The Challenges of a Split Personality
02 May 2016
By Amir Taheri
When he died in exile in Paris in 2010, Shojaeddin Shafa sounded like a lone
voice in a desert. For at least two decades before the Islamic Revolution, the
writer and translator of Western classics had often been on best-seller lists.
As an exile cut from his home market, however, he had the choice of either
breaking his pen or being content with a select readership consisting almost
entirely of nostaglics for the ''good old days'' of the fallen Shah.
Never a man to give up fighting, he continued to write, producing some of his
best works dedicated to ''keeping alive the flame of Iranian nationalism.''
Six years later, the lone voice seems to have been joined by numerous other
voices from the past, the present and even the future to form a chorus that
denounces the state-sponsored Islamist ideology and emphasizes the
''Iranian-ness'' of Iranians.
Back in 1984 when a French journalist asked Shafa what he thought of ''the
situation in the Islamic Republic'', the answer was short and sharp: '' Don't
call my country Islamic Republic, Iran is Iran; if a man suffers from cancer
you don't call him Mr. Cancer, do you?''
What is certain is that Iranian nationalism is making a comeback, though not
necessarily in the radical version upheld by Shafa among others.
The development isn't surprising. For almost 15 centuries Iran has suffered
from a split personality, unable to forget its Iranian-ness and melt its
existence in its version of Islam. Some writers, for example the late Muhammad
Mohit Tabatabai, saw Iranian-ness and Islam as two wings which Iran,
symbolized by the mythical bird of ''Shahnameh'' (The Book of Kings) Simorgh,
needed to fly and soar to the highest altitudes. Without either of the two
wings, Iran would be an earthbound lame bird, he wrote. Others, for example
Ahmad Kasravi, regarded Islam as a hindrance to Iran's ''return to history on
the path to greatness.'' Still others, for example Ali Shariati, dismissed
Iranian-ness, which they saw as nationalism, an ideology imported from Europe,
as the hindrance and preached Iran's ''total immersion in Shiite Islam.''
Under Reza Shah, a largely secular establishment tried to de-emphasize
religion and Iran's attachment to a broader Islamic ummah, and build up the
sense of nationhood and Iranian specialness.
Under the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini a reverse strategy was propagated,
though not coherently implemented, aimed at total re-Islamicization of Iran.
There are now signs that the pendulum may be swinging back towards
Iranian-ness with potentially profound consequences for Iran's domestic and
New year ceremonies
One sign of this came last month when Iranians marked their New Year, Nowruz,
on an unprecedented scale.
The ceremonies started 100 days before Nowruz on the Spring Equinox of 20
March, with the ancient Jashn Sadeh (Feast of 100) when tens of thousands
gathered at Chak-chak, near Yazd on the edge of the great Iranian desert,
where Princess Mehrbanu, the eldest daughter of Yazdegerd III, the last king
of the Sassanids is supposed to be buried in the heart of a bare mountain.
The princess is supposed to have led a band of patriotic guerrillas fighting
Arab invaders for 15 years before disappearing into the heart of the mountain
where two trees suddenly sprung up to offer shade and a fountain surged out
''to shed tears'' on her tomb. For over 1400 years the place has been a point
of pilgrimage for Zoroastrians from all over the world. However, since there
are no more than 30,000 Zoroastrians left in Iran one must assume that, this
year at least, the overwhelming majority of ''pilgrims'' were Iranian Muslims.
The next step was the ''Feast of Fire'' or Charshanbeh Suri, the last
Wednesday of the year, when Iranians jump over bonfires and chant pre-Islamic
shibboleths. According to the official news agency IRNA this year's fire
feasts were the largest in memory, forcing the police to deploy in large
numbers to prevent ''incidents.''
Again according to IRNA more than 20 million Iranians, a quarter of the total
population, traveled inside or outside the country for Nowruz in accordance
with an ancient tradition.
In some cases, the travelers made sure to spend the exact moment of the start
of the New Year, known as Sal-tahwil, in a Shiite ''holy'' shrine in another
illustration of Iran's split personality. At least 1.5 million did so in
Mash'had where the Eighth Imam of Shi'ism is buried. Over 30,000 Iranian
pilgrims also gathered at the mausoleum of Ali Ibn Abitaleb, the first Imam,
in Najaf, with the aim of starting the New Year close to the tomb. However,
Iraqi police denied them access with the claim that using an Islamic shrine
for performing pagan rites isn't proper. The refusal provoked much anger,
reportedly calmed down by the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the
highest ranking Shi'ite theologian who lives in Najaf.
The crescendo of the nationwide Iranian-ness show-off came in Pasargad, north
of Shiraz, where Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire is
buried. Large numbers of people came from all over Iran with the slogan:
''Cyrus! You Are Not Alone.'' Reports, that we cannot independently confirm,
claim that as many as 100,000 were present at the ceremony. Photos and videos,
including some taken from a helicopter, and posted on the Internet certainly
show large crowds.
Similar pilgrimages also took place at the Temple of Anahita, the pre-Islamic
Goddess of Fertility and Waters, and the tomb of Esther, the Jewish Queen of
Achaemenid King Artaxerxes in Hamadan, southwest of Tehran.
Thousands of ''pilgrims'' also visited the tomb of Firuz (Abu-Lowlow) the
Zoroastrian pearl merchant who assassinated Omar Ibn Khattab, the Second
Caliph of Islam.
To mark this year's Nowruz, over 50 cities took part in a nationwide contest
to build the most original Haft-Seen (Seven S) platter in the country. The
platter, set up by every Iranian family regardless of religion, consists of
seven items, the names of which start with the letter ''s'' in Persian. Muslim
Iranians also add a copy of the Noble Koran while Christian Iranians place a
Bible. Jewish Iranians go for a copy of the Torah while Zoroastrian Iranians
place a copy of their sacred text the Avesta.
The competition for the ''Seven S'' platter was won by Kermanshah, a
predominantly ethnic Kurdish capital in western Iran, which spent months
building one that covered a square kilometer, setting an historic record.
Some fringe radical Islamists have always tried to ban Nowruz and efface all
traces of pre-Islamic Iran. The late Khomeini tried the ban in his first year
but soon thought better of defying the whole nation.
This year, some dyed-in-wool Khomeinists sent questions to senior ayatollahs
demanding fatwas (religious opinions) about Nowruz and its rituals. None of
the mullahs questioned dared issue a banning fatwa. Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi,
a prominent mullah in Qom as well as a wealthy businessman, came closest by
declaring that some Nowruz ceremonies should be regarded as ''false beliefs''
Among the mullahs approached was ''Supreme Guide'' Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who
diplomatically dodged the question. ''These ceremonies do not have a religious
aspect,''' he declared in a fatwa, reaffirming what everyone knows.
He was also asked whether women could discard the Islamic Hijab during
traditional Nowruz visits to relatives. His enigmatic answer was: ''They can,
provided that does not commit people to avoid religious necessities.'' (Sic)
In response to another direct question demanding whether Nowruz rites should
be banned on religious grounds, he replied ''These events do not have a
Another issue that triggered a new round in the fight between Iranian-ness and
Khomeinist Islamism was a suggestion by writer Saeed Hajj Arian that the
government stop using the Islamic lunar calendar which few Iranians understand
let alone follow. Having their own solar calendar, a tribute to the
pre-Islamic ''god'' Mithra (Mehr or Sun) in which every one of the year's 365
days has a special meaning and status, Iranians never used the lunar calendar
introduced by the Arabs in the seventh century.
Fixing holy occasions
Hajjarian who was the top strategist to former President Muhammad Khatami
suggests that if the two months of Dhul-Hijjah and Ramadan, which respectively
contain specific Islamic rites of pilgrimage to Mecca and fasting, are fixed
according to the solar calendar there would be no need to use the lunar
The 24 days of each year which mark the birthday or the day of the death of
the Fourteen Infallibles (Ma'asoumin), that is to say Ali, his wife Fatimah
and their 12 male descendants, the Imams, could also be fixed on the solar
calendar according to when those events actually happened, something that
isn't possible on the lunar calendar which changes by nine days every year.
Hajjarian, the chief theoretician of the ''reformist'' wing of the
establishment also suggests that the Eid Ghadir (The Feast of the Pond), the
day on which, according to Shiite beliefs, the Prophet named Ali as his
successor, be marked on the same day as Nowruz, fusing Shi'ism with Iranian
He writes: ''We Iranians became Muslims but didn't become Arabs. This is
Such a suggestion from the ''reformist'' wing is especially interesting
because even under the Shah no one dared talk of fixing religious days
according to the solar calendar. The Shah, partly on Shafa's advice, decreed a
change in the starting point of the Iranian calendar, taking it back to the
foundation of the Iranian Empire 2576 years ago, a measure he dropped after a
Today, shifting the emphasis from Iran's Islamic persona to its Iranian-ness
is also suggested by others within the ruling elite. Deputy Minister for
Cultural Heritage Bahman Namvar-Motlaq claims that Iran could project a better
image abroad by promoting Nowruz rather than Islamic martyrdom ceremonies.
''Now-Ruz is a unique heritage of our forefathers who saw the Spring Equinox
as a symbol of nature's renewal and thus a celebration of life and beauty,''
he says. ''This is a message we can take to all mankind and be sure to be
Last week, the Tehran Municipality decided to change the names of several
streets and underground railway stations, replacing some ''foreign names''
with Persian ones. Astonishingly, among those whose names were changed was the
metro station ''Wali Al-Asr'' (Regent of the Time) a sobriquet for the Hidden
Imam, the last of the 12 who is supposed to return at the end of times to
establish eternal rule by justice. The new name is ''City Theatre'' because
one of Tehran's most popular theatres is located nearby!
Another interesting episode was when Iran unveiled the latest version of a
polyvalent military robot developed by the industrial branch of the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Initial suggestions were limited to the names of several generals of early
Islam. However, it turned out that the names suggested belonged to Arab
military leaders who had taken part in the Islamic invasion of Iran in the 7th
In the end the name of another general was chosen, Surena, the Iranian
commander that defeated the Roman legions led by Crassus in 53 BC in the
battle of Harran in what is now Turkey. (Crassus was killed in that battle).
A return to Iranian-ness is also promoted by the Tehran Municipality which has
invited 100 Iranian artists to paint murals across the capital. Instead of
scenes depicting the martyrdom of various Imams or great deeds done by
Khomeini, the artists are invited to seek inspiration from Ferdowsi's national
epic Shahnameh, celebrating Iran's pre-Islamic past. Two murals of 100 square
meters each have already been completed by Muhamad-Reza Farzaneh, a leading
advocate of ''teahouse'' style of Persian painting. These depict scenes from
the passage of Siavash, son of the mythical King Kaykavous, through fire, the
Seven Ordeals of Rustam and the Sassanid King Bahram V hunting onagers in
Mesopotamia (now known as Iraq).
The return to Iranian-ness is also marked in new films, plays and musical
scores produced by Iranians. The composer Loris Checknavorian has initiated a
series of symphonic compositions based on Iranian cultural themes. In poetry,
the most popular art form in Iran, Islamic themes have all but disappeared
except in the works of a few state-sponsored poets who compose official verse
in praise of the ''Supreme Guide'' or the late Khomeini. Instead,
nationalistic themes are all the rage which such poets as Esmail Kho'i and
Muhammad Jalali leading the way. Even Hadi Khorsandi, perhaps Iran's top
satirical poet, is now injecting nationalistic themes into his work.
Marketing Iran Abroad
The idea that Iran is internationally marketable as Iran but not as a champion
of militant Islam has also found its way into the official political
discourse, albeit with a strong dose of caution.
In an interview granted to the daily ''Iran'', published by the government,
one of President Hassan Rouhani's advisors Mahmoud Sari Al-Qalam argues for a
foreign policy based on national interest rather than ideology. He suggests
that Iran should show the world that it is developing a consensus around the
idea of behaving like a nation-state with the normal interests of a
nation-state rather than as a vehicle for pseudo-religious militancy.
A similar sentiment has been expressed by Sadeq Ziba-Kalam, a university
teacher with ties to the faction led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani.
He suggests an ''Iran first'' strategy, urging the government to distance
itself from Middle Eastern crises. ''I understand people who shout: Neither
Gaza nor Lebanon! My life only for Iran,'' Ziba-Kalam says. ''For me, too,
Iran is first, second and last.''
More surprisingly, a similar line is taken by Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-pour, the
mullah who created the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah and recruited its
leadership in the 1980s. ''Those people (i.e. Hezbollah and other groups
financed by Tehran) are of interest only if they serve our national goals,''
he says. ''We have no commitment to anyone; our sole commitment is to Iran.''
Iran's ''trump card'' is its rich pluri-millennial culture, argues Fereidun
Abollahiyan. ''Our missiles will never reach Washington,'' he writes. '' But
our 'Seven S' Nowruz platter was set up inside the White House with the US
President and his family coming to show appreciation. Iran is the only nation
to receive greeting messages from over 140 heads of states, including the US,
on its New Year.''
While religion divides Iranians, the concept of Iranian-ness unites them
regardless of backgrounds. Champions of Iranian-ness include Christians such
as Edward Joseph, Homer Ebrahimian, and Zaven Hakopian, Jews like Moshfeq
Hamadani and Simon Farzami, and Zoroastrians such as Bahram Shahrokh and
All this, of course, may lead nowhere. Almost a decade ago President
Ahmadinejad spoke of ''Iranian Islam'' and tried to play the nationalist card
by borrowing the Cyrus Cylinder, supposed to contain the first declaration of
human rights, from the British Museum. He created a special Guard of Honour
with Achaemenid uniforms and lances to line the entrance of the exhibition and
pay respect to the famous artefact. Over three million Iranians came to see
the Cyrus Cylinder.
Ahmadinejad is a disciple of Hassan Yaaqubi, a theological scholar who claims
to offer an Iranian ''re-reading'' of Islam. An author of over 40 books,
Yaaqubi regards Cyrus as ''the equivalent of prophets'' and claims that he is
the Zul-Qarnayn (the Warrior wearing a helmet with two horns) mentioned in the
Koran. (Others suggest that it refers to Alexander of Macedonia).
Ahmadinejad used nationalism as a tactic to regain part of the legitimacy the
regime had lost in the wake of the disputed presidential elections of 2009. It
is possible that Rafsanjani and his faction are using a similar tactic to
broaden their social base in their power struggle against hardline Khomeinists
led by Khamenei.
Whatever the outcome of the current wave of Iranian-ness, one thing is
certain: trying to de-Iranianize Iran in the name of Islam is as much doomed
to failure as trying to de-Islamicize Iran in the name of nationalism has
What Iran needs, has always needed, is an intelligent and humane way to manage
the fundamental contradiction of its existence as a nation, a contradiction
that is not only the source of most of its trouble but also the inspiration
for many of its cultural achievements.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran,
London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005,
he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.