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Reflections on Arab and Iranian Ultra-Nationalism

Critical students of ethnically coded nationalism would agree: propagating the glory of “our” race or culture almost always entails the suppression of equal status for the race or culture that is represented as its other.  West Asia is no exception.  Iranian and Arab identity politics thwarted, perverted, and dismembered communitarian thinking for long periods in the twentieth century.  Today, some of the insidious legacies of ultra-nationalistic thinking are being resurrected in Iran, Iraq, and the rest of West Asia, to the detriment of symbiotic relations among the peoples of the region.

True, Iranian nationalism was at its nadir during the days of revolutionary exaltation because it was immediately linked to the excesses of the Pahlavi dynasty.  But the nationalist mummy has returned in a new disguise.  For some acolytes of Iran’s Persian utopia, it functions as a weapon against the message and symbolism of Islamic communitarianism which is enshrined in Iran’s constitution.  For others, including President Ahmadinejad, it is an expedient shortcut to gain support of the resurgent bourgeoisie of Iranian society.  Chauvinism against Arabs continues to guide the thinking of some Iranian commentators, especially in the Diaspora.  The latent powers of deeply internalized ideological constructs, it seems, do not disappear upon the demise of states based on them.  “Persianism” nurtured by the Pahlavis has survived the internationalist momentum triggered by the Islamic revolution in 1979.

The antecedents of Iranian ultra-nationalism can be traced back to the writings of late nineteenth-century figures such as Mirza Fath Ali Akhunzadeh and Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani.  Demonstrating affinity with Orientalist views of the supremacy of the “Indo-European peoples” and the mediocrity of the “Semitic race,” Iranian nationalist discourse idealized pre-Islamic Persian empires, whilst negating the “Islamization” of Persia by Muslim forces.  Iranian ultra-nationalism had its heydays during the Pahlavi dynasty.  The Shah’s decadent celebration of 2,500 years of Iranian empire in Persepolis in 1971 and his decision to abandon the Islamic solar hegra calendar in favor of an imperial one exemplify his adherence to the idea of “Persianism” and its anti-Islamic connotations.

By virtue of its ultra-nationalist ideology, Pahlavi Iran needed the “Arab other” to essentialize the Iranian self.  Distinguishing the “Iranian-Aryan” in-group from the “Arab-Semitic” out-group, political psychologists would point out, was achieved by emphasizing the superiority of the pre-Islamic Iranian heritage and undervaluing the Islamic identity of the Iranian populace.  That failure to forge an inclusive identity was anathema to communitarian relations with Iran’s neighbors.  No wonder then that some Arab governments perceived the Shah’s aggressive military build-up under the patronage of the United States, claims to Bahrain that were dropped only after a plebiscite in the sheikhdom voted against unification with Iran, and the seizure of half of the Abu Musa island from Sharjah and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs from Rais al-Khaimah in 1971 as part of a grand strategy to “Iranianize” the area.  This might not have been the Shah’s ambition, but his adherence to chauvinistic rhetoric gave all the wrong signals.  Ultimately, it widened the gulf between the peoples of the region and inhibited the institutionalization of a functioning regional security architecture — a necessary endeavor that has not been implemented to this day.

The adoption of European-nationalist Weltanschauung in the Iranian context was comparable, albeit not identical, to the ideological evolution of Arab ultra-nationalism.  Whilst the Iranian variant showed closed affinity with French notions of Indo-European supremacy most forcefully elucidated by Ernest Renan, the branch of Arab nationalism developed by Sati Khaldun al-Husri and institutionalized in the Ba’th (rebirth) party by Michel Aflaq was closer to the tradition of German romanticism.  Following Johann G. von Herder’s idea of a Kulturnation, that is, a cultural community transcending the confine of the state (the idea later developed by Johann Gottlieb Fichte), al-Husri advocated the view that the “Arab umma” was a cultural nation held together by a common national language and shared common folklore.

Like Pahlavian nationalism, which developed insidiously racist narratives during periods of crisis, “Arabism,” too, gave birth to its own abominations.  Nowhere was the process of nationalistic radicalization of Arabism more pronounced than in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq where anti-Iranianism (next to anti-imperialism and anti-Semitism) became a central ideological pillar of the Ba’thist state.  Pamphlets such as Khairallah Talfah’s Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies, books such as Ta’rikh al-hiqd al-Farsi ‘ala al-‘Arab [The History of Persian Hatred of the Arabs], serials entitled Judhur al-‘ada al-Farsi li-l-umma al-‘Arabiyya [The Roots of Persian Hostility toward the Arab Nation], and proverbs such as Ma hann a’jami ‘ala ‘Arabi [An ajam, or Persian, will not have mercy on an Arab] repeatedly depicted Iranians as cruel and merciless, the ultimate bearers of shu’ubyya possessed by a “destructive Persian mentality” (aqliyya takhribiyya).  The myth was created that hatred towards Arabs was an integral part of the Persian character and that this racial attribute had not changed since the days of the Islamization of the Sassanian empire in the seventh century AD.   No wonder then that Saddam Hussein ordered the establishment of the “Arab Gulf Office” in 1977.   By disseminating maps designating the Gulf as Khaliji Basra (the Gulf of Basra) or al Khalij al-‘Arabi (the Arab Gulf), Saddam Hussein claimed a prominent role in the region, appealing to (Iraqi-centric) Arab nationalist sentiments with anti-Iranian precepts.

The phenomenon of ultra-nationalist discourse in Iran and Iraq sketched here is an example of the invention of nations and nation-states examined by Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm among others.  Nationalism was a means to mobilize the support of the populace and a symbol of legitimacy for the authoritarian regimes in power.  In order to manufacture salient state identities, differences were accentuated and commonalities underplayed, hardening the invented self-other dichotomy between Iranians and Arabs.  In both contexts, nationalism served political ends.  For Iranian ultra-nationalists, representation of the “Arab other” was perverted in order to herald Iran’s distinctiveness and the country’s “natural” affinity with the “West.”  Arab ultra-nationalism, on the other hand, was invoked as a political strategy to exclude Iran from the arena of inter-Arab politics.

The ongoing project of state-building in Iraq and the struggle over the direction of the Islamic revolution in Iran have set in motion active excavation of the vast graveyards of failed ideologies in West Asia.  In Iran, the Islamic communitarian legacy left behind by Ayatollah Khomeini has thus far subdued ultra-nationalist experiments, but it is not at all clear that the Iranian state would not be forced to re-invoke radical nationalism in a period of crisis (as it did during the Iraq war).  Neither is it obvious that the reinvention of the Iraqi nation-state would not require resorting to the symbols and imagery of “Arabism” and its anti-Iranian precepts at some stage of the lumbering state-building process.  Indeed, there has been active encouragement to that end.  Consider King Abdullah’s view that he has a “real problem with certain Iranian factions’ political influence inside Iraq” and his statement that “Iraq is the battleground, the West against Iran.”  Consider also Prince Saud al-Faisal’s declaration that “Iraq was effectively handed over to Iran” (which provoked the Iraqi interior minister Bayan Jabr to call him a “Bedouin on a camel,” depicting the al-Saud family as “tyrants who think they are king and God”).  Similar views on Iran’s presence in West Asia were expressed by Ehud Olmert, the Bush Administration, Hosni Mubarak, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden, and others who have or seek political constituencies in the region and beyond.  Indeed, didn’t the suspicion about Iranian designs in West Asia motivate Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan to accommodate the United States and Israel’s efforts to prolong cease-fire negotiations after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon during this summer?  The answer is yes, I think.

Half MoonFortunately, not all signals are gloomy, however.  The selection of the critically acclaimed movie Half Moon — directed by Iran’s Bahman Qobadi and co-produced by Iraq, Iran, Austria, and France — as Iraq’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards, for instance, is the latest sign that there is considerable engagement in the cultural sphere.  Undoubtedly, there are indissoluble transnational ties between Iraqis and Iranians, rooted in both kinship (e.g. the ancient Iranian minority in Iraq, Iraqi exiles and refugees in Iran) and religion (e.g. the network of institutions, charities, foundations, and seminaries linking Qom and Mashhad to Karbala and Najaf).  But uncertainties remain.  Is ultra-nationalism in West Asia still a shibboleth, which should have become obsolete but hasn’t?  Or can we finally enter a new era of intellectual engagement liberated from exclusionary ideologies of the past?  I think at this stage we are perhaps more hopeful than reassured that regional elites have learned the lessons of the bad old days of nationalist exaltation.  Remember Ibn Khaldun’s historical lesson: the development of a nation-state (dawla) contains the element of its own destruction.  Only a higher form of transcendentally defined community (‘asabiyya) can ensure long-term, structural cohesiveness.


Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is the author of The International Politics of the Persian Gulf: A Cultural Genealogy (London: Routledge, 2006).  He teaches international relations at Oxford University.  MRZine has published his “The Muslim in the Mirror” (23 Feb. 2006); “Persian Atoms: Enriching Facts, Diverting Fiction” (26 April 2006); “Iraq, Iran, and the New World Order” (25 May 2006); “The Muslim Presence in the Racist Mind” (15 June 2006); and “Palestine Sans Frontières” (18 July 2006).  Consult Adib-Moghaddam’s Web site for his upcoming publications.



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