Monday, November 26, 2007


Iranian’s Emerging “Positive” Nationalism

Mehrdad Mashayekhi

I define nationalism as “the collective sentiment of a nation with a unique background and identity.” Nationalism is a modern phenomenon, emerging in 18th century Europe as a unifying ideology, resulting from the formation of nation states. While a shared history and identity led to nationalist ideologies, clear bias existed in transforming this history into a nationalist movement and connecting events of the present to those of an ancient past.

As a modern concept, Iranian nationalism first appeared in the 19thcentury after the country came into contact with the Western powers. Following several military defeats, humiliating treaties, and the presence of Western powers, notably England and Russia, Iranians began to feel a sense of national inferiority in comparison to the foreigners present there. Furthermore, the economic consequences of integrating into the world market, and the dominance of Europeans in Iran’s economy undoubtedly damaged the national pride of Iranians. The hurt that many Iranians felt resulted in resistance such as the 1891 general strike against the decision to lease Iran’s tobacco industry to a British company.

In addition to resistance, however, the cultural influence of the Western powers in Iran gave rise to new concepts inside existing political schools of thought in Iran, such as liberalism, socialism, rule of law and nationalism. These theories ultimately turned into intellectual tools for fighting against tyranny and colonialism. Nationalism as a concept entered into the political lexicon of many social groups, from the Qajari princes, to segments of the clergy, merchants, and intellectuals, and eventually manifested itself in the Constitutional Revolution of the early 20th century. According to Iranian historian Nazemol-eslam Kermani, the first reference to an “Iranian nation” was heard during the anti-government demonstrations held in Tehran during the Constitutional Revolution. This new “national” identity was different from the ancient Iranian identity expressed in Ferdosi’s heroic epic of Shahnameh. While the post-modern belief that one is a precursor of the other has gained popularity, Iran’s modern nationalism does not flow from this ancient culture.

In a nation-state framework, nationalism is followed by “national integration,” and in Iran this occurred during the reign of Reza Shah. Sociologist Turaj Atabaki believes this was a new stage of Iranian nationalism, which he refers to as “ethnic nationalism,” during which pride in the Persian language was emphasized. This form of nationalism was very autocratic, as it considered the state dictatorship a key factor in maintaining national integrity. Additionally, the prevailing elements of this national ideology were both anti-Islamic and anti-Arab.

In the years leading up to oil nationalization under the leadership of Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq, Iranian nationalism took a different course. “Dictatorship” was replaced with “liberal” and “democratic” components. There was no emphasis on ethnic language anymore, and in contrast Islamic identity became intertwined into a greater Iranian identity. The tension between the Iranian identity and culture and anything having to do with “foreigners” and “colonialists” remained a common theme in Iranian nationalism. In any definition of national identity there exists an element of differentiation between “self” and “other.” As expected, during the Mossadeq era, the “other” was mainly British colonialists.

After the 1953 coup deposing Dr. Mossadeq, Iranian nationalism shifted paths. Following the decline of the National Front Party, the collapse of the oil nationalization project, and the Shah’s return to power, political activities went underground. Autocratic governments with their American protectors on one side and the opposition forces on the other reflected a polarization of forces in the domestic and international stages. The nationalist movement of 1960s and 1970s became more radical and violent, and appeared in two forms: the Marxist left and revolutionary Islam. This discourse was born out of the National Front Party and its student organization, Bijan Jazani’s Cherik-haye Fadai-ye Khalgh-e Iran (Iranian People’s Fedayeen). Dr. Mossadeq’s political discourse, rooted in liberalism and rule of law (evident in his efforts to nationalize Iran’s oil industry through international law and negotiations), was eventually transformed by the Nehzat-e Azadi (Freedom Movement) and the Mojahedin Khalgh into a violent “anti-Imperialist” and “anti-American” movement to end the imperialist pillage of Iran’s resources. Other traditional Islamic groups (Khomeini’s followers, the Organization of Islamic Nations, and clerics such as Beheshti, Taleghani, Motahari, and Montazeri) were also against the economic, political, and cultural presence of Americans in Iran. Khomeini, for example, was against the presence of American military advisors in Iran and asked why dams in Iran should not be built by Iranian technicians instead of American ones.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 drove the nationalistic discourse into the periphery. The revolutionary leadership, who had defeated the monarchy and enjoyed mass support in the early years of the revolution, did not seek to challenge the status quo. On the contrary, its main motive was to preserve power in the face of any challenge from competing groups, and it considered “secular nationalism” a serious intellectual and political threat.

One can explain Khomeini and his followers’ antipathy toward Dr. Mossadeq and the National Front in the early days of the Revolution in this regard. The slogan: “Both democracy and nationalism distract the people,” was chanted by Hezbollah followers, reflecting this confrontation. However, at this time, only pre-Islamic and Mossadeq’s nationalism were under attack, while radical and anti-American forms of nationalism remained popular among Marxists and the Islamist left.

The eight-year war with Iraq further developed this contradiction in the nationalist movement. In the face of an Iraqi invasion, Iranian nationalism was reintroduced rapidly and became an important tool in mobilizing various segments of Iranian society to support the war. During this time, the Islamic Republic was forced to balance several forms of nationalism. On one hand, all political representation and corresponding secular images, especially those which were contradictory to Islam, were repressed, people were mobilized using nationalist themes against both the US and Iraq. National and patriotic songs and the juxtaposition of “Iran” alongside “Islam” by the spiritual leadership were some examples of this policy.

Since the end of the Iraq-Iran war and the death of Khomeini, the Islamic Republic has been more comfortable with nationalism. Strong nationalist tendencies have been seen in both the words and policies of Hashemi Rafsanjani and in the current reformist literature. As long as nationalist goals and rhetoric support the Iranian regime’s anti-Americanism policy and goal of extending influence throughout the region and international community, they are largely tolerated and occasionally used by the government for their own benefit.

Today, a new form of nationalism is emerging in Iran. In order to differentiate it from other forms of nationalism, I would like to refer to it as ‘positive nationalism.’ It is positive because it emphasizes the constructive features of Iranian identity and rights which Iranians should enjoy. This notion of nationalism differs from a ‘negative nationalism’ which stems from being victims of imperialism and is focused on battling foreign influences. This new trend cannot be explained away by referring to cultural values or Iranians’ temperament. Globalization has undoubtedly been a catalyst for this new form of nationalism as the Iranian economy and culture become more integrated into the global system. Iranians are aware that many aspects of their life are affected by globalization and the emergence of multinational institutions. Examples include the International Atomic Energy Agency, sanctions of the UN Security Council, the role of the World Bank and IMF in economic matters, non-governmental organizations which support the Iranian people in their quest for human rights, and even FIFA’s role in Iran’s national football federation. Also, satellite radio, television broadcasts, and the internet affect fashion, leisure, diet, and everyday lifestyles. As long as they are aware of these global trends and enjoy these global goods, the current Iranian nationalist movement cannot remain indifferent to these global phenomena. Therefore, this nationalism is more “positive” than “negative.” It places more emphasis on celebrating Iran’s global image and role and improving the standards of living (including on issues related to culture and identity) for all Iranians.

The emergence of this new cultural and political trend can be traced to the younger generation living inside Iran. While my observation will remain a hypothesis until we can perform a thorough field survey, the initial evidence suggests that today’s youth in Iran do not find themselves in conflict with “foreigners.” This generation is not anti-American, anti-Western, or even anti-Arab. Members of this generation are dispersed all over the world and have widened their world view through international travel and the internet.

Although globalization has tempered the negative nationalist attitudes, Iran’s younger generation is not necessarily completely infatuated with all aspects, policies, and actions of world powers. The younger generation is in fact quite sensitive to the issue of Iranian sovereignty. The undermining of these rights by global policies is viewed as a personal attack on their country and their Iranian identity.

Before we overstate the positive aspects of globalization, it is important to note that this process has also created aspects of negative self image among some Iranians. The confrontation between the Islamic Republic’s “crisis generating” policies and the reactions of the world powers have stigmatized Iranians. Other examples include visa limitations and discrimination at the hands of foreign governments for Iranian travelers, the perception of Iranians as terrorists, the threat of military action and economic sanctions, the production of humiliating films against Iranians and our culture (such as Not Without My Daughter and 300), and the dispute over three Iranian Persian Gulf islands.

A big part of this negative self image is due to shameful actions of the present regime in Iran toward its own people. Young people are constantly humiliated, in every corner of Iran. In the streets, in their homes, they are questioned and their expression is restricted. The practice of stoning, discrimination against women, and the exclusion of progressive individuals from participating in political processes have forced Iranians to question their history and image. Exhausted with these domestic and global pressures, many Iranians are asking themselves: “How can I be proud of my national identity given these circumstances?”

What we call “positive nationalism,” is in fact a psychological reaction experienced by a large number of Iranians with respect to their condition in the turbulent world of today. The present generation asks, “Can we find positive aspects in our history, society, or even in some of our government policies?”

Some examples of this emerging “positive nationalism,” include celebrations for Iran’s soccer team in the French and German World Cups; the world-wide call for support of the preservation of Iranian historical sites; the in-depth study of Iranian history and culture from a new point of view; support for a nuclear energy program (arguing, “why don’t we have a right to it when others do?”); respect for the older generation’s artists, academics, and sportsmen as the symbols of a better time; the differentiation between “Iran and Iranian” and “Islamic Republic” in political debates; broad opposition to the use of “Arabian Gulf” term instead of “Persian Gulf” in National Geographic Magazine; using names and national symbols at political and social events (photographs of Dr. Mossadeq and the signing of patriotic songs, “Ey-Iran”); and commemorating Constitutional Revolution day.

Although in its first decade, the Islamic Republic firmly opposed these trends and drove nationalism into a corner, in recent years it has had no choice but to adjust its policies to accommodate this phenomenon. Reformists during Khatami’s administration explicitly introduced the “Iranian” identity as one of the main cornerstones of a national identity. Even Ahmadinejad’s administration indirectly utilizes national sentiments to justify its public policies, for instance the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Nationalism is not an all-encompassing ideology, and can easily coexist with other ideologies, or even be manipulated by them. As mentioned earlier, Iran experienced historical nationalism, Mossadeq’s nationalism (liberal), leftist nationalism (anti-imperialist), and radical nationalism (chauvinistic). Iranians seek to preserve positive nationalism as a moderate force and to incorporate democratic and secular values into it. Any political faction who can manage this political task and bring nationalism and democracy together will surpass others. In an era defined by democracy, globalization and diversity, we must redefine nationalism. Today’s nationalism is not in opposition to the US, Israel, Arab nations or imperialism, nor is it obsessed with pre-Islamic culture or images, nor does it brag about the “nationalization” of every industry or economic resource. Instead, it offers a clear positive, modern, and moderate image of Iran. In the meantime, we must deliberately reject any definition of nationalism which might prevent other Iranian ethnicities from celebrating their own identities, such as the repression of the celebration of Babak Khoramdin, a hero among Iran’s Azeri youth.

Mehrdad Mashayekhi is the author of dozens of articles and interviews on post-revolutionary political and sociological developments. He has published in numerous English and Farsi publications including the Washington Iranian, Open Democracy, and Shahrvand Publications. He is the co-editor of Iran: Political Culture in the Islamic Republic. His book Social Movements & Contentious Politics in Post-Revolutionary Iran (Farsi) is forthcoming. Dr. Mashayekhi has a Ph.D. in sociology and an M.A. in economics, both from American University, and is currently a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.


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