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Iran: The Challenges of a Split Personality | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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When he died in exile in Paris in 2010, Shojaeddin Shafa sounded like a lone voice in a desert. For at least two decades before the Islamic Revolution, the writer and translator of Western classics had often been on best-seller lists. As an exile cut from his home market, however, he had the choice of either breaking his pen or being content with a select readership consisting almost entirely of nostaglics for the “good old days” of the fallen Shah.

Never a man to give up fighting, he continued to write, producing some of his best works dedicated to “keeping alive the flame of Iranian nationalism.”
Six years later, the lone voice seems to have been joined by numerous other voices from the past, the present and even the future to form a chorus that denounces the state-sponsored Islamist ideology and emphasizes the “Iranian-ness” of Iranians.

Back in 1984 when a French journalist asked Shafa what he thought of “the situation in the Islamic Republic”, the answer was short and sharp: “ Don’t call my country Islamic Republic, Iran is Iran; if a man suffers from cancer you don’t call him Mr. Cancer, do you?”

What is certain is that Iranian nationalism is making a comeback, though not necessarily in the radical version upheld by Shafa among others.

The development isn’t surprising. For almost 15 centuries Iran has suffered from a split personality, unable to forget its Iranian-ness and melt its existence in its version of Islam. Some writers, for example the late Muhammad Mohit Tabatabai, saw Iranian-ness and Islam as two wings which Iran, symbolized by the mythical bird of “Shahnameh” (The Book of Kings) Simorgh, needed to fly and soar to the highest altitudes. Without either of the two wings, Iran would be an earthbound lame bird, he wrote. Others, for example Ahmad Kasravi, regarded Islam as a hindrance to Iran’s “return to history on the path to greatness.” Still others, for example Ali Shariati, dismissed Iranian-ness, which they saw as nationalism, an ideology imported from Europe, as the hindrance and preached Iran’s “total immersion in Shiite Islam.”
Under Reza Shah, a largely secular establishment tried to de-emphasize religion and Iran’s attachment to a broader Islamic ummah, and build up the sense of nationhood and Iranian specialness.

Under the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini a reverse strategy was propagated, though not coherently implemented, aimed at total re-Islamicization of Iran.

There are now signs that the pendulum may be swinging back towards Iranian-ness with potentially profound consequences for Iran’s domestic and foreign policies.

New year ceremonies

One sign of this came last month when Iranians marked their New Year, Nowruz, on an unprecedented scale.

The ceremonies started 100 days before Nowruz on the Spring Equinox of 20 March, with the ancient Jashn Sadeh (Feast of 100) when tens of thousands gathered at Chak-chak, near Yazd on the edge of the great Iranian desert, where Princess Mehrbanu, the eldest daughter of Yazdegerd III, the last king of the Sassanids is supposed to be buried in the heart of a bare mountain.

The princess is supposed to have led a band of patriotic guerrillas fighting Arab invaders for 15 years before disappearing into the heart of the mountain where two trees suddenly sprung up to offer shade and a fountain surged out “to shed tears” on her tomb. For over 1400 years the place has been a point of pilgrimage for Zoroastrians from all over the world. However, since there are no more than 30,000 Zoroastrians left in Iran one must assume that, this year at least, the overwhelming majority of “pilgrims” were Iranian Muslims.

The next step was the “Feast of Fire” or Charshanbeh Suri, the last Wednesday of the year, when Iranians jump over bonfires and chant pre-Islamic shibboleths. According to the official news agency IRNA this year’s fire feasts were the largest in memory, forcing the police to deploy in large numbers to prevent “incidents.”
Again according to IRNA more than 20 million Iranians, a quarter of the total population, traveled inside or outside the country for Nowruz in accordance with an ancient tradition.

In some cases, the travelers made sure to spend the exact moment of the start of the New Year, known as Sal-tahwil, in a Shiite “holy” shrine in another illustration of Iran’s split personality. At least 1.5 million did so in Mash’had where the Eighth Imam of Shi’ism is buried. Over 30,000 Iranian pilgrims also gathered at the mausoleum of Ali Ibn Abitaleb, the first Imam, in Najaf, with the aim of starting the New Year close to the tomb. However, Iraqi police denied them access with the claim that using an Islamic shrine for performing pagan rites isn’t proper. The refusal provoked much anger, reportedly calmed down by the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest ranking Shi’ite theologian who lives in Najaf.

The crescendo of the nationwide Iranian-ness show-off came in Pasargad, north of Shiraz, where Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire is buried. Large numbers of people came from all over Iran with the slogan: “Cyrus! You Are Not Alone.” Reports, that we cannot independently confirm, claim that as many as 100,000 were present at the ceremony. Photos and videos, including some taken from a helicopter, and posted on the Internet certainly show large crowds.

Similar pilgrimages also took place at the Temple of Anahita, the pre-Islamic Goddess of Fertility and Waters, and the tomb of Esther, the Jewish Queen of Achaemenid King Artaxerxes in Hamadan, southwest of Tehran.

Thousands of “pilgrims” also visited the tomb of Firuz (Abu-Lowlow) the Zoroastrian pearl merchant who assassinated Omar Ibn Khattab, the Second Caliph of Islam.

To mark this year’s Nowruz, over 50 cities took part in a nationwide contest to build the most original Haft-Seen (Seven S) platter in the country. The platter, set up by every Iranian family regardless of religion, consists of seven items, the names of which start with the letter “s” in Persian. Muslim Iranians also add a copy of the Noble Koran while Christian Iranians place a Bible. Jewish Iranians go for a copy of the Torah while Zoroastrian Iranians place a copy of their sacred text the Avesta.

Historic record

The competition for the “Seven S” platter was won by Kermanshah, a predominantly ethnic Kurdish capital in western Iran, which spent months building one that covered a square kilometer, setting an historic record.

Some fringe radical Islamists have always tried to ban Nowruz and efface all traces of pre-Islamic Iran. The late Khomeini tried the ban in his first year but soon thought better of defying the whole nation.

This year, some dyed-in-wool Khomeinists sent questions to senior ayatollahs demanding fatwas (religious opinions) about Nowruz and its rituals. None of the mullahs questioned dared issue a banning fatwa. Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, a prominent mullah in Qom as well as a wealthy businessman, came closest by declaring that some Nowruz ceremonies should be regarded as “false beliefs” (khorafat).

Among the mullahs approached was “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who diplomatically dodged the question. “These ceremonies do not have a religious aspect,”’ he declared in a fatwa, reaffirming what everyone knows.
He was also asked whether women could discard the Islamic Hijab during traditional Nowruz visits to relatives. His enigmatic answer was: “They can, provided that does not commit people to avoid religious necessities.” (Sic)
In response to another direct question demanding whether Nowruz rites should be banned on religious grounds, he replied “These events do not have a religious dimension.”

Another issue that triggered a new round in the fight between Iranian-ness and Khomeinist Islamism was a suggestion by writer Saeed Hajj Arian that the government stop using the Islamic lunar calendar which few Iranians understand let alone follow. Having their own solar calendar, a tribute to the pre-Islamic “god” Mithra (Mehr or Sun) in which every one of the year’s 365 days has a special meaning and status, Iranians never used the lunar calendar introduced by the Arabs in the seventh century.

Fixing holy occasions

Hajjarian who was the top strategist to former President Muhammad Khatami suggests that if the two months of Dhul-Hijjah and Ramadan, which respectively contain specific Islamic rites of pilgrimage to Mecca and fasting, are fixed according to the solar calendar there would be no need to use the lunar calendar.

The 24 days of each year which mark the birthday or the day of the death of the Fourteen Infallibles (Ma’asoumin), that is to say Ali, his wife Fatimah and their 12 male descendants, the Imams, could also be fixed on the solar calendar according to when those events actually happened, something that isn’t possible on the lunar calendar which changes by nine days every year.

Hajjarian, the chief theoretician of the “reformist” wing of the establishment also suggests that the Eid Ghadir (The Feast of the Pond), the day on which, according to Shiite beliefs, the Prophet named Ali as his successor, be marked on the same day as Nowruz, fusing Shi’ism with Iranian nationalism.
He writes: “We Iranians became Muslims but didn’t become Arabs. This is important.”

Such a suggestion from the “reformist” wing is especially interesting because even under the Shah no one dared talk of fixing religious days according to the solar calendar. The Shah, partly on Shafa’s advice, decreed a change in the starting point of the Iranian calendar, taking it back to the foundation of the Iranian Empire 2576 years ago, a measure he dropped after a few years.

Today, shifting the emphasis from Iran’s Islamic persona to its Iranian-ness is also suggested by others within the ruling elite. Deputy Minister for Cultural Heritage Bahman Namvar-Motlaq claims that Iran could project a better image abroad by promoting Nowruz rather than Islamic martyrdom ceremonies. “Now-Ruz is a unique heritage of our forefathers who saw the Spring Equinox as a symbol of nature’s renewal and thus a celebration of life and beauty,” he says. “This is a message we can take to all mankind and be sure to be well-received.”

Last week, the Tehran Municipality decided to change the names of several streets and underground railway stations, replacing some “foreign names” with Persian ones. Astonishingly, among those whose names were changed was the metro station “Wali Al-Asr” (Regent of the Time) a sobriquet for the Hidden Imam, the last of the 12 who is supposed to return at the end of times to establish eternal rule by justice. The new name is “City Theatre” because one of Tehran’s most popular theatres is located nearby!

Pre-Islamic Hero

Another interesting episode was when Iran unveiled the latest version of a polyvalent military robot developed by the industrial branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Initial suggestions were limited to the names of several generals of early Islam. However, it turned out that the names suggested belonged to Arab military leaders who had taken part in the Islamic invasion of Iran in the 7th century.
In the end the name of another general was chosen, Surena, the Iranian commander that defeated the Roman legions led by Crassus in 53 BC in the battle of Harran in what is now Turkey. (Crassus was killed in that battle).

A return to Iranian-ness is also promoted by the Tehran Municipality which has invited 100 Iranian artists to paint murals across the capital. Instead of scenes depicting the martyrdom of various Imams or great deeds done by Khomeini, the artists are invited to seek inspiration from Ferdowsi’s national epic Shahnameh, celebrating Iran’s pre-Islamic past. Two murals of 100 square meters each have already been completed by Muhamad-Reza Farzaneh, a leading advocate of “teahouse” style of Persian painting. These depict scenes from the passage of Siavash, son of the mythical King Kaykavous, through fire, the Seven Ordeals of Rustam and the Sassanid King Bahram V hunting onagers in Mesopotamia (now known as Iraq).

The return to Iranian-ness is also marked in new films, plays and musical scores produced by Iranians. The composer Loris Checknavorian has initiated a series of symphonic compositions based on Iranian cultural themes. In poetry, the most popular art form in Iran, Islamic themes have all but disappeared except in the works of a few state-sponsored poets who compose official verse in praise of the ”Supreme Guide” or the late Khomeini. Instead, nationalistic themes are all the rage which such poets as Esmail Kho’i and Muhammad Jalali leading the way. Even Hadi Khorsandi, perhaps Iran’s top satirical poet, is now injecting nationalistic themes into his work.

Marketing Iran Abroad

The idea that Iran is internationally marketable as Iran but not as a champion of militant Islam has also found its way into the official political discourse, albeit with a strong dose of caution.

In an interview granted to the daily “Iran”, published by the government, one of President Hassan Rouhani’s advisors Mahmoud Sari Al-Qalam argues for a foreign policy based on national interest rather than ideology. He suggests that Iran should show the world that it is developing a consensus around the idea of behaving like a nation-state with the normal interests of a nation-state rather than as a vehicle for pseudo-religious militancy.

A similar sentiment has been expressed by Sadeq Ziba-Kalam, a university teacher with ties to the faction led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. He suggests an “Iran first” strategy, urging the government to distance itself from Middle Eastern crises. “I understand people who shout: Neither Gaza nor Lebanon! My life only for Iran,” Ziba-Kalam says. “For me, too, Iran is first, second and last.”

More surprisingly, a similar line is taken by Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-pour, the mullah who created the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah and recruited its leadership in the 1980s. “Those people (i.e. Hezbollah and other groups financed by Tehran) are of interest only if they serve our national goals,” he says. “We have no commitment to anyone; our sole commitment is to Iran.”

Iran’s “trump card” is its rich pluri-millennial culture, argues Fereidun Abollahiyan. “Our missiles will never reach Washington,” he writes. “ But our ‘Seven S’ Nowruz platter was set up inside the White House with the US President and his family coming to show appreciation. Iran is the only nation to receive greeting messages from over 140 heads of states, including the US, on its New Year.”

While religion divides Iranians, the concept of Iranian-ness unites them regardless of backgrounds. Champions of Iranian-ness include Christians such as Edward Joseph, Homer Ebrahimian, and Zaven Hakopian, Jews like Moshfeq Hamadani and Simon Farzami, and Zoroastrians such as Bahram Shahrokh and Ardeshir Varjavand.

All this, of course, may lead nowhere. Almost a decade ago President Ahmadinejad spoke of “Iranian Islam” and tried to play the nationalist card by borrowing the Cyrus Cylinder, supposed to contain the first declaration of human rights, from the British Museum. He created a special Guard of Honour with Achaemenid uniforms and lances to line the entrance of the exhibition and pay respect to the famous artefact. Over three million Iranians came to see the Cyrus Cylinder.

Ahmadinejad is a disciple of Hassan Yaaqubi, a theological scholar who claims to offer an Iranian “re-reading” of Islam. An author of over 40 books, Yaaqubi regards Cyrus as “the equivalent of prophets” and claims that he is the Zul-Qarnayn (the Warrior wearing a helmet with two horns) mentioned in the Koran. (Others suggest that it refers to Alexander of Macedonia).

Ahmadinejad used nationalism as a tactic to regain part of the legitimacy the regime had lost in the wake of the disputed presidential elections of 2009. It is possible that Rafsanjani and his faction are using a similar tactic to broaden their social base in their power struggle against hardline Khomeinists led by Khamenei.

Whatever the outcome of the current wave of Iranian-ness, one thing is certain: trying to de-Iranianize Iran in the name of Islam is as much doomed to failure as trying to de-Islamicize Iran in the name of nationalism has proved.

What Iran needs, has always needed, is an intelligent and humane way to manage the fundamental contradiction of its existence as a nation, a contradiction that is not only the source of most of its trouble but also the inspiration for many of its cultural achievements.