Iranian Identity in the West: A Discursive Approach

Article excerpt


How would the proponents of Iranian identity in the western countries be defined today? Is it limited to those living within the "nation-state" called Iran, or does it also encompass extra implications? Considering that the identity of Iranians in the civilized countries is not well explained because of a couple of reasons like less information and poor theoretical frameworks, how could we explain the proponents of the Iranian identity in the West, i.e. Europe and the U.S., regarding deep historical roots?

Identity has played a pivotal role in social movements. In sociology and political science, the notion of "social identity" is defined as the way that individuals label themselves as members of particular groups (e.g., nation, social class, subculture, ethnicity, gender, etc.). It is in this sense that sociologists and historians speak of the national identity of a particular country, and feminist theorists speak of gender identity. Identity, here, is regarded as a social phenomenon, not as a philosophical one. (2) Symbolic Inter-actionism (SI) attempts to show how identity can influence, and be influenced by, social reality at large. (3) Every identity is unfixed and in flux, and Iranian identity in the Western countries with its components (Iranian or national/Islamic/liberal and socialist) has faced somewhat of a crisis. The relative weight to be given to each of these, partially overlapping, elements in defining the Iranian national identity has generated much controversy among the successive generations of modem intellectuals in Iran, particularly since the last decades of the nineteenth century when the question of national identity moved to the center stage of the political discourse. Secular intellectuals have relied on a romantic conception of nationhood that considers language as the hallmark of the community and the source of national identity. Whilst the duality of Iranian/Islamic is rooted in the emergence of the Islamic empire and its expansion to other parts of the world, the triple concept of Iranian/Islamic/modern (including liberal and socialist) dates back to the Constitutional Movement (Mashrouteh) of 1905.

Iranian identity crisis originates from some historical paradoxes. First, 2500 year old Iranian culture affects a dual influence: a deep national heritage which shapes a social imaginary on the one hand, and an authoritarian and political culture on the other hand. Secondly, Islamic culture was to be merged into the Iranian one, but in practice there were a lot of difficulties on the way. Safavid dynasty (1502- 1736) offered Shiite Islam as the main pillar of Iranians' collective identity. Thirdly, liberal ideology as the hegemonic discourse in Europe and the U.S. penetrated into the Iranian culture, especially in the recent century. It goes without saying that this factor is more influential for Iranians who reside in the Western countries. Finally, and most importantly, socialist culture from the communist countries, especially from the Soviet Union, affected the non-harmonized Iranian culture. This new culture transferred new signifiers, like the notion of revolution, into the traditional and religious culture of Iranians. The left, i.e. the socialist, signifiers made the Iranian culture more complicated, specifically when these signifiers transferred to Islamism as a new discourse in 1960s. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, however, it left its influence on the political Islam in Iran at least in the reading of Ali Shariati and MKO (4). Although the Islamic government in Iran has defined its principles based on political Islam, Iranians incline towards cultural Islam. (5) Establishing Islamic government is considered as the principal goal of political Islam (Islamism), while Iranians live with their religion as a "culture". The Revolution in 1979, influenced by the socialist discourse, tried to intensify the Islamic aspects of the Iranian culture and to marginalize the modern ones. …