Shiism, Nationalism, and the Past Clash in Modern Iran

Day after day in Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz, and other cities, the Iranian government exhorts the greatness of the nation's Shiite Islamic faith. It does so more cautiously in recent months, however, as a revival of Iranian nationalism questions the political legitimacy of mullahs who have controlled the country for over thirty years. As Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pushes the boundaries of his influence, at the expense of the clerics', his own appropriation of Iran's history and pushback from the mullahs have highlighted the continued importance of Iranian civilization's legacy.

The 1979 revolution replaced a 2,500 year-old tradition of secular, monarchic, reign with a theocracy. Glorifying that imperial tradition, which is rooted in ancient Iranian social and confessional mores, contradicts the bases and the results of the Islamic revolution. For much of its history, Iran was primarily a Zoroastrian (an ancient religion that gave the world notions of good and evil, judgment and retribution, heaven and hell) country. As the Shiite clerics see it, many of Iran's deep-rooted traditions conflict with Islam's influence.

Essentially, both nationalist and clerical ideologies claim descent from two long-standing but separate heritages. Just as Iranian nationalism declares its heritage from Iran's oldest kings, the clerical establishment claims authority from the prophet Muhammad through a line of imams or religio-social guides. So Iran's revolutionary leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, argued that since Islam is capable of addressing every facet of life, Iran should be governed by a regime that does not separate faith from state as monarchy did. He established the velayat-e faqih or administration by Shiite jurists that now controls the Iranian polity. Yet, the clerics who seized power have needed to walked a fine line, neither wholly denouncing national pride in ancient accomplishments that many Iranians hold dear nor embracing it and thereby questioning the validity of Islamic statecraft.

Now, given its constant relevance to ordinary Iranians plus its great potential as a tool for political gain, nationalism is beginning to resurge. It is generating a confrontation not just between Iran's two traditions of state and faith, but between those within the ruling class who champion secularism versus those who still espouse theocracy. Much as Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei notes, Iran is faced with a choice between the "school of Iran" and the "school of Islam."

Innumerable monuments and artifacts serve as constant reminders of a great past or the "school of Iran" in contrast to which the Islamic Republic and its "school of Islam" epitomized by velayat-e faqih pale. The ruins of Persepolis, citadel of King Darius the Great of biblical renown and his royal descendants, built in the 6th century BCE are synonymous with ancient Iran's international achievements. So in 2002, during the presidency of Seyyed Mohammed Khatami, members of Iran's majles or parliament joined with intellectuals in demanding that the government conduct archeological conservation at Persepolis and other pre-Islamic sites. State media trumpeted Persepolis as "one of the most important... monuments in the world," giving the public regular updates on the restoration's progress.

Nor has attention to preserving the past faded from public interest since then. Proactive actions by public and private media and by conservationist groups seek to alleviate threats on cultural sites: looting of prehistoric rock carvings in northeastern Iran, sinkholes (due to the Sivand Dam) at the tombs of the Achaemenid or Persian kings in Naqsh-e Rostam, flooding of Sasanian-era settlements (dating from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages), and impending destruction of a Parthian temple to the Zoroastrian angel Anahita at Kangavar for a Shiite shrine and a hotel for Muslim pilgrims.

So prominent hardline ayatollahs like Abdollah Javad Amoli can do little other than complain that: "Instead of being a source of admonition for present-day Iranians that there were people who lost everything despite their secular power, [Persepolis] has become a cultural heritage." Essentially, locations of cultural value have been successfully transformed into symbols of nationalism in the tussle between the factions who claim to represent the Iranian people. Even the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps struggles with the rising tide of nationalism linked to cultural heritage sites from pre-Islamic times.

The mullahs have every reason to fear the return of Iranian nationalism to politics since members of the regime's inner circle have begun to use it. Ahmadinejad negotiated extensively to bring the Cyrus Cylinder, a 6th century BCE text detailing the Persian King Cyrus' ostensibly just and humane ways, temporarily to Iran. In a ceremony eerily similar to celebrations by the last Shah at Persepolis in 1971, Ahmadinejad organized a professional performance of events from Cyrus' life for the unveiling of the ancient artifact at Tehran in late September 2010. He went on to proclaim the Cyrus Cylinder is the standard against which "all leaders must be measured." Copies of Cyrus' declaration, translated into Farsi or New Persian, are even being distributed to members of the infamous Basij paramilitia instead of Qurans. Spurred on by these events, the number of domestic tourists visiting the ruined cities of ancient Persia has been rising sharply.

Rejection of the clergy and their mores also is asserted through festivals linked to Iran's past. In March 2010, fundamentalist mullahs began denouncing the celebration of Chaharshanbeh-Suri as an un-Islamic holdover from Zoroastrianism. Iran's current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei laid down the official line on that festival, condemning merrily jumping over bonfires as causing "harm and corruption" and so "contrary to the Sharia" or Islamic law. Despite the regime's threats, through intimidation and arrests by Basijis, many Iranians celebrated that festival and Nav Ruz or the New Year which followed, choosing adherence to Iranian traditions over obedience to Muslim leaders.

All this is especially vexing to the mullahs as many if not most of them do not have deep familial roots in Iran. When the Safavid dynasty transformed Iran from a Sunni nation into a Shiite one, between the 16th and 18th centuries, clergymen were recruited from Lebanon, southern Iraq, Bahrain and other Gulf nations, and Kashmir. They relocated to Iran and set up the institutions of Shiism there. Iran's revolutionary leader Khomeini was of Kashmiri background, for instance. On the other hand, most members of the executive branch including Ahmadinejad, Mashaei, and their supporters, do not come from clerical backgrounds and are closer to the majority of Iranians in this respect. So words by presidential Chief of Staff Mashaei ring true for many Iranians: "Iran needs to remove the mullahs from power once for all and return to a great civilization without the Arab-style clerics who have tainted and destroyed the country for the past 31 years" because in Iran "din [religion] should be distinct from dowla [state]," and "those who do not value science and culture will never see heaven."

Hardline ayatollahs and their allies have railed against all persons supporting nationalism at the expense of Islam. Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, conservative majles members like Ali Motahari, and newspaper editors like Hossein Shariatmadari question why president Ahmadinejad would praise the words of a Zoroastrian king like Cyrus instead of referencing Islamic teachings such as those of the first Shiite imam Ali. Bitter criticism has come from influential ayatollahs once allied with Ahmadinejad, including Ahmad Jannati and Ahmad Khatami. Even supreme leader Khamenei entered the fray in defense of the political system which he heads, accusing Iranians who seek to "separate Islam from the clerics" and "promote secularism" as traitors to the Islamic Republic. Clergymen and their militant followers have succeeded in destroying some heritage sites -- like a Parthian fortress and sanctuary near the city of Hamadan. Likewise, other lesser known pre-Islamic archeological monuments have fallen victim to industrialization and urbanization.

Recently, however, supreme leader Khamenei seems to sense the necessity of building bridges between nationalism and religion, perhaps because he realizes correctly that the former commands greater loyalty from a larger number of Iranians than the latter. Addressing religious, political, social, and intellectual leaders at a meeting convened in Tehran specifically to "discuss the Islamic-Iranian paradigm," he spoke of "thought, science, life, and spirituality" as important factors for progress. Most telling that he might meet president Ahmadinejad and other nationalists halfway, Khamenei stated that "use of the two concepts of 'Islamic' and 'Iranian' is never meant to reject achievements and rightful experiences of either [concept]."

So, notwithstanding that it does not have one clearly unifying voice and makes fundamentalist Shiites very uneasy, nationalism is emerging as a major force within the Islamic Republic and could become the vehicle for regime change there. In a country split between conservatives and reformists, nationalist sentiments appeal to an as-of-yet untapped demographic: those who want a strong Iranian state and do not push for democracy, but are uncomfortable with the aloof elitism and social impositions of Muslim theocracy. But, for fear of what it may awaken, the clerical leadership has until recently been unwilling to manipulate that untapped commonality to their ends. However, other politicians looking to make a grab for power against the clergy have found such a vacuum is tempting.

The resulting struggle is upsetting the carefully-maintained balance in Iran between patriotic pride and obedience to the velayat-e faqih, as seen in Ahmadinejad's swift strides and Khamenei's fledgling steps toward nationalism. Consequently, all sides seem increasingly willing to throw aside their customary positions for a possible paradigm redefinition of the Iranian polity.