Islamic Identity vs. Persian Identity in Iran, and Why I Reject Both

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.

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About Kaveh Mousavi

Kaveh Mousavi is the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies. He is a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher. He is passionate about politics, video games, heavy metal music, and cinema. He was born at the tenth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. He has ditched the Islamic part, but has kept some of the revolutionary spirit.

  • Syrus

    This must be one of the most ignorant pieces I’ve ever seen. Claiming that there is no Iranian culture without Islam is historical and cultural ignorance. Kaveh probably doesn’t know that it was merely Islam that absorbed elements of Iranian culture within its own intellectual thought. There is a unique, separate culture of Iranism that differs from both Islamic and Arab culture.

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      Which separate culture is that? Who practices it? In what cities? In Nowrouz, we put Quran on Haft Sin and read that prayer. Iranians fast in Ramadan and mourn a dead Arab guy for an entire month in Ashoura. Ferdowsi was a Muslim and he has many Islamic influences as well, but even if we consider him purely nationalistic, and exclude Khayyam and Ubeyd, all out literature is extremely Islamic in nature. Iranians have a unique reading of Islam both in mysticism and in Safavid fiqh. In all of these Islam is an inseparable part. But apart from these, what is the Iranian culture?

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      Oh, and also you reveal your racism here. There are many Iranian Arabs. By claiming that “Iranism” is spearate from Arabs, you’re defining Iran as merely Persian, thus marginalizing and excluding Iranian Arabs.

  • Infidel753

    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.

    I think there’s value in recognizing what past leaders achieved in the context of their own times rather than judging them only by the standards of the present. Most of the founders of my own country, such as Washington and Jefferson, were slave owners, but one can recognize that they advanced freedom and democracy in their own time, relative to what had existed before them, even though in modern times any suggestion of accepting slavery as they practiced it would be intolerable. Likewise, although I am not Iranian, I’ve read extensively on Achaemenid history and I believe that Cyrus left the Middle East a better place than he found it, and that the empire he created contributed to the civilizational achievements of later centuries.

    Nationalism does not have to mean repression of minorities. Most nation-states are multi-ethnic to some extent. Britain, for example, incorporates minorities such as the Welsh and Scots into its national identity. The worst oppression of those minorities occurred in past centuries when the country was much more religious and modern nationalism had not really developed yet. There’s no reason why a post-Islamic-Republic Iranian state based on nationalism couldn’t incorporate Azeri, Kurdish, etc. culture in its identity in the same way.

    A global democracy, or any kind of global government, is unworkable now even if that might change in the future. The world is just far too diverse. The nation-state is not perfect by any means, but it works better than any alternative we’ve tried.

    Also, I don’t see why stating that Iranian culture is distinct from Arab culture is racist against Arabs. It’s just an obvious fact that they are different. Of course Iranian culture is predominantly Persian (and British culture is predominantly English, etc) because that’s the biggest ethnic group in the country. The fact that there are some ethnic Arabs living in Iran (who, presumably, practice some mix of Arab and Iranian culture) doesn’t change that.

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      I’m not saying Cyrus was a bad person in his own time. I’m saying it’s wrong to (1) claim that he was a democratic and human rights leader and (2) to see him as a role model for modern times. Cyrus might have been a great contribution, my point is the symbolism and what he presents for a modern Iran.

      The reason is that Persian pan-Iranists are not willing to incorporate Kurdish people and others. Most of them support forced teaching of Persian and centralized planning and they react very negatively to the idea of a federalism. That is why the scepter of civil war hangs over Iran. Nationalism can be non-oppressive but a great majority of Iranian nationalists are. The only way to prevent tribal and racial tension evolve into civil war is to grant minorities all their rights and to support a federalist nation in which provinces have self-governance to a degree. Most nationalists are vehemently against this.

      I agree that a global democracy is not possible today, but that doesn’t mean I would embrace nationalism. I don’t define myself with the Iranian culture because I am an internationalist. It doesn’t matter how impossible my utopia is, I can still say “this is not the identity I choose for myself”.

      Finally, I’m not saying Iranian culture is not distinct from Arab culture. I think here you are mixing two of my different points. I said it’s not distinct from Islam, the religion. Islam and Persian aspects are interwoven that people who speak of an un-Islamic Persian culture are deluding themselves. It’s very distinctive from Arab culture in the way it practices and defines Islam, but it is Islamic.

      Now, native Persians speakers are about 40% of the country. So 60% are born into a language that is not Persian and have to learn it. When someone states “Iranian culture is Persian”, it can be said in non-racist way (the way you said it), but then against most Iranists use it in the racist way, as in Persian is our culture and it’s the only language that matters and all other languages are subordinate to it.

      • Infidel753

        Responding (for now) just to your second paragraph, I would only suggest that you not turn your objections to those particular nationalists into objections to nationalism as a general concept. I don’t know enough about the present-day nationalist ideology in Iran to comment on it, and what you describe does sound shortsighted and potentially dangerous, but nationalism in general, while it can be distorted into a racist or supremacist ideology, does not inherently incorporate those tendencies.

        Nationalism is a very powerful force and, aside from religion, is the predominant way that people in the modern world define themselves. Given the time-depth of Iranian history and the traditional status of Persian culture, I would expect nationalism to be, if anything, stronger in Iran than in most countries. The advancement of atheism is difficult enough anyway — if it is combined with an effort to fight nationalism I fear it will become impossible.

        (If anyone’s interested, more on that issue here.)

        My last paragraph was in response to your message 1.2 above in response to “Syrus”. Sorry if that was not clear.

        Are you sure only 40% of Iranians are native speakers of Persian? The lowest figure I have ever seen is 60%.

        • Kaveh Mousavi

          I disagree with you about nationalism. To me, it’s a form of bigotry on the same page as racism and inherently immoral. I’m planning to write a book against it, and maybe I’ll publish some articles here on the blog as well, but I don’t space/time to argue for it here. I might write a response to your article later. All I say is that I think you emphasize only the one good aspect of nationalism and turn a blind eye on its irrational and harmful aspects. There’s nothing wrong with loving people who are close to you, but nationalism is packed with ideas like national sovereignty and borders and national interests and pride and patriotism.

          Nationalism is indeed stronger in Iran. Any person who deals with Iranians or comes to Iran is shocked at the level of our nationalism.

          If I have to choose between fight nationalism and promoting atheism, then I choose to fight nationalism.

          Disclaimer: I understand that we are living in a time that it is so dominant that everyone believes in it even good people. With nationalism we are in the same page as history as racism was back in 16th century and most people believed in it. I don’t judge people negatively for their nationalism, so don’t think I’m saying “All nationalists are evil and as bad racists”, I’m saying nationalism itself is as bad as an idea.

          Also, even if nationalism was good I still couldn’t be nationalistic because I hate Iranian culture I hate Persian culture I hate Islam. Iran is a shit country and there’s nothing more repulsive than being proud of Iran. I love Iranians because I feel a strong kinship to them, and many people (and I guess you too) would say “Then you are nationalistic too”, but I’m not. I really wouldn’t care if Iran ceases to be a country. I don’t care if people are able to peacefully secede. I don’t care if Russians control all of Caspian Sea. I only care for the well-being of real people.

          Yeah, with Syrus I assumed he meant option 2.

          Erm, yeah, you’re right, I’m sorry. 65% are Persian speakers. I confused the ethnic distribution with language distribution. And I was wrong about that too, 53% are Persians. I trusted a wrong source. Sorry.

  • Carlos Cabanita

    I have no opinion on your statements on the value of Iranian culture, though I learned in History a positive valuation of the contribution of Cyrus.

    What I want to say is nationalism is a very dangerous ideology. It may have had it’s advantages as a tool to destroy the old empires of Europe and to liberate the former colonies, but as a way to conduct business in a country, it is far too divisive and aggressive. Nationalism makes militaristic adventures easy, because it paints all the others as essentially inferior and enemies. It is antidemocratic, because it tells a narrative of a chosen people, a heroic people with a mythified history as the founder of the nation. Almost never, alas, a nation is made only of that chosen people, so the other ethnic minorities get othered, attacked and discriminated.

    The old empires were no model for human rights, but they were more tolerant of diversity. So the Ottoman Empire had Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Kurds… but when they became Turkey, a nationalist state, they became far more intolerant of minorities. Modern territorial states like France or mine, Portugal, now have no ethnic narrative. A citizen is someone born inside or that has the right to citizenship, period.

    If Iran manages to live democratically for a time, the natural play of ideas in the scientific community could come up with surprising ideas that the propaganda machine of tha ayatollas never let grow. Bulgaria, under the communist regime, had a theory of history that told of Bulgarians, a Turcic tribe from the Pamir that came to their actual land and became more slavic. The other resident cultures were ignored, as they did not pertain to the heroic narrative. Nowadays, archaeologists are digging Thracian sites that were covered and interdicted by the old regime and bringing to light a more diverse history of the country.

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      I’m not saying that a judgment of Cyrus at his own time is negative, I’m saying people who claim he was a human rights leader and a role model for modern Iran are wrong and set a very bad example.

      I completely agree with the rest of your comment and enjoyed reading it.

  • Carlos Cabanita

    About Infidel753 opinion on nationalism, it must be stressed that it is an historically recent phenomenon, dating more or less from the constitution of the nation-states and the liberal revolutions. Before that people used to be loyal, not to the nation or the state, but personnaly to their tyrants — count, duke, king, calipha, emperor, whatever.

    In countries like the USA nationalism is usually never questioned, being an ideology integral to the foundation of the nation. But nationalism in the USA has manifested itself internationally in the form of exceptionalism and imperialism; internally it is manifest in mild form in WASP supremacy and in hard form in racism, white nationalism and white supremacy.