|More authentic, or less?
Iranian Nationalism has benefited from a more solid and cohesive base
By Alessio Loreti
August 27, 2002
Evidence of nationalism in Iran is difficult to discern prior to the nineteenth
century. It is almost commonplace to associate phenomena such national identity in
the Middle East with the rise of capitalism, the advent of colonialism, or the imposition
of an economic and cultural hegemony by the West. Orientalism and the study of Iran
by Europeans; related inter alias to the discovery both of the inter-relationships
between Indo-European languages and the archaeological remains of ancient Persia;
have also been thought to have played a determinant role in the emergence of an Iranian
However Iranian Nationalism, if compared to other nationalisms in Middle East, has
benefited from a more solid and cohesive base. Iran existed as a state since the
beginning of its civilisation. The geography and climate of Iran contributed to the
preservation of unique national characteristics and national independence over the
centuries, at least in a formal sense. It also helped to create a national particularism
and a sentiment of uniqueness that served as a catalytic force for the growth of
On the other hand, especially before the process of modernisation implemented by
Reza Shah (1921-1941), the poorly developed communications systems and difficulties
of travel were major obstacles to nationalism. In regions like Khuzistan, the Caspian
coastal area, Korashan, Sistan and Iranian Baluchistan, provincial dwellers could
easily fail to develop a primary national loyalty and could escape the imposition
of control from the central government of Teheran.
Nevertheless people's awareness and pride in Iran's great history and culture have
both been cohesive forces in spreading a nationalist sentiment among the majority
of Iranians. The role played by Iran's great poets such as Sa'di, Hafez, Ferdowsi,
Rumi and Nezami, in helping to foster Iranian nationalism is comparable to the role
played by Schiller, Goethe, Dante, Manzoni during the emergence of nationalism in
When language is taken into consideration - a key factor in the classical definition
of nationalism - Farsi has never been seriously questioned as the predominant tongue
of Iranians despite the linguistic diversity of Iran. It has been a successful instrument
in heightening Iranian national consciousness, thanks to its characteristics both
as a popular and haute culture language.
Iranians have never shared a unified religious identity because of the importance
of religious minorities; especially the Zoroastrians, whose contribution to the creation
of a secular Iranian national sentiment of past Persian greatness is often mentioned
in nationalist rhetoric.
In spite of this, Shi'ism seems to have provided a certain cultural identity and
collective consciousness, more related to the religious and cultural sphere than
territorial. The predominance of Shi'ism in the imagination of an Iranian nation
has tended to reduce the influence of the various ethnic and religious minorities.
Thus the aspirations of the minority groups often differ from the role officially
ascribed to them by the Iranian authorities, and they may simply constitute a barrier
to the development of a national Iranian identity or they may be transformed more
challengingly into separatist movements.
The concept of "religious nationalism"; and Pan-Islam, deriving from a
strategic association of religion with nationalism, seems to be a contradiction;
this is because liberal democracy itself - which emerged at the same time as nationalism
in Iran - had secular implications. But the alliance of secular ideologies with religious
ones are based on a perception of common enemies typified by the tyrannical power
of the Shah, Imperialism and other forms of foreign interference.
The most obvious example is the alliance of Mossadegh-Kashani in the mid 20th century,
when secular liberal nationalists and clerical forces had the same target -- to defeat
the British monopoly on Iranian Oil -- by using different propaganda and the mobilisation
of all social classes.
At the end of 19th century, in the aftermath of the tobacco monopoly affair, a royal
decision was cancelled for the first time in Iran by popular pressure, despite the
interests of foreign powers. The ground seemed to be ready for the first political
manifestations of national sentiment.
The Constitutional Revolution (1905-1991) , witnessed for the first time in the Islamic
world, was aimed at dislodging the old order by means of popular action and constituted
the first attempt to impose western values such as liberalism, secularism and nationalism.
The revolutionaries sought to replace arbitrary power with law, representative government,
and social justice and to resist the encroachment of imperial power by conscious
nationalism, popular activism and economic independence.
The greater sense of nationhood that emerged out of the revolution is an essential
element in the modern Persian identity of the following decades. The idea of revolution
was coupled with a potent notion of patriotism, the concept of love for the fatherland
(hobbe-e watan); and it began to have increasing appeal which supplanted traditional
loyalty to the ruler. Also the defence of Islam and Shi'ism was transformed into
a call for the protection of the Persian Nation (Mellat-e Iran).
Persian subjects - i.e. the multitudes of believers - became citizens, compatriots
ready to die for the fatherland. Furthermore the Qoranic term of mellat no longer
meant a community of believers within a compartmentalised society, but the people
of one country who shared a national heritage and common interests beyond their religious
and ethnic divisions.
In contrast to the relatively greater religious and
cultural diversity of the Ottoman Empire, a conscious nationalism could find its
political expression in new Iranian institutions as the National Consultative Assembly,
and later in the "national government" and the "national bank".
This first Iranian revolution was a fierce uprising of the wronged and deprived against
tyranny, foreign domination and the undeserved privileges of the elite. The spirit
of the revolution was to consider the Constitution a force for national independence
and dignity, elaborated on the European model, against the semi-colonialism to which
Iran was subordinated by European powers.
The constitutional movement also represented the entry of Persia into a new political
era and can be considered the result of a clash among different elements such the
state and the nation, (Iranian) traditions and (Western) modernity within a general
social fermentation of Iranian society. The main players were the merchants - motivated
basically by economic interests, who acted in alliance with the ulemas, alias the
"defenders of the oppressed people against the sovereigns" (internal and
foreign). Merchants provided the financial support, religious leaders offered a religious
legitimacy and the intellectuals provided the philosophical underpinning of the movement.
But the movement was only partially successful and the Constitution was applied only
between 1911 and 1920 and from 1941 and 1953. It constituted a temporal compromise
among the three main forces: the monarchy, religion and modernity in a broad sense.
But the non-definitive resolution of conflicts between the state and the nation (i.e.
clergy/merchants/intelligentsia versus the political power) was a major impediment
in the creation of a stable social order in Iran. The installation of the Pahlavi
dynasty meant a vast program of construction of an Iranian national identity -- mostly
based on the pre-Islamic Persian greatness and on political exaltation of history
and national myths -- that is in many aspects comparable to the contemporary experiments
of Ataturk and Mussolini.
The main purpose was to "reconcile" the
people to the new dynasty - although through a very tyrannical government that emphasized
the disparity between political power and the popular forces. The lack of a true
nationalist ideology, as the intellectuals that animated the first movement had conceived
it, was a serious weakness that undermined the credibility of Reza Shah's political
efforts. Furthermore the continuous foreign interference in the national affairs
of Iran helped to de-legitimise his power, leaving space for the emergence of new
After the forced abdication of Reza Shah, the late 1940s were a time of relative
political freedom and wide-scale political activity in Iran. Iranian nationalists
brought to bear an emotional anti-imperialism and carried with them a moral sense
of righteousness that appealed to citizens of all social and economic classes. The
charismatic leadership of Dr Mossadegh, linked with a widespread sentiment of anglophobia,
unified Iranian nationalist sentiments. He represented a driving force of the national
sentiment that Iranians themselves should develop oil for the benefit of their own
In contrast with the later and more successful Egyptian experience of nationalisation
of the Suez Canal, the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in the early
1950s - the most evident symbol of Western imperialism in Iran -- again did adequately
take into account the various feelings of nationalism.
The Mossadegh failure was a defeat of an essentially anti-imperialist, rather than
liberal and democratic nationalism. It is apparent that the activity of the Nationalists
relating to the nationalisation of oil was more the result of extremely drastic action
with a strong nationalist orientation without long-term political vision.
Analysing different kinds of nationalism in Iran poses
many different problem -- one being to define its dimensions among different confused
aspects and forms: very often the main objective of nationalist movements is both
to gain political participation and national independence.
The problem of factionalism, which signalled the end of the Mossadegh experiment
- was a major unsolved question. Mohamed Reza Shah basically sought to make patriotism
synonymous with cherishing the monarchy and the monarch according to the slogan "God,
King, Fatherland". This ill-defined nature of Iranian identity became evident
to the world when the last revolution ending the Pahlavi era preferred to call itself
"Islamic" instead of "Iranian".
The new form of Iranian nationalism promoted by the Islamic government (1979-present
day) stressed the role of Islam as a major source of identity, opposed to the secularism
of the Pahlavi. It is unclear whether this indicates a political and social regression
or the installation of an Islamic Republic, representing a spontaneous evolution
in the construction of a more authentic Iranian identity.