Iran’s Culture Wars: The Erasing of History

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 22, 2011

Efforts on the part of any government to make the people it governs forget their own history–especially when that history is an utterly glorious one–are obscene in nature. Behold the regime in Iran, to which obscenity is second nature:

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 asjahiliyyah. 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.

To be sure, the Shah had tried to erase much of Iran’s Islamic history, and paid the price for it by exciting a revolution against him. But the willingness of the revolutionaries to lurch to the other extreme and try to erase Iran’s pre-Islamic past in favor of a monomaniacal emphasis on Iran’s connections to Islam mean that at the very least, the revolutionaries were, and are no better than the Shah was.

However, there is hope for Iran:

THE COALITION that overthrew the shah brought together technocrats and merchants of the bazaar, members of the urban middle class and much of the working classes, along with the women’s movement, labor unions, students, forces of the Left and the clergy. Yet no sooner had Khomeini come to power than the coalition broke apart; the clergy successfully sidelined secular leftist and centrist factions. With Khomeini’s seizure of control, and with clerical despotism increasing its total grip on power, Iran entered a period of political strife and instability. Since 1979, disillusioned advocates of democracy and modernity have continued their sometimes overt, other times covert struggle to realize the democratic dream. For in this theocratic version of Iran, the cultural influences of its Persian past and its adaptation of those influences with the political and economic rights of man have been subsumed by the Arab Islamism foreign to the vibrant intellectual struggle of this nation to free itself of monarchical and autocratic forces. But this culture war continues to play out in the background of politics—the ethos of the “conquered” people working quietly but relentlessly to subvert, change and eventually replace the alien culture of their usurping rulers.

And this current manifestation was clear during the June 2009 uprising. Once again, that same democratic coalition that formed a foolhardy alliance with the clerical regime—and now numerically stronger than ever but still denied a chance to organize itself politically—came together to invigorate what Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his conservative allies hoped would be an anemic presidential campaign by a dour, uncharismatic Mir Hussein Moussavi. But the remarkable surge of social energy in support of Moussavi forced the conservatives to steal the election for Ahmadinejad. And then suddenly, the country’s seemingly docile population rose up around a beguilingly simple slogan: Where is my vote? In Tehran alone, 3 million people marched in remarkable discipline to demand their democratic rights. Their slogan pithily captured in a mere four words the hundred-year-old dream of modernity and democracy in Iran. Using thugs and guns, prison and torture, the ayatollah has so far succeeded in intimidating the people back into their homes. But a critical look at the past shows the bleak future of Khamenei and other champions of despotism. Violence can only delay but not destroy the rights of man in a nation that has embraced the cultural ethos of modernity. The hushed, brutalized quiet of today is at best a prelude to the liberating storms of tomorrow.

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