Friday, March 10, 2006

The Iranian Identity Crisis: Islam v. Iranian Identity



Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution the West has presented, with depressing consistency, a distorted image of Iran portraying it as a seething mass of Islamic fanaticism. Those unaware of Iran 's rich history could be forgiven for believing that Iran knows nothing but Islam. The reality is far more complex and hopeful. Publicly most Iranians accept their Islamic identity, however, most are also aware of their pre-Islamic Iranian identity. The tension between these competing identities has existed since the Arab-Islamic takeover of Iran in the seventh century AD.

In 632 A.D., the founder of Islam, Mohammad, died but left his new Islamic state in Arabia with a clear message to conquer, convert and subdue all other faiths. The Muslim Arabs, armed with their new Islamic faith, and hungry for land and wealth, unleashed a devastating war of conquest and within 30 years they had conquered a huge empire stretching from North Africa to N.W. India. The Arab conquerors imposed Islam so successfully that the pre-Islamic history of the conquered peoples was virtually erased from historic consciousness. The Arabs did not seek mere military conquest but also sought to conquer the culture and identity of the defeated nations. Islam was to have no rivals. The political nature of Islam demanded that a conquered people, such as the Iranians, not only convert to Islam but also to regard their past history as a time of darkness before the light of Islam came. In attacking Iranian identity, one of the most infamous acts of the Arab invaders was to burn Iranian libraries full of centuries of collected knowledge. The Islamic logic to justify this vandalism was that if this Iranian knowledge agreed with the Koran, then it was superfluous and if it contradicted the Koran, then such books should be destroyed. An unbeatable argument!

Islam adamantly required conquered people to scorn their own past and love their Islamic Arab conquerors by striving to imitate them. More importantly, the Koran is written in arabic and Islam's sacred places, Mecca and Medina, are in Arabia. It was clear that the conquered and newly converted had to accept the primacy of the arabic language, arabic values and above all Arabia itself. After all, Mohammad was an Arab and since Islam regards him as the best example of a human, Arab values cannot be rejected, without implicitly rejecting Islam and Mohammad. Islam as an imperial culture brought deeper and more profound psychological changes to the cultures it conquered than European colonialism ever could. Islam struck at human identity itself. Along with Islam's cultural demands, its political ambition was to include all Muslims in an Islamic world without borders, in which the only permissible political allegiance was to the world-wide Muslim community, Allah and Mohammad. There was no place in such a world for a conquered people's pre-Islamic history or national identity.

After the arrival of Islam, Iran faced the most critical test in its history. Would its ancient, tolerant Zoroastrian culture survive or would Islam and Arab culture replace the unique Iranian identity. Alternatively, could Iran somehow transform Islam into a palatable Iranian form? These questions have characterized Iran since the Islamic takeover. It is true, Islam has become the dominant cultural force, yet Iranian identity, rooted in its Zoroastrian past, has never quite conceded defeat. The tension remains to this day. For example "no ruz" or the Iranian new year (based on a Zoroastrian practice) is condemned by the Islamic clerics as a pagan practice, yet is widely celebrated. In addition, the achievements of the ancient Achaemenian period (whose empire was conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C.) and its classical civilization, have never left the Iranian collective psyche. The ruins of Persepolis are a constant reminder that there was great Iranian past a thousand years before Islam was even born. Not even the mullahs can deny evidence that is carved in rock.

During the Abbassid period, Ferdowsi (b.935), perhaps Iran 's greatest amongst many great poets, wrote the epic "Shahnameh" (story of kings) and reclaimed the Iranian past and language from arabic influence. Ferdowsi's poetry openly proclaims the superiority of Iran's culture and laments the Arab invasion. He accepts Islam itself as a fact of life without directly criticizing its teachings. However, Ferdowsi has nothing but contempt for the Arabs themselves and cannot forgive them. At times Ferdowsi's poetry even condemns the imposition of Islam itself. It is revealing that Ferdowsi's tomb is still revered by Iranians despite the ruling Islamic theocracy.

Islam's relegation of the pre-Islamic past of the conquered non-Arab peoples, to an era of "darkness" was one of the major themes of the Indian author, V.S. Naipaul's Nobel Prize winning books, "Among the Believers' and "Beyond Belief". Naipaul proposes that conquered peoples, such as the Iranians and Indonesians, had been separated by Islam from their complete and true historical past, and removed again by European colonialism and this disconnect has resulted in an inner anxiety and crisis of identity. Take for example Islamist movements in Indonesia and Phillippines, in which young Asian Muslims imitate Arabic appearance and call for Israel's destruction, yet they have no ethnic, cultural or historic connection with Palestinians. Both Islamic and subsequent western colonialism, according to Naipaul, have robbed the "conquered peoples" from their true selves, such that there is an inner loss of identity and a yearning to belong to some cause.

There have been times when Iran has dared to remember its past. In 1926, Reza Khan was crowned the first Pahlavi King of Iran and as part of his reforms he made it clear that he regarded Islam as a foreign imposed faith that should not determine Iran 's identity. As part of his attack on Islam, Reza Khan connected his new Iran with the ancient Zoroastrian past. The Farsi language was purged of arabic words, architecture began to take inspiration from ancient Achaemenian styles and schoolbooks were re-written to enhance an Iranian identity. Cities were renamed with Iranian names, parents were encouraged to give Iranian, and not arabic, names to their children. In 1935 Persia itself was replaced with Iran, as it was known in the days of Cyrus the Great. These reforms were of course reversed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In conclusion, it seems that Iranian history has swung back and forth between its Arab imposed Islamic identity and its older Zoroastrian culture. The latter simply refuses to die. Just as an individual struggles with conflicting loyalties and identities until they are reconciled, so do entire nations and cultures. As long as Iran 's ancient identity is denied and denigrated, Iranian public life will be dishonest and contradictory. According to Islam, all history before Islam was an era of "darkness" and should be discarded. This is a frightening Orwellian belief, that the world witnessed first hand with the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues. If the Iranian past is to regain its rightful place, it must be prepared to attack this identity-destroying aspect of Islam and re-claim its own past.

Paolo Bassi

Original Article

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