Negotiating Iranian Identity: Between Prescriptions & Subscriptions of Belonging
Panel III-13, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am
Current events in Iran have once again brought to the fore long sweltering questions about state, communal and individual identities and the ways in which political and social identities are contested and understood. Since September 2022, waves of protest have taken place across the country which have challenged some of the fundamental markers of the Islamic Republic, most notably around the issue of compulsory hijab. This opens up wider questions about what it means to belong in post-revolutionary Iran, not only at the personal level but also at the communal and state level. The protests and the responses to them demonstrate how the ‘idea’ of Iran has multiple sources, meanings and representations. These are manifested at a number of different levels of analysis when it comes to Iran’s domestic politics and foreign policies.
This panel therefore seeks to address such questions through exploring the different ways in which Iranian identity is negotiated. Through cases ranging from the domestic to the international, the papers in this panel engage with the interaction between Iran’s multifaceted identities, highlighting how the post-revolutionary Iranian state has sought to construct different identities through a variety of diffferent policies and means. We contend that identity, and the selection of different interpretations and meanings within it, is a political act. It is one that is intimately linked to notions of belonging, helping to interrogate and develop questions about the (in)congruencies of Iranian identities and how they are enacted both at home and abroad.
Created in accordance with the Supreme Leader’s wish of an attractive and memorable theme, the song ‘Salam Farmandeh’ (سلام فرمانده - ‘Hello Commander’) was quickly spread through the Islamic Republic’s media channels, public events, and performances in schools. While targeting explicitly the country’s youth, translated versions of the song are meant to transcend and increase the popularity of the Islamic Republic beyond its borders. The paper argues that ‘Salam Farmandeh’ is a means of symbolic politics that aims at building and strengthening a common national identity in line with the Islamic Republic’s ideological values among the country’s youth at home while at the same time aiming at creating an attractive image of the Islamic Republic abroad.
The paper studies the combination of audio and visual materials and demonstrates how they are used to create emotional appeal to empower the song as an instrument of identity building and mobilization. The paper relies on theories and concepts of rhetoric and visual rhetoric, focusing particularly on the concept of pathos or emotional engagement.
This paper interrogates four prominent aspects of Iranian culture. First, from the late nineteenth century onward, those who have viewed themselves as critiques and articulators of cultural values and trends, namely the country’s thinkers, writers, and philosophers, have sought to understand and to grapple with what could best be described as the problematique of modernity. This is not to imply that modernity has been universally sought after; the very essence of the Islamic Republic has been antithetical to however it is that modernity maybe conceptualized. Nevertheless, whatever it is that modernity stands for, and however it may be defined, has been a source of preoccupation for the country’s cultural commentators. And, for society at large, navigating modernity and its antitheses has been a fact of life. Second has been the role of the state as a crafter and influencer of culture. Insofar as Iranian culture is concerned, the state has been a permanent presence since the early 1900s. Two other constants in Iranian culture have been religion and nationalism. In examining the role of religion in Iranian culture, I will focus on the ways in which the use of religion as a political ideology by the Islamic Republic state have influenced religiosity among the state’s subjects. How has popular Islam – that is, the Islam of the people, and not the Islam of the state – fared under the Islamic Republic? A similar question can be asked about nationalism, not so much as an ideology but more as a sense of national belonging and a rough guide to civic and political culture. The compound outcome of these cultural traits has been a growing normative chasm between the culturally accented Islamic Republic state on the one hand and Iranian society on the other. To use an overused but nevertheless accurate cliché, Iranian society is highly complex and complicated, with multiple layers of identity that both overlap and contradict each other. The state is far from alone in its inability to fully grasp this multilayered complexity of society. Academics and others observing from the outside, as well as those experiencing its disorienting processes from within, also have difficulties understanding the country’s dizzying social dynamics and explaining what they mean.
Scholars have devoted substantial attention to underpin the relationship between religion and politics in formation of Iranian identity. They have identified its various components and acknowledged its multidimensional construct. Concurrent with other nations in the Middle East, Iranians too had their unique practice of the age of nationalism in the modern time. Yet, the very idea of Iran, its juxtaposition with a form of Islam known as Shi’ism, and the root of this bilateral relationship requires a further revaluation. To this end, as this paper argues, Iranian identity, which despite its plurality has preserved its unity for more than a millennium now, is not only indebted to but also has a unique role in shaping Shi’i Islam. Problematising the formation of Iranian national identity over the longue durée, and the role of Shi’i Islam in its construct, this paper tries to address what does it mean to be an Iranian in the modern era, and whether this is aligned with the regional policies implemented by the post-revolutionary state in the Middle East, by critically engaging with the thoughts of Iranian intellectuals, their writings, and postures in prior and after the 1979 Revolution.
Political precarity and increasing restrictions upon the mobility and civil rights of Iranians after a series of haunting domestic upheavals since 2009 have culminated in the increase of Iranians seeking ways to access better economic, civic, travel, business, and lifestyle opportunities abroad. Yet acquiring such “access” has meant that wealthier Iranians have sought ways out and around political constraints via citizenship and residence by investment schemes-- i.e., acquiring coveted second passports or “golden visas” through purchasing foreign real estate, capital investment, employment creation, and funds, for example, in a particular country. Iranians however are generally barred from applying for these schemes across the globe, save in Turkey and Dominica, where their huge sums of capital investment offer them an expedited highway to other citizenships given their “high-value migrant” status. Key to this study are questions germane to their distinction as non-refugees and the forms of “belonging” in such contexts that have arguably been facilitated through a purchasable commodity, such as a Turkish passport. Given the dearth of studies on how diaspora Iranians navigate political uncertainty and relationships through these means, this presentation seeks to unpack the circumstances, conditions, and contexts of Iranian women in particular whose legal migration is enabled through a geopolitical “hustle economy” via these “belonging-for-hire” schemes. In the “theatre of the hustle,” so to speak, what are the relations and dynamics that make it possible for Iranians to “become” legally Turkish and/or a Turkish resident? Moreover, when a price tag is placed on citizenship, what kinds of political and personal relationships are forged and disrupted between her as an individual and the political community of diaspora Iranians that she has purportedly joined in Turkey?