Iran’s recent history has been marked by two dictatorial regimes, a monarchy, the Pahlavi Dynasty, and a theocracy, the Islamic Republic. They present different values, and different identities. The Pahlavi regime crystallized the “Persian” identity, glamorizing the ancient kings of the old Persia, changing the calendar to a secular one, forcing a single language for all the diverse ethnic groups, and festering an anti-Arab sentiment. The Islamic Republic emphasizes the rules of fiqh and sharia and the major Islamic figures, and it tries to erase Persian Kings from history books.
The duality between these two identities is not clear-cut and absolute. Most Iranians are nationalistic and Islamist at the same time, and it boils down to a matter of degrees. Even during the Pahlavi regime the official law of the land was the sharia law, and the Islamic Republic also has severe racist laws which greatly discriminates against ethnic groups, especially the Kurdish people.
But to draw a crude picture, one can say that the Islamist identity relies on the elements of Shiism heavily, especially Mehdi and the death of Hossein the grandson of Mohammad in a war, and they celebrate Islamic holidays, and especially they emphasize on Ashoura the day that Hossein was killed, they are against Israel and they value martyrdom. They base their ideology, whether moderate or radical, on Islamic scripture and thinkers like Ali Shariati who mixed Islam with Marxism and Sartre’s existentialism and provided the ideological fuel for the Islamic Revolution. These people might be theocratic or secular, but Islam and Shiism play the most major role in their thinking.
The nationalist movement is largely a reaction to them. They emphasize the culture of Iran previous to the Arab colonialism, and while most of them don’t know anything about Zoroastrianism they use their symbols, their hero is Cyrus the ancient emperor of Persia, and they emphasize national holidays like Nowrouz and Fireworks Wednesday. They are very nostalgic for Persian Empire. They also emphasize Persian language a lot. Some try to cleanse Persian from all its Arabic words, some don’t. All are very nationalistic and try to reconstruct Iran as the most awesome place and react very harshly towards any negative depiction of Iranians (as in 300 or Argo) and say Cyrus wrote the first human rights declaration. They are offended when people think Iran is an Arab country, and it seems that the target of their scorn are Arabs, although it ranges from benign to outright racism. Their favorite poet is Ferdowsi who wrote an epic about ancient Persian kings.
And I reject both of these identities and consider them equally shitty. Here’s why:
1) Both of them are false myths.
Neither the Arab colonized Iran nor the Zoroastrian Iran before it were good periods.
In Iran, there’s a great tendency among the chauvinists to be proud of the nation’s cultural heritage. They proudly mention how great the country’s culture and civilization is, and what a great role Iranians had in the past. Whether they are in favor or against the current regime this fictional utopia in the historic past changes its time. To Islamists the period after the Arab Invasion on Iran and to Chauvinists (Pan-Iranists) the period of the Emperors of the ancient Persia are the epitomes of Iran’s cultural climax. But the truth is both the said historical periods are bleak and are marked with immense hardships for average folks, and at that time Iran was a colony of Muslim Empires, And both empires before and after the Arab Invasion were repressive bloodthirsty conquerors. Therefore we can say that the greatness of Iran’s culture is a lie. The Iranian “civilization” is nothing but a blank page on the wall, and the Iranian nation is a blind stupid old man praising himself (and indeed the Iranian nation is a “he”) for something which isn’t there.
Cyrus was an emperor conqueror. His “human rights declaration” only grants religious freedom to the people he’s conquering, provided they kneel before him and pay him money. While religious freedom might sound appealing to Iranians under theocracy, Cyrus is far from a democratic model and no person in 21st century should aspire to him.
But apart from that, both of these “identities” are equally equally divorced from the reality of people’s lives. There is no Iranian or Persian culture without Islam. Islam is so entrenched in every aspect of our culture that it can’t survive without Islam. And that is why they go back and create a fictional Persia in pre-Islamic era that no one cares or remembers. And the Islamists make the same mistake. Their own Islam has been Iranianized more than they think. Not only we are Shiites and not Sunnis but our Shiism is designed during the Safavid Dynasty and has nothing to do with Arab or global Islam. Nationalism and religion cannot be separated from each other.
2) Both of them come at the expense of excluding “Others”.
Islam excludes all non-Muslims. It excludes some non-Muslims in a way harsher manner than other non-Muslims. This is well documented. But the nationalists are no better.
Even if we ignore the prevalent anti-Arab and anti-Kurd racism that exists in many of nationalists, which we shouldn’t, the fact remains that Iran is a multicultural country with Arabs and Kurdish and Turkoman and Armenians and Turks and many other minorities. Even at its most benevolent and benign shape, Persian nationalism marginalizes other ethnicities because it makes Persian and Persian culture the “main” and the “real” culture of Iran, and it doesn’t matter if those minorities don’t share our culture and language. But oftentimes the racism is not benign or benevolent, it’s straight up hatred.
Iranian nationalists pay lip-service to democracy and human rights. But they support many policies that are outright fascist.
Personally, I have no problem with rejecting both. I’m an atheist, and I am also an internationalist, and I think both religion and nationalism are poisonous and immoral. I want to live in a world with no religion and one global democracy. That is my ideal and I fight for it.
There is Muslim prayer I like very much. It says Allah, let oppressors be busy in war with other oppressors. Indeed.