Between Definitions and Identities

ABBAS MILANI — In their efforts to forge a national identity Iran’s leaders have revealed deep chasms between social and political realities in the Islamic State.

Ayatollah Montazer claimed that “the Islamic Republic is no longer either Islamic or a republic.” It seems that there are myriad ways to describe these terms, “Islam” and “republic,” when it comes to discussing any so-called Iranian identity. Can one accurately theorize such an identity, and how have competing definitions been acted out in shaping the Iranian political, social, and cultural discourse?

My working hypothesis has always been that there is absolutely no one way to talk about Islam — it is as absurd to talk about one Islamic identity in Iran as it is to discuss only one Islamic identity in the region or around the world. Islam presents a very malleable set of broad ideas. In Iran, in the last 100 years, there have been at least three very distinct iterations of Islam. Of course, there is Shiism. But there are Sunnis — nobody seems to talk about them; they form 12 percent of the population. There are also Sufis — very few people, when they talk about Islam, talk about this iteration either.

Iran, in its effort to forge an identity, has faced the reality that its identity is wrought from at least two very distinct sources. One is the ancient pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian, and Manichean tradition; the other is the very multifaceted, sometimes philosophically-driven, sometimes dogmatically inclined, Islamic identity. An essential part of the last 80 years of history in Iran is the current regime’s efforts to deny the pre-Islamic heritage, and, during the many years of the Pahlavi regime, efforts to deny the importance of the Islamic component.

In the Middle East’s new great power game, Iran has emerged as the main Shia actor, influencing developments in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, amongst others. To many, this support represents the sectarian nature of the regional conflict. Yet for others, this interpretation is an oversimplification of a complex history of intra-sectarian political and social conflict. Does the sectarian narrative have a role to play — how have religion, confessionalism, and Shiism been debated by Iranians, and what are the effects of these discussions?

It is important to remember that Iran is not the first Shia government in history. The Fatimids and Safavids were both, essentially, Shia. Iran does represent the first country in which a government is based on a specific iteration of Shiism defined by Ayatollah Khomeini. It is a novel idea, but not simply because it is Shia.

There is a geo-strategic reality that faces Iranian leaders in the region. There are three Muslim countries who have historically dominated the landscape: Egypt, Iran, and Turkey — two Sunni, one Shiite. Much of what has happened over the last 100 years in Iran and the region, long before the foundation of the Islamic Republic, has been shaped by one of these three powers. Iran clearly has the interest and ability to exercise power in the region. Many Iranian forays into Iraqi, Egyptian, Sudanese, Lebanese, or even Moroccan politics predate the current regime. The Shah gave close to $500 million to Morocco’s King Hasan II between 1968 and 1978 because he thought Morocco was the key to Iranian influence in the region. In one sense, there is this context for Iran’s exertion of power on the international stage.

What makes the current regime’s exertion of power different is that there is sectarian influence to it. When Iran enters into Iraqi politics, for example, it is not in order to promote the strategic interests of Iran as a nation — it is to promote its interests as an Islamic state, specifically as one group within the Islamic state. If the current regime had the long-term geo-strategic interests of the state in mind, they certainly would have not aligned with Bashar al-Assad in Syria; they would have likely diversified their power-base in Lebanon to include groups other than Hezbollah; and they would have pursued a different policy in Iraq. 

The short answer is that some of Iran’s posture is a result of continuity that is rooted in geography, history, linguistics, and cultural influences. But part of the story is tainted by sectarian considerations, and the efforts to create a kind of Shiite alliance that will be both a tool of the regime and part of their efforts to expand Islam. If one reads these cleric’s writings, it is possible to see that they believe it is their divine responsibility to “educate and enlighten” the region, despite their position as a relatively small religious minority. If a country believes in such a divine mission, and yet occupies a minority position, of course it will use the means at its disposal to correct the latter problem.

For example, a recent article published in Iran argued that Sunni scholars had misinterpreted and corrupted the phonetic signs in the Quran in such a way that the text’s meaning was altered. The article claimed that references to Ali, the most important successor to the Prophet Muhammad in Shia ideology, had been mis-voweled so as to read Allah instead. This reading of Islam is very intolerant of the majority view in the region. Of course, not every Iranian cleric believes these arguments, but enough do and support efforts to spread this message.

The result has been deceptively simple: remember that the official name for Iran’s elite military division is the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp — what is missing from this name is the word “Iran.”

Part of the tension that has existed both within the government, and between the government and the people, is the debate about whether the Iranian government should pursue the long-term strategic interests of Iran as a nation or as a religious denomination. There have been people within the regime over the last 35 years who claim that ideologically-driven policies are not commensurate with the interests of the Iranian nation. This same debate has developed between the Iranian people and government.

Very early in the Islamic Republic’s history, Ayatollah Khomeini famously said that people did not launch a revolution out of economic interests — that “economics was for donkeys.” He believed that nobody would launch a revolution in order to have a better meal. This narrative continues today. The clerics, who are basking in their new-found wealth, still claim that the Iranian people do not care about sanctions — that instead they care about religion.

The majority of Iranians disagree. They do not want to pay too heavy a price for the incompetence in Tehran. If one was to ask people in Iran whether their country has a critical role to play in the region, of course they would say yes. But if one were to ask if the current regime was acting commensurate with the country’s importance and potential, I think many would have disparaging views. In the last elections, 19 million people voted for Hassan Rouhani, whose basic message was that the last eight years have been misguided, that major opportunities have been squandered, and that the country’s nuclear program has been pursued in the worst possible way. In Mohammad Khatami’s 1997 election, even more people subscribed to his view that the regime needed to act more rationally.

When the Green Movement was at its height after the 2009 presidential elections, one of the most popular slogans in the streets said, “long live Iran!” This is a very interesting slogan. It indicates that some people believe the current way of projecting power — the selection of Iranian alliances, the spread of Iranian currency to support international actors — is not in the country’s strategic interests.

The Iranian Revolution in 1979 gave birth to the Islamic Republic. yet some scholars have pointed out that the revolutionary body itself was not uniformly religious, and included some leftist secular elements and student groups. How was the revolutionary narrative debated amongst these elements — what futures did each describe for their country — and what factors contributed to the seemingly overwhelming dominance of religious factions and ideology?

In the years leading up to the revolution there were widely differing narratives about revolution, about what people wanted. There certainly was no discussion of the current Welayat Faqih (The Rule of the Clerics). Khomeini never talked about it, and he gave over 110 interviews in the months before the Revolution. In fact, on many occasions, he said the exact opposite, that the clerics would hold no power, that he would retire to the seminary. This deception allowed everyone to see what they wanted in the revolutionary narrative, and what they wanted in the image of Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Shah’s policy, in the last two decades of his reign, of preventing any rival political organization to form helped to reinforce this clerical power. The only force with clear political agendas that was allowed to exist were Islamic forces. The number of mosques increased; Islamist organizations were the only groups that could have their own schools; they could collect their own funds and train cadres. Once the system went into crisis as it did in 1978, the only national network was the religious one. Scholars now know how sophisticated this network really was. It permeated every facet of life, from camping in the summertime for children, to Quranic recital groups, to no-interest banks, to neighborhood committees that celebrated the birthday of the 12th Imam. Once this network was mobilized in 1979, nobody else could match them. Add to this network the Ayatollah’s charisma, his willingness to use sheer power, the quixotic delusions of the Left and the Democratic Moderates who thought they could out-smart and out-Lenin Khomeini, and the stupidity of Saddam Hussein in attacking Iran that year, and one has the recipe for the emergence of the Islamic narrative.

Before this narrative solidified, there were essentially two ideas for Iran’s future amongst the opposition. One was the meta-narrative of the Marxists who believed that Khomeini was a transient phenomenon. At the opportune moment, he could be swept aside. This was envisioned as the first phase of a democratic revolution, in their view, that would pursue anti-imperialist and anti-bourgeois goals.

The second view was that of the secular-democrats, who were also Marxist children of modernity. They thought, like many philosophers during the Enlightenment, that the age of religion as a viable social and political alternative had ended. They believed Khomeini’s extreme ideas — like stoning of adulterous women, cutting off thieves’ hands, or enforcing Sharia Law — are simply impossible in Iran. In their opinion, modernity was on the march. They either thought Khomeini would abide by his promises not to seize power, or they thought that even if he did seize power, the days for his kind of ideas had passed in Iran.

It is important to remember that Iran had a constitutional revolution in 1905. Ideas very similar to Khomeini’s were advocated at that time, and were soundly defeated. The person who advocated them, Sheikh Fazlollah Noori, was hanged under the fatwa of the most authoritative clerics of the period. Many people who had read that history believed it would be unlikely another Sheikh Fazlollah could emerge in Iran.

I was a member of this thought group. We were wrong.

Discussions of Iranian policy have focused on describing a seemingly monolithic regime, at the exclusion of both competing narratives and political forces within and without this framework. Yet it seems that competing visions for the “Iranian soul” have exerted important forces on the way in which the country postures itself amongst the nations. How have these contests become manifest in, and influential on, Iran’s understandings and definitions of the West? 

There is a great chasm between the regime’s official dogmas about the West as the source of all sin and the perception of society at large. Iranian society clearly does not buy the regime’s narrative. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader, claims that what keeps him awake at night is that the regime is losing the culture war to the West. He says the West’s soft power is more lethal than their hard power. This fear should keep him awake, because he has already lost the battle. The youth are expressing themselves in opposition to the regime’s strict policies, in everything from their sexual habits to the way they dress; where they want to go to school; to the kind of music or films they enjoy; from their values to their lack of values; and the number of divorces.

On all these fronts, the regime has utterly failed to sell the idea that the West is a source of all problems, and Islam is the source of all salvation. The heavier this ideology, the more people have sought to find out what the West is really like. This result is unsurprising. It is impossible to force culture — one can force people to hide what they really believe, out of fear, but the more abuse they suffer, the more curious they become. This curiosity is the most important manifestation of the regime’s cultural failure.

Every time there is an election, people seek the most anti-establishment candidate. They did this during the Khatami presidency twice, with Mousavi, and most recently with Rouhani. From a meta-political viewpoint, one can see a country that, every time there is an opportunity to express discontent with regime policies, seizes what limited mechanisms it has to send that message. Herein lies the cultural chasm.

Iran’s last three presidents — Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad — are now considered by the current regime leadership as either supporters of “sedition” or of “deviant circles.” Each of these men entertained different ideas of how best to shape an “Islamic Iran,” and how to position that country in global discourse. What factors led to these presidents’ loss of favor, and do their fortunes illustrate the ways in which attitudes and definitions within Tehran change regarding the country’s character?

Looking a little further back, the history becomes even more interesting. From Iran’s first president until today, the only individual who was neither killed nor impeached, and who is now considered a good president, is Khamenei. Every other president, for different reasons, was toppled. Part of the reason for this history is that structural tensions exist between republican and democratic principles, and the undemocratic ideas of having a supreme religious leader who is responsive only to God. In addition, the legacies of Khamenei’s massive effort to micromanage government, economic, and military affairs continue to affect Iranian society. Today, for example, he controls 30-40 percent of the economy without being answerable to anybody. These efforts are incomparably more significant than any of Khomeini’s policies.

There has never been a unified narrative about how the current regime should behave, domestically or internationally. For example, over something as simple as whether there should be sexual segregation in government offices, there has been immense debate. The radicals want segregation. Rouhani’s official policy has been that segregation represents a violation of human rights. There is no consensus here, and certainly no consensus about what to do in Iraq or regarding the nuclear issue.

In your book, The Shah, you describe a critical paradox of Pahlavi’s downfall, that “nearly all advocates of modernity formed an alliance against the Shah and chose as their leader the biggest foe of modernity.” You have subsequently argued in your writing that much social development inside Iran has been achieved by citizens in spite of, not alongside, their government. How do Iran’s multiple factions understand “modernity,” and how do they confront the challenges this term, and the process behind it?

There is not one understanding of modernity. Khamenei openly talks about modernity — human rights, equality before the law, the end of capital punishment — as a western gimmick. Amongst the clerics, there are very different attitudes about what to do with “modernity” as a concept. Some agree with Khamenei. This is the origin of radical Salafist Islam — once the Islamists realized they had fallen behind the West, they believed this setback was due to a loss of faith. There have been others who argue that modernity is coming, that it is not necessarily western, and that it is critical to reconcile it with religion. Another cleric at the time of the 1905 revolution, Mirza Hosein Na’ini, argued that rule of law and democracy were there to stay, and Shiism must reconcile with them. These dual patterns of rejecting or reconciling modernity are definitive of Iranian political and religious history.

And then, within Iranian society, one finds a burgeoning of modernity that has nothing to do with Islam. There is an incredible revolution in music occurring in Iran right now that makes no effort to remain within the context of traditional Iranian music or western styles. The dominant narrative in Iran is that people want to be modern, but do not want to merely copy the West. They want a genuine modernity that is at once unquestionably Iranian and international. This view has many foes and obstacles before it is realized, but if I were a betting man I would say that this force will eventually shape Iran’s future.


ABBAS MILANI is the Hamid & Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, and a founding co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution.

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