- Rethinking Iranian Nationalism and Modernity ed. by Kamran Scot Aghaie and Afshin Marashi
This is an important anthology of more than a dozen takes on the socio-cultural life of Iran by a combination of the new generation of Iranian and non-Iranian scholars focusing on the country’s politics and history. The title suggests that the focus is on “Iranian Nationalism,” but I feel the book is broader, some chapters focusing on specific issues while others addressing more general concerns. They cover the historiography of Iranian nationalism, many aspects of Iranian cultural history, the place of religion in the Iranian public sphere, the influence of Islam on Iranian identity, as well as some other contemporary dilemmas.
Fifteen articles, organized into three sections, shape the content of the book. The four essays in part 1 explore the historiography of Iranian nationalism through a rethinking of the existing [End Page 219] scholarship on the subject. While the section is important and useful, it is somewhat detached from the stated focus of the book on Iranian nationalism. The other two parts study real issues that have either shaped or influenced nationalism, under the broad rubrics of ethnicity, geography, and religion.
Part 2 focuses on Iranian self-definition. Chapters by Kia and Amin focus on two important intellectuals who have left their mark on Iranian thinking on the issue, namely Azar and Mas’udi respectively. The former is a poet responsible for an eighteenth-century cultural history of the Persianate world, constituting a commemorative compendium of more than eight hundred poets of the time. Azar has focused on issues beyond the individual writers and is known for his demonstrative ethnographic research on the region. The latter’s work also includes accounts of women poets, and deals with gender issues and the multifaceted nature of nationalism.
Chapter 8 focuses on Mas’udi, a journalist known for his American travelogue, which reveals the account of an Iranian observer admiring the American way of life, economy, politics, and culture and comparing it to “the chaotic condition of Iran” (165). Has he shaped a form of defensive, or even self-resenting, nationalism among Iranians, considering also the far-reaching popularity of the newspaper Ettela’at, on which he served as founding editor? I think he has. As to the other two chapters in this part of the book, even though well researched, the chapter on the failed Arab movement in Khuzistan did not help me understand Iranian nationalism. The same goes for the well-documented chapter on the state of U.S.-Iranian relations before any formal diplomatic relationship was established in the late nineteenth century.
With seven chapters, part 3 comes very close to treating the claimed objective of the book by offering a sophisticated portrait of the volatility of Iranian nationalism. In fact, I was delighted by the way the chapters complemented each other and sustained a dialogue with one another.
In chapter 9, Aghaie’s essay on Islamic-Iranian nationalism could have been turned into an independent monograph, treating the theory of religious nationalism before focusing on Iran as a case study. Religious nationalism shows no animosity towards the idea of exercising loyalty to, and/or solidarity with, the state, but it rejects the idea of the nation as the foundation for such feelings of belonging. Nonetheless, the author shows that, while religious nationalism rejects certain forms of the paradigm (e.g. liberal, Marxist, etc.), it still upholds nationalist values—and sometimes very strongly—“without calling it nationalism” (199). Vejdani’s article (chapter 10) follows the same theme, but looks at Iranian historiography between the two world wars and shows how, “contrary to prevailing wisdom,” at the time religion was seen as part of the national identity, one “not articulated against Islam, but within it” (212). In chapter 11, Atabaki takes the discussion to a complicated interplay of ethnic groups and nationalism, and focuses on an attempt to construct a particular identity. He zeroes in on the work of an Iranian writer from Azerbaijan province, who...