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MESA 2021: Iran’s New Century and the Formation of National Identity

About this Article

The Iran 1400 Project is excited to announce that we are hosting a panel discussion at the Middle East Studies Association’s 55th annual meeting which will be held virtually from November 29-December 3, 2021.

Panel title

Iran’s New Century and the Formation of National Identity

Panel Description

Iran enters a new century in March, yet the struggle to define Iran’s cultural identity remains contested and unresolved. Iran’s rich and complex history complicates the question: it is an ancient civilization with multiple ethnicities, multiple religions, and numerous sects, and a society in which xenophobic tendencies dwell uncomfortably with an infatuation with the West. With such a heritage, what are the parameters of Iran’s cultural identities at the turn of the new Iranian century? Do they include Aryan nationalism? Statism? Or is a militant and assertive Shi’ism a defining characteristic? Does the long tradition of monarchy define Iran, perhaps along with nostalgia for Iran’s pre-Islamic religious traditions? Perhaps the defining characteristic of Iran’s cultural identity is to be found in the Persian language and poetry, of which Iranians are famously proud? Even if we allow that Iran’s national identity is a mosaic of all these sensibilities and susceptibilities, which of these competing tendencies is gaining salience and which are fading? And how have globalization and information technology, two phenomena that have shaped the postmodern condition, influenced the formation of Iranian identity? This panel will explore these conflicting identities and seek to illuminate some of their more intricate aspects. This panel welcomes scholars from both the humanities and social sciences to participate in this important dialogue.

Panelists and Discussant

The Iran 1400 Project is honored to have Dr. Yass Alizadeh as the discussant in company with Dr. Hossein Seifzadeh, Dr. Rasool Nafisi, Dr. Aram Hessami as well as Sydney Martin as panelists.

Hossein Seifzadeh: Deconstructing Iranians’ Manifested Identity

In this qualitative analysis on the national identity of Iranian people, I will address the issue of multi-layered identity of Iranians through the prism of what I call manifested identities. This manifested-identity analysis will allow us to go beyond the usual reductionist approach which focuses on one or two particular attributes as opposed to multidimensional more complex layered identities.

My approach to the issue of national identity or even personal identity is more in line with the deconstructive genealogical project of post-modernity. Thus, to speak of any collective identity in terms of ethnicity, racial, or religious attributes is to ignore the complexity of the formation of these manifested identities which are apparent in various contextual historical processes. As such, the latest existential manifestation of “identity” or “identities’ must be de-constructed and traced back to its genealogical origin in order to be fully understood.

I will argue that at the core of Iranian collective national identity is an ancient cosmopolitanism promoted through the poetic narratives of diverse literary heroes of Persian literature. In the substantial body of poems by the great narrators like Sadie, Hafez, Rumi, and Firdausi, we find this theme of cosmopolitanism on two different levels. In the works of Gnostic( عرفانی) poets like Rumi and Hafez, we find clear acknowledgment of the infiniteness of humanity and the infinite paths each human being could take to understand that infinity. They argue that the true “self” is accepting of others and is compassionate towards them irrespective of the differences in people’s appearances, loyalties, beliefs and even their narratives. Rumi, specifically, attributes the differences which divides people to ignorance. Hafez, also, eloquently praises pluralism and diversity on the epistemological grounds. On the other hand, the more this-worldly poets like Sadie and Firdausi, express this Persian cosmopolitanism in a more tangible manner. Ferdousi in the first 3 chapters of Shahnameh, praises Qumars, Hooshang and Tahmoures for having a cosmopolitan view of humanity. Sadie also sees humanity as a whole having a shared essence and existence; moreover, he contends that to be a human being is to care for others. I will argue that this contextual reading of these 4 most influential poets of Iran depicts a deeply rooted cosmopolitanism in the Persian culture which is counter to the current commonly held view of Iranians’ national identity defined by their race, ethnicity, or religion.

Rasool Nafisi: The Crisis of Traditional Conceptualization of Marriage and Gender Roles in Urban Iran

One of the main changes in the Iranian social construction of reality has been in the area pertaining to the family and gender identity. The family structure and gender roles in the Iranian society are going through profound changes since the 1979 revolution. Delaying marriage, different perspectives on marriageability, avoiding childbearing, limiting the number of children per family, rise in cohabitation and alternative lifestyles, and articulation of choice in gender identity are creating a new culture of gender and family life in mostly urban settings. The change in the marriage and gender relations are even observable in their impact on demographic changes. Decline in fertility rate, a sharp rise in divorce rate, and a rise in the number of cohabitees and singlehood testify to a crisis in the conceptualization of the institution of traditional family. One of the main causes of the present crisis in family and gender relations is the continuation of archaic laws, rules, and norms governing the institution of marriage in the modern setting. A cognitive dissonance exists between customary perception of the family and gender roles, and the reality of those institutions on the ground. Radical abandonment of tradition is coupled with new modes of behavior and a rise in novel institutions such as “with marriage.”

In this paper, I argue that the fragile balance between traditional family and modern perception of gender relations is largely eroded, and a modern conceptualization of marriage and gender roles is taking roots. Contradictions between traditional conceptualization of marriage and gender relations and modern practices have led to a crisis in the institution of traditional family. The rise of various new forms of gender relationships and a reconceptualization of the institution of marriage into “white marriage” hints at a deeper overhaul of the traditional arrangements and perceptions of social reality.

Aram Hessami: The Heaviest Loads of Nationalism & Religiosity: The Challenge of Defining Iran’s National Identity

National identity is all about time travel, a nation’s journey between different points in time: the past, the present and the future. The present is but a temporary resting place from the past, but also the starting point for the future of this continuous national journey. For ancient cultures, however, the weight of the distant past is heftier and thus more cumbersome for the present to carry and even weightier for the future to bear.

Is it ever possible to unload any of this weighty baggage and travel less restrained into the future? Even if it were possible to do so, hasn’t the dead weight of the past already made its mark on the back of the nation? Be that as it may, the collective consciousness, the shared psyche, the identity of a nation is formed only through this cumbersome time travel carrying this heavy baggage. This immutable burden of history leaves nations two viable choices:1- how this burden is perceived collectively; 2- how to distribute or adjust this weight at different points along this journey.

In this presentation, I will argue that the two weightiest loads on the collective consciousness of the Iranian people, continually shaping the national identity, are nationalism and religiosity. I will further argue that during the past 150 years these two heavy loads have gained ascendancy because they each have provided a safe haven from the vicissitudes and uncertainties of modern age. I will argue that modernity with its rationalism, its agnosticism, its individualism, and its grand claim of universalism posed a qualitative challenge to the traditional identities of the nation– as they were historically defined by the two powerful institutions of power the monarchical order and the Shia clerical establishment. The challenge of modernity and responses of those two institutions of power have produced a civil war of competing discourses reaching back to even before the Constitutional Movement of 1905. The victor of this civil war will stake its claim to the defining character of Iranians’ national identity. Globalization has further intensified the efforts of both the nationalists and the Islamists in shaping this identity. Along with the reactions of these two traditional stakeholders, I will present an assessment of the modernists’ and the globalists’ attempts to influence the outcome of this struggle for identity.

Sydney Martin: Molding the Language of Nationalism in Three Recent Periods in Iran

After the Arab conquest in the 7th century, Persians adapted to their rulers and adopted a new government and religion. Yet, the Persian language continued to thrive rather than completely succumbing to Arabic. However, Arabic did leave its mark, influencing about 40% of modern Persian vocabulary. Still, today there is pride amongst many Iranians that they were able to retain their language and their Persian identity, despite the circumstances.

Recent rulers of Iran have recognized that pride and used it to their advantage. They utilized Iranian nationalism as a means to retain power by revering Iran’s history, rejecting foreign domination, and emphasizing the importance of Persian identity. Additionally, they realized the strong ties between Iranian identity and the Persian language. Iranian society also noted that connection and attempted to reform the language to spark unity and increase the accessibility of information and ideas.

This presentation will compare how three different eras in Iran- the Qajar era, the Pahlavi era, and the era of the Islamic Republic used Persian language reform to spark nationalism within the population. I will analyze how both the Iranian rulers and society sought to reform Persian and their impetuses for doing so.

I will argue that each era in Iran brought a distinct version of nationalism that molded language reform to fit their ideals. Thus, language reform constantly transformed, from attempting to eradicate European loan words to defy foreign occupation during the Qajar era to creating new words for military equipment to demonstrate strength during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi. From pushing to decrease the level of Arabic influence under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to ceasing that push and embracing Arabic and Islam under Ayatollah Khomenei.

I will argue that the reasons Iranian society desired language reform remained relatively constant as leaders changed, with accessibility and national pride remaining at the forefront, the biggest exception to this being the Islamic component. However, I will argue that the majority of Iranians balanced that disharmony and found ways to embrace both their Islamicness and their Iranianness. Lastly, I will argue that for Iranian society, language reform is tied to the promotion of democracy, from the Constitutional Revolution, when Persian was made accessible to better popularize freedom, to today, as some Iranians attempt to speak “pure” Persian in order to embrace their Iranianness to counter the impact of Arabic and the clergy on Iranian identity.

Date & Location

This panel will be on Friday, December 3rd between 2-4 pm (EDT) and we hope you will consider participating and engaging with this dialogue. Please visit the MESA official website to learn more about how to participate.


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