Traveling in Iran, we have come upon some interesting points on Iranian identity, relating to everything from Islam to Zoroastrianism, and the ancient Iranian empires to the State of Israel, which I thought would be worth covering in a post. It is interesting to see which strains of Iranian history and culture are emphasized by Iranians and the Iranian government, and why.
Iranians all over the country speak very proudly of the Achaemenids and the great Achaemenid site of Persepolis. I believe this is not only because there was so much that was great about the Achaemenid Empire, from its expansive territory to its successes as a truly cosmopolitan, universalist and seemingly benevolent world power, but because it (along with, to a lesser extent, the Sassanid Iranian Empire) represents what Iranians see as purely Iranian greatness, a past untainted by the Arab conquest, which is viewed largely as a destructive invasion by a relatively barbarian people. This focus on ancient, pre-Islamic Iran was also shared by the 20th century Pahlavi dynasty, which deliberately positioned itself as a continuation of Iran’s ancient past, including by naming itself after an ancient Iranian language. While there is something slightly sad about a country’s dwelling on its greatness of nearly 2,500 years ago, it is interesting to see how some Iranians, frustrated with and contemptuous of the current government, bulk the Islamic Revolution together with the Arab conquest and the coming of Islam as things that are non-Persian and bad, as defined against Cyrus the Great, Persepolis and all that is Persian and glorious.
One woman explained to us that Iran has a long tradition of gender equality going back to Achaemenid times, and that the concept of female subservience (including as promoted by the current government) is fundamentally Arab. Indeed, a paradox of Iran is that despite its laws it is in some ways more gender equal than other countries we have been to. Women here are quite visible in the workplace, unlike some parts of the Arab world, and many places, such as restaurants, that would be segregated in other parts of the Islamic world are not segregated in Iran. What makes Iran such a backward place, gender-wise, is largely not culture, the young woman argued, but merely law. (There is little doubt in my mind that Iran has the potential of far exceeding any other country in the region in gender equality and female success, socially and economically–even now, women make up a solid majority of Iranian university students.) Other people have told us that some Iranians are rejecting Islam altogether due to their disaffectedness with the Islamic authorities, turning instead to Zoroastrianism. One Zoroastrian pointed out to us that many Zoroastrian practices are not based in religion at all, but the ancient customs of the Aryan people. Viewed in this light, Zoroastrianism becomes an ancient and heroic Iranian alternative to Islam.
One young person we spoke to went so far as to say that the country’s present leaders are not Iranians at all, but Arabs. This statement isn’t accurate, of course, but there is what could be called a strain of Arab supremacy that runs through Iranian religious belief. As I mentioned in my post of 5.20 on Shia Islam, Iranian Muslims pay special respect not only to the twelve Imams of Twelver Shiite Islam but also their various relatives and indeed all other descendants of Mohammed. Such descendants are called seyeds and even have a special outfit, including a black turban.
A seyed, Esfahan
I was never able to confirm whether all such people are clerics, or have any special benefits under Iranian law, but it is certainly true that they are afforded respect and take enough pride in their designation to want to stand out (by their dress). Now, many countries have a notion of aristocracy–but it definitely seems strange that Iranians would be celebrating people who are, along at least one identifiable line of descent, not Iranian at all but Arab, given that Arabs as a rule are quite disliked by Iranians as barbarians who came and damaged the high culture of Iran.
Respect of seyeds is but one example of putting religion over ethnicity, also a common feature of a version of Iranian identity. Superficial but telling, the stress that the Islamic government of Iran places on religion over matters of national history is revealed in Iranian money. Iran is the only country I can think of that has, on its money, sites that are not located within the country’s borders. In Iran’s case, no bills contain Persepolis, in the hearts and minds of many Iranians and non-Iranians alike the most beloved and inspirational of Iran’s cultural heritage, but the 1000 and 2000 Rial notes do contain images of Mecca and Jerusalem.
1000 Rial and 2000 Rial notes, showing Islamic sites not in Iran
(Showing the political orientation of the money even further, the new 50,000 Rial note makes a special reference to Iran’s contentious nuclear program.)
One of the most significant areas in which Iran puts religious politics over ethnic politics is its virulent anti-Israel policy.
Anti-Israel mural, Tehran
I found myself asking, “Why should Iran even care about Israel?” Iranians generally have no fondness for Arabs, even if co-religionists, and go so far as to consider some of them, Saudis in particular, their enemies. Palestine is quite a distance from Iran, and, let’s face it, Iran and Israel in many senses don’t have anything to do with each other. Given that Jordan and Egypt, the countries actually bordering Israel and most affected by the problems rising from the existence of Israel, have made peace with Israel, why is it up to Iran to become a protagonist in that struggle? The answer is that through its struggle against Israel Iran believes that it is assuming leadership of the Islamic world, a mantle that Iran clearly desires. Do Iranians as a people have anything at stake? No. But the Islamic government does. (In one of the most perverse statements derived from propaganda that we heard in Iran, and generally we heard quite few, an otherwise smart man told us that Iran must oppose Israel now before Israel invades Iran, because the Zionists’ objective is to expand Israeli territory indefinitely. Today the West Bank, tomorrow Tehran? Also, note that the mural above is instructional in nature–if you are a follower of Imam Khomeini, you must support Palestinians (even if you didn’t know you cared about Israel).)
In addition to promoting Iran’s Islamic identity over Iran’s non-Islamic history, the Iranian government uses its religion of Shiite Islam specifically as a major building block of Iranian national identity.
One potential problem with Islam for Iranians, as I described above, is that it originated with Arabs, who are generally perceived quite negatively, and came to Iran through the Arab conquest, which is thought of as a destructive and negative period of Iranian history. Even today, Islam as a whole is in many ways dominated by Arabs. (We were told, for example, that the Saudis treat Iranians poorly in the hajj, assigning them substandard amenities and suboptimal access.) One “solution” for this problem has been the promotion within Iran of Shiite Islam, a sect that it would grow to dominate. Iran is now 90% Shiite Muslim, but it wasn’t always so; even up to the 17th century, there were as many Sunnis as Shiites in Iran. The balance was changed by the Safavid dynasty, which forced the conversions not only of Sunnis but also of Zoroastrians to Shiism. (I sometimes wonder why this sort of historical perspective does not make people question their beliefs.)
One Iranian woman described Iran to me as “the center of Islamic culture.” Of course, many places can lay claim to that title, and more convincingly than Iran, but the Iranian government is hard at work promoting Iran as the center of Shiite Islam (a title it undoubtedly now holds). For the Safavids, the Shiite faith was a way for Iran to distinguish itself from the also-Islamic but Sunni Ottomans and Central Asians with whom Iran was at war, and to raise the prestige of Iran as a sort of sub-leader within the confines of what is in some ways a foreign faith (perhaps comparable to the state churches established during the Reformation). Shiism still serves the state function of helping strengthen national identity and status by acting as a brand of Islam that is Iranian rather than Arab. The current government continues to promote Iranian-style Shiism not only in Iran but throughout the Islamic world, by funding of Shiite mosques and otherwise, with the additional political aim of building support for Iran, Shiism’s center, within other countries.
Another way that the Iranian goverment uses religion is by creating confusion between faith and state. Iranian people are, undoubtedly, deeply religious, and the government equates religion and state such that it becomes difficult for Iranians to reject fully their government without in part rejecting their religion. One example of this is what I think is an ambiguous use of the word “martyr.” Immediately after the Islamic Revolution, Iraq took advantage of the chaos in Iran to launch an attack, leading to the debilitating Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. Portraits of Iran-Iraq war “martyrs” are still painted on countless billboards and buildings. While calling war casualties “martyrs” no doubt helped the war effort (by borrowing from religious fervor), to me, dying in a war is not religious martyrdom even if your country has no separation of church and state. The Iranian government does not seem to recognize this distinction when bandying about the word “martyr.” According to one popular government slogan, a country whose citizens are willing to martyr themselves will never fail.
One can only wonder about a government that promotes the human sacrifice of its citizens.
The Iran-Iraq War served to unite the Iranian people under their new government, and the current government takes many actions to make the memories of the war endure despite the passage of much time, maintaining an atmosphere of perpetual war. An Iranian told us that Ahmedinejad recently had a plan to bury war dead in new memorials in every Iranian city, and another told us that now was not the time to push for political reform because the country is still recovering from the war.
I do not know if Iran is still in a period of recovery from the Iran-Iraq War, but it is clear that the wake of the Islamic Revolution, with its conscious and forceful reorientation of Iranian identity, has not settled. Of course, all the strains of Iranian identity will continue to co-exist, as always, but it remains to be seen when a national sense of balance will be reached.