Rising nationalism has not only poisoned the political discourse in Europe and America. It’s happening here too.
Iranian nationalism is a reaction to the fanaticism and distortions of our current government. It romanticizes Iran’s pre-Islamic past, and proposes a post-Islamic future of rigidly-enforced secularism. In fact, as rigidly enforced as Islam is currently.
Nationalists default to the ancient Hammurabi code of “an eye for an eye.” They will argue, for example, that because Shia theocrats killed their fathers (or sisters, or brothers) those same theocrats deserve to die by firing squad as soon as the regime collapses.
Recently, two translations of Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind have appeared in Iran. The book is much admired here for its provocative and well-argued observations about human behavior. And then there are the nationalists – just a handful – who carp that Harari didn’t pay enough attention to Iran’s historic sites, relics and bas reliefs.
That’s another feature of Iranian nationalism. Provincial and navel-gazing, it casts Iran as the center of a universe that benefitted from its civilizing influences. Iranian nationalists hate to admit that great civilizations existed before Persepolis and the Persian Empire. Their social media accounts obsessively document Persian words that enriched other languages, but never the other way round.
They turn to the most obscure things to prove their point. Take for example a sculpture in the Brazilian city of Natal of the three magi, better known to Christians as “the three wise men.” Iranian nationalists insist it is “evidence” that the three were Persian Zoroastrians. Really?
The nationalists will never admit how much Iranian culture and literature – even the mystic poems of Rumi — were influenced by Christian theology and Neoplatonism. They’re quick to point out how many Persian words there are in Turkish, but turn a blind eye to all the Turkish words in modern Persian.
They are fascinated with the ruins of Persepolis, but do not acknowledge the architectural influence of the Sumerian, Akkadian or Assyrian civilizations, nor of foreign cuneiform writing...
Their double standard is everywhere.
Nationalists love to point out that it was Xerxes’ troops, during the Archemenian dynasty in 300 B.C, who passed on what has become the necktie. Yet they never mention that the very same fashion came full circle from Europe and the West and was re-adopted in Iran before the Revolution.
Take the ruler and military genius Nader Shah. Nationalists characterize his invasion of India in 1739 as an heroic exploit, rather than an imperialist gambit fuelled by ambition and tainted by cruelty. (For a balanced view, I recommend The Sword of Persia by Michael Axworthy.)
Another example. Agha Mohammed Khan-e Qajar, the founder of the Qajar dynasty in the mid-18th Century. His forces subjugated Georgia and captured Tblisi in a particularly savage campaign. Mohammed Khan-e Qajar ordered the forced removal of 15,000 Christian Georgian prisoners to Iran. The nationalists do not like to admit this, nor do they mention the fact that Agha Mohammed’s role model was the ruthless Genghis Khan.
In fact, the nationalists boast that Iran has never been the aggressor in any of the conflicts of the past few centuries. Nonsense.
As the author of the preface to Axworthy’s book writes, “the way that human beings commit atrocities, like the way they paint or cook food, may differ from culture to culture .... but the propensity to cruelty is, unfortunately, more or less universal.”
To quote Yuval Harari, “most people do not wish to accept the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths”
Iran’s nationalist myths are as twisted and one-sided as the Islamist ones.
It is high time we discarded both, and re-imagined our country as a work-in-progress with multi-cultural roots and with much to offer the global village.