TCS Daily


The Future of Iranian Nationalism

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - July 3, 2003 12:00 AM

The twists and turns of domestic Iranian politics can be tracked by examining the evolution of Iranian nationalism throughout the 20th century, and how nationalism has shaped modern day Iran. Nationalism will continue to be a significant influence on Iran's social and political life, and it is important for us to understand its history and present course if we are to understand the nature of the domestic revolts that are currently threatening the survival of the Islamic regime in Iran.

Iranian nationalism was powerfully influenced by the Pahlavi dynasty -- the last dynasty to rule Iran prior to the advent of the Islamic Revolution. The founder of the dynasty, Reza Shah Pahlavi, helped shape Iranian nationalism by infusing it with a distinctly secular ideology, and diminishing the influence of Islam on Iran. Reza Shah began by insisting that other countries refer to his country as "Iran" instead of "Persia."

"Iran" means "land of the Aryans," and Reza Shah wanted to emphasize the racial difference between "Aryan" Iranians on the one hand, and Arabs on the other. In doing so, Reza Shah sought to de-emphasize Arab -- and thus Islamic -- influences on Iranian history, focusing instead of the glorious history of the Achaemenid dynasty which featured kings like Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great. Even Reza Shah's dynastic name -- Pahlavi -- was designed to infuse Iranian nationalism with a new and secular tone.

"Pahlavi" is the name of one of the ancient (and pre-Islamic) Persian languages, and it is a play on the word pahlevan, or "champion." A pahlevan is a wrestling champion, and the wrestling houses, or zurkhaneh were originally developed in Persia as a response to the Arab invasion that brought about Islamic rule there. Since the Arabs had forbidden Persians from using arms or training with them, the zurkhaneh -- ostensibly a place where Persians could undergo physical fitness regimes -- also served as surreptitious training places for a Persian uprising against the country's Arab conquerors.

Some of Reza Shah's efforts to infuse Iran with a new form of nationalism failed. He tried to turn Iran into a republic prior to ascending to the throne -- in an effort to emulate the actions of his idol, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, who successfully transformed his country into a secular republic. The mullahs, who even during the time of the Iranian monarchy positioned themselves as the authorities from whom the Shah of Iran derived the power as Defender of the Shi'a Faith to rule, opposed this move. But many of Reza Shah's programs were successful at diminishing the role of Islam in Iran. An emphasis on the creation of a new and powerful Iranian military brought about new military ranks and titles that rivaled the prestige of religious titles given to the mullahs.

The new Shah took measures to curb the influence of the clerics by dispensing with traditional ceremonies designed to show the close connection between mosque and state, and designed to demonstrate that the Shah depended on the mullahs to grant religious legitimacy to his reign. The traditional male garb was changed to one reflecting a more European influence, men were ordered to shave their beards (keeping a beard has religious connotations in Iran) and the Shah even ordered women to stop wearing the chador, the thick head-to-toe veil that was designed to ensure a woman's modesty in keeping with Islamic principles. Reza Shah even went so far as to order his wife and daughter to appear without the chador so as to set an example for other Iranian women. In keeping with the Shah's edicts, military officers went around and enforced the Shah's new rules on dress -- with drastic consequences for women and mullahs who stuck with their traditional garb (it is ironic that after the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, fanatical basiji militia roam the streets of Iranian cities enforcing the strict dress code for women and compulsory beards mandated for men by the mullahs, as well as commands that men and women not show affection in public, and not even hold hands).

In addition, Reza Shah sought to change the names of various towns to honor pre-Islamic Persian kings and mythological heroes, to rid the Persian language of as many Arabic words as possible, and to continue to reduce the power of the mullahs by seeking to modernize Iran. The Pahlavi dynasty thus was set irrevocably down the road towards infusing the country with a form of secular nationalism, a path that would eventually bring it into conflict with the country's clerical class.

Reza Shah's efforts to distance Iran from Islam also brought about the advent of a number of public intellectuals who sought to advance his beliefs. One such intellectual was a man named Ahmad Kasravi. Kasravi argued that Islam had been degraded from the unified faith that it began as when first promulgated by the prophet Mohammad, and that the factionalism that plagued Islam had undermined its message. As Amir Taheri notes in his biography of Ayatollah Khomeini, Kasravi sought to substitute secular Iranian nationalism for Islam as Iran's governing ideology. He argued that Iran should return to "Aryan purity" and that Islam was an "historical setback" for Iran. Kasravi's fiery rhetoric ultimately brought about his assassination -- an assassination that was considered authorized by a fatwa issued by the young Hojat al-Islam Ruhollah Khomeini -- who wrote the fatwa in 1942. (Hojat al-Islam is the title given to a junior cleric in the priestly hierarchy.)

When Reza Shah was forced out in 1941 by the Allies in their effort to conquer Iran and use it as a route through which they could supply the Soviet Union in its effort to fight of Nazi Germany, his eldest son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi became the Shah of Iran. For some time, the new Shah had to rely heavily on the support of the mullahs, given that his power was initially precarious. Reza Shah had been forced out because he was suspected of harboring pro-Nazi sentiments, and for a time, the Allies debated whether they should bring the entire Pahlavi dynasty to an end. Ultimately, of course, they did not, but the new Shah was master of his country in name only -- with the Allies being the real powers in Iran.

Even after the Allies departed, the new Shah had to overcome various domestic threats to his reign. Eventually, however, the Shah was able to consolidate his power as the absolute ruler of Iran, and then he revitalized the secular nationalist push that his father began. Mohammad Reza Shah advanced his father's brand of secular nationalism. Mohammad Reza Shah regularly inveighed against the potential tyranny of "the Red and the Black" with the "Red" signifying communists, and the "Black" signifying the clergy. Like his father, the Shah tried to marginalize the clergy by portraying it as a backwards class, and an obstacle to needed reforms in Iran.

But especially notable were Mohammad Reza Shah's efforts to elevate the history of pre-Islamic Iran as being the golden age for the country. The Shah sought at every opportunity to portray himself as the descendant of Cyrus, Darius and the rest of the Achaemenid dynasty, and went even further than his father in urging Iranians to consider as their role models pre-Islamic kings and mythical heroes, instead of the key figures of Iran's Islamic past and Shi'a history.

In his most outlandish effort to elevate the pre-Islamic Iranian/Persian past, Mohammad Reza Shah threw a lavish party at the ancient ruins of Persepolis in 1971 to celebrate 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran. At the festival, the Shah made the following self-aggrandizing comments:

O Cyrus, Great King, King of Kings, Achaemenid King, King of the Land of Iran!

I, the Shahanshah [King of Kings] of Iran, offer you salutations from myself and my country.

At this glorious moment in the history of Iran, I and all Iranians, the offspring of the empire that you founded 2,500 years ago, bow our heads in reverence before your tomb. We cherish your undying memory, and at this moment when the new Iran renews its bond with its proud past, we all hail you as the immortal hero of Iran, as the founder of the oldest empire in the world, as the great emancipator of history, as the noble son of humanity!

Cyrus! Great King, King of Kings, Noblest of the Noble, Hero of the history of Iran and the world! Rest in peace for we are awake and we will always stay awake!

No mention was made at the Persepolis festivities of the advent of Islam in Iran, or of its influence on Iranian history -- an act that enraged the faithful, and a clergy that was being isolated and vilified by the Shah. So taken was Mohammad Reza Shah with the idea of 2,500 years of Iranian/Persian monarchy that he actually sought to institute a change in the Iranian calendar from the traditional Islamic method of reckoning time to a newfangled calendar especially designed by the Shah -- one that transformed the year overnight to "year 2,500." This was yet another effort by the Shah to replace Islamic influences in Iran with a secular form of Iranian nationalism, and it went even further in enraging Iran's faithful.

Of course, the Shah's efforts to marginalize Islam and make secular Iranian nationalism ascendant failed with the advent of the Islamic Revolution. In leading the Revolution, and in opposing the Pahlavi dynasty throughout his life, Ayatollah Khomeini repeatedly stated that the only portion of Iran's past worth studying was the portion after Iran's transformation into an Islamic country -- following its conquest by Arab and Muslim armies. As early as 1924, Khomeini wrote in an essay that "Before Islam, the lands now blessed by our True Faith suffered miserably because of ignorance and cruelty. There is nothing in that past that is worth glorification."

Pursuant to that philosophy, the new Islamic Republic sought to crush any and all remnants of secular Iranian nationalism. They did so, of course, by bringing an end to the "2,500 year old" monarchy, but they also sought to make Iran less a land of Cyrus and Darius, and more a land of Mohammad. The clerical garb and beards once reviled under Reza Shah's reign became favored once more, and the chador that both Reza Shah and his son railed against, became mandatory for women to wear. Periodically, the mullahs even tried to outlaw the ancient Persian holiday of Noruz -- the Persian New Year that comes at the spring equinox, and is considered to mark the ascendance of Jamshid, the mythical first king of Persia, to the throne.

Curiously, as Taheri notes in his biography of Khomeini, the new Islamic regime was forced to adopt some of the vestiges of secular Iranian nationalism thanks to the onset of war against Iran by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Seeking to preempt Khomeini's religious aura, Saddam announced that the war against Iran was like the war waged against the "heathen" Persians by the Arab and Muslim armies that conquered Persia and brought it under Islamic rule for the first time. By co-opting religious rhetoric, Saddam forced the Islamic regime to use Iranian nationalism to rally the populace against Saddam's armies.

Of course, the net result of the Islamic Revolution was to seriously set back the cause of Iranian nationalism. And despite the fact that the regime needed Iranian nationalism to compete with Saddam's religious invocations during the Iran-Iraq war, Iran is primarily a fundamentalist Muslim country in the present day and age -- an outcome precisely contrary to the wishes of the two Shahs of the Pahlavi dynasty. The question is whether Iranian nationalism is poised for a comeback now that revolts against the Islamic regime are more common, and if so, what shape that nationalism will take.

It is certain that any replacement of the current Islamic regime will seek to bring about a greater separation between mosque and state. Many of the protestors against the current regime are fundamentally anti-mullah as a result of the nearly quarter century of tyranny that they suffered under the Islamic Republic, and they want to bring about a greater secularization of Iranian society in reaction to the mullahs' Islamization of the country. It may very well be that Iran will take a serious step closer to becoming the secular republic that Reza Shah Pahlavi originally wanted.

At the same time, reformists would be well advised to remember the example of the Pahlavi dynasty, and its alienation of the mullahs -- an alienation that brought about its downfall. While some secularization is inevitable in Iran after any demise of the regime, the mullahs will remain a social and political force in Iran for years to come. It will be necessary to ensure that they do not have cause to undermine any future secular government in Iran, and the best way to prevent that is to ensure that such a government is able to form alliances with mullahs sympathetic to the reform movement. But an alliance is not enough -- a new Iranian government will have to propagate a nationalist movement that celebrates both the pre-Islamic Iranian/Persian past, and the positive aspects of Islamic influence on Iran. Elevating one portion of Iranian history over another will only serve to antagonize a segment of Iranian society, and cause further political upheaval.

Iranian nationalism has morphed and changed throughout Iran's modern history. Those changes have served as markers for the evolution of Iranian political society, and have corresponded with vast changes in the country's sociopolitical structure. Now, with domestic upheaval once again the order of the day, and with the country's Islamic regime threatened as a result, the nature of Iranian nationalism will be affected. Here is hoping that nationalistic forces manifest themselves in a pluralistic and responsible manner -- as a political force that is inclusive instead of exclusive. Such a development may help Iran achieve the stability and democratic values that so many people wish for it to have.
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