Does Iran have an identity of its own? In fact, could anything called Iran even be imagined outside of Islam?
These are some of the questions raised in a heated debate that has pitted key figures of the Khomeinist establishment in Tehran against one another in what promises to become a massive washing of dirty laundry in public.
The debate was triggered earlier this month during a gathering of some 1,300 Iranian exiles, who had come to Tehran for an “ introductory visit” at the invitation of the government.
The man who raised the issue is Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, a self-styled philosopher who serves as Cabinet Director for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Initially, Ahmadinejad had appointed Mashai as his First Vice President.
Ahmadinejad was forced to backtrack after top figures, including the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, publicly said that they would not tolerate Mashai in that position.
However, the change of titles made little difference insofar as Mashai’s power and influence, as Ahamdinejad’s ideological mentor, is concerned.
The two men, who are lifelong friends, are also related because Mashai’s daughter is married to Ahmadinejad’s son.
Addressing the visiting exiles, Mashai adopted a nationalistic tone, speaking of Iran as a great civilization with a universal message and “global leadership responsibilities”. He ended up by calling on the guests to return to their places of exile to preach “the Iranian school” and “ the Iranian message.”
The quotations used in the speech came from Persian poets and philosophers, in sharp contrast with the official discourse that is peppered with citations from the Koran and various imams and ayatollahs. Nor were there any references to the late Khomeini, the mullah who created the regime, or the present “Supreme Guide”.
More significantly, there was little mention of Islam, the leitmotif of the Khomeinist regime since the mullahs seized power in 1979.
Mashai’s speech could have come out of the literature of the pan-Iranist party, a nationalist movement that reached its peak in the 1950s and was eventually dissolved by the Shah in 1975.
Mashai touched a number of raw nerves, especially among the mullahs.
They knew that if the emphasis was shifted from the idea of Islam to that of Iran, their centuries’ old boutique might face a loss of customers.
Thus a battery of attacks were launched against Mashai by radical mullahs like Ahmad Janati and Ahmad Khatami who devoted their Friday sermons to denouncing the president’s closest friend as “ a suspicious character” and even “possibly an agent of foreign influence.”
Then it was the turn of Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, believed to be Ahmadinejad’s principal source of support within the Shi’ite clergy, to attack Mashai as a “shadowy figure with an unknown agenda.”
The final barrage came from The Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Major-General Hassan Firuzabadi who called for Mashai to be prosecuted on charges approaching treason. Mashai retaliated by announcing he would sue Firuzabadi for libel.
Scores of lesser mullahs and jackboots, not to mention the part of the media controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have also joined the lynch mob organised against Mashai.
Well, what is all the fuss about?
Mashai’s speech included nothing that could be regarded as illegal even under the Khomeinist constitution. Nor did he say anything that might threaten the existence of the beleaguered regime.
The trouble, however, is that in Khomeinist-controlled Iran, as in so many other so-called “developing countries”, no decent political debate is possible. In such countries, people who disagree with you do not attack your ideas but your person. Thus no one bothers to examine Mashai’s ideas if only to refute them. Everyone takes the easy way of accusing him of being deranged or acting on orders from the CIA and Mossad.
Mashai’s speech could be seen as a manoeuvre by Ahmadinejad to deprive the opponents of the regime of at least part of their nationalist aura.
To demonstrators who march with cries of “ The Iranian Republic, Not The Islamic Republic”, he is saying that he could be as Iranians as they are.
He also wants to pretend that the sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, in fact, target the Iranian nation not the Khomeinist regime.
Last year, when supporters of the defeated presidential candidate, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, adopted green, the colour of Islam, as their standard Ahmadinejad retaliated by wearing blue, the national colour of pre-Islamic Iran.
To bolster his Iranian credentials, Ahmadinejad has proposed the creation of a Union of Persian-Speaking Nations; that is to say Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
The irony in all this is that the conceptual tandem of Iran-Islam has been the centrepiece of Iranian existence as a nation for over 14 centuries.
To most Iranians, the Arab invasion and brief conquest of Iran remains an open wound. And, yet, most Iranians are proud, not to say boastful, of their ancestors’ contribution to the development of Islamic civilisation.
Few want Islam to be scripted out of their history and culture.
This double identity, some would say split personality or national schizophrenia, has been at the heart of Iran’s existence as a nation for over 1,400 years and it is unlikely to be resolved one way or another soon.
Some intellectuals, like the great jurist and historian, Ahmad Kasrvai, and the philosopher Hussein Kazemzadeh, wanted to de-Islamicise Iran so that it could “become itself, once again.”
They failed because most Iranians did not wish to abandon Islam as long as it was not pushed down their throats by force. Iran was “ itself” all the time, happy and unhappy at the same time with its historic schizophrenia.
The late Ruhallah Khomeini was no philosopher. But he, too, made the mistake that only philosophers can make. He took Marx’s advice about changing the world rather than interpreting it and tried to de-Iranise Iran. However, despite his boundless hatred for the idea of Iran, the agitator from Khomein, the luckiest adventurer in our history, also failed.
The question “Islam or Iran?” has been a hot topic in Iranian politics during several conjectures in history. When Iranians were angry at a regime that beat the drum of Iranian-ness as the core of its legitimacy, they emphasised the concept of Islam in opposition. They grew beards, flocked to the mosques, bought rosaries and brought the mullahs out of the backyards of forgotten neighbourhoods to oppose despotism based on nationalism.
This time, Iranians are emphasising the concept of Iran in opposition to a regime that wrongly claims Islam as its source of legitimacy.
This time, too, the fight is against despotism, not religion.
In other words, nothing has changed in Iranian politics. The schizophrenia continues as does the despotism.