The race that became Iran

Frontier Fictions
December 1, 2000

The study of the context, preconditions, genesis and early development of modern national identity in the Middle East has given rise to a vast literature. The political, social, cultural and psychological dimensions of national movements and ideologies, their impact at national and provincial levels, their capture of power and their consequences for the diverse and fractured populations on whom they were imposed, have been the subjects of intense and sometimes polemical argument. It is as a contribution to these debates, especially those inspired by Benedict Anderson’s influential concept of the “imagined community”, that Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet’s account of Iranian efforts at national self-definition must be considered.

The relationship between territorial definition and the crystallisation of national identity and the achievement of nationhood is a complex one. Kashani-Sabet’s central argument, that land-based conceptions of countries existed before the advent of the nation state, is hardly new or, as a general premise, particularly contentious, but she provides no clear delineation of the transition from “Iran” as a geographical concept to “Iran” as a modern political entity, a focus of individual personal loyalty and a source of identity and citizenship. Her discursive style and her reluctance to impose shape on her large quantities of source material do not always help to clarify the process by which “Iran” slowly took shape in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries in the consciousness both of its inhabitants and of the central government.

The book contains some interesting observations on the significance of geography and cartography in stimulating a sense of Iranian identity in the 19th century. The Victorian passion for observing, collecting, labelling, cataloguing and categorising, and their use of maps and clocks for measuring and controlling space and time, made a strong impression on the Iranian elite, who inevitably attempted to appropriate these instruments for their own purposes. Yet Kashani-Sabet nowhere really imparts a sense of the true dimensions of the seismic ideological and cultural shifts involved as Iranian geographers moved away from the depiction of Iran in cosmographic terms towards modern cartography, with the accompanying expulsion of Iran from the centre of the universe.

The version of Iranian identity with which Kashani-Sabet is concerned is essentially that which received official sanction by the state and which was promulgated in its most complete form by the Pahlavi dynasty, and she pays scant attention to alternative narratives of identity, particularly those, ideologically similar but politically contradictory, articulated among Iran’s national minorities. Of course, nationalism spread through the various communities in Iran at greatly differing tempos and the role of an intensifying sense of Persian ethnicity at the centre in stimulating its opposite at the periphery is complex indeed.

For any account of the development of Iranian identity, the early Pahlavi period is of vital significance. It was under the regime of Reza Shah that ideas about what it meant to be Iranian, first articulated by reformist intellectuals during the late 19th century, received the backing of state power. Kashani-Sabet portrays Reza Shah, as indeed he always assiduously portrayed himself, as “the man on horseback”, and emphasises the military culture promoted by the regime. Yet she makes no mention of the major measures adopted by his regime, of conscription and clothing reform, which had among their principal objectives the promotion of national homogeneity and the inculcation of the ideology of secular nationalism. It was through military service, above all else, that Reza Shah intended to create “Iranians” out of the existing mosaic of communities, while he also intended the army to provide a model for the transformation of society, symbolised by the imposition on civilians of a sort of uniform in the shape of the Pahlavi cap. Of this massive and deliberate attempt at social engineering, with its profound impact on the identity and consciousness of the mass of ordinary Iranians, it would have been useful to learn more.

In her discussion of Qajar and Pahlavi Iran, Kashani-Sabet touches on many important questions. For answers, however, we must await another volume.

Stephanie Cronin is research fellow in history, University
College, Northampton.


Frontier Fictions: Shaping the Iranian Nation, 1804-1946

Author - Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet
ISBN - 1 85043 0 8
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £29.50
Pages - 304

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