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Aggressive nationalism
The strong resurgence of nationalism among the Persians of Iran, and also other Iranian groups, especially the Turks (Azerbaijani Turks) is a very bad sign for our country


May 6, 2007

It is clearly known to the readers of that there are so many articles out there simply discussing what being an Iranian means, relating the realities of today's Iran to its past, therefore trying to find a definition for Iran and Iranians. Why have these people come together and formed a country called Iran? There are so many confusing messages out there and there is no clear consensus whatsoever. This may not be the case for most of the countries out there where there usually is a large majority who speak the same language and have very similar traditions.

There are also many countries out there that clearly lack a definition of their own, i.e. the populace are confused why they are together forming a nation. Most of these countries are found in Africa, where the borders have usually been drawn by the European colonisers, often simply using straight lines when drawing the maps. The result has been that we have been witnessing so many wars in Africa because of the lack of a strong authority to create stability and enforce the law, and of course the populations of these orphan states have been unable to find common grounds to come together and form a strong authority. And the same issue is currently true about our neighbour, Iraq, unfortunately.

My endeavour to analyse the identity crisis of Iranians was also influenced by the feedback (insults, accusations, and also a small number of happy ones) to my recent articles about the Achaemenid rulers, and I was quite surprised by the level of the emotional response of those who find the pre-Islamic history of the Persian Empire as the most significant chapter of Iran's defining moments.

In countries where there is no clear popular notion of why the people who constitute the nation have come together, there is a very strong possibility of two cases, either chaos and civil war, or a ruthless dictatorship. This reality has been tested in the near and distant past in so many countries, including our own.

Iran is quite distinct in many ways and many Iranians and observers often neglect this distinctness very often. Iran is probably the only relatively large country in the world where there is almost no significant ethnic majority in place, though the country has not been defined or created by foreigners but by Iranians themselves, although the formation of the boundaries have been influenced by powerful regional and world powers. This is something quite interesting to analyse. Official statistics in Iran show that Persians are 51% of the population. Even the statistics of the CIA show that Persians are 51% of the population in Iran. It is a bit mind-boggling that the majority has just turned out to be 51% and not 55% or 65%! Maybe the proportion of the Persians is close to 50% but not exactly there.

And of course in a not-very-literate (where many people even to this day call themselves Shia Muslims rather than anything else) country like Iran it is very difficult to measure who is what! The statistics of the CIA being the same as the official statistics of the Iranian authorities clearly shows that the CIA has, at least to some degree, been influenced by Iran's official statistics. And why these official statistics, in a country where there has never been a democracy, show that the Persians are 51%? If the Persians in a rigorous and objective census would turn out to be 47% or 37% wouldn't the authorities cut some percentages from other minorities and add to the Persians in order to give the impression that Iran actually has a clear ethnic majority? I think they would, and I doubt many would disagree with me. However no-one really knows the reality because no-one has ever done a rigorous and objective census about the regional and personal identification of Iranians.

However this extremely messed-up country, ethnic-wise, has been able to stay independent and quite powerful for over 500 years, ever since the Safavid reinvigorated the ancient Iran (that became known as the Persian Empire in the West). And this is something pretty much unique. I am not aware of any other country this size, at present tine, and in such an unfriendly area of the world, to be such a messy place, though relatively powerful, united, and independent. So, why is this surprising reality? How has this country been able to survive for so long, stay independent and united? This subject has usually been neglected mostly due to political prejudices of authorities and individuals who have been unable to look at the issue from a more objective point of view.

Let's not exaggerate this uniqueness of Iran because up until the early 20th century Iran had a much more complex regional peer, the Ottoman Empire, where the majority of population were Arabs though the empire was ruled by Turks. And the Ottoman Empire had succeeded to survive and grow much larger for much longer than any of Iran's dynasties, ever. The basis for the survival and strength of the Ottoman Empire was Islam, the protection of it, and of course the defence of it from Christians in Europe, and Shiites in Iran. While the Iranian Shiites have always been numerically inferior to both the Christians and the Sunnis in the Ottoman Empire, therefore they were much more inclined to be fearful of their neighbours. This strong level of fear created the unity that linked several ethnic groups together among which Persians and Turks (Azerbaijani is often used in order to prevent confusion with the Anatolian Turks) being the most significant.

Some Persian or Iranian nationalists may relate the unity of the Iranian Turks and Persians to anything other than the Shia religion, though clear evidence to support this hypothesis cannot be found. Iranian authorities, ever since the Safavid, have been struggling (some times failed, other times succeeded) to subdue the Sunnis of their neighbouring areas. Very large areas of western Afghanistan of today for instance used to belong to Iran, and although the language (pretty much the same as Farsi, or Persian) and traditions (the same celebration of Nouruz and about everything else) of the people populating western areas of Afghanistan are extremely close (if not the same) to that of Persians (the Farsi spoken in most areas of Afghanistan is more like a dialect of the Farsi in Iran though Mazandarani for instance is far more different than Farsi and hardly comprehensible to other Iranians), their majority desire to follow Sunni Islam alienated them from their fellow Persians and often caused wars and disputes. Later Afghans preferred the protection of the British rather than being a part of Iran. The same has been the case for the Kurds and also the Baluch, who (some of them who were not added to other countries) unwillingly remained within Iran to this day.

Therefore the only real reason for the unity of the various peoples within Iran has been their adherence to Shia Islam, and newly discovered nationalism of the late 19th century onwards has so far failed to undermine this unity. Of course many nationalist Iranians will still argue about the nationalist notions of the past century or so such as the superior Aryan race of the Iranians, or the glory of the pre-Islamic Persian Empire (whose proud descendants they feel to be). These theories, or more like hypotheses, have the sole value of arousing emotions, without any real substance. The cultural boundaries of what can be called greater Iranian influence goes far beyond Iran's present territories, stretching from Tajikistan, most of Central Asia's Turkic speaking peoples, to Azerbaijan and the Kurds of Turkey.

This cultural area is what has remained of the all-powerful Persian Empire of the pre-Islamic world. However a more close examination of the Iranian culture also shows that it was not related to race or nationality (as evoked by current and near-past Persian nationalists) but strongly, or solely, related to Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism almost vanished and what has remained has been the rich cultural influence it left behind which co-existed with Islam. And this cultural area has never been a strong basis for bringing together individuals and peoples in order to create a country, as can be seen due to the centuries-long fights between Shias who ruled Iran and Uzbeks, Afghans, Kurds and others who have long been a part of the Iranian cultural area . All these disputes took place simply because of the desire of every of these ethnic groups to protect their own religious identity.

The strong resurgence of nationalism among the Persians of Iran, and also other Iranian groups, especially the Turks (Azerbaijani Turks) is a very bad sign for our country. Extreme ideologies often push others toward extreme as well. And the lack of a proper liberal education, without racial, national or religious prejudices, creates the best fertile ground for promoting extremism. Extremist Islam both in the wider Middle East, and also practised by Iranian authorities (to some extent) has pushed many non-religious Iranians to resort to their own extremism, and the best choice has been nationalism.

And the result has been that today an Iranian can write almost anything bad he wants about Islam, and most Iranians (especially those who can read English) would not care at all, though if one writes anything less than nice and pretty about the great Persian rulers of two millennia ago, or the Aryan purity of the Iranians, then he/she must expect plenty of not-so-nice responses. And this is just a strengthening of an ideological aggression that is the natural course of events as we can see, though definitely in a very bad direction. The direction that also pushed Nationalist Serbs to the abyss of Yugoslavia, let alone the most gruesome of all, the events of the second World War.

Nationalist extremism, or Religious extremism, in the Middle East, are both no less worse than the other. However the Iranian theocratic regime is not as extremist in its pursuit of religious purity as many believe, tolerating and even protecting religious minorities of Iran, such as the Armenians, or even the Sunni to some degree. That could not have been said about the Taliban, and it definitely cannot be said about the House of Saud or the rulers of Bahrain. The Iranian regime is annoying to the West mostly because of its expansionist and irredentist tendencies, creating instability and agitation in the region and therefore in the wider world, especially because of affecting a vital source of oil for the economy of the whole world.

However, both Westerners and also Iranians of various ideological and political stripes shall think twice before asking for the complete and sudden demise of the current Iranian regime, because in case Iran would not turn into another Iraq it very likely risks falling in to the hands of extremist Nationalists, maybe a man like Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic! This does not mean we should support a dictatorial regime, such as Iran's current one, but simply to be careful and not rush into ideas and conclusions, because we may actually get what we wish for, and regret it. Comment


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Ben Madadi



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