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Facing Others:
Iranian Identity Boundaries and Modern Political Culture

April 25th-27th 2008
Program in Iranian Studies
The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

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Iranian national identity has often been attributed to its political culture and nationalist ideologies. It was also attributed to a long and complex process that made Iranians conscious of their historical, cultural and geopolitical Self versus real and imaginary Others that ranged from legendary Turanids to the Western imperial powers. Both these propositions can be problematized in the hope of articulating a deeper understanding of Iranian identity boundaries.

Beginning with the national epic, the Shahnama, itself grounded in millennia of Persian legends and Zoroastrian beliefs, Iran identified itself often as a central space distinct from its neighboring “non-Iran” (aniran) lands. Alternatively, the experience of the Persian method of governance was grounded on acceptance of religious and ethnic diversity. These paradigms of exclusion and inclusion endured in Iranian memory and its political culture. Shi`ism upheld a sense of “exceptionalism” best reflected in the defining rubric: “the rightly-guided community” (firqa-yi najiyya). The Persian method of governance on the other hand is best reflected in the notion of the “Guarded Domains of Persia”, the official title of Iran up to 1925.

It can be argued that this dichotomy between political inclusion and communal exclusion was reinforced by challenges of political and cultural modernity. The Iranian encounter with a materially and militarily powerful imperial Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries generated a “narrative of decline” and a search for an enemy outside or within that was imagined to betray the communal solidarity and contribute to Iran’s disempowerment and decline. Like parallel trends elsewhere (and many examples in the Western and Islamic experiences), Iran as a “persecuting society” increasingly resorted to conspiratorial theories, violence against vulnerable minorities and greater gender segregation within a patriarchal social structure.

Ideologies of nationalism during the Pahlavi era further highlighted perceptions of Iranian endurance versus the intrusion of ancient and modern outside conquerors. The Islamic Revolution also appropriated Shi`ite paradigms of Messianic salvation, history as suffering, and differentiation of the righteous Self versus the oppressive Other. Memories of hegemony, depravation and the failure of democratic aspirations helped identify new satanic forces in the contemporary West and its prevailing cultures. Post-revolutionary Iran, it can be argued, carries through an age-old, and no-less fascinating, dichotomy of self-preserving defiance against global forces of “cultural invasion” (tahajom-e farhangi) while at the same time breading a new generation of Iranians enamored with the same seductive cultures.