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Reviewed by:
  • Rethinking Iranian Nationalism and Modernity ed. by Kamran Scott Aghaie and Afshin Marashi
  • Rudi Matthee (bio)
Rethinking Iranian Nationalism and Modernity, edited by Kamran Scott Aghaie and Afshin Marashi. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014. 357 pages. $34.95.

This diverse collection of papers by mostly younger, mainly Iranian-American scholars situates Iranian nationalism, its formation, and its evolution in the context of other manifestations; European as well as Middle Eastern ones, of this most successful of isms. It serves as a “catch-up” discussion with regard to theoretical debates about nationalism and sets an agenda for future scholarship on the topic.

All the papers brought together here have merit; yet to this reviewer, four stand out as important theoretical contributions to an evolving discourse. The first, by Afshin Marashi, offers a clear outline of the various interpretations of nationalism and how they do or do not apply to the Iranian case. Pointing out the limited relevance of the Eastern/Central European paradigm that underpins so much of the general discourse on nationalism, Marashi argues that, in the absence of industrialization and its dislocations, the formation of a collective identity in Iran was not just a matter of “marginal men” speaking for disgruntled town-dwellers and peasants. Instead, it was driven by modernizing, reform-minded political elites who, blaming global/imperial penetration for Iran’s woes, managed to mobilize popular support for their vision of the nation. Marashi makes the equally important observation that the modern Iranian public sphere did not crystalize after a Reformation and Enlightenment-type transformation but left room for a variety of modes, including the religious one, especially as the latter was swell suited to articulate popular, anti-foreign grievances. Unlike India, where the presence of a colonial state temporarily allowed nationalist elites to speak for the subaltern masses, the lack of such a state in Iran complicated matters for nationalists, who thus ended up targeting the Pahlavi state as a surrogate colonial state. [End Page 153]

Kamran Aghaie and Farzin Vejdani’s essays build on Marashi’s observations by making a case for the inclusion of “religious nationalism,” which tends to be overlooked if not dismissed by the mostly secular advocates of the modern Iranian nation. Aghaie wants to take Islam, both its creed and its symbols, seriously for being at the core of a specific, anti-Western type of Iranian identity-building. Vejdani’s discussion is a welcome antidote to the widely accepted notion that a focus on pre-Islamic Iran — and, by extension, an anti-Islamic, anti-Arab stance — was integral to state-propagated early-20th-century nationalism. Reza Shah, Vejdani argues, was no Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and thus did not infuse Iran’s school curriculum with a strong anti-Islamic tenor. Iran’s pre-Islamic history only received minor attention under the first Pahlavi ruler. Meanwhile, the period’s secular-minded intellectuals generally sought to highlight the Iranian contribution to classical Islamic civilization rather than rather than to bash Arabs. They saw the Safavids as merely validating a natural inclination toward Shi‘ism.

The fourth discussion that adds analytical surplus value to the book is from the hand of Talinn Grigor on (street) art in the Islamic Republic. Brimming with ideas, it submits that Mohammad Reza Shah’s regime turned religious pilgrimage into national tourism and created a style that, while it was modernist in appearance, was demonstrably and utterly conformist in orientation. It thus left a programmatic vacuum to be filled. The Islamic Republic continued to safeguard the national patrimony yet did not offer an alternative vision. Instead, it produced art as a kitschy handmaiden to the war effort of the 1980s and beyond, bowing to the kind of populism that was needed to sustain that effort as well as to consumerism masking class conflict.

Of the other essays, those that have a comparative or transnational dimension repay reading, including the two that address the religious dimension of (Iranian) nationalism. Camron Michael Amin examines the travelogue ‘Abbas Mas‘udi, the father of modern Iranian journalism and founder of Ettela‘at, wrote following a junket trip he took to the United States in 1945.1 Amin draws attention...


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pp. 153-155
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