What's next--the 'Arabian' Gulf?
by HANA H. in Tehran
17 Mar 2010 05:09
Not long ago, an Iranian official with too much time on his hands decided that the history of the dynasties should be omitted from textbooks and replaced by the history of "the people." He explained his rationale: "Students should not be forced to memorize so many names and dates." In a country with a 2,500-year history of monarchic rule, which until three decades ago knew no other system of governance, this decision meant fast-forwarding historical instruction from the age of dinosaurs to the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and, of course, the victorious Islamic Revolution of 1979.
I remember criticizing this decision to rewrite Iranian history in the presence of a self-proclaimed revolutionary and practitioner of the regime's "true Islam," which apparently surpasses that of even the early Muslims. Shocked at my words, he used the wisdom acquired through years of loyalty to the Islamic Republic of Iran to ask me, "Where is the pride in having lived under kings? At least we can hold our heads up today and say we are living under the rule of Islam." I responded that there is no pride in denying your past. History is what makes a people; the collective experience of the past makes the future. Without an understanding of its heritage, a nation loses its identity.
Iran might be a republic today, but it is still a kingdom at heart. A king is a male monarch, a man with sovereign authority over a country and its people who is endowed with that status for life. The Islamic Republic has one such man who holds the keys to power and calls all the shots. He also happens to come up with some of the most ingenious ideas in the country.
On March 14, Iran's chief authority took an interest in the ancient fire festival known as Chaharshanbeh Souri, traditionally held on the eve before the last Wednesday of the Persian year. It had been rumored that the opposition would use the festival as an excuse to once again take to the streets and openly defy the governing party. The ayatollah-in-charge announced on his website that Chaharshanbeh Souri has "no basis in Sharia [Islamic religious law] and creates a lot of harm and corruption. It is appropriate to avoid it."
The Islamic Republic's officials are inveterate team players -- if one of their own takes a stance for or against something, the rest follow suit. Chaharshanbeh Souri had been celebrated by Iranians for centuries as a symbolic act of leaving the previous year's suffering behind and welcoming good fortune in the coming year. But, taking their cue from the Supreme Leader, one by one the little old ayatollahs in Qom, known as the Sources of Emulation, came forth to shun the fire festival. Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi said, "Such practices are not befitting of a Muslim." Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi-Golpayegani said the celebration was "wrong." Tehran governor Morteza Tamadon joined in, declaring, "With decisive action, we will try to wipe the problem called 'Chaharshanbeh Souri' from the mind of society within the next two years." Even the deceased Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Bahjat was quoted as saying that it "lacks legitimacy."
The collective denunciation of Chaharshanbeh Souri is clearly a measure taken to ensure that the authority of the Islamic Republic remains unchallenged. The regime can pretend to have the backing of "the people" for only so long. When every significant celebration or other public event in the country is turned into a protest during which ever greater numbers of Iranians are arrested, the legitimacy of the regime's actions inevitably falls under question by even its staunchest supporters.
For now, the attack on Persian custom is limited to Chaharshanbeh Souri. There is, as yet, no sign that officials intend to impose a ban on all such traditions -- they have had 31 years of opportunity if that was the primary goal. In the words of Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi, "The Chaharshanbeh Souri ceremony is a superstitious act and baseless, and pious and sensible Muslims will stay away from it. But many other Eid [Nowruz] festivities are reasonable, beneficial, and good."
However, the rulers of the Islamic Republic will stop at nothing to remain in power, as the events of recent months have proved. Survival is the bottom line. If the survival of the regime means banning an ancient festival to prevent the opposition from raising its voice, so be it. If, in the future, maintaining their hold on power necessitates giving up the "Persian" in the Persian Gulf, it is not hard to imagine that they will readily find religious justification for informing us that the Persian Gulf was Arab all along. In the Islamic Republic, the ends always justify the means.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau