Iran Books
From Political Islam to Secular Nationalism

Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi
Rutgers University, New Jersey

The time has come to reconsider the image of Iran as a rigidly religious society, governed by Islamic fundamentalist ideology. Iranians and their government are increasingly moving away from political Islam and toward secular nationalism. This trend has been most vivid since Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's second term as president began in 1993.

Upon consolidating their rule and suppressing their opponents, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers propagated a pan-Islamist ideology, one that shunned Iranian nationalism and Shi'ism in favor of unity with Muslims of the world. In the early 1980s, leading clerics uttered the word "Iran" very sparingly, if ever.

Textbooks were rewritten to downplay, even ignore, Iran's pre-Islamic achievements. Hardliners even attempted to demolish Persepolis, the chief symbol of ancient Persian civilization. This marked what I call the "Islam-Islam" period, a time when the ruling clerics did not even acknowledge the existence of Iran independent of Islam.

But the anti-nationalist rhetoric of the clergy had a hollow ring. It not only occluded Iran, but also hid Shi'ism under the banner of pan-Islam. This rhetoric lacked genuine support among the non-political clergy in Qom and the wider population.

The excessively pan-Islamic rhetoric was designed, it seemed, to unite Iran with the Islamic world and sideline nationalist leaders vying with the clergy for political power. Given the nationalist proclivities of Iranians, it was apparent from the beginning that exalting Islam at the expense of Iran and Shi'ism would not last.

Despite all that is said about Iran's "Islamic" revolution, the 1979 revolution marked the continuation of nationalist, anti-colonial, and pro-democracy sentiment dammed up since the mid-nineteenth century. The reason Islam had mass appeal was the promise by Khomeini that equality, the rule of law and freedom from foreign domination would be protected under an Islamic republic.

Iranians did not wish to revive Islam for its own sake. Rather, they felt that the religion and Khomeini's charisma were the only forces capable of uniting the country and achieving national ideals. Shi'ite symbolism was instrumental in promoting the revolutionary mindset.

The Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 and its initial success at annexing Iranian territory impelled Iranian leaders to harness nationalist sentiment in the war effort. Meanwhile, the failure of the Islamic government to deliver the revolution's promises, and growing domestic opposition to the regime's political orientation, impelled the clergy to revise their pan-Islamism toward what I call "Islam-Iran."

The Islamic leadership began to utter the word "Iran" occasionally, but for a purpose. While this phase recognized Iranian identity as distinct from Islam, it still placed Shi'ism beneath Islam and regarded Iran as secondary to the religion. This period lasted until Khomeini's death in 1989, when Rafsanjani took over as

Ever since, this trend has continued unabated, weighing progressively in favor of Iran. The current period is best characterized as "Iran-Islam." This does not imply that pan-Islamism is defunct, but that proponents of "Islam-Islam" or even the more conciliatory "Islam-Iran" are no longer dominant among the ruling elite. The natural extension of "Iran-Islam" will be a resurfacing of Shi'ism, which will in turn add fuel to secular nationalism in Iran.

In early 1995, no less august a figure than Rafsanjani ordered the Islamic Republic News Agency to establish a newspaper called "Iran". Not Islamic Iran, just Iran. Large advertisements for the newspaper -- comprised of the three-color Iranian flag with no Islamic logos -- adorned Tehran's walls and billboards.

In keeping with its name, the newspaper itself displays a similar pattern. It is telling that the first issues of Iran reached the stands at the same time the government banned Jahan-e-Islam (the world of Islam), a leading pan-Islamist newspaper.

Iran is now hosting a lively debate about the appropriateness of Islam as a political ideology and the place of religion in the state. The country's leading intellectuals and opinion leaders routinely berate the clergy for putting religion to political use, and demand a separation of mosque and state.

Iranians, particularly the youth, are increasingly recognizing that religion, even in reformed form, is ill-suited to the demands of modern statecraft. Believers are concerned that subjecting Islam to the worldly demands of political expediency, robs religion of its transcendence and Godliness.

Secular nationalism is gaining ground, even among devout Muslims. Iranian nationalists claim that Iran has historically been on the receiving end of Islam. Indeed, because Islam was imported to Iran, it is not as central to Iranian identity as it is to Arab identity.

Five centuries ago, the Safavid shahs conceived Shi'ism as Iran's official religion, largely to distinguish themselves from Ottoman Turks and Arabs. Shi'ism is Iranian or Iranianized Islam. Its very existence signifies the irrepressibility of Iranian nationalism.

To prevent its legitimacy from declining further, the Islamic Republic has no choice but to allow secular nationalism -- with its deep ties to Shi'ism --to flourish and become active in politics. More than their conservative rivals, the moderate clerics led by Rafsanjani, have shown a willingness to heed this call.

If moderates continue to grow in influence, it will not be long before nationalism dominates the political scene. It will be a great irony if the clergy themselves become the harbingers of the "Iran-Iran" stage, which will blossom when the new generation comes of age.

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Last Updated: 11-Jan-96
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