Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Towards “Secular Nationalism” in Iran


Towards “Secular Nationalism” in Iran

Ali Asghar Kazemi

November 2009


While nationalism in the Moslem world is commonly considered as an alien ideology imported from the West, Persian nationalism has been emerged from a religious ground. Shi’ism is an outgrowth of this phenomenon that distinguishes Iranian from other Arab and non-Arab Moslems in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

Up until the advent of the Islamic regime in Iran, national consciousness has been with Iranians parallel to their religious traditions. In other words, religious nationalism formed an inherent trait of the Persian identity for a long period of time[1]. This feature helped Iranians to consolidate, fight against their enemies and secure the country from disintegration and collapse. However, this trend has changed its course during the past several years. A new generation of Iranian intellectuals, academics and educated people is gradually moving away from the political Islam and traditional religious values toward a more universal and secular approach to various issues of society and the nation.

The progressive “Green Movement,” that emerged amidst the controversial presidential elections of June 2009, can be considered as the social and political manifestations of this new tendency. Upon a series of bloody clashes with the regime during the post-elections turmoil of June 2005, the movement has turned to radical and secular nationalistic slogans that aim at the very foundation of the religious system.

What is the substance of this new nationalistic awareness? How far this movement is capable to pressure the regime for fundamental changes? What are the implications of changes for the domestic and foreign affairs of the nation?

Islam and Nationalism

Nationalism has essentially a secular nature that originated from European civilizations. When it reached the Middle East it brought some fruits but it did cause serious dislocation to Moslem societies and produced serious challenge to traditional Islam.

With the gradual disappearance of Western colonialism from Asia and Africa, the struggle for self-determination and political independence led the Islamic communities to adopt nationalism as their liberating ideology. Thus, the quest for sovereignty and statehood created a sense of political nationalism that inevitably diverted and diluted the consciousness of belonging to the wider Islamic community (ummat.)

The relationship between nationalism and Islam is not always clear and various writers at different times and occasions have given different thought and explanation to it. As a matter of principle, Islamic doctrine adheres with the idea of “internationalism” and thus, theoretically, it should oppose such ideology. Some Moslem scholars have condemned nationalism as a regressive move to pre-Islamic tribalism.[2] Others have supported nationalism as long as it has its source and driving force in Islam. In some instances, nationalism in Moslem countries has attained the status of sacredness. In this kind of nationalism, protecting the nation from foreign aggression is considered as a “religious duty,” because only in a free and independent nation can there be a “religious self-respect.”[3]

Islam’s internationalism, along with its spiritual and political unity, stem from its pure monotheism. Thus, the kind of nationalism that emerged from secular and material interests is principally repudiated by Islamic doctrine. In this conception, nationalism without religion is inconceivable in Islam, since it is loyalty to the nation whose gate is religion.

Persian Nationalism

As we said previously, Persian nationalism expressed and articulated through the adoption of the Shiite doctrine fundamentally distinguishes Iranian Moslems from the other creeds in the broad spectrum of the religion of Islam. It has served as a strong unifying force against Persian enemies and rivals in the past centuries. But, with the ascendance into power of the clergies after the 1979 revolution in Iran, the political thrust of the religion gradually diminished and people became dismayed of the poor performance of politico-religious institutions.

As regards the evolution of nationalism, Shiite doctrine shall be viewed in two historical periods: before and after the 1979 revolution in Iran. The trend of nationalism in pre-revolution Iran is more or less similar to other movements in the region; in the sense that it was basically guided by a sense of self-determination, sovereignty and independence within the context of secular political system. The impact of Shi’ism has been considerable during the constitutional revolution of 1907. The later development of nationalist sentiment in Iran after World War II was also the product of secular intellectualism, whose effectiveness as a political force was marred by the lack of support from the religious sector.[4]

The Shiite fundamentalism that gradually took over Iran’s revolution of 1979 is considered analogous to the French Jacobin nationalism. In fact, the pattern of interaction and the trend Iran’s revolution resembles in many aspect to the French revolution of 1789. Five distinct phases can be observed in both historic events:1)The collapse of the “ancien regime” ; 2) the rule of the moderates; 3) The ascendency of the extremists; 4) The reign of terror; and finally 5) The “Thermidorian” period.[5]

The nationalist image of Iran’s revolution, manifested in form of the Shiite fundamentalism, bears many signs of the French Jacobin nationalism. In both cases they developed in the midst of foreign war and domestic turmoil. The main characteristics of this development can be observed in the following common features:

First, they became utterly suspicious and fiercely intolerant of domestic dissents. Thus, they made every effort to annihilate any group or faction which appeared to be lacking in faith and loyalty to the homeland “ la patrie” and “Vatan-e- Eslami.” They both fought vigorously any tendency toward partition and provincial autonomy.

Secondly: both revolutions relied heavily on force and militarism to attain their ends. They did not hesitate to use terror and violence to intimidate and cope against domestic dissenters. [6] As to foreign enemies, the whole nation and all the resources were set in motion. The Islamic devotees seeking martyrdom in war against the infidel regime of Baathist Iraq are example of nationalist manifestation under the banner of religion.

Thirdly: both movements have become fanatically religious. Finally, the common characteristics of the two nationalist movements lied upon their excessive missionary zeal. They both used every conceivable means to secure popular conformity.[7] This later trait pushed people away from strict religious norms to more tolerant secular values.

Secular Nationalism

With a view to make the traditional Islam more responsive to the needs of the present modern society, a number of progressive attempts have been initiated by Iranian elites, intellectuals and reformist during the past decade. They were all Moslem zealous who developed and lived within the religious system established after the revolution. Some of them even came from radical students followers of the late founder of the Islamic regime in Iran, who jumped over the walls of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and participated in the hostage taking American diplomats for 444 days.

The coming into power of the hard-line government in 2005 and its reelection in June 2009 was a serious blow to reformist groups’ ideals paving the path for the resurgence of a strong opposition front which later became known as the “Green Movement.” Thereafter, the green color which was merely the identity sign for one candidate became the emblem of a movement which is now standing as a challenging opposition front with new goals confronting the incumbent regime.

Thirty years after the revolution in Iran, people now seem to be changing their views and values in a direction opposite to that pursued and advocated by the Islamic regime. Despite earnest effort by the system to Islamize the nation, people sense of nationalism is being diverted towards secular values more attune with Western liberal democracy. This is indeed a major setback for hardliners who seek to enforce their backward interpretation of Islam for the whole nation. Their main objective is to dominate public and private life of the people.

As we said earlier, the new nationalistic movement in Iran stems from a different environment that is dissimilar from the past. We may attempt to recognize characteristics of the new movement in the following way[8]:

1) It is primarily a reaction against an ideology that has become unbearable for many even among religious figures;

2) It is an antithesis of a political system that came into power in a very particular point of time and circumstances that is no longer responsive to the actual expectations of the people;

3) It is a self-propelled movement with no official platform and has no particular leadership inside or outside Iran;

4) It is a “positive nationalism,” meaning that it is not against the current trend of the international society but it strongly objects the existing domestic divergence from that trend and wants to rehabilitate the true Iranian identity and status in the present world;

5) It is omnipresent and it uses all old patriotic and revolutionary slogans of the past as a tactical challenge against the ruling system;

6) It is a secular, forward-looking and peace-loving movement that denies all sorts of segregation, subjugation, arms races and interventions in the internal affairs of other countries and wants to live in peace with all people and nations.


Although the traditional Persian nationalism has a tendency to be dormant in quiet times, the new emerging secular consciousness tends to be dynamic and alert to the critical condition of  present Iran. Persian nationalism which, was once associated with religious faith as a driving force in the fulfillment of national and political aspirations, is now awakening in a new environment. They still stem from the same main source that is people with their faith and loyalty. But, it appears that the substance of the devotion is being transformed to secular values.

While Persian nationalism transpired from a religious premise in the past, it is now changing its course to secular values of the modern society. What we are witnessing now in Iran is a profound metamorphosis in people’s expectations and demands. Though the supporters of the “Green Movement” occasional and sporadic manifestation might be perceived as typical urban unrest with low level violence, its persistent dynamism during the past months infers the thrust of a real deep revolution[9]. The ramification of this transformation is not yet quite clear; nonetheless the impact is inevitable for present Iran. [10]/


Ali Asghar Kazemi is professor of Law and International Relations in Tehran, Iran. See: www.aakazemi.blogspot.com

* Students, researchers, academic institutions, media or any party interested in using all or parts of this article are welcomed to do so with the condition of giving full attribution to the author and Strategic Discourse. ©All Copy Rights Reserved.

[1] This dates back to about five centuries ago, during the Safavid dynasty when the Persian king (shah) conceived Shiism as Iran's official religion, largely to distinguish themselves from Ottoman Turks and Arabs. Shiism is Iranian or” Iranianized” Islam. Its very existence signifies the irrepressibility of Iranian nationalism. See: Hooshang Amirahmadi, From political Islam to Secular Nationalism Iranian Archives 1995- 2006

[2] This is the view expressed by Muhammad al-Ghazali. Cf. E.I.J. Rosenthal, Islam in the Modern National State, London; Cambridge Univ. Press, 1965. Pp.109-110

[3] See; Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of Muslem Brothers , London; Oxford Univ. Press, 1969 . p. 264.

[4] -Iran’s national Front ( Jebheye Melli) came into existence as a coalition of political groupings revolving around Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh. It began to fragment and ultimately collapsed with the approach of the showdown between the prime minister and the Shah of Iran in 1953.

[5] Cf. Hosein Bashiriyeh, The State and Revolution in Iran 1962-1982 ( Beckenham Kent : Croom Helm, 1984), passim

[6] . The same is true about those who one way or another turned back to the regime, including the entourage of the spiritual leader who accompanied him in his journey from Paris to Tehran. Almost all of them were either executed, jailed, exiled or isolated from political activities.

[7] Cf. Carlton J. H. Hayes, “ Five types of Nationalism,” in Ivo D. Duchacek Conflict and Cooperation Among Nations, New York: Holt,Reinhart and Winston, Inc., 1960, pp. 44-51

[8] I have taken these characteristics from my earlier article “ Rise of New Nationalism in Iran” See: Strategic Discourse, October 2009.

[9] Some people prefer to call the phenomenon a “velvet revolution,” referring to the experience of colored movements in Georgia and Ukraine, but the comparison seems irrelevant in the case of Iran.

10 For more sources on the subject see:

Christoph Marcinkowski Islam and Nationalism in Iran, Iranian nationalism is to remain a driving force behind Iran’s foreign policy. Security Watch Policy Briefs  Special Report, Oct. 2006

- Naser Ghobadzadeh Value Changes in Iran (Second Decade of the Islamic Revolution) Discourse: An Iranian Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 77-108, Fall 2004

- Jonathan Manthorpe, The roots of radical Islam Meddling by western powers fueled the radicalization of Middle East, The Vancouver Sun 27 September 2001

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