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September 08, 2004

(Some) Iranians don't know jack about Iran

Slate has a journal entry up by an Iranian writer (at least origin) who seems to want to illuminate the complexity of this multifaceted nation for the ignorant masses of the semi-intellectual types who read webzines (like me). I posted a while ago that Iranians aren't Arabs (a common idiocy that shows up in middlebrow journals like The New York Times), but there are other details about the country that might be to relevant to mention to people who want to know its place in the world, especially since a faction of American policy makers are itching to invade this axel of evil. The author asserts that:

On the contrary, Iran has been a continuous entity for nearly 2,500 years. Half of that time has been as an empire founded upon the ancient Zoroastrian ideal of the "just ruler"—the divinely sanctioned shah, or king, whose omnipotent rule reflects the authority of the gods. The other half has been as an Islamic, and distinctly Shiite, community anchored in the principle of the "righteous martyr," who willingly sacrifices himself in the fight against oppression and tyranny.

I won't emphasize the reality that the Zoroastrianism of the Achamaenid (Cyrus, Darius & Xerxes et al.) and semi-Hellenistic Parthian dynasties was tepid at best (the Armenian branch of the Parthian royal house, the Arascids, converted to Christianity when the opportunity presented itself after the fall of the senior line). It was during the Sassanid period, ~250 to 650, that state supported Zoroastrianism was a crucial feature of the Iranian monarchy.

But the more important point is to clear up the misconception that Iran has been a Shiite community/state since the advent of Islam. No, in fact, the relative uniformity of Shiism throughout the lands of greater Persia is the product of the force of will of the Safavid dynasty of the 16th century. The Safavids had their origin in a Turkic dervish order. Before this period, Iran had a succession of non-Persian ruling dynasties that switched between religions, some Shia, some Sunni, and even a Mongol pagan interlude (which also saw switching between Shia and Sunni)! (the Pahlavi ruling dynasty of the 20th century was the first Persian ruling house of all Iran since the fall of the Sassanids in 650)

The writer above seems to want to sell Westerners a simple and easy to digest myth (or, he believes the myth himself), but we should be well aware of the real complexity of the Iranian "nation," a synthesis of Persian and Turkic elements, as well as a long history of religious change and transformation. I don't know if this sort of preoccupation with piddling details matters operationally in the context of decisions that the American state might make in regards to Iran, but Iraq should have taught us the lesson that it can't hurt to have accurate facts on hand.

Posted by razib at 02:21 PM