The Iranian state in the 20th century, whether one is talking about the Pahlavi monarchy or the Islamic Republic, has actively sought to propagate its particular narratives and visions of ‘Iranianness’. Given Iran’s deeply rooted ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity it should come as no surprise that Iranians have resisted and contested these narratives and the mechanisms of control through which the state has enforced them. The battle to define the ‘national character’ continues to this day and consensus as to the true nature of “Iranianess” remains elusive up to the present.
In this interview, Dr Reza Zia-Ebrahimi – a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) at King’s College London – offers his views on the hotly contested issue of Iranian nationalism. Dr. Zia-Ebrahimi explains the origins of what he terms “dislocative nationalism”, a specific strand of the phenomenon of Iranian nationalism which sought to craft an ahistorical and racialised narrative of the Iranian nation. This strand of nationalism, he argues, sought to dislodge Iran from its reality as an Islamic, Eastern land, and portray as a member of the Europe family accidentally gone astray in the Middle East. He then goes on to discuss what he sees the Iranian state facing in the future, with its mosaics of ethnic and linguistic minorities and how a more inclusive vision of national identity and state governance might be forged.
If we can start on a personal note, could you tell us what first drew you to the question of Iranian nationalism?
I grew up partly in Iran and partly in Switzerland. At the age of twenty something, I spent a few months in California, and this stay was to profoundly affect my self-perception and sense of belonging. I had so far defined myself as Iranian and nothing else, basking in some of our most common nationalist myths. I was in denial that francophone Europe – where I had lived and attended school for many years – could legitimately be part of my identity. In California, I had to recognise that my reaction to the automobile-driven ultra-consumerism of the shopping malls and chain restaurants was very European (or so perceived by my American friends and relatives). This forced me to acknowledge the European in me.
Most importantly, I felt estranged from some of my fellow Iranians there. I couldn’t relate to their formulation of belonging in strict racial and cultural terms; their overstated if not amusing American patriotism; and their abhorrence of things Islamic and Arabic. This all signalled a very ideological form of nationalism, rather than anything based in actual historical facts. The healthy distance that this experience provoked between myself and our banal nationalist narratives allowed me to gradually examine these myths critically. This process culminated in my research on the intellectual history of what I call dislocative nationalism, of which Aryanism is a fundamental aspect.
Can you now speak more specifically about the origins of Aryanism in Iran and comment on its presence in Iranian political and intellectual life over the course of the previous century?
The biological and cultural concept of race is a European idea which developed between the late eighteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, before being first scientifically then politically discredited. Similarly, the idea of an Aryan race emerged in European scholarship. It is difficult to condense its long history in a few lines but let me simply emphasise that the opposition between the Aryan and the Semitic race came to be maintained as an unquestionable scientific verity. For the 19th century French scholar Ernest Renan, it was the principle defining nothing less than the universe in which we live.
Early nationalist intellectuals in Iran, particularly Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani, adopted this hypothesis for several reasons. First, they held the science of Farangiyan (Europeans) for gospel truth. Secondly, Aryanism could very conveniently explain why Iran lagged behind Europe economically, socially and militarily. Indeed, Islam came to be re-imagined as the product of the Semitic mind, which nationalists believed – with the help of their European sources – was imposed upon Aryan Iranians at the point of the sword. Iran’s regression was thus explained in the very simple and digestible terms of a loss of racial and cultural purity.
This comfortable reading of history exonerates Iranians from any responsibility or even agency in their own history, and conveniently identifies the advent of Islam to Iran (racialised into an “Arab invasion”) as the reason behind Iran’s shortcomings. Needless to say every aspect of this narrative runs in the face of historical facts (today, the scientific consensus is on continuity between pre-Islamic and Islamic Iran, rather than a rupture). However, the convenience and appeal of this discourse explains why it is upheld down to this very day by – I dare say – a very large section of Iranians, even though Aryanism has been entirely abandoned as both a scientific hypothesis and a political ideology in the West, with the negligible exception of the most marginal fringes of the Far-Right.
How is Aryanism or what you call ‘dislocative nationalism’ different from other currents of Iranian nationalism or do they feature in all varieties of Iranian nationalism?
It is one of my contentions that the multiplicity of nationalisms has been generally overlooked by scholars. In my view, several nationalisms, with different ideological contents, and different aims, can address the same territorial entity. In our case there is no denial that the nation of Iran can be defined in different ways. For instance for some Iranians Shia Islam is an integral part of the Iranian national ethos. Others, such as myself, hope for a community based on the recognition of, and loyalty to, a civic order enshrined in a legitimate democratic law, rather than a closed and ascriptive ethnic or cultural form of Iranianness. However, among the various formulations of Iranian nationalism, one stands out because it is ideologically very elaborate. It is also a stable ideology whose content has hardly changed in 150 years. More importantly, it served as the official ideology of the Pahlavi state (1925-1979), and was therefore repeatedly hammered into the minds of generations of Iranians through mass-schooling, partisan historiography and propaganda. Its influence is therefore non-negligible. This ideology is the subject of my study and I call it dislocative nationalism as I see its main objective to be dislocation. In other words, it aims to dislodge Iran from its empirical reality as an Islamic and Eastern land, and portray it as a member of the European family gone astray in the Middle East. The alleged racial kinship between the Aryans of Iran and Europe is the racial discourse that allows such dislocation and as such, racial thought is a fundamental aspect of dislocative nationalism. Its mindset is enshrined in Mohammad Reza Shah’s claim that Iran’s situation in the Middle East is merely an ‘accident of geography’. It is a denial of the empirical reality of Iran and as such, it is mere chimera.
A number of scholars and intellectuals have sought to detach Iranian Aryanism from the malevolent and destructive anti-Semitism associated with its German counterpart. What do you make of their efforts on this score?
Although there is no doubt that anti-Semitism – especially in its ‘world Jewish conspiracy’ variety – is a reality in Iran, I do not believe that it [fits into the ideological core] of dislocative nationalism. Iranian nationalists’ main concern was to imitate European modernity in order to drag Iran out of its perceived lethargy. The figure of the Arab plays a very convenient role in this vision, as it is the scapegoat to be reviled and to be blamed. Arab-hatred in dislocative nationalism is no less vehement than Jew-hatred in late nineteenth-century romantic German nationalism. Yet, Jews are not actors in the Iranian nationalist drama, at least not in a consistent manner. Therefore although the European discourse of the Aryan race is adopted, it is adopted in a selective manner, only in so far as it can provide solutions to Iranian dilemmas. For instance Iran’s relative weakness compared to Europe is blamed on the “invasion” of non-Aryan/Semitic Arabs. There is no role to be played by Jews in this nationalist plot, hence the absence of anti-Semitism at the core of dislocative nationalism.
Coming back to Iranian Jews, they mostly consider – and rightly so – the Pahlavi period as the golden age of Iranian Jewry. That the European discourse of the Aryan race was profoundly anti-Semitic, and that Iranian Jews often adhere to the nationalism of the Pahlavis including its Aryanist component, inevitably leads to paradoxes and contradictions. For instance, an Iranian Jewish lady whom I met in the Westwood area of Tehrangeles argued that Iranian Jews were the original Aryans, as Muslim Iranians had mixed with Arabs and therefore lost their Aryanness. That a Jewish person uses a theory at work in the death camps of Nazi Germany to claim superiority over her Muslim compatriots epitomises the confused state of Iranian identity, entangled as it still is with outdated racial concepts.
What do you make of the idea propagated by some, including the last Shah of Iran, that Iranians are a single, unified and continuous nation stretching back over 2,500 years?
Let us be clear about it: it is a myth. Nations did not exist under their current form in the pre-modern era. Loyalties were local or religious. The poet Hafez for instance – considered one of the very embodiments of Iranianness – never referred to himself as Iranian, but merely an inhabitant of Shiraz. The nation becomes the main marker of identity only when a modern state endeavours to propagate the idea of national belonging through its symbols, its system of mass-schooling, and its propaganda machinery. The idea of “Iran” as a cultural and geographic concept of course predates all of this and can be traced to ancient times, but it was a fluid idea and its actual content varied greatly.
The Achaemenids never referred to their state in cultural terms, and never called it Iranian or Persian. We really do not know what the famous term ariya, which is to be found in Avestan and Achaemenid sources, means. Is it a tribe, a linguistic community, or – more restrictedly – simply a social stratum? In the inscriptions of the high-priest Kerdir in the late Sasanian period, eran (Iran) and aneran (non-Iran) are clearly politico-territorial concepts with no cultural or linguistic referents. In Islamic times Iran becomes a geo-cultural idea, which competes with other regional entities such as Khorasan, Iraq-i Ajam, Sistan, etc., or simply refers to the Sasanian state.
Don't the sources we have from the Sasanian era shed any light on this?
One fundamental fact which nationalists referring to ancient incidences of the term Iran and its variations willingly overlook is the following: all the written sources we have at disposal – from the Nasqsh-e Rostam inscriptions to the Shahnameh – are produced by the literate few, and serve their purposes. In other terms a small elite may use the term ‘Iran’, but to refer to different things: a geographic area with some shared cultural or linguistic practices, or a dynastic state such as the Sasanian vying to establish its legitimacy in very broad religious and cultural terms. We have no evidence allowing us to conjecture the identity of the large masses of peasants, tribesmen, traders, women and soldiers, absolutely none. They were illiterate, therefore historically mute. It is very unlikely that they have been considering themselves as “Iranians” for the past 2,500 years ago. He who wants to put forth such a proposition – if he does not address a sympathetic nationalist audience, happy to dispense with historical facts – has indeed a very heavy burden of proof.
The issue here is that nationalism, in spite of its modernity, deals with things ancient, almost always leading to anachronism and historical distortion. Nationalists look into ancient texts, and whenever they encounter the term Iran, they take it for evidence of the perenniality of the Iranian nation. The reality is very different and a dispassionate study of sources shows that the national concept of Iran as understood by dislocative nationalists has been created by Mirza Fath’ali Akhundzadeh and Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani between the 1860s and 1890s. It was not really prevalent until after World War I.
What do you see as far as the future of Iranian nationalism is concerned? Given the predominance and hegemony of political Islam and “Islamic identity” following the establishment of the Islamic Republic, is it right that we’re today seeing an upsurge in nationalist sentiments, with which the Islamic state has sought to come to terms?
The influence of dislocative nationalism has known ebbs and flows, but has remained strong. Since 1979, the secular opposition to the Islamic Republic is largely dislocative nationalist.
The founding fathers of this ideology brought about a deep fragmentation in the Iranian population between what I call the devotees of Cyrus the Great, and the disciples of Imam Hussein. We still have to see an attempt at reconciling these artificially created aspects of Iranian identity succeed. Greeks started off with two alternative periods to define their own golden age: the classical Hellenic, and the Orthodox Byzantine. Today, most Greeks have synthesised these two, and can derive their pride from both. Iranians have not yet managed to overcome the divide between pre-Islamic and Islamic Iran.
What about the state itself, what role has it played in cultivating one narrative of identity over another?
Many officials of the Islamic Republic have proven very good at tapping into nationalist feelings when the legitimacy of their rule was at stake. Persepolis and the Shahnameh are as much part of the symbolic repertoire of the Islamic Republic as they were of the Pahlavis. This is what is interesting: when forced to pay lip-service to nationalism, the Islamic Republic falls back on a form of nationalism that is already established: the Pahlavi (dislocative) one. A slightly Islamisised variety of dislocative nationalism does occasionally emerge, you even find traces of it in Shariati’s texts, some of which are replete with racial connotations (claiming for instance that Shia Islam is an ‘Aryanised’ form of Islam). However, the Islamic Republic has failed to devise a nationalist ideology sufficiently coherent, doctrinally elaborate and appealing to supplant dislocative nationalism. The Melli Mazhabi (national religious) movement is still in its infancy and we have to see whether they will develop just such a form of nationalism in the future. I personally doubt it.
Do you think a form of federalism or political decentralisation is inevitable? Is the model of the strong, centralised nation-state fated to transform into a political order better catered to Iran’s own specific historical trajectory and demographic make-up?
Here again, one sees startling continuity before and after 1979: the cultural and linguistic demands of Iran’s minorities are today repressed with the same zeal as before. The question of minority rights remains taboo in Iran. Many Iranians still fear that bringing it to the table will open a Pandora’s Box which will ultimately cause nothing less than the implosion of the country. In my view the opposite holds true: the question needs addressing as a matter of national urgency.
Regarding the state, many claim that the nationalist central state of the Pahlavis was indispensable and can be credited with having held the country together. It is debatable. It is certainly not the view of many members of the repressed ethnic minorities, or of the descendants of the forcibly settled nomads and the other victims of the centralising Iranian state, under either of its two manifestations. The central state has in fact very much alienated large sections of the Iranian population. I am not sure that federalism would be the solution. As mentioned previously, the only way to salvation in my view is the creation of an Iran that caters to all its citizens through a democratic social contract, rather than one that imposes an ethnic or religious identity from above. Only such an Iran – which has been overdue for a century since the Constitutionalist movement – can ensure the integrity of the country and the loyalty of all its citizens. It could be federal, but not necessarily.
Your book, The Emergence of Dislocative Nationalism: Race and Modernity in Iran 1860-1940, is due for publication in the not so distant future. What do you think it adds to the growing literature on Iranian nationalism and how do you reckon it will be received by an Iranian metropolitan readership?
In this work I attempt to trace the intellectual origins of dislocative nationalism, and the process that led dislocative nationalists to select and indigenise particular European ideas of nation and race. Those ideas mattered which allowed them to discursively address the issue of backwardness vis-à-vis Europe. This narrative that we all know emerged during that time: pre-Islamic Iran was a great civilisation, equal or better than modern Europe; it collapsed under the assault of Semitic Arabs whose only aim was to destroy Iran’s separate identity. We now have to extirpate the legacy of Arabs – Islam, Arabic loanwords, etc. – in order to return the nation to its previous glory and power. How will it be received? Scholars of Iran who know my research have been often supportive of it. Dislocative nationalists have sent me long abusive emails with the usual accusations (of being an agent of the Islamic Republic, a lackey of Britain, and a secessionist, all at the same time) and will continue doing so. My hope is that my work will encourage Iranians to question the myths of dislocative nationalism in order to finally put behind us the threadbare legacy of Akhundzadeh, Kermani and European racial thinkers. Our identity needs some fresh air, because it is still formulated with stuffy and problematic racial concepts from another time and another place. Our historiography is severely flawed and in dire need of rewriting. Lots of work lies ahead.
Reza Zia-Ebrahimi is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Twentieth-Century Middle Eastern History at King’s College London.
Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi is a final year doctoral student at Queen’s College, University of Oxford.