reign of the Saljuqs and the premiership of Nezam ul Mulk. An even worse consequence of the Arab invasion was that it opened Iran to the future recurring and ruinous Turko-Mongol invasions. The destructive legacy of these invasions includes the Turko-Persian divide in the country, and TurkoPersian rivalry for the mastery of the country. This rivalry even today bedevils Iran, and is manifested in many forms, albeit often hidden beneath various political and ideological disputes.42 The nationalist narrative is also flawed. As noted earlier, by the time of the Arab invasion the Sassanid Empire was much weakened and fragmented. The religious and other schisms had created a receptive soil for new creeds, in this case Islam. Moreover, the rather hierarchical social system of the Sassanid Empire made Islam’s egalitarian promise attractive to many Iranians. Islam’s arrival to some extent had a liberating effect, as it eliminated the strict social system in Iran, thus, over time, offering greater opportunity for certain classes to better themselves and excel in various fields of science, literature and politics. In this way, in later centuries, it contributed to a flourishing of talents hitherto unexplored. Sassanid Iran was also underdeveloped in terms of legal and political institutions, especially compared to the Imperial Rome, although changes were beginning to occur in these areas which were interrupted by the Arab invasion. These changes included the development of civic notions of citizenship applying to all of Iran’s inhabitants irrespective of ethnicity or religion. In many areas of arts and sciences, the Empire lagged behind Byzantium, although in some areas it was superior to Rome. More seriously, the fortunes of the country were too much dependent on the qualities of the monarch. When the monarch was good and wise the Empire flourished, but when this was not the case, as during the reign of Khosrow the second (Khosrow Parviz), unnecessary wars and excessive luxury loving led to the peoples’ ruin. However, Muslim Caliphs and later dynasties, especially Iran’s Turkic rulers, were not much improvement on this model.

Consequences of Islam/Arab versus Iran Dichotomy By and large, the development of a dichotomous relation between various aspects of Iran’s post-Islamic identity, notably its new faith, Islam, and its other traditions and 42

The most significant consequence of Turko-Mongol invasions was that they treated Iran again as war booty to be exploited. This was even apparent during the Qajar dynasty. For example according an early 19th century British traveler J. B. Fraser tells about Agha Muhammad Khan that “The throne having come into the hands of his family by conquest, he treats all of the country (except perhaps the seat of his family in Mazandaran) like a conquered nation; and his only concern is how to extract the greatest possible amount of money.” J. B. Fraser, Narrative of a Journey into Khorasan in the years 1821 and 1822, London: 1825, p.199 In more recent times the rivalry between Ayatullah Khomeini and the Ayatullah Shariatmadari has a hint of a deeper TurkoPersian divide in the Hawse of Qom.

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Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran

culture has had negative consequences for the country. In this respect, the actions of the early Arabizers of Iran and the more zealous of its new converts were particularly destructive in terms of Iran’s historical and cultural heritage. Historically, the Iranians since the times of the Medes and the Persians had been fascinated by foreign customs and cultures. Herodotus notes this characteristic, especially among the Persians. Some Iranians had also always been willing to adopt the culture of their conquerors. The best example of this is the Hellenized kings of the Parthian dynasty who called themselves Philhellenes (Lovers of Greece).43 Therefore, it is not entirely surprising that, after the Arab invasion, a number of Iranians embraced the culture of their new masters even at times going so far as berating their own culture and language. Some of these new converts to Islam and Arabism, including, some Post-Arab Iranian local dynasties and/or rulers, actively worked at destroying preIslamic remnants of Iran’s culture. For example, it is reported that Tahir Zul Yaminein (Tahir with two right hands because he fought equally well with both hands) ordered a copy of the Parthian romance Vis va Ramin to be burned.44 Even if this account is not true, the fact of its existence shows the anti-Iran and Iranism activities of the newly Islamized ethnic Iranians. In terms of social standing and other opportunities, clearly, Islam favored the Arabizers. The fact that Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an, is in Arabic led to the creation of a whole class of jurists and Faqihs who used the mastery of the Arabic language to increase their own power status. The Persian language lost its official usage for nearly three centuries, and in later centuries was reduced to the language of literature and administration. Even today, there are some elements in Iran who believe that the Persian language has no virtue or at the least favor giving Arabic language a prominent place in the country. To note, Khomeini had said that Arabic language belonged to all Muslims. Ali Mutahari has also urged that in efforts to eliminate the use of foreign words in Persian, Arabic words should be exempted, because Arabic is Islam’s language. More recently, some students of the Arabic language protested the rumors that the teaching of the Arabic would be transferred from the faculty of literature and humanities to that of foreign languages and literature.45 The veneration of the Prophet of Islam and his family also led to valuing Arab descent and Arab race over the Iranians, which belies Islam’s egalitarian and nonracial tendencies. Even today, in Iran those who claim, often without adequate evidence, descent from the Prophet are accorded special virtue and enjoy more respect and privilege. To the extent that these Arabizing trends undermined a sense of Iranianess transcending religious affiliation, they exercised a negative influence on the development of a cohesive sense of national identity in Iran. 43

The remnants of the Ashkanian summer capital Nisa, which is now in Turkmenistan is a good example of Hellenic influence on Iran’s art and architecture of the period.

44

Abdul Husain Zarrinkub, “The Arab Conquest of Iran And Its Aftermath”. However, he considers this unlikely.

45

“Enteghad e Shadid e Daneshjouyan Zaban e Arabi Daneshgah e Tehran beh Farhad Rahbar” The Severe criticism of the Tehran University’s Arabic language Students of Farhad Rahbar), Rajanews, 16 July, 2012 at: www.Rajanews.com/ PrintFriendly.asp?id=131879

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However, because of the existence of the Iran loyalists who did not adopt –at least not wholly – the ways and customs of their invaders, many aspects of Iran’s culture, language and traditions were preserved. For example, in contrast to the Tahirids, the founder of the Safarid dynasty Yaqub Leith who could not understand Arabic is credited for having encouraged the first official writing of verse in the new Post-Arab Persian. Whether this is a sign of a latent Iranian nationalism is hard to say. But it does illustrate that most people had remained loyal to their language.46 Other Iranian dynasties, such as the Samanids and Ziyarids also encouraged Persian language and Iranian traditions. And, of course, there is the example of Abolqasem Firdausi who, in his own words, spent thirty years to record and resurrect Iran’s pre-Islamic history and traditions. The same was true of many talented Iranians, such as the Barmakis and Fazl Ibn Sahl, who obtained high offices in the Abbasid court and helped in the preservation and spread of Iranian traditions even if in an Arabized and Islamicized version. An important component of the much maligned Shu’ubieh was those Iranian loyalists who did not want to lose their culture. The Shu’ubieh have been accused of betraying Islam by retaining loyalty to their own ethnic and cultural roots and in this way sawing discord among Muslims. Interestingly, no one ever accused the Arabs of being Shu’ubi and creating divisions within Islam by displaying Arab pride and privileging the Arabs and Arab traditions, a behavior which is clearly against Islam’s universalist and egalitarian pretensions. This has been so, because Arabism and Islam are often considered one and the same, at least by the Arabs. Arabs can simultaneously be Muslim and Arab. They can glory in their race and culture and not be called chauvinist or racist, but this is not the case for non-Arab Muslims. For them, being a good Muslim means subsuming any other identity under Islam and inevitably undergoing a degree of Arabization, reflected in such symbolic behavior as choosing Arabic first names. In today’s Iran, even some Islamists betray some aspects of Iran loyalists’ traits, at least in the cultural field. For example, the head of Iran’s Farhangestan, Hadad Adel, believes in developing further the Persian language and making it into a global scientific language. Others, such as the speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, who spoke harshly about the Iranian school, occasionally, betrays nationalist tendencies. Another personality is the former Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Velayati. He has referred to pre-Islamic Iranian kings, notably Shapur II, who captured the Roman emperor, Valerianus. He did so when the Italian foreign Minister, Franco Fratini, cancelled his trip to Iran because President Ahmadinejad had asked that he meet with him in Semnan in central Iran where he was travelling. Velayati said Italy cannot treat a country like Iran who had captured the Roman Emperor, in this way.

46

See: S. M. Stern, “Yaqub the Coppersmith and Persian National Sentiment”, in C. E. Bosworth (ed.) Iran And Islam, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1971

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Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Shiism as an Iranian Attempt to Reconcile Islam and Iranianism The relationship of Shiism to Iran and Iranian traditions is a controversial topic. According to the anti-Shia Muslims, particularly the Arabs, Shiism is nothing but a conspiracy by the Persians to corrupt and dilute Islam. For them, Shiism is nothing but an Islamicized version of Iran’s pre-Islamic traditions.47 Clearly, this view has no historical validity. Shiism is deeply rooted in Arabia’s tribal culture and rivalries and began in essence immediately after the Prophet’s death over his successroship. However, Shiism has aspects which are more akin to Iran’s pre-Islamic traditions. For example, the hereditary nature of succession in Shiism and the special divine attributes of the Imams correspond more to Iranian traditions of the so-called Divine Light (Far e Yazdani). The messianic aspect of Shiism also is closer to Iranian notions of the great denouement of the cosmological drama and the arrival of the Saoyeshant (Messiah). The drama of Imam Hussein and Karbala also resonate with the Iranians because of the existence of similar legends in Iran, such as the legend of Yadeghar e Zareran. The Muharram mournings bear resemblance to the so-called Soug e Siavash. The blood shed in Karbala recalls to the Iranians the memory of the blood of the young prince Siavash (Khoon e Siavash).48 Irrespective of the validity of the thesis of the strong impact of Iranian traditions on the development and evolution of Shiism, the fact is that, over the centuries, one way the Iranians have tried to cope with this tension between their new faith and resentment over the consequences of the Arab invasion, has been through gravitating toward the family of the Prophet and separating them from other Arabs and Muslims. This is why among the partisans of the House of Ali there always were large numbers of Persians, and eventually the Iranians embraced Shiism with great fervor. As part of this process of creating special bonds with the household of the Prophet and his descendants, the Iranians have attributed greater significance than perhaps is warranted to such events as the marriage of the last Sassanid emperor Yazdgerd’s daughter to Imam Hussein, and by developing the legend of Bibi Shahr Banu. According to this legend, after the tragedy of Karbala, Yazdgerd’s daughter fled to Iran and was given refuge in a mountain, which for a long time became a site of pilgrimage. In the 1960s, when the Iran-Islam dichotomy first began to appear as part of the country’s political discourse, the late Ayatullah Murtaza Mutahari mocked this Iranian belief and dismissed this marriage having any special significance. In support of his argument, he noted that another daughter of Yazdgerd was married to Yazid the Caliph who killed Hussein. His argument, however, ignores the point that this was done by the Iranians precisely for resolving their inner tension and their ambivalence regarding Islam. This is also why many Iranian religious leaders, notably Sheikh Koleini and Muhammad Baqir Majlisi produced Hadith from the Imams to the effect 47

Hamid Enayat, “ Iran and the Arabs” in Sylvia Haim (ed.) Arab Nationalism and a Wider World, New York: American For Peace in the Middle East, 1971, pp.13-25

48

His memory is fresh in Bukhara even today as the author herself witnessed.

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that in matters of faith the Iranians were superior to the Arabs.49 Iran’s Shiiazation did not resolve the tension between Iran and Islam completely, but it went a long way in doing so. Some of Iran’s folk culture reflects this intermingling. For example, the Iranian notion of Javanmard, equivalent to that of Knight in Christian tradition, incorporates qualities of Iran’s pre-Islamic heroes and those of Imam Ali. Another example is the practice of Iranian athletes in traditional Iranian gymnasium (Zourkhaneh) in the olden days that would first praise Imam Ali and then recite the Shahnameh, the most nationalist and Iranian of all Iranian literature. Moreover, common adherence to Shiism for a long time became a bond between Iran’s overwhelmingly Shia Turkic population and the Persian speakers. Similarly, the spread of Shiism in Iran did not mean that the Iranians transferred their loyalty to a trans-ethnic Shia community, largely because Shias are spread in non-contiguous geographic areas. Moreover, ethnic loyalties even among the Shias often supersede sectarian ties. Instead, Shiism served to cement a separate sense of identity among Iranians which after the Turko-Mongol invasions had become even more fractured and fragmented. By doing so, it also prevented Iran from becoming subsumed in the large Pan-Islamic Empire of the Ottomans. In short, both religion and ethnic-cultural Iranianism cemented Iran’s national identity.

Encounter with Modernity; Growing Linkage Between Culture, Identity and Power By the mid 19th century, encounter with the West and consequently modernity, the efforts to modernize Iran and the rise of a new and more modern notion of Iranian nationalism, had fractured this Irano-Islamic convergence through Shiism, and had created a growing linkage between identity on the one hand, and legitimacy and power on the other. The result would be gradual but growing politicization of identity debate and hence Iran-Islam dichotomy with far reaching consequences.

Iran Faces Modernity Like all other non-European countries, Iran’s encounter with Modernity occurred in a brutal fashion and as a consequence of military defeat. In this context, Iran’s first experience was its defeat in the Russo-Iranian wars (1804-1812 & 1824-1824).50 This defeat showed the Iranians the extent of their national decline. The Iranian reaction to this brutal encounter with the West and modernity was also the same as that of all other non-European countries. The first reaction was introspection and reflecting on the causes of decline, as reflected in the title of a work by the Lebanese scholar, Shakib 49

See Hamid Enayat, Modern Islamic Political Thought, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982

50

West European countries did not consider Russia as part of Europe, and some Russians also saw themselves more as a sui generis civilization which straddled Europe and Asia, in other words a Eurasian country and Civilization. However, for Iran, Russia represented Europe.

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Arsalan, called “Our Decline: Its Causes and Remedies.” The other was a defensive reflex aimed at finding ways to arrest decline and thus prevent further defeats at the hands of the Europeans.51

Decline, Indigenous Cultures and Strategies for Reversal of Decline In debating the causes of their decline, a large segment of non-European countries’ intellectuals, including those of the Muslim World, came to see their indigenous cultures as a main cause of their problems, while others held that alienation from indigenous cultures and the latter’s pollution by outside influences were responsible for their decline. Depending on their diagnosis, they recommended either largely discarding the indigenous cultures and embracing European ways, or returning even more to native traditions as a way to reverse their decline. Muslims, including the Iranians, were no exception to this general rule. Since Islam was such a central part of Muslims’ culture and civilization, criticism of indigenous culture meant criticism of Islam. Consequently, there were those, including the famed Muslim reformer, Jamal Eddin Assadabadi, known as Al Afghani, who saw Islam or, at least the version that was practiced in Muslim countries at the time, as the major cause of Muslims’ decline. For example, Al Afghani argued that Muslims had lost their rationalist and scientific spirit and thus had declined. In the Muslim World, this criticism of Islam also meant a reassessment of pre-Islamic heritage of Muslims. This process occurred even in the Arab world where Islam had originated and had led to the dawning of the Arab imperial era. Thus, many Arab intellectuals begun to praise Arabia’s pre-Islamic tribal traditions, or indigenous cultures which had existed before the coming of Islam. In Egypt, there was a revival of interest in the age of the Pharaohs, with Taha Hussein, the famous Egyptian writer and philosopher, as its principal proponent and the originator of the idea of Phraonism. According to this view, Egyptian culture is fundamentally different from those of eastern Arabs.52 However, none of the pre-Islamic cultures of Muslim countries could provide them with sufficient ingredient to develop an alternative intellectual and cultural framework to that provided by Islam. For instance, the pre-Islam language of Egypt or its cultural traditions had very little resonance with the people. Moreover, in the case of Arab countries, as well as with the Ottomans, their glorious pasts were inextricably linked to Islam. By contrast, the Iranians’ pre-Islamic language, albeit in an altered form, and many of its traditions, including those related to cosmological issues, were still relevant. Moreover, Iran’s glory was behind it, and its post-Islam history was mostly that of invasions and foreign rule of one kind or another. In short, many Iranians could argue that a return to pre-Islamic traditions should 51

For discussion of these issues see various chapters in : Shireen T. Hunter & Huma Malik (eds.) Modernization, Democracy and Islam, Praeger, 2005, Also, Shireen T. Hunter (ed.) Reformist Voices of Islam : Mediating Islam and Modernity, Armonk, N.Y., M.E. Sharpe, 2008,pp.3-32

52

On Taha Hussein’s views see: Abdel Fattah Galal, Quarterly Review of Comparative Education, UNESCO, International Bureau of Education, vol. XXIII, nos. 3&4, 1993, pp.687-710

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be part of a strategy of reversing the process of decline. Thus by the 1860s-70s, a number of intellectuals notably Fathali Akhundzadeh and Mirza Reza Kermani were writing along these lines. More importantly, contacts with Europe and the realization of its scientific and military superiority increasingly led to a belief among many of non-European countries’ intellectuals, including Iranian intellectuals, that Europeanization was the only way to reverse the process of their decline. Europeanization, in turn, meant the replacement of a religion-based system of thought, education, governance etc., by one based on a more this worldly and rationalist frame of thought and reference. It was the gradual and parallel growth of, for the lack of better word, secularism and nationalism, since it was the dominant political discourse in Europe at the time, which sowed the seeds of a greater polarization between Islam and nationalism in the Muslim world, especially in Iran.

Modernization, Secularization and Search For New Basis of National Identity The most intense period of Iran’s modernization was under the Pahlavis. Therefore, the Islamists hold them responsible for undermining Islam by promoting pre-Islamic traditions, and by trying to develop a new basis of political legitimacy centered on Iranian nationalism and the modernization paradigm. However, holding the Pahlavis responsible for these cultural and other changes is unwarranted. It was Iran’s conditions, and the fact that modernization and nationalism were the prevailing paradigms among Muslim intellectuals at least since the turn of the 20th century, that caused such changes. Therefore, even if the Qajar dynasty had survived, Iran would have continued on a path of modernization and hence a degree of secularization, and would have experienced a surge in nationalist tendencies. The modernization process undermined the traditional basis of identity not only in Iran but throughout the Muslim World. The spread of European ideas of nationalism, together with the fall of the last Islamic Caliphate—the Ottomans—at least symbolically, and its replacement with territorial and, by and large, ethno-centric states undermined religion, including Islam, based notions of identity. This erosion of the role of religion created a need for alternative basis of identity, and led to recourse to ethnic and linguistic roots and pre Islamic cultures of Muslim societies. Perhaps the most extreme form of this trend is Ata Turk’s policy of Turkey’s de-Islamization and Europeanization after the founding of the new Turkish Republic. In Iran, a similar process took place, although the de-Islamization in Iran was not as open and brutal as in Kemalist Turkey. In addition to the overall sense of decline and the aspiration for revival, which contributed to a new interest in Iran’s pre-Islamic past, certain discoveries by Western archeologists and linguists, most notably the deciphering of Darius’s inscriptions in Bihustun by Sir Henry Rawlinson in the late 1840s, intensified interest in Pre-Islamic Iran and its traditions. Finally, under the

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Pahlavis the molding of Iran’s new national identity on a more ethno-linguistic and cultural and historical Iranianism rather than Islamic-Shia foundation became state policy.

Identity, Power and Legitimacy: Growing Linkages An important aspect of the modernization process in Muslim societies has been the introduction of new notions regarding the sources of political power and legitimacy. Prior to the introduction of modern concepts of power and legitimacy, political power in the Muslim World was largely based on coercion and the rulers did not feel any need to justify their rulership on any other basis. To the extent that such a need was felt, it was derived from the fact that in Islam the ruler must gain the clear allegiance of its people through the institution of Bay’a, meaning pledging of allegiance. According to most Muslim jurists, to deserve such a pledge, the ruler must keep the peace, apply Islamic rules and act with justice and mercy. To this conception of power and legitimacy, the question of identity, especially an ethno-cultural identity, is not very relevant. To the extent that identity matters is an Islam–based identity which, at least theoretically, transcends ethnic and linguistic boundaries. Thus the Turkic Ottomans could rule over Arabs and other Muslims, or Iran could be ruled by Turkic–origin dynasties, like the Safavids and the Qajars, without facing issues of illegitimacy. The introduction of notions of ethno-linguistic nationalism and the idea of the centrality of the peoples’ will in conferring legitimacy on the political power to Muslim lands changed the foundations of power and legitimacy in the Muslim World. The spread of ethno-centric nationalism and the growing belief that power resides in the people meant that the ruling elite should belong to the same ethno-linguistic and cultural group as the majority of the people, and their rule should be approved by the people. The upshot of these changes was the undermining of the place of religion in society and in defining notions of legitimacy. This change also meant a shift in the power and position of existing religious elites and the rise of new nationalist and largely secular elites.

Modernization, Cultural Change and Their Winners and Losers: Impact on Iran/Islam Debate on Identity, Power and Legitimacy By and large, most Muslims have benefitted from the fruits of modernization, such as better health conditions, increased in life expectancy, expansion of education, greater social mobility, ease of travel etc. However, the hallmark of all late modernizing societies, including Muslim countries, such as Iran, has been both the inadequate rate of socio-economic and political modernization and the skewed pattern of the distribution of its benefits. Moreover, at its different stages the modernization process

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has created winners and loser and thus has dramatically shifted the balance of power and privilege in modernizing societies. Over the past century, a major factor in this process has been the changing character of education and the pattern of its spread to various sectors of society. During the early periods of modernization, those segments of society which gained access to modern education developed new cultural values. An important part of these new values was those of nationalism and a good degree of secularism, which contrasted with Islam–based values, thus resulting in a growing cultural divide and cultural duality within Muslim societies along Islamist/modernizing-secular line. This new divide also had a class dimension. Because of the States’ emphasis on modernization and secularization, those segments of the society who had managed to make the transition benefitted economically and in terms of social mobility. They acquired better education and hence better jobs and better social standing, whereas those traditional classes incapable of adjusting to new conditions, or unwilling to do so, suffered because of new changes. The Tunisian author Norma Salem explains this situation in Tunisia under Bourguiba. According to her, the reforms of the Bourguiba government in the 1950s “destituted that fraction of the elite whose cultural and ideological capital was based on the knowledge of Arabic and of Islam and on control of Islamic institutions.”[Emphasis added]53. The following statement by the Tunisian Islamist leader, Rashid Ghannushi, tells how he felt left out of many opportunities because he did not have a western style education. Ghannushi says: “I am of the generation of Zaytuna students during the early years of independence. I remember we used to feel like strangers in our own country. We had been educated as Muslims and Arabs, while we could see the whole country was molded in French cultural identity. For us the doors of any further education were closed, since the university was completely westernized.”54 Meanwhile, without further education, opportunities for economic and social upward mobility were also limited, leading to a diminished social standing and political influence for the traditional classes. In Iran’s case, too, a similar process took place. At first, because of the slow pace of overall modernization, cultural fragmentation was not very significant. For example, despite some efforts during the last part of the Qajar dynasty at expansion of education, the overwhelming majority of the Iranians had no access to modern, or even traditional, education, and only very few people, mostly belonging to the upper class families, had had the opportunity to travel and study abroad. The situation changed by the late 1920s, when the first Pahlavi king, Reza Shah, began his policy of educational expansion and of sending fairly large numbers of students abroad. Nevertheless, even the modest efforts of the Qajar era had had some impact, as the small number of Europe-educated Iranians had brought new values of 53

Norma Salem, “ Tunisia” in Shireen T. Hunter (ed.) , The Politics of Islamic Revivalism: Diversity and Unity, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1988, p.165

54

Quoted in Abdul Habib Casterena, “Nobody’s Man, but a Man of Islam”, Arabia, April 1985/Rajab 1405, p.18

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Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran

constitutionalism, the rule of law and modernization back to Iran, and had formed the nucleus of a new intellectual elite.55 It was these ideas and their proponents that made the Constitutional Revolution of 1905 possible. By the time Reza Shah came to power, these Qajar era developments had already created tensions between the emerging modernizing elite and the traditional segments of the society, especially the clerical establishment. For instance, the overwhelming majority of the clergy were either opposed to Constitutionalism or remained silent on the matter.56 Some of those who supported it were accused of either having Baha’i sympathies or being Freemasons. The cultural differentiation grew deeper with the more wide ranging educational and judicial reforms of the Pahlavis along secular lines. In a pattern similar to the one described in Tunisia’s case, albeit earlier, the Pahlavi era changes inevitably affected the economic prospects of different segments of the Iranian society. For example, secular schools and high schools needed teachers who could teach sciences like chemistry, biology, physics etc, and foreign languages, skills that traditional teachers who thought at maktabs and Madrassas did not possess. The same was true of the judiciary. These changes affected particularly negatively the religious establishment, especially those in mid and lower echelons and the religious classes. Furthermore, as the society modernized and the country opened more to the outside world, new skills, notably a mastery of foreign languages, became more valued. This tended to favor those Iranians who had studied abroad or had acquired linguistic skills by studying at foreign run schools, such as those by Christian missionaries. This situation naturally generated resentment on the part of those with traditional education or lacking necessary skills. Meanwhile, efforts to modernize the country’s finances and economy and replace a culture of mercantilism with that of entrepreneurial spirit antagonized the traditional sectors of the economy, such as the merchants and the money changers, who also happened to be less educated and religious minded.

Islamist Backlash Although ethno-centric notions of identity and the politics of modernization and secularism gained the upper hand in the Muslim world, including Iran, for most of the 20th century, it would be a mistake to assume that there was no Islamic resistance to these policies. Indeed, there were considerable resistance to these policies and various movements were set up to counter them, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan ul Muslimin) which later expanded to other Arab countries.57 In Turkey, there was Islamic resistance to Ata Turk’s policies which was driven underground only 55

An example of these Iranians is Mirza Yusuf Khan Mustasher ul Dowleh the author the book Yek Kalameh which is about the rule of law

56

While the new intellectuals asked for a Constitutional Government, (Hokoumat e Mashruteh) the clergy wanted a government based on the Shari’a, Hokoumat Mashrueh.

57

Hassan Al Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928

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to reemerge later.58 In Iran, where the secularizing polices of the first Pahlavi King, Reza Shah, had angered the religious classes and the clergy, the example of Egypt led to the creation of an Iranian version of the Ikhwan called the Fadaeian e Islam. Other organizations with the goal of defending Islam and its position in Iran also emerged, as did private islamically –oriented schools as a means of countering the influence of the secular state controlled educational system.59 During the first phases of modernization, through their reforms, the modernizers help develop counter-elites that turn against them and challenge their authority. This has happened throughout the Muslim World. In Iran, some of those who had most benefitted from the Pahlavis’ modernizing policies turned against it. For example, since the 1940s, most of the younger Islamists were from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds that had benefitted from modernization policies, such as the expansion of free education up to the university level. Some of them were even sent to study abroad at government expense. One such student was Mehdi Bazargan, Iran’s first post-revolution Prime Minister, who was sent to Europe under Reza Shah. Another was Ali Shariati, the ideologue of the Islamic revolution, who went to Europe at government expense under the last Shah, and many other state sponsored students in US and Europe who joined the revolution.

Impact on Islam/Iran debate Until the mid 1960s, the appeal of Islamist ideas remained limited in Iran. At least Islamism was not viewed as the greatest challenge to nationalism. This was because of the popularity of socialist ideologies with a significant portion of the educated classes, the newly emerged industrial workers, and the lower echelons of the expanded state bureaucracy, plus the fact that the left, too, essentially was a modernizing force albeit in its socialist form. However, as far as impact on Iran/Islam debate is concerned, the left too, contributed to the shifting of the balance against Iranism. Of course, there is no necessary conflict between adherence to a leftist ideology and loyalty to an Iranist perspective, especially that Iran’s pre-Islamic history has characters like the Prophet Mazdak. He arguably was the first to advocate openly communistic ideas such as the collective ownership of land. In other countries, such as Russia and China, Communists have also acted as Russian or Chinese nationalists. However in Iran this was not the case, and the Iranian leftist discourse had a strong antinationalist dimension, albeit for different reasons. For the Islamists, the new Iranian national identity constructed largely on the basis its pre-Islamic culture was anathema to Islam 58

Nilufer Narli, “The Rise of Islamist Movement in Turkey”, Middle East Review of International Affairs, vol.3, No.3, September 1999

59

For a detailed discussion of these organizations and their activities see: Shireen T. Hunter “ Islamic Reformist Discourse in Iran: proponents and prospects” in Shireen T. Hunter (ed) Reformist Voices of Islam: Mediating Islam and Modernity, Armonk, N. Y: M. E. Sharpe, 2008, pp. 39-42

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Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran

and a mortal threat to its privileged position in the country, and hence to the power and position of religious and traditional classes. The fact that Iranian nationalism had become state ideology made it even more abhorrent to religious classes. Similarly, the distortion of Iranian nationalism into a cult of monarchy (Shahanshaism) at the expense of constitutionalism and a more representative form of government had damaged the cause of Iranism and Iranian nationalism. The left’s antinationalist tendencies had other sources: First, according to the left, nationalism, in general, is a bourgeois phenomenon and thus against the interests of the working classes and should be eliminated; Second, any feelings of loyalty besides those of class would prevent reaching the proletarian utopia; Third, the Iranian left, especially the main Communist party, the Tudeh, was very much under the Soviet influence, which favored Iran’s dismemberment and thus promoted the notion of the so-called Persian chauvinism and colonialism. This position of the Tudeh became quite clear during the Azerbaijan Crisis of 1946, which was triggered by the Soviet efforts to separate Azerbaijan from Iran by establishing a socialist and Soviet supported republic there. The Tudeh supported the Soviets; Fourth, a good part of the left was formed by some of Iran’s disgruntled ethnic minorities; Fifth: the left, like the Islamists, was anti-nationalist because of the identification of nationalism with the ruling Pahlavi regime and sixth, the left disliked pre-Islamic Iran because of its monarchical system and its supposed despotic nature. Consequently, a number of leftist intellectuals went even further than some Islamists in attacking Iran’s pre-Islamic culture and other component of its identity. A good example of such works is Reza Braheni’s “Crowned Cannibals” in which he berates pre-Islamic Iran while glorifying Rome and Athens. There were, however, some more nationalistically inclined leftist, including within the Tudeh. These leftists separated from the Tudeh over the Azerbaijan crisis. Nevertheless, well into the 1960s and 70s, the left sponsored policies, including a very relaxed attitude to Iran’s territorial integrity, which could not be considered nationalist even in its republican sense. However, as long as the modernizing policies seemed to be paying off for large enough segments of the society the leftist and Islamist challenge was contained. By the late 1970s, however, the parallel phenomena of stalling economic growth and rising expectations, coupled with an Islamo-leftist ideological synthesis and tactical cooperation between the left and the Islamists, the Iranian state and with it its version of Iranian national identity and nationalist ideology was successfully challenged and led to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the IRI.

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Islamist View of Iranian National Identity And Approach to Nationalism The Iranian Islamists’ views regarding all aspects of life are influenced by the ideas and views of Ayatullah Khomeini, who has achieved an even greater status than the leaders of other ideological movement, such as Marx, Lenin or Mao, because his authority is supposed to have been sanctioned by God. The question of national identity and nationalism is no exception. Therefore, understanding the Islamists’ views on these issues one must inquire into Khomeini’s thinking on them.

Khomeini’s Views on Nationalism Khomeini, like other Islamists, believed that all Muslims belong to a single community of believers “The Umat ul Islam” which is based on the equality of all Muslims irrespective of their color, race or ethnic background. As such, he maintained that Islam is anathema to nationalism, which generally glorifies one ethnic community and the state representing it over others. Moreover, he believed that nationalism was a western import to the Muslim World, and its aim was the fragmentation of Muslims along ethnic lines, in order to undermine their unity and hence power. He also believed that Muslims owe loyalty first and foremost to Islam, and therefore any ethnic or national attachment should be subordinated to loyalty to Islam. He also shared in the belief that all pre-Islam societies lived in darkness, injustice and ignorance “Jahiliah”, and all pre-Islamic civilizations belong to this era of darkness and are Jaheli. For Khomeini, Iranian nationalism was no exception to other nationalisms, and Iran’s pre-Islamic civilization and history was part of the pre-Islam Jaheli World. The association of Iranian nationalism with the Pahlavis in Khomeini’s mind was a further cause of his animosity towards Iranism and nationalism. The practical consequences of Khomeini’s views and the Islamists’ ideology were the re-Islamization of Iranian society noted earlier. However, as alluded to earlier, the Islamists, including Khomeini had to rethink their ideas of what constitutes the foundations of Iran’s identity and the dichotomy between an Iranian nation and the Islamic Community (Ummah) under the impact of internal and external realities. First and foremost, the Islamic regime and Khomeini had to acknowledge that good or bad territorial states in the Muslim world had become a reality. They also had to realize that the interests of the Islamic Republic to some degree coincided with those of Iran as a national and territorial entity, simply because at the very least it constituted the base from which the Iranian Islamists could pursue their panIslamist ideas. This realization is reflected in the IRI’s constitution, which makes the safeguarding of Iran’s territorial integrity a principal goal of its government. This is also why the IRI and Khomeini were so keen to ensure that after the Iran-Iraq war no

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Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Iranian territory remained under Iraqi occupation. Second, other Muslims’ response to Iran’s pan-Islamist policies and its rhetoric of the unity of the Umat ul Islam was negative. Most Arabs continued to see Iran as a Persian heretic (Shi’a) entity. This Arab attitude was best illustrated by Saddam Hussein. He continued to call the Iranians fire worshiping Majous, the old deragotory Arab name for Zoroastrians. Third, Iraq’s invasion of Iran was a serious blow to the discourse of Islamic unity, despite the Iranian government’s efforts to justify the negative Muslim response to its appeals by accusing those Muslim governments opposed to it of practicing what it termed the “American Islam”. In addition, as noted earlier, the deep-rooted nature of Iran’s pre-Islamic traditions and thus the strong public resistance to some of the most brutal aspects of the IRI’s efforts to eradicate Iran’s pre-Islamic culture, coupled with popular disenchantment with the performance of the Islamic regime and hence their Islamist discourse, by the late 1980s had led to a revival of nationalist tendencies, and concepts such as “national interest” which had been shunned in the 1980s were reintroduced to the political discourse. For example, by the early 1990s, references to Iranian Nation (Mellat e Iran) as opposed to Umat ul Islam had become more frequent, as were references to national interest as opposed to more pan-Islamist notions of interest. However, as noted before, no effort was made to introduce a new version of Iranism and a new nationalist discourse as a means of challenging the ideological foundations of the existing system and hence the country’s power equation. In the 1990s and the early part of 2000, different versions of a reformist Islam later laced western liberal ideas, were the basis upon which new political discourses were built. During his first term, Ahmadinejad used a revitalized Islamist discourse of the early period of the revolution as his administration’s underpinning ideology.

The Defeat of Khatami’s Islamic Reformism: Has the Islamist Discourse Run Its Course? By the end of the 1980s, it had become clear that the Islamist discourse was not adequate either for managing the country’s economy or conducting its external relations. Meanwhile, the regime’s cultural policies based on a strict interpretation of Islam had grown widely unpopular with the younger post-revolution generation. Consequently, it was strongly felt that a new approach to these issues was needed. During 1989-1997 period, the Rafsanjani presidency adopted what can be termed a pragmatic Islamic discourse emphasizing post-war reconstruction, greater social freedoms, and a pragmatic foreign policy with an emphasis on national interest rather than ideological and pan-Islamist postures. However, because of IRI’s political dynamics, notably ideological and personal rivalries within the political elite, many of these policies did not succeed. Meanwhile, the people’s disenchantment with the system and their desire for change increased. This desire for change was strongly

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manifested in the 1997 presidential elections, and led to the election of Muhammad Khatami, the candidate of change, to the presidency. Khatami centered his presidency on a quest for a more liberal and republican government based on a more liberal reading of Islam. His vision was totally within the confines of the Islamic system and Khomeini’s ideas. The difference was that he maintained that the conservative Islamists had distorted Khomeini’s more liberal ideas and, in particular, they had undermined the republican dimensions of the Islamic system and had over concentrated power in the institution of the Velayat e Faqih. Irrespective of the correctness of this interpretation of Khomeini’s ideas, Khatami’s discourse reflected an effort on his and his collaborators’ part to address popular grievances against the system, and deal with the reality of the waning of the appeal of the Islamist discourse of the early part of the post-revolution era. It also reflected a search for a new discourse with which to challenge the position of the dominant conservative elite who relied on Islamist orthodoxy. This had become necessary because in the post-revolution era power and ideology had become even more intimately linked. The Reformist discourse failed as the pragmatist discourse of Rafsanjani had failed, partly because Khomeini’s views and the constitution of the IRI favor the conservative orthodox Islamists, despite the attribution of liberal tendencies to Khomeini by the reformists. The coming to power of Ahmadinejad in 2005 was largely viewed as the revenge of the orthodox Islamists. Therefore, it was ironic that Ahmadinejad should be the one to advance a thinly disguised nationalist discourse in the shape of his Iranian School and make increasing references to pre-Islamic Iran.

Conclusions: Beyond Nationalism and Islamism The foregoing discussion leads to the following broad conclusions: the most important conclusion is that, despite the popular disenchantment with Islamism, and the resilience of Iranian traditions, a return to the nationalism of the Pahlavi era with its excessive cult of pre-Islamic Iran, Perso-centrism and active animosity to Islam is impossible. The following reasons justify this diagnosis: First, while Islamism as an ideology is no longer popular, Islam still remains strong within considerable segments of Iran’s population; Second, the strengthening of sub-nationalist tendencies among some of Iran’s ethnic and/or linguistic minorities, partly as a result of the Islamic government’s antinationalist policies and; Third, the growth of liberal political tendencies with its pluralistic and multiculturalist tendencies among segments of Iranian elites and general population. Nor would a return to an excessively Iran-centric nationalism, especially in its solely pre-Islamic manifestation, benefit the country, because it would perpetuate the Islam/Iran dichotomy and prevent the formation of a broad based notion of identity and culture acceptable to a large majority of the people. In fact, if this were to happen

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and the themes of Iran and Islam were once again manipulated for political purposes the damage could be even worse than has been so far.60 The best alternative, therefore, would be the recognition of the roles of both Iran and Islam in the formation of Iran’s national identity and culture, plus the recognition of Iran’s ethno-linguistic and sectarian diversities and their accommodation within a broad based and inclusive framework of Iranism. The Islamists, in particular, should moderate their fear of Iran’s pre-Islamic culture and traditions as undermining Islam, and refrain from attacking them as vestiges of Jahiliah. They must also realize that, before the advent of Islam, there was an Iran and people lived in it and had a civilization. To believe that Iran is a mere vessel for Islam is denying 1500 years of Iran’s pre-Islamic history. Moreover, Iranian Islamists should distinguish between Arabism and Islam. The message of the prophet of Islam is universal. This means, however, that every nation and culture can and has adapted the details of its implementation to its own environment and cultural peculiarities. Thus, although Islamists dispute the claim that there is an African Islam or a South Asian Islam, they exist in reality, or at least they existed before the homogenizing impact of Wahhabism and Salafism. Viewed in this light, the mention of Iranian Islam is not a sin and does not challenge the eternal essence of Islam. Moreover, Islam’s universalist claims dispute its equation with Arabism and Arabic language. By the same token, the extreme Iranists must realize that a resurrection of pre-Islamic Iran is impossible and Islam is so intertwined with the lives, history and identity of most Iranians that its elimination is impossible. Thus as a recent article argued that there should be neither an idealization of the Iranian past nor its demonization. Rather, the Iranians should glory in both their Iranian and Islamic heritage, while also avoiding excessive ethnic and cultural pride.61 Furthermore, a new Iranian nationalism should include elements from all of Iran’s peoples. However, the new version of Iranian nationalism, in addition to its inclusive nature, should be based on commitment to the integrity of Iran as presently constituted, and the recognition of the large degree of common cultural, linguistic and ethnic ties among all of Iran’s inhabitants, despite their differences, which are far more extensive than can be observed in many European or Asian countries. Lastly, the struggle for power should be delinked from cultural and identity related issues, and the popular will as expressed freely through free elections should be accepted as the sole source of political legitimacy. Given the intensity of power struggle in Iran and the commitment of the powerful segments of current elites to the safeguarding of their gains as a result of the triumph Even those who privilege Islam over Iran acknowledge this fact. According to Rasoul Jafarian acknowledges that because certain behaviors “there has been a turning away form religion at least among certain segments of society” and implies that this related to interest in an ancient Iran especially the Achamenids.” See “ Shah Abbas Behter Ast Ya Koroush “ (Is Shah Abbas Better or Cyrus?), Khabar Online,, 14 April 2011, at “ http://khabaronline.ir/print-143288.aspx

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61

Hojat Ullah Ayubi, “ Na Bastan Garaei, Na Bastan Setizi”, Tabnak, 31 March 2011, available at: http://tabnak.ir/fa/ print/155711

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of Islamism, it is unlikely that Iran versus Islam debate will end any time soon. Nevertheless, the tone of Iran’s 2013 presidential elections based on moderation and conciliation, and President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to simultaneously address the concerns of Iran as a country and nation and the regime’s Islamic ideology, and to strike a balance between national interests and ideological aspirations, and in general, avoid excess raise some hope that a new national consensus on issues of identity, culture and politics can be reached. But the road ahead will be difficult and success is by no means guaranteed. Iran’s experience also has implications for other Muslim countries, especially those in the Middle East. For instance, old fashioned notions of Arab or Turkish nationalisms, or various territorial nationalisms, such as Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi etc., are unlikely to work in today’s conditions. Islamism and its sectarian varieties have also proven more a source of instability and division than unity and stability. Here, too, inclusive concepts of nationhood and citizenship accommodating diversities within a participatory political system hold a better chance of succeeding in the long run. Otherwise, cycles of revolt and repression will be perpetuated. On a more fundamental level, the foregoing has shown that national identities are composite, complex and evolving phenomenon. They are shaped and reshaped under internal and external influences. But they also have some basic core components, such as ethnicity, language and religion, which go into their makeup. Efforts at privileging one of these elements at the expense of others, and their manipulation for the purposes of gaining and maintaining power do not succeed, at least not in the long run.

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Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran

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"Iran, Islam, and the Struggle for Identity and Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran"  

ACMCU Occasional Papers Series Shireen T. Hunter, July 2014

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