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More authentic, or less?
Iranian Nationalism has benefited from a more solid and cohesive base

By Alessio Loreti
August 27, 2002
The Iranian

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 identity.

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 nationalism.

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 Europe.

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 revolutionary movements.

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 country.

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.

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