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Molding the Language of Nationalism in Three Recent Periods in Iran

Molding the Language of Nationalism in Three Recent Periods in Iran

Table of Contents

Introduction

In 651 C.E., the Sasanian Empire (224-651 CE) toppled, losing control of Iran to the Arabs. This event, commonly referred to as the Arab conquest, introduced a new culture, language, and religion to Persia. Persians, however, refused to shed their identity, entailing the retention of the Persian language, as the two were akin to one another. Still, despite their efforts to sustain their language, Arabic garnered influence on Persian that it still holds today.

Centuries later, as Iranians grew outraged and humiliated by foreign intervention in their country, nationalistic feelings heightened. Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848-1896), inspired by the West, sought to cultivate a public image of a modern state to elevate the status of the monarchy, legitimize the state, and maintain loyalty from society. In an attempt to glorify the monarchy, he commissioned translations of Iranian and European histories.

These translations caused Iranians to realize how prosperous Europe was in contrast to Iran, thus creating a feeling of backwardness. However, they provided the solution to Iranians’ newfound embarrassment with translations that portrayed ancient Iran as a period of grandeur and greatness. Additionally, the translations emphasized Iranians’ shared roots with Aryan ancestry, with which Iranians began to enthusiastically identify.

In response to this newfound feeling of backwardness, Iranians sought to identify the cause of their predicament. The Arab conquest presented a foreign “other” to scapegoat and Iranians used the Shah’s new translations as an opportunity to separate themselves from Arabs.      . The  translations evoked nationalistic sentiments in Iranians as they revered their glory days before the Arab conquest and as the Iranian elite began searching for solutions for the “salvation of Iran.” 

Fired by a desire to revive Iran’s ancient greatness, Iranian elites first began to push for linguistic reform of the Persian language. Motivated by the effects of translation and alarmed by the increasing influence of imperial powers, they sought to rid communications of complicated language to close the gap between the speech of the elite and the speech of the common Iranian. This desire actualized with the development of the Constitutional Revolution.

Effects of the Constitutional Revolution

The Constitutional Revolution marked a turning point in the country with the establishment of free speech. The right to free speech caused a boom in journalism that resulted in the publication of over 80 newspapers just one year after it was granted. Previously, published texts were a “monopoly of a small and isolated elite” who attempted to show off by using high-level Arabic vocabulary, preventing those without a knowledge of Arabic from fully understanding the information. After the revolution, newspapers began using simple Persian, making it accessible to all readers. 

Along with the accessibility of information came the spread of new ideas. Writers intended their articles to disseminate among ordinary Iranians modern notions of justice and democracy, concepts unfamiliar to many Iranians. Subsequently, constitutionalists, fearful of being viewed as “Paris-worshippers,” began to mold the image of Persian identity into one inspirited by pre-Islamic myths. 

The decrease in the use of foreign words in the Persian language underlined the need for new Persian vocabulary as writers struggled to find the words necessary to communicate new ideas. For example, Mirza Jahangir Khan, editor of Sur-e Esrafil, expressed this need by writing in an article that one could not call a train conductor a “camel driver.” The solidification of Persian identity alongside the awareness of the dearth of Persian words for developing ideas and technologies produced the recognition of the need for formal language reform among Iranians.

Reza Shah Era

Nationalism

Reza Khan came to power in a fragmented and divided country. To consolidate his control, he sought to unite Iran and establish internal security. He accomplished this by using the military to suppress tribal revolts. To prevent the tribes from revolting again, in addition to military force, he used coercive homogenization.  He forced the migration and resettlement of nomads. He outlawed ethnic clothes, banned ethnic languages, and closed foreign schools. He required that Persian be the only language used in education and administration and banned the publication of books and newspapers in other languages, at times resorting to violence to enforce that demand.

Reza Shah used this coercive homogenization in tandem with modernization. He pushed reforms in an attempt to mold Iran into a modern nation-state that could hold its own against Western powers. This included the modernization of the military, the education system, transportation, and industry.  In a similar fashion, Reza Shah consciously used language reform to bolster the state. His intent was to foster an increase in nationalist sentiments that would lead to an increase in the desire for language purification; this would, in turn, bolster the capacity of the state. 

Pure Turkish Movement 

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s modernization reforms in Turkey inspired Reza Shah Pahlavi to follow in his footsteps. Due to the Ottoman Empire’s use of the Persian language within their courts, Turkish contained a large amount of vocabulary from both Arabic and Persian. Soon after this “Pure Turkish” movement commenced, Reza Shah Pahlavi visited Turkey in 1934. His visit occurred during the “high point of Ataturk’s secularizing measures” and he found inspiration in the movement. With Iranian newspapers reporting on Ataturk’s modernization program, the idea of formal language reform also spread to Iranian society.

Reza Shah’s Personal Efforts at Language Reform

Reza Shah himself actively tried to use “pure Persian” words, inspiring many government officials, who called for the use of “pure Persian” in administrative documents. For example, after a dinner with military officers in which Reza Shah used pure Persian to address the guests, an editorial was published titled (“Soxan-e Sah soxan ast”) or “A Persian King Speaks the King’s Persian” that praised him and lamented the “decline” of the Persian language due to foreign influence. Another noteworthy moment was the excitement Reza Shah displayed when the obstetrician for his daughter’s birth used the “pure Persian” term naxost-za to mean “mother-to-be.”  The Shah’s use of “pure Persian” contributed to the public desire for the creation of a language academy which, after established, he personally contributed to by reviewing neologism proposals.

Opponents of the language reform movement generally kept silent during Reza Shah’s reign. When the Shah found out that Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Foroughi and the minister of education approved the publication of an article criticizing the Persian purification movement, he dismissed Foroughi and the education minister and arrested the owner and editor of the newspaper.  For the Shah, language reform was not just a means to forge national unity; like many absolute rulers, his effort to “purify” the language was also a way to demonstrate his power.

Ministry of War and Education – 1924 

Reza Shah implemented language purification to strengthen the capacity of the state.  Accordingly, the movement began with his effort to modernize the military. He believed that in order to maintain his power, he had to build a powerful military that could subdue those who attempt to overthrow him, such as tribal leaders or the clergy. 

As advancements occurred in military machinery, proper terminology was necessary for the new technology. In 1924, Reza Shah (then Reza Khan) called for the development of a committee within the Ministry of War and Education to create words for European military ideas and technology. This committee met for about four months and created around 300 neologisms that consisted of both French loan words and calques to replace Arabic loan words or to introduce words for new technology. The neologisms were dispersed through the press and gained popularity quickly, often becoming permanent additions to Persian vocabulary. Some of the words such as فرودگاه (airport,) are still used in Persian today. In 1925, the Ministry of War established a second committee to create terminology for military rules and ranks. The military terms caught on quickly, as officers threatened their subordinates with demeaning chores if they did not use the correct words. Reza Shah himself made it clear that the military should prioritize “pure Persian” words, which personally inspired the military officers, as well as the younger generation.

Teachers Training School (1932-1940) 

In 1932, the Teacher Training College formed a society dedicated to creating new terms for the arts and sciences called the Society for Coining Scientific Words and Terminology (انجمن واژه ی لغت و اصطلاحات علمی)  (Anjoman-e ważʿ-e lōḡāt wa eṣṭelāḥāt-e ʿelmī) . The society was led by a professor, who supervised 25-50 students as they presented their recommendations for Persian equivalents to scientific terms. The society was well organized, with clear guidelines for the students to propose new words. It met weekly for the next eight years and suggested around 3,000 new words, with approximately 400 of them used in academia or school texts. The society contained sections for sciences, philosophy, literature, and mathematics.

Medical Academy 1934

In 1934, the Ministry of Education established a Medical Academy (آکادمی طبی) (Ākādemī-e ṭebbī) dedicated to creating Persian terms for common medical vocabulary. The academy also translated medical books and compiled a medical dictionary.

Ferdowsi Celebration 1934 and the Shahnameh

Reza Shah understood the value of the Shahnameh in popularizing the language reform movement and sought to use it to his advantage. In 1922, poet and journalist Mohammad Taqi Bahar encouraged him to solidify his nationalistic stance by promoting Ferdowsi as “the resurrector of the Iranian national identity and people.” In 1934, the “Ferdowsi Millennial Celebration” honored Ferdowsi’s legacy 1,000 years after his birth and unveiled his new mausoleum. In publicizing and raising money for the celebration, a lottery system was created to fundraise and compelled people to donate as a way of “showing gratitude to the reviver of the Persian language.” Also at the event, a professor, Rezazadeh Shafaq, cited the Shahnameh as a manifesto for the reform movement and encouraged Iranians to follow his “measured path” by avoiding Arabic words when possible. 

Ali Asghar Hekmat, Iran’s Minister of Education at the time, delivered a speech that called for unity within Iran and with other (mostly European) nations, but dismissed the history of Arabs and Islam in Iran. Professor of Persian literature Rezazadeh Shafaq declared that the Shahnameh was a “national identity badge in reaction to the Arab conquest and the near-victory of the Arabic language.” Shafaq also encouraged educators to promote the Shahnameh’s ideas on nationality and Ferdowsi’s “language purification” in their classrooms. In the United States, Iran’s minister to the U.S., Mirza Ghaffar Khan Djalal, spoke at a reception and described Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh as advocating for “the restoration of unity” among the Iranian race and proclaimed that the Arab conquest caused Iranians to lose their national pride and glory. Reza Shah Pahlavi himself spoke at the unveiling of Ferdowsi’s tomb in Tus and accredited Ferdowsi as the reviver of the Persian language, stating that Iranians owed him great appreciation.

The millennial celebration garnered news coverage globally as well as locally, with the German and Soviet embassies sending gifts to honor Ferdowsi.  It was viewed by other nations as a celebration of Persian national identity and culture and affirmed Ferdowsi as an important figure not only in Iranian history but in world history. This was a significant achievement as the organizers of the celebration sought to have Iran recognized globally.

The celebration cemented Ferdowsi as a symbol of Iranian nationalism. Following the event, Ferdowsi grew in popularity and his tomb eventually became a recognized symbol of Iranian culture. Ferdowsi statues proliferated in Iran, as did name changes of streets and public spaces to commemorate the poet.

Nationalist Zeal 

In addition to institutions, the literate Iranian public joined the language debate. Within six months of Professor Shafaq’s push, the newspaper Ettelaat published dozens of articles discussing the question of language. These articles ranged from moderate to extreme views on the reform movement, from the belief that the removal of Arabic words would be detrimental to Persian, to the contempt of Arab conquerors and their “Semitic words” that had somehow penetrated the Persian vocabulary. Between 1934 and 1936, the intensity of chauvinistic propaganda in other spheres of social activity generated a sympathetic flood of letters to the press from persons with nativist, purest or pan-Iranist linguistic axes to grind.” The language question became so intense that a circular was sent to different ministries instructing them to refrain from using new words in official documents until a committee of scholars could settle the debate.

Aryanism

Although he was never outright pro- Nazi or pro- German, Reza Shah preferred German technicians and engineers to help develop Iran instead of the British, whom most Iranians distrusted. He did not support foreign meddling in Iran, nor did he support any ideology that could threaten his reign, whether it be fascism or communism. Still, he attempted to balance between Germany and Great Britain, careful to maintain the appearance of neutrality, while simultaneously attempting to benefit from relations with both sides.

Regarding nationalism, the most important benefit he sought from the Germans was their recognition of Iranians as Aryans. A defining moment of Reza Shah’s reign was his decision in 1935 to change the country’s name from Persia to Iran. The idea had come from the Persian legation in Berlin and a memorandum was sent from the foreign ministry to all Iranian embassies abroad. The justification for the change was that “Persia” was historically, geographically, and racially incorrect. It stated that the term “Persia” was limited only to the “Fars” province and claimed that because Iran formed the racial origins of the Aryans, it was “only natural” that the country used that name because “some countries pride themselves in being Aryan.” When the German envoy inquired more, Tehran asserted that the name change was due to the geographical inaccuracy, yet Iranian diplomats were upset when the German government did not genuinely share their claim that Iran was an Aryan nation. 

The First Farhangestan 1935

With a heightened interest in language reform after his trip to Turkey and the confusion caused by newly understood concepts without proper Persian terminology, Reza Shah’s Prime Minister, Mohammad- Ali Foroughi, suggested that he create a language academy. Thus, the Shah declared that all committees pursuing language purification would be under one institution— the “Academy of Iran” or فرهنگستان ایران.

The Farhangestan was created as the official institution for Persian language purification. Farhangestan established seven committees to study grammar, vocabulary, technical terms, medieval texts, expressions from regional dialects, guidance to writers and poets, and the writing system. It also gave Persian names to  geographical features whose names reflected Arabic or Turkish influence, such as changing the name of Iran’s southwest province from  Arabistan to Khuzestan. The neologisms created were distributed through a series of books entitled New Words (واژه های نو). Government officials demanded their use within the Iranian government and in 1941 the Prime Minister produced an order stating that all state offices and ministries must use the new words in their official communications. 

The Farhangestan did not accomplish as much as it promised.  Reza Shah was never happy with the Farhangestan leadership and the academy’s slow progress, and as a consequence,  the academy had four different presidents during its first six years. The first Farhangestan adopted over 3,500 new words, although not every word suggested made it into circulation. The academy sought to create a “pure Persian” dictionary and book of grammar, but it was never produced. It created a journal meant to explore different aspects of the Persian language, but the content of the journal soon transitioned into meeting notes and more technical information, resulting in only 10 issues published.,  

The abdication of Reza Shah in September 1941, following the Anglo-Soviet occupation of Iran, hastened the end of the Farhangestan.  The Minister of Education soon thereafter permitted teachers and textbooks to use either the newly coined or the old words as they saw fit, and the Farhangestan stopped coining new words in 1943. The new Shah, the young and inexperienced Mohammad Reza Shah inherited an Iran still occupied by allied forces, and thus possessed little control. As he struggled to find his bearings in the aftermath of the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossaddegh in 1953, the Farhangestan shut down in 1954. 

The Intelligentsia 

Elite responses to the official implementation of the Persianization programs varied, often depending on what level of “purity” they were looking for in the Persian language and their main motive for seeking reform in the first place.     For example, writer Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh prefaced his book “Once Upon a Time” (Yeki Bud Yeki Nabud) by stating his hope for a “literary democracy” in Iran. He urged writers to “denounce the pretentious convoluted style of the literary elite, and instead, celebrate the aesthetic components, the democratic potentials, and the communicative power of the vernacular.” Although not directly related to Farhangestan, this is a clear example of why one might advocate for language reform—in order to create a simpler Persian that is accessible to all.

The more “radical” views purists espoused were often fueled by Iranian nationalism, perhaps by contempt for the Arabs or a belief in the “Aryan myth” cultivated by orientalist scholarship. Another reason to consider is Reza Shah’s personal aspiration for purification. For example, at a Nowruz reception, the Shah berated journalists that had not removed Arabic words from their editorials. Thus, the intelligentsia might have avoided Arabic solely to impress—or avoid the wrath of—the Shah.       Those against the movement cited the impracticality of purification, the erasure of history and natural language evolution, or the belief that cleansing Persian of Arabic influence was an attack on Islam. There were also moderates, who believed that despite the outsized influence of Arabic on Persian, it was not feasible to rid the language of all foreign vocabulary.

Indeed, the first president of the Farhangestan, who also was Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad-Ali Foroughi, was very much a moderate on the question of language purification. He advocated gradually removing Arabic words from Persian but believed that it would be impossible to remove all traces of foreign influence. He did not want Farhangestan to simply be a “word manufacturing factory” and maintained that the idea of language purification deserved discussion and research on how to best incorporate it in Iranians’ everyday lives.

One last point to be made in relation to the Shah is the fact that after his abdication, interest in the Farhangestan dwindled until it ceased to exist. This infers the possibility that enthusiasm for the academy was primarily based around the Shah’s concerns.

The Arabic Alphabet 

The Arabic alphabet had often been the scapegoat for illiteracy in Iran, with its critics citing it as too difficult to learn. Encouraged by Ataturk’s implementation of the Latin alphabet in 1928, interest formed in Romanizing the script for Persian. For example, diplomat and politician Sayyed Hasan Taqizadeh published a pamphlet in November 1928 that proposed a modified Latin alphabet consisting of 40 letters that could be introduced to replace the Arabic alphabet within 40 years. However, the Shah himself never officially endorsed the adoption of the Latin alphabet for Persian.

Language Reform as Nation-Building

Reza Shah consciously employed nationalism to secure his rule, using modernism and security as his main mechanisms to establish power. To centralize control and better disseminate his notions of modernity, he worked to decrease the power of tribes, ethnic minorities, and religious institutions to coerce them into a new, homogenized Iranian national identity. Reza Shah’s language reform program complemented his larger effort at creating a national Iranian identity, and aimed at producing a homogenous Iranian society over which he could easily maintain his power. As he forcibly unmoored tribes from their ethnic identities, a “purified” Persian helped to define the new Iranian identity the tribesmen should adopt.

For similar reasons, Reza Shah promoted Persian identity to stimulate attitudes of pride amongst Iranians. Once Iranians felt that they were part of a distinct and vibrant identity with monarchical roots dating back thousands of years, he could more easily align himself with the former kings of Persia. By identifying his rule as the latest expression of a long tradition and a glorious past, Reza Shah could present himself as a natural and strong leader and further solidify his power. With Arabic loan words being tangible proof that Persian was no longer “pure,” and with the importance of the Persian language to Persian identity, he could scapegoat the Arabs for many of the failures of Iran. Thus, Reza Shah used language reform as a component of his security and modernity focused nationalism to further strengthen the coercive apparatus of the state.

Mohammad Reza Shah Era 

Nationalism

Like his father, Mohammad Reza Shah’s nationalism emphasized modernization as a means to secure and legitimize the state. However, because Mohammad Reza Shah was obsessed with equating Iran to Europe, he prioritized promoting Iran’s Aryan identity to spur nationalistic feelings. The attachment to Aryan identity was a tool to not only differentiate Iranians from their Arab and Turkic neighbors but to align Persians with the Europeans, thus, from the Shah’s perspective, elevating their status in the world. He went so far as to suggest to then- British Ambassador Sir Anthony Parsons that Iranians, because they were Aryan, were truly part of the European family and that it was only an “accident of geography” that Iran happened to be situated in the Middle East.

The Shah claimed the title Aryanmehr (light of the Aryans) and aimed to elevate Iran to its pre-Islamic glory. He aligned Iran with the concept of a “Great Civilization,” even publishing a book in 1977 with the same title. Rather than to simply look back on the pre-Islamic era with fondness, he sought to create a continuation between his reign and the reign of pre-Islamic Persian rulers, such as Cyrus the Great, who he honored at a lavish and controversial celebration for the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire in 1971. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi used nationalism to both unify Iranians and distinguish the Iranian nation from outsiders.

Other Groups Advocating Language Reform

With the demise of the first Farhangestan in 1954, several societies sprung up to fulfill the responsibility of creating new words. These included the Word-Making Society (Anjoman-e vāža-sāzī, 1955), affiliated with the Faculty of Public Administration (Dāneškada-ye ʿolūm-e edārī); the Society for Scientific Terminology (Anjoman-e eṣṭelāḥāt-e ʿelmī, 1963); the Society for Medical Terminology (Anjoman-e vāžahā-ye pezeškī, 1963); the Society for Philosophical Terms (Anjoman-e eṣṭelāḥāt-e falsafī, 1966); and the Supreme Council for Compiling a Military Dictionary (Šūrā-ye ʿālī-e tadwīn-e farhang-e neẓāmī; 1967), founded by the Headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief.  Other notable groups include the Institute for Translation and Distribution of Books, the Franklin Institute, the Persian Encyclopedia, and the Iranian Cultural Foundation. During this time, Iranian society continued to discuss and debate the language question.

The Second Farhangestan

Beginning in the 1960s, the Shah implemented new socio-cultural measures in Iran, known as the “White Revolution,” in order to increase his imperial legitimacy. In the 1970s specifically, along with the growth of oil revenue, he focused on self- aggrandizement to glorify Iran. Within this environment, Mohammad Reza Shah announced plans to resurrect the Farhangestan in 1970. He declared that the goals of the academy were to “maintain the beautiful and powerful Persian language in its perennial high position, ready to fulfill all the diverse and ever-increasing cultural, scientific and technical needs of the country” and to “conduct research in all the Iranian languages and dialects, whether living or ancient, particularly in the service of enhancing acquaintance with, and advancement of, the Persian language.” Thus, he was more lenient about minority languages and dialects than his father.

The second Farhangestan comprised four research centers, a library, a phonetic laboratory, and a secretariat. Its “Research Center for Word Adoption” sought to replace foreign words with Persian equivalents. This center had sections working on terminology for different academic fields such as education, the military, business, medicine, law, and public administration. At this same time, Mohammad Reza Shah encouraged the use of “pure Persian” in the government, requiring that the military strive to use it in official documents. When deciding what the Persian replacement word would be, the Academy would use Persian writings and dialects, Persian roots, and roots of other Iranian languages as a last resort. The second Farhangestan also published a journal that asked for suggestions from the public, which were then examined by Iranian scholars. The second Fahangestan was active until 1978, as the revolution and the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah approached. During its tenure, Farhangestan members studied around 30,000 words and suggested 57,000 Persian equivalents to replace them. However, the high council approved only 1,100 of them, and out of those, only 151 words were published in the academy’s official booklets. In 1979, due to the changing political environment and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the Farhangestan ceased work.

Language Reform as Public Relations

Despite a difficult start, after Mohammad Reza Shah had consolidated power, he took up the cause of Persian language reform. The second Farhangestan came to be as his White Revolution swept through Iran and as he tried to present Iran as a rising, modern power equal to those of  the West. Although his father dedicated more time to the actual effort to reform Persian, , Mohammad Reza Shah focused more on the image of Iran and subordinated language reform to that goal. Rather like his extravagant celebration of the Iranian monarchy’s 2,500th anniversary–an event far grander than his father’s celebration of Ferdowsi—Mohammad Reza Shah’s language reform program tended to be superficial and aimed at differentiating Iran from its Middle Eastern neighborhood. And, just as the 2,500th anniversary celebration hosted mainly Westerners while excluding average Iranians, the language reform program aimed not so much at unifying Iranians as it did at projecting an image to foreigners The Shah’s revival of the Farhangestan in 1970, then, served as another cultural project to burnish Iranian glory, with the hope that Europe would take notice.

The Islamic Republic Era 

Nationalism 

Nationalism has played an interesting role in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In his rejection of the Shah and all he stood for, the leader of the Iranian revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rejected nationalism as a “an imperialist plot, intended to weaken the Muslim world in order to exploit it.” Instead, he advocated for Islamic unity with Muslims worldwide and stated that “Islam is against nationality.” Khomeini did not use anti- Arab (and thus anti-Islam) sentiments in his rhetoric—all the better to reinforce the idea of Iran as an Islamic Republic.   He changed course, however, when Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, realizing the revolution needed to promote strong nationalistic sentiments to inspire Iranians to fight against Muslim Iraqis, many of whom were fellow Shi’ites. Since then, Iranian leaders have been careful to promote Islamic values as the true national identity of Iran, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei himself stating that “being national is tantamount to being Islamic.”

Westernization

Even so, in the 1980s, Khomeini tied the idea of being a nationalist to being “westernized” and regarded western influence as a stain on Iran and Islam. Being “nationalist” or “westernized” was considered by the regime to be a criminal offense. Khomeini closed universities from 1980- 1982 in order to cleanse the education system of “western” and “non-Islamic” influences. Regardless of ever-changing applications of nationalism from leaders of the Islamic Republic, they continue to this day to present the West as a corrupting influence on Iran, affecting language reform as Iranians attempt to create neologisms for new technologies, rather than adopting western vocabulary. 

The Persian Language 

Despite the Islamic Republic’s renewed promotion of the study and use of Arabic as the language of Islam, Iranian leaders also have continued to emphasize the importance of the Persian language as central to the Iranian identity. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei regards Persian as the “national language” of the Iranian people and has made several speeches about “compassionate concern for the Persian language.” Iranian leaders have promoted the Persian language as “the language of revolutionary Islam,” thus connecting Persian not only to the nation-state of the Islamic Republic of Iran but to the idea of revolutionary Islam as a whole, which is often associated with the ”export” of the revolution beyond Iran’s current borders. Additionally, Iranian leaders have sought to emphasize the connection between the Persian language and Islam by promoting Persian as “the second language of Islam.” President Ahmadinejad was a notable figure in the exaltation of the Persian language, ordering all official Iranian institutions, schools, and newspapers to use neologisms approved by the Farhangestan rather than foreign words. 

The Third Farhangestan

Due to Arabic’s status as the language of Islam, the desire of language purists to cleanse Arabic from Persian was often viewed by pious Muslims to be a direct attack on Islam. Thus, when the Farhangestan was resuscitated yet again in 1990, two years after the end of the Iran- Iraq War, the focus shifted from ridding the language of Arabic words towards purging it of western influence. The main goal of the third Farhangestan was “the preservation of the strength and authenticity of the Persian language as one of the pillars of Persian national identity, as the second language of the Islamic world, and the bearer of Islamic learning and culture.” This included ensuring that Persian had the proper vocabulary to correspond with the modernization of technology, as well as the influence from media and the internet. There are seven departments in the academy, the most active being the department of word selection. After approving new Persian words, the academy publishes them in Persian newspapers, journals, and dictionaries. Unlike the first two Farhangestans, the third Farhangestan considers Arabic equivalents as viable options for new words to be chosen. The third Farhangestan is still active and has approved over 45,000 terms under the guidance of at least 49 different committees.

Postrevolutionary Persian

The Islamic Regime has also sought to promote the Persian language abroad as a “revolutionary” language. It has promoted the Persian language at conferences as a language of science. It has published cultural periodicals advertising the language in South and Central Asia—where it once served as a sort of lingua franca–and envisioning Persian as a language suitable for supra-regional communications. This effort is consistent with the broader aim of the Islamic Republic to spread its influence beyond the borders of modern Iran and demonstrates how leaders of the Islamic Republic hope to connect the Persian language to the notion of Islam.

Language Reform as Revolutionary Project 

The Iranian revolution led to a redefinition of language reform and its aims. No longer could Iranian leaders equate the Arab conquest with the downfall of Iran and suppression of the Iranian identity. Instead, they focused on western influence on the language, which was not difficult during a time when Western technology was being introduced to all parts of the world. 

Supreme Leader Khomeini began his rule with the belief that nationalism did not align with Islam, but  when it became clear that nationalism could strengthen the new regime, he and his lieutenants exploited it to the full. The Islamic Republic’s negative view of the West and exaltation of Islam required that it depart from the Pahlavis’ effort to mold an Iranian identity with “Western” features.  Instead, it has promoted an Iranian national identity infused with Islam to try to unite Iranian around the regime and its revolutionary vocation. Ironically, this has not only strained relations with the West, but with most of Iran’s Muslim neighbors who, because of their close relations with the United States and other Western countries, the regime brands as insufficiently Islamic.  Despite its pan-Islamic pretensions, under the Islamic Republic the promotion of a unique Islamic-Iranian identity has helped to perpetuate Iran’s lack of allies  in the Middle East and the world. 

Conclusion

Throughout the past century, language reform played an important role in advancing a nationalist agenda and the definition of Iranian identity.  Despite the different perspectives of the Pahlavi Shahs and the revolutionary leaders of the Islamic Republic, Iranian leaders promoted and shaped language reform, so it would be consistent with their motivations and the prevailing zeitgeist.  As these have changed, so too has the Persian language, reflecting in various degrees the influence of foreign cultures, Islam, and the march of modernization, the language in a constant flux as it searches for a favorable place within society.

The Persian language, which sets the people of the Iranian plateau apart from their neighbors and is a carrier of Iranian culture, is central to the Persian identity.  Accordingly, despite their differing conceptions of nationalism and their differing ideas about Iranian identity, Iranian leaders have always deployed the Persian language and its reform as a way to define and shape national identity for Iranians. In particular, the drive to “purify” the language of perceived “foreign” and “impure” elements helped Iranian leaders to define Iranians against an “other,” to which Iranians were held to be superior. Reza Shah Pahlavi’s nationalism emphasized modernization and security, thus he used language reform to help modernize his military, settle and assimilate the tribes and ethnic minorities, and homogenize the population. His son’s nationalism relied on modernization and glorification, so he revived the Farhangestan and pushed language reform to facilitate rapid modernization and inflate Iran’s status compared to Europe. For both Pahlavi monarchs, the “other” whose influence they sought to purge from Persian and the Iranian identity were the Arabs, whereas they emphasized Iran’s Aryan roots to claim a kinship with the dominant Western countries of the day. The Islamic Republic reversed this emphasis:  Arabic, as the language of Islam was no longer scorned, and language reform was retooled to purge out the perceived “decadent” influences of a materialist West and redefine Iranian identity as a fusion of revolutionary Islamic values and Persian culture. Regardless of the changes in Iran, common to all the Iranian regimes in the past hundred years has been a top-down approach to national identity and language reform. Persian identity and language reform has during the last century served as a tool that Iranian leaders employed to push their agendas. Despite changes in regimes, occupying powers, and systems of governance, modern Iranian leaders have found a use for the Persian language in their solidification of power.  Perhaps when Iranian leaders cease trying to make the Persian language and Iranians conform to a preconceived set of ideals, they will be content to let Iranians define their own identity and employ their native tongue in ways that best serve their needs and reflect the culture they want.

Program Manager | + posts

Sydney Martin is the Program Manager of the Iran 1400 Project. He received his BA in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures from the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to joining the Iran 1400 Project, he studied in Tajikistan with a Fulbright-Hays scholarship and interned at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, as well as the Critical Threats Project.

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