The National Interest
December 16, 2010
CULTURE IS hard to define and even harder to change. Beneath the surface solemnities of politics and the exigencies of economics lurks the intricate web of habits and rituals, practices and privileges, that we call culture. In its overt manifestations, culture may seem a docile tool, or perhaps an efficient vehicle for political change. In reality, culture has the capacity not only to survive upheaval in the halls of power but also to gradually and inexorably alter the nature of governance, molding politics in its enduring patterns. More than once in Iran’s history, after the country was vanquished by outsiders—from Arabs to Mongols—the culture of the conquered survived and eventually molded the customs of the victors to its own pattern. It is hard to imagine that the 1979 revolution will be an exception to this enduring reality.
In that upheaval of some thirty years ago, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini surprisingly emerged as the leader of the unwieldy and incongruent coalition of cultural forces that united to overthrow the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In the months leading up to the revolution, Khomeini used remarkable discipline to conveniently hide his true theocratic, antimodern cultural paradigm, feigning instead support for the democratic, nationalist and leftist values and aspirations that defined the demands of the 1979 revolution. Once ensconced in power, however, Khomeini famously declared that the revolution was not carried out for economic gains but for pious ends. The economy, he said, “is for donkeys.” Creating a new Islamic society, fashioning new men and women based on an Islamic model that had been perfected in the prophetic era of Muhammad some fourteen centuries earlier, finally discarding the cultural values of modernity was, he now claimed, the real goal of the revolution.
Now even regime stalwarts concede that this project of cultural remodeling has failed miserably. And the failure, along with its incumbent cultural fluidity and political instability, is in no small measure the result of the resilient societal ethos dominant in Iran on the eve of the revolution.
IT HAS become something of a commonplace to say that for more than a thousand years Iran has been defined by a bifurcated, tormented, even schizoid cultural identity: pre-Islamic, Persian-Zoroastrian elements battling with forces and values of an Arab Islamic culture. The paisley, easily the most recurrent image in the Persian iconographic tradition, is said to capture this tormented division. It represents the cedar tree that Zoroaster planted in heaven which was bent by the winds of Islamic hegemonic culture. Adapting in this way has been the key to the ability of Iranian culture to survive marauding tribes and invading armies. But Iran and its heavenly cedar bend only to lash back to their upright gait when immediate danger has passed and occasion for reasserting traditional values has arisen.
Some scholars have gone so far as to argue that even Shiism—since the sixteenth century the dominant and “official” religion of Iran—is in its fundamental structure nothing but a form of Iranian nationalism. Recent remarks by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, that Iran’s leaders in the last thirty years are all, in fact, Arabs and that their claims of being descendants of the prophet (symbolized by the black turbans they wear) reassert their Arab blood show clearly the continuing tensions between Persian identity and the Islamism of the rest of the Shia Middle East. Nasrallah needs to convince his followers thus that these Arab brothers have left nothing of a “Persian culture” to survive. These controversial comments indicate both the prevalence among ordinary Arabs of this view that Shiism might be an “un-Islamic invention”—and Iranian in origin. To justify his fealty to the country’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Nasrallah had to first make him an Arab.
For much of the twentieth century, these two cultural elements have been at war for domination in Iran. In power from 1925 until 1979, Reza Shah Pahlavi and then his son Mohammad Reza Shah tried to accentuate the pre-Islamic component of the country’s heritage and dilute the Islamic element. The shah’s infamously lavish celebration of two thousand five hundred years of monarchy in 1971—the international glitterati were invited, food was flown in from Maxim’s de Paris, and the ruins of Persepolis were used as a backdrop and a reminder of days of glory gone by—was more than anything intended to accentuate this imperial, pre-Islamic past. Even the country’s calendar was changed. The year 1355 in Iran’s Islamic calendar (or 1976 CE) suddenly became 2535. The beginning of the Islamic calendar went back to the journey of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, from Mecca to Medina, while the new imperial time sought its genesis in the alleged birthday of Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire. As the tumult of the revolution began only two years later, in a gesture of concession to the opposition, the calendar was changed yet again. But neither the hubris of retuning the clock on a whim—earlier tried by the likes of Maximilien de Robespierre in France and Vladimir Lenin in the Soviet Union—nor hackneyed concessions to the opposition could alter the stubborn realities of Iran’s bifurcated culture, formed and ingrained over centuries.
No sooner had Ayatollah Khomeini and his clerical allies seized power than they not only began to reverse the pre-Islamic ardor of the Pahlavi era but they also moved to the other extreme, trying to dilute, diminish and at times altogether erase from cultural memory evidence of Iran’s non-Islamic past. Jahiliyyah , or the age of darkness, has long been a concept used by Islamist historians and ideologues to derisively describe what exists in a society before the advent of Islam. Now some fifteen hundred years of Iran’s imperial era was disparaged and diminished as jahiliyyah . In the early days of the revolution, some of the more ardent new Islamist victors moved to destroy Persepolis (and were forced to cease their destructive plans only in the face of stiff opposition both domestically and internationally), while one of Khomeini’s closest confidants, Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, the man infamously known as the “hanging judge”—a title he had deservedly earned for his role in the judicial murder of hundreds of ancient-regime leaders and the new-regime opponents—dismissed Cyrus as a sodomite Jew, hardly worthy of veneration by a pious nation. Even today, thirty years after the victory of the revolution, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s zealots are taking their ideological hammer to the texts taught in Iranian schools, hoping to erase from the annals of history any sign of pagan “royal historiography.”
The clerics even tried to fight some of the most venerable rites and rituals of the nation. For a time, they focused their attention on eliminating, or at least diminishing in value, the ancient Persian habit of celebrating the vernal equinox as their new year ( Nowruz ). In retrospect, this anti- Nowruz crusade began even before the 1979 revolution, when in the sixties and seventies religious forces made a concerted effort to replace Nowruz with other religious holidays and feasts.
While in those days many in society participated in these religious ceremonies only to spite the regime, since 1979 the tables have turned. Now, celebrating Nowruz is an easy way to show your sentiments about the ruling clerics. The clerical leaders have apparently reconciled themselves to the reality that they have failed in their crusade against the celebration. But their quixotic efforts at delegitimizing Persian habits have not ended. For the last three decades, they have also tried to dissuade the Iranian people from their ritualistic habit of jumping over fires on the last Wednesday of each year—said to symbolize the hope and desire to burn away the past twelve months’ troubles and travails. Even as late as 2010, Khamenei issued a new fatwa declaring the practice heresy and a form of fire worship. Yet both traditions are more alive and celebrated today than ever before. When a regime politicizes all cultural and personal practices, as do the clerics in Iran, then every facet of the culture, every gesture of personal behavior, every sartorial statement (from women’s defiant refusal to wear the forced veil to men’s insistence on wearing ties or shaving their faces) becomes a form of dissent and resistance.
The Persian language, spoken by a majority of Iran’s multiethnic society, and long considered a bastion of Iranian nationalism, has not been immune from the vicissitudes of this culture war either. While much was made of cleansing the Persian language of any Arabic words and influence during the Pahlavi era, Ayatollah Khomeini and his allies made an equally concentrated and futile attempt to infuse the language with more and more Arabic words, phrases and even grammatical structures. For them, Arabic is the language of God and of the Koran, while to the Iranian nationalists it is a detested tool of Arab and Islamic cultural invasion. Just as the effort to create a new “Islamic society” has failed, the attempt to introduce Arabic into the Persian language has also been unsuccessful. Not only is the Persian vernacular today replete with new, cleverly constructed Persian words, but a whole generation of parents are increasingly moving away from naming their children after religious figures, opting instead for names from Iran’s mytho-history, or newly minted names conjured or coined from the Persian vocabulary. In this sense, then, the 1979 revolution was only a moment in the centuries-old culture war to define the soul of Iran; yet another attempt in the long line of efforts to eliminate or diminish in influence certain components of the country’s bifurcated identity.
ADDING TO the complexity of this cultural dualism has been the temptation of modernity. For more than a century, Iran has faced the challenges of an increasingly global modernity—an interrelated set of changes that radically alter a society’s notions of self, identity, politics, economy, spirituality and aesthetic. Culture became the arena in which these battles were most intensely fought. Every discursive realm, from poetry and painting to sermons and stories, turned into at once “instruments” and loci of contention in a culture war between different narratives of selfhood and individual and collective identity.
In response to these formidable challenges, four starkly different cultural and political paradigms, each supporting or rejecting modernity from its own prism and based on its own set of axioms and ideals, emerged. All were vying for domination on the eve of the 1979 revolution. In a sense, the shah was “unkinged” by the very cultural forces he helped to create. He was himself an advocate of Western modernization, even modernity. He supported a woman’s right to vote and the right of religious minorities to practice their faiths (affording unprecedented assistance to Iran’s Jews and Baha’is in particular). He facilitated increased contact with the West, and the training of a large technocratic class, and finally offered patronage and support for experimentation with forms of art, all of course predicated on the society’s acceptance of his patriarchic, authoritarian personal rule.
In the last decade of his reign, inspired by the cultural sensibilities of his wife, Farah Pahlavi, a student of architecture before becoming queen, the shah’s stern political paradigm was accompanied by a well-supported effort to preserve hitherto-ignored elements of Iran’s cultural tradition. Everything from establishing an office entrusted with the task of finding and preserving classics of Persian music to attempts to renovate or preserve gems of Persian architecture flourished under the queen’s patronage and support.
Throughout the seventies, in the Shiraz Arts Festival, some of the most cutting-edge thespians and playwrights in the world put on radical and innovative shows. British director Peter Brook and his Polish contemporary Jerzy Grotowski brought their new experimental productions to the city. Conservative clergy attacked these performances as lewd and lascivious, intended to undermine “Islamic moral values,” yet they were not the only critics of this display. On the other side, the democratic and leftist opposition (which embraced modernity’s values through its support of the “rights of man”) dismissed the festival as the futile and expensive facade of tolerance created by an oppressive regime. For them, the shah’s authoritarianism, his “dependence” on the West and his “original sin” of participating in the 1953 CIA-backed removal of then–Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh from power, trumped in value any cultural freedoms his regime offered or supported.
While the leftist, centrist and clerical opposition to the shah “overdetermined” politics to the detriment of cultural freedoms, the ruler, for his part, failed to understand what increasingly became the clear iron law of culture: men (and women) do not live by bread alone, and when a society is introduced into the ethos of modernity—from the rule of reason and women’s suffrage to the idea of natural rights of citizens and the notion of a community joined together by social contract and legitimized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s popular will—then it will invariably demand its democratic rights. That society will not tolerate the authoritarian rule of even a modernizing monarch capable of delivering impressive economic development. The shah tried to treat the people of Iran as “subjects” and expected their gratitude for the cultural freedoms and economic advancement he had “given” them. But he, and his father (and before them, the participants in the Constitutional Revolution at the turn of the twentieth century), had helped develop a new cultural disposition by creating a parliament and a system of law wherein the people considered themselves citizens and thought of these liberties as their right—not as gifts benevolently bestowed upon them.