Modern Iran: Political Islam, Identity, And The Democratic Movements

Modern Iran: Political Islam, Culture, & Identity And The Democratic Movements
By: Nasrin Naraghi

Objective: A Personal perspective on Iranian culture by an Iranian American through studies, travels, and communication with Iranian people

Goal: To teach students about important cultural values in Iranian culture, to intrigue them to learn more about the discussed topics

Methodology: This lecture is divided into three parts:
First, Introduction- a preview of significant historical periods in Iran and their subsequent impact on Iranian cultural identity.

Second: The Iranian Revolution of ?79 and the establishment of Islamic Republic Government in Iran, cultural Revolution, and the young generation, the 30 years and under in Iran,
Third: Post election riots in summer of 2009 / Analyses of the events and projections for what lies ahead by Iranian scholar, Reza Aslan.

The major timelines in history of Iran can be found in many websites such as Wikipedia.
Note: The terms Persian and Iranian have been used interchangeably in this paper. Persia was the ancient name of Iran. The history of ancient Iran was written by the Greek historians who called Iran, Persia, based on the center of the Achaemenid which was called Persa and the Achaemnids ethnicity as Persian, one of the Aryan tribes who spoke the Old Persian language (Farsi).

By studying the significant time periods in Iranian culture, we arrive at certain themes. By that I mean dominant religious and cultural values which have continued to play important role in Iranian politics. These are referred to as cultural values or cultural identity. The two important cultural identities in Iran have been the Persian and Shi?a identity which emerged during the following historical times:
Ancient Time- Persian culture (Persian or Farsi language) and Zoroastrian religion from the Achaemenid Empire starting from 530 B.C until 7th century A.D. when the Arab army conquered Iran and brought (imposed and enforced) Islam in Iran . The Iranian body of evidence for this cultural identity can be found in the Shahnameh, Iranian national epic composed by Ferdowsi in 11th century A.D. The stories were kept alive by the oral traditions and were passed on to Ferdowsi whose family collected them. The Shahnameh was written in the New Persian language to memorialize the history of ancient Iran, the inhabitants of Iran, as well as who they were, their religions, and lore. The stories in Shahnameh are historical combined with myths covering the creation of the world, history of Iran, heroes and kings, and good and evil. Therefore it is a great resource for studying the ancient culture in Iran.

The second dominant identity began in the 13th century in Safavid era and culminated in the 17th century A.D. as Persian and Shi?a under Shah Abbas the Great. Persian became the official Iranian language (spoken and written) and Shi?a the official Iranian religion. The work of arts which exemplified this cultural identity is the illumination (miniature) form of the Shahnameh from 13th century to 17th century with various versions of artistic illuminations along with the manuscripts . This Iranian cultural identity of Persian and Shi?a along with monarchy remained the dominant political identity until the 19th century during the Qajar dynasty when Iran was espoused to modern thinking through the notions of Democracy, Nationalism, Secularism, and Modernism.

The modern notions of Nationalism, National Identity, Secularism, and Modernity were introduced to Iranian intellectuals, sons of the aristocrats in the late 19th century. This was during the reign of the Qajar dynasty (1794- 1925). The secular intellectuals known as ?Intelligentsia? along with Ulema (clergy), and the landowners constituted the political elite in Iranian society of that time. They were in touch with democratic movements around the world and wanted to get rid of rampant corruption and poverty and other social ills in Iran for which they blamed the Qajar and monarchy. The way to achieve that end, democracy, was through a system of constitution. It took about ten years and many sacrifices and bloodsheds for the constitution to be approved by the Qajar dynasty. The Constitutional Revolution of 1906 was the first revolution in modern time in Iran. How successful was this revolution? It accomplished half of its goal, which was the approval of the constitution in Iran. However, the other goal which was to have a republican form of government was mostly demanded by the seculars and not the Ulema.

Following the Constitutional Revolution, a new player enters the political arena in the name of Reza Khan Mir Panj (he later changed his last name to Pahlavi). He was responsible for bringing modernity in a large scale to Iran in many facets, education, architecture, city planning, clothing, etc. Among the intellectuals some defined secularism as synonymous with Westernization as well as those who believed in adapting certain aspects of modernity. They were also those following Reza Khan who defined modernity as complete adoption of Western measures. This clash of ideologies continued until 1979 and it seemed that at this time for the first time Iranian state defiantly rejected all aspects of Westernization. What gained widespread acceptance were the indigenous values which were deeply rooted in Islamic values. The Iranian Revolution united many different factions who were all united and agreed in a complete Iranian sovereignty through Islam. The young zealots were successful through their beliefs in Islam to knock down the monarchy. For them it was the victory of ideology over the corrupt status quo. The Revolution of ?79 with Islamic fervor was a democratic and populist movement believed to be the most viable deliverer of social justice.

Following the establishment of Islamic Republic Government in Iran, the first phase of the Islamic Republic Government under the supreme leadership of Ayattolah Khomeini until June 1989. During this period there were two major events: The very devastating Iran and Iraq war from 1980- 1988 with high casualties and about one million loss of life. Cultural Revolution: 1980- 1987- during this period the education system, cinema, theater, art, and other cultural forms were becoming Islamicized or discontinued.

Fast forwarding three decades, it is the Summer of 2009 and the young generation in Iran, the 30?s and under known as the Children of The Revolution, they constitute over 70% of Iranian population. This generation because of its large portion, high level of education, and contact with the West through social media networks is a generation that wants to define their identity. What are their goals? What are their demands from their government?

People of Iran voted in a record high numbers in the summer of 2009 believing that their votes would count. Those who wanted change voted for Mossavi based on his campaign promises or simply as the best alternative to the incumbent president, Ahmadinejad. The votes for Mossavi represented the moderates and conservatives from both secular and religious groups with some wishing for Mossavi to change the government from the Islamic Republic to Republic. This euphoria ends with the announcement of Ahmadinejad as the victor against Mossavi, which generated large demonstrations in Tehran and other major cities of Iran, the likes of which were unseen during the 30 years of Islamic Republic Government in Iran. The sheer size of these demonstrations in spite of the regime announcement for retaliations, made many think that this may be the beginning of another revolution, which is still open to debate. But the regime was able to quiet them down through the use of force and arrests of many of the leaders.

What?s the next political phase in Islamic Republic Government and the democratic movement in Iran? According to Iranian scholar, Reza Aslan, who was interviewed by the news media during the height of the demonstrations, two likely scenarios: First, the demonstrators get their wish and the supreme leader announces a recall to the election. (which didn?t happen). Second, the government gets more militaristic like China became after the Tiananmen Square. (which happened).


Naraghi, Nasrin, Iranian Culture: A Perspective On Cultural Integration And The Pursuit of Identity, SFSU, 2006, chapter 1, p. 8.
Naraghi, Nasrin, Chapter 3, p. 1.

Ansari, p. 16.
Ansari, Ali, Modern Iran, Pearson: London, 2003, p. 6-8
Ansari, p. 18-19.

Important Readings and Websites about Iranian Culture


Forgotten Empire, The World of Ancient Persia, by: K. Kris Hirst, 2005
The Golden Age of Persia, by, Richard Frye, 2000
Persepolis, memoir by: Marjane Satrapi, The Story of Childhood, 2003; The Story of Return, 2004
Lipstick Jihad, by Azadeh Moaveni, 2005



Major Iranian Film Directors in Iran:


Tahmineh Milani (Hidden Half, Two Women, Ceasefire); Samira Makhmalbaf

Male movie directors: Abbas Kirostami, master of contemporary Iranian Cinema, major films: White Ballon, Runner, Ten, many more,
Majid Majidi (Children of Heaven, Rain, etc..)

Leave a Reply

Humanities educator