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Iran: A Clash of Religion and Nationalism | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A picture released by the office of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on March 20, 2013, shows him addressing the nation on the occasion of Noruz, the Iranian New Year, in Tehran. (AFP)

Over the past year or so, the choice between two adjectives has developed into an important theme of the power struggle within the Khomeinist ruling elite in Tehran.

The adjectives are “Iranian” and “Islamic”.

Under the Pahlavi shahs who promoted a nationalist narrative, the adjective “Islamic” was quietly set aside in favor of “Iranian”. Official discourse presented “Iranian” as synonymous with excellent and sublime.

Having seized power in 1979, the mullahs were uneasy about the words Iran and Iranian from the start. Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, one of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s sidekicks, even suggested that Iran be renamed “Islamistan”.

The Khomeinist sect tried to scrap Nowruz, the Iranian New Year and, for years, banned pre-Islamic Iranian names for new-born children. Khomeinists insisted on attaching the adjective “Islamic” to everything under the sun. Thus, we got “Islamic” physics, biology, mathematics, cuisine, and, more interestingly, even music and cinema. The mullahs claimed that love of Iran was a form of “shirk” or association with the Unique God.

The constitution imposed by Khomeini cast the “Supreme Guide” as leader of the Islamic ummah of which the Iranian nation formed only a part.

Over the years, thousands of “hidden graves” of supposed descendants of imams were discovered across the country. The title “Sayyed”, denoting Arab descent, began to appear in front of more and more names. Khomeinists wished to hide their Iranian origin to emphasize Islamic credentials.

The mullahs’ leftist allies shared their hatred of “Iran” because they, too, saw nationalism as an ideological threat. To Marxists, people should not be defined by national background but by class affiliation.

However, just as the downgrading of the adjective Islamic under the Shahs did not script Islam out of Iranian life, the mullahs and Marxists hatred for the very concept of Iran has failed.

Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei failed to stop Iranians from celebrating Nowruz and ended up by acknowledging it as the national New Year with an official message. Also, they did not manage to stop Iranians from jumping over the purifying fire on the last Wednesday of the Iranian year. Nor could they force Iranians not to use pre-Islamic names for their children.

By adopting an anti-Iranian posture, Khomeinists ended up encouraging Iranian nationalism. Last autumn more than 6,000 poets participated in the Annual Festival of Poetry organized by the government. A selection of their poems published by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance shows that almost all were inspired by nationalistic, rather than Islamist, themes.

This does not mean that Iranians have become anti-Islamic. But it means that, as might have been expected, they are trying to defy a narrative imposed by the rulers. Being tempted by the forbidden fruit is an old-established trait of human character.

Conscious that the Khomeinist ideology is bankrupt, some younger members of the ruling elite have for years tried to find alternative themes to a moribund discourse.

In the 1980s, then Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi tried a version of North Korea’s ideology of self-sufficiency and anti-Imperialist defiance. The mélange didn’t work. In the 1990s, Hashemi Rafsanjani, as President and “strongman, promoted the Guizotesque formula of “getting rich quick”. His model was Communist China, with its mix of capitalist economy and totalitarian politics. That formula, too, proved a failure.

When first elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his ideological guru Esfandiar Masha’i, tried to imitate Hugo Chavez’s petro-populism. Their slogan was: “Oil money on the dinner table of families.” That, too, failed.

Starting a couple of years ago, the Ahmadinejad-Masha’i tandem started talking of Iran and Iranian-ness. The famous “Cyrus Cylinder”, on which the founder of the first Iranian empire had engraved his “Charter of Human Rights”, was brought to Tehran on loan from the British Museum in London. Ahmadinejad and a guard of honor went to welcome the “cylinder”. The president described Cyrus as “equal to Prophets”.

In the sequence that followed, Masha’i spoke of the “Iranian school”. He claimed that it was Iran that had transformed Islam, a mere creed, into a civilization. According to him only the “Iranian school” offered an alternative to Western civilisation.

Last week, the government announced it was organizing 2,500 feasts across the country to mark Nowruz. The figure 2,500 recalled festivities organized under the Shah in 1971 to mark the 25th centenary of the empire founded by Cyrus.

To hammer in the nationalist theme, the planned festivities are called “The Voice of Spring” a reference to Iran’s pre-Islamic cult of Anahita, the Goddess of Fertility.

Khamenei’s initial reaction to the “Iranian School” slogan was one of outrage. The media, under his control, launched bitter attacks against Ahmadinejad and Masha’i for supposedly falling for the siren song of nationalism.

Last week, however, in a surprising volte-face Khamenei announced the creation of something called an “Islamic-Iranian” model of civilization, as “an alternative to Western civilization.”

To develop that model, Khamenei ordered the creation of a special organization and appointed Sadeq Vaez-Zadeh to lead the program.

Khamenei’s implicit message is: Since the adjective “Iranian” cannot be discarded, what about giving it second place to the adjective “Islamic”?

Will Ahmadinejad accept the compromise or will he continue peddling “Iranian-Islamic”, a model in which religion plays second fiddle to nationalism?