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Zoroaster and the Ayatollahs

Zoroaster and the Ayatollahs

Mini Teaser: Iran's culture wars between its Persian imperial past and Arab Muslim influence have been raging since long before the 1979 revolution. 

by Author(s): Abbas Milani

 CULTURE IS hard to define and even harder to change. Beneath the surface solemnities of politics and the exigencies of economics lurks the intricate web of habits and rituals, practices and privileges, that we call culture. In its overt manifestations, culture may seem a docile tool, or perhaps an efficient vehicle for political change. In reality, culture has the capacity not only to survive upheaval in the halls of power but also to gradually and inexorably alter the nature of governance, molding politics in its enduring patterns. More than once in Iran’s history, after the country was vanquished by outsiders—from Arabs to Mongols—the culture of the conquered survived and eventually molded the customs of the victors to its own pattern. It is hard to imagine that the 1979 revolution will be an exception to this enduring reality.

In that upheaval of some thirty years ago, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini surprisingly emerged as the leader of the unwieldy and incongruent coalition of cultural forces that united to overthrow the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In the months leading up to the revolution, Khomeini used remarkable discipline to conveniently hide his true theocratic, antimodern cultural paradigm, feigning instead support for the democratic, nationalist and leftist values and aspirations that defined the demands of the 1979 revolution. Once ensconced in power, however, Khomeini famously declared that the revolution was not carried out for economic gains but for pious ends. The economy, he said, “is for donkeys.” Creating a new Islamic society, fashioning new men and women based on an Islamic model that had been perfected in the prophetic era of Muhammad some fourteen centuries earlier, finally discarding the cultural values of modernity was, he now claimed, the real goal of the revolution.

Now even regime stalwarts concede that this project of cultural remodeling has failed miserably. And the failure, along with its incumbent cultural fluidity and political instability, is in no small measure the result of the resilient societal ethos dominant in Iran on the eve of the revolution.

 

IT HAS become something of a commonplace to say that for more than a thousand years Iran has been defined by a bifurcated, tormented, even schizoid cultural identity: pre-Islamic, Persian-Zoroastrian elements battling with forces and values of an Arab Islamic culture. The paisley, easily the most recurrent image in the Persian iconographic tradition, is said to capture this tormented division. It represents the cedar tree that Zoroaster planted in heaven which was bent by the winds of Islamic hegemonic culture. Adapting in this way has been the key to the ability of Iranian culture to survive marauding tribes and invading armies. But Iran and its heavenly cedar bend only to lash back to their upright gait when immediate danger has passed and occasion for reasserting traditional values has arisen.

Some scholars have gone so far as to argue that even Shiism—since the sixteenth century the dominant and “official” religion of Iran—is in its fundamental structure nothing but a form of Iranian nationalism. Recent remarks by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, that Iran’s leaders in the last thirty years are all, in fact, Arabs and that their claims of being descendants of the prophet (symbolized by the black turbans they wear) reassert their Arab blood show clearly the continuing tensions between Persian identity and the Islamism of the rest of the Shia Middle East. Nasrallah needs to convince his followers thus that these Arab brothers have left nothing of a “Persian culture” to survive. These controversial comments indicate both the prevalence among ordinary Arabs of this view that Shiism might be an “un-Islamic invention”—and Iranian in origin. To justify his fealty to the country’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Nasrallah had to first make him an Arab.

For much of the twentieth century, these two cultural elements have been at war for domination in Iran. In power from 1925 until 1979, Reza Shah Pahlavi and then his son Mohammad Reza Shah tried to accentuate the pre-Islamic component of the country’s heritage and dilute the Islamic element. The shah’s infamously lavish celebration of two thousand five hundred years of monarchy in 1971—the international glitterati were invited, food was flown in from Maxim’s de Paris, and the ruins of Persepolis were used as a backdrop and a reminder of days of glory gone by—was more than anything intended to accentuate this imperial, pre-Islamic past. Even the country’s calendar was changed. The year 1355 in Iran’s Islamic calendar (or 1976 CE) suddenly became 2535. The beginning of the Islamic calendar went back to the journey of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, from Mecca to Medina, while the new imperial time sought its genesis in the alleged birthday of Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire. As the tumult of the revolution began only two years later, in a gesture of concession to the opposition, the calendar was changed yet again. But neither the hubris of retuning the clock on a whim—earlier tried by the likes of Maximilien de Robespierre in France and Vladimir Lenin in the Soviet Union—nor hackneyed concessions to the opposition could alter the stubborn realities of Iran’s bifurcated culture, formed and ingrained over centuries.

No sooner had Ayatollah Khomeini and his clerical allies seized power than they not only began to reverse the pre-Islamic ardor of the Pahlavi era but they also moved to the other extreme, trying to dilute, diminish and at times altogether erase from cultural memory evidence of Iran’s non-Islamic past. Jahiliyyah, or the age of darkness, has long been a concept used by Islamist historians and ideologues to derisively describe what exists in a society before the advent of Islam. Now some fifteen hundred years of Iran’s imperial era was disparaged and diminished as jahiliyyah. In the early days of the revolution, some of the more ardent new Islamist victors moved to destroy Persepolis (and were forced to cease their destructive plans only in the face of stiff opposition both domestically and internationally), while one of Khomeini’s closest confidants, Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, the man infamously known as the “hanging judge”—a title he had deservedly earned for his role in the judicial murder of hundreds of ancient-regime leaders and the new-regime opponents—dismissed Cyrus as a sodomite Jew, hardly worthy of veneration by a pious nation. Even today, thirty years after the victory of the revolution, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s zealots are taking their ideological hammer to the texts taught in Iranian schools, hoping to erase from the annals of history any sign of pagan “royal historiography.”

The clerics even tried to fight some of the most venerable rites and rituals of the nation. For a time, they focused their attention on eliminating, or at least diminishing in value, the ancient Persian habit of celebrating the vernal equinox as their new year (Nowruz). In retrospect, this anti-Nowruz crusade began even before the 1979 revolution, when in the sixties and seventies religious forces made a concerted effort to replace Nowruz with other religious holidays and feasts. While in those days many in society participated in these religious ceremonies only to spite the regime, since 1979 the tables have turned. Now, celebrating Nowruz is an easy way to show your sentiments about the ruling clerics. The clerical leaders have apparently reconciled themselves to the reality that they have failed in their crusade against the celebration. But their quixotic efforts at delegitimizing Persian habits have not ended. For the last three decades, they have also tried to dissuade the Iranian people from their ritualistic habit of jumping over fires on the last Wednesday of each year—said to symbolize the hope and desire to burn away the past twelve months’ troubles and travails. Even as late as 2010, Khamenei issued a new fatwa declaring the practice heresy and a form of fire worship. Yet both traditions are more alive and celebrated today than ever before. When a regime politicizes all cultural and personal practices, as do the clerics in Iran, then every facet of the culture, every gesture of personal behavior, every sartorial statement (from women’s defiant refusal to wear the forced veil to men’s insistence on wearing ties or shaving their faces) becomes a form of dissent and resistance.

The Persian language, spoken by a majority of Iran’s multiethnic society, and long considered a bastion of Iranian nationalism, has not been immune from the vicissitudes of this culture war either. While much was made of cleansing the Persian language of any Arabic words and influence during the Pahlavi era, Ayatollah Khomeini and his allies made an equally concentrated and futile attempt to infuse the language with more and more Arabic words, phrases and even grammatical structures. For them, Arabic is the language of God and of the Koran, while to the Iranian nationalists it is a detested tool of Arab and Islamic cultural invasion. Just as the effort to create a new “Islamic society” has failed, the attempt to introduce Arabic into the Persian language has also been unsuccessful. Not only is the Persian vernacular today replete with new, cleverly constructed Persian words, but a whole generation of parents are increasingly moving away from naming their children after religious figures, opting instead for names from Iran’s mytho-history, or newly minted names conjured or coined from the Persian vocabulary. In this sense, then, the 1979 revolution was only a moment in the centuries-old culture war to define the soul of Iran; yet another attempt in the long line of efforts to eliminate or diminish in influence certain components of the country’s bifurcated identity.

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