The Politics of Nationalism in Modern Iran
by Ali M. Ansari
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 327 pp. $99.99 ($30.99, paper).
Reviewed by Abdul Gaffar
Middle East Quarterly
In The Politics of Nationalism in Modern Iran, Ansari of the University of St. Andrews assesses the relationship between history and myth in defining Iranian nationalism, focusing on ideas that shaped the building of the Iranian nation. His interpretation of Iranian nationalism is placed within the context of various ideas that achieved prominence beginning with the Qajar dynasty (1725-1925) and culminating in today's Islamic Republic of Iran.
Persian elites borrowed from the vocabularies and myths of Europe as they crafted their own Iranian version of the role of nation in bringing about progress (as defined by European standards.) The legacy of the European myth of Aryanism, which took a destructive path in Hitler's National Socialism, was embraced by Persians: Iran was seen as the developing center of the human race with Europe tracing its roots to a common and noble Aryan origin.
The rise of modern Iranian nationalism truly begins, though, with the constitutional revolution of 1905. The central figures of this revolution were politicians and thinkers including Seyyed Hasan Taqizadeh, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Ali Akbar Dehkhoda, and others. Taqizadeh's contributions was especially important, drawing on the revered and ubiquitous Shahnameh (Book of Kings by Ferdowsi) to politicize and transform Iran's legendary past with European notions of civic pride, patriotic values, and even the virtue of disobeying autocracy.
While the rise of Reza Khan and the establishment of his Pahlavi dynasty in 1925 spelled the end of the constitutional revolution, the new shah, nevertheless, promoted and regulated nationalism, modernization, and education, central pillars of the constitutional movement. During his reign, Mohammad Ali Foroughi, a scholar turned politician, also turned to the Shahnameh as an inspirational source for developing a national and civic culture.
Reza Shah was forced by European powers to abdicate in 1941, and his son and successor Mohammed Reza Shah gradually marginalized the Shahnameh from the body politic of Iran, largely, in Ansari's opinion, because it did not eulogize the shahs and sanctioned regicide in many cases. Instead, Mohammed Reza Shah created his own historical myth, Pahlavism, comparing himself to Cyrus the Great, the "founder" of Persia. Most significantly though for the development of Iranian nationalism is the role played by religion—at the shah's behest—as a means to counter communism. Ansari argues that the prime mover of religious and revolutionary thought that culminated in the Islamic revolutionary movement was not Ayatollah Khomeini but the shah himself. The shah encouraged and financed religious thinkers such as the Iranian and Islamic intellectual Ali Shariati and promoted the concept of a continuous revolution in which the ruler would be "the guardian and protector of the 'nation' with a divine mandate and access to esoteric knowledge."
Under Khomeini and his successors, traditional notions of nationalism were subsumed under the banner of Islamism: "Don't listen to those who speak of democracy," Khomeini declared in 1979. "They all are against Islam. They want to take the nation away from its mission. We will break all the poison pens of those who speak of nationalism, democracy, and such things."
But that divine mission always seemed to circle around the role that the Iranian nation must play in achieving that goal. Ansari claims, though, that the 2009 election debacle has made those Iranians who accepted the Islamic Republic as the national identity doubt it. The authoritarian manner in which protests were suppressed distressed an enormous number of Iranians. The nation seemed no longer to be composed of all Iranians but limited to an ever-increasing circle of the elect. Iranian nationalism now essentially consisted of Iran without the Iranians.
This book is not an easy read, and those looking for a chronological narration of modern Iranian history will not find it here. The readers are assumed to have an understanding of Iran's history of the last one hundred years in order to make sense of some of the arguments. Nevertheless, The Politics of Nationalism in Modern Iran is an excellent source for how mythology and history can find expression in nationalism and ideology.
 Remarks to students and educators in Qom, Mar. 13, 1979.
Related Topics: Iran | Spring 2015 MEQ
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