Iran’s National Identity
[University of Bradford,
Iran’s national identity, like those of other
multi-ethnic states, has been artificially
constructed by historians and nationalist elites.
This is particularly important since Iran’s multiple
identities are diverse in the extreme. As a result
of this diversity, Iranian nationalism cannot be
conceived as being a uniform, monolithic concept.
Iran, since the advent of its nation-state building
process, has been struggling to define its national
identity in a relevant and resonant way. How
Iranians conceives of themselves, what links Iran’s
political identity to its national interest, and how
it represents itself in terms of national and
international affairs, are key issues of complexity
and discord in Iran’s multiple identity dilemma.
Iran; Nationalism; National Identity;
Societal Security; Islamism
It is certain that ‘a stable Iran requires room for everyone: Iranian patriots, nationalists, clerics and all others’.1 Thus, this article addresses the following question: can Tehran’s Islamic ideology be reconciled with nationalism? Barry Buzan argues that societal identity is a central component of the ‘Security problematic’.2 In the light of this, has the Islamic state been successful in protecting and establishing a coherent national identity? Did the Islamic Revolution succeed in incorporating its Islamic ideas within the people’s identity? Different elements of Iranian identity have been identified by various scholars in Iran.
The conflict-ridden juxtaposition of Islam and nationalism causes a discrepancy in Iran’s self-understanding. Nationalism in Iran invokes notions of the greatness of the pre-Islamic heritage as an authentic source of Iranian identity, and advocates a territorial patriotism. During the Pahlavi era, Iranian nationalism adopted anti-Islamic and ‘anti-other’ sentiments, and attempted to premise the people’s identity on the Persian culture and language.
Khomeini’s Islamic discourse, in the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution, has, however, appeared to take an anti-nationalistic and pro-Islamic dogmatic vision of the umma that has ‘claimed a universal message, a broad Islamic mandate’.3 National tendencies and affiliations were regarded by him as the product of Western thought, and accordingly as an instrument used to undermine the ‘unity of Islam’. The universalist concept of umma, which goes beyond the boundaries of states, does not fit with state-focussed nationalist ideologies. This paper focuses on the dichotomy between nationalism and Islamism and discrepancies between them as a challenge to the state’s ideology and societal identity. This challenge is a fundamental aspect in understanding Iranian identity. The transformation of the Iranian society from nationalist to Islamist has led in time to a confrontation between these two opposed forces.
Definitions of the conceptsand theoretical debates surrounding nationalism have long dominated political science. Studying the concept of nationalism contributes to the understanding of ethno-national conflicts and its causes. According to Benedict Anderson nations are a political project of identity creation, employed to create a nation and to achieve a coherent collective identity, and in the mobilisation of people within a certain territory. He contends that the nation ‘is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.4 Charles Tilly also calls such nationalism ‘state-led Nationalism’ or ‘state-building nationalism’.5 This enables the state to ‘use nationalism as a tool to consolidate their rule over the society’.6 According to Anthony Smith „the state is a territorial entity with a jurisdiction that, although sovereign, is also strictly bounded; and the sense of boundness, of inclusion and exclusion, is vital to the definition of the community of citizens.” 7 He indentifies historic territory, legal-political community, equality among citizens, common culture, and common ideology as the main component of the modern nation.8 Similarly, Ernest Gellner states:
Nationalism is a theory of political legitimacy, which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones, and, in particular, that ethnic boundaries within a given state- a contingency already formally excluded by the principle in its general formulation- should not separate the power-holders from the rest.9
Gellner argues that, „nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.” Elsewhere he maintains, „Nationalism is a political principle which maintains that similarity of culture is the basic social bond.”10 A nation, thus, is imaginary, invented by historical and political processes and socially constructed. Political identity is employed to merge people, based on the sense of common identity within a given territorial entity. Hans Cohn asserts that nationalism is ‘a state of mind’ ‘an act of consciousness’ and maintains that, ‘nationalism is not a natural phenomenon, not a product of „eternal” or „natural” laws; it is a product of the growth of social and intellectual factors at a certain stage of history.’11 In so doing, the role of elites, the media, publications, law, regulations, and the education system in portraying other nations negatively and mistakenly glorifying the self is crucial.
Edward Said states that societies obtain their identities through mechanisms of opposition to others.He explains that an important element of national identity is a technique of demarcation between us versus them.12 For Smith, nationalism is ‘An ideological movement for attaining and maintaining autonomy, unity and identity for a population which some of its members deem to constitute an actual or potential „nation”.’13 Nationalism, Sandra Joireman argues that, is politicised ethnicity. She maintains that ethno-national mobilisation occurs when ethnic groups are politically politicised ‘in the form of some sort of collective objective of recognition.’14 In answering the question of; what types of nationalism are more likely to cause conflicts or war, Stephen Evera identifies four immediate causes:
1. The greater the proportion of state –seeking nationalities that are stateless, the greater the risk of war.
The more those nationalities pursue the recovery of national diasporas and the more they pursue annexationist strategies of recovery, the greater the risk of war.
The more hegemonic the goals that nationalities pursue toward one another, the greater the risk of war.
The more severely nationalities oppress minorities living in their states, the greater the risk of war.15
This article examines the collective consciousness of Iranians and its historical roots in relation to Iran’s national identity. Nationalism in Iran dates back to the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. In the early twentieth century Iranian elites, placing an emphasis on the idea of nationalism, sought to reshape and rebuild a coherent Iranian national identity. This, according to the Iranian elites, necessitated a policy of de-Islamisation so as to pave the way for ‘modernity and nationalism’. The paper therefore reviews the processes which have attempted to refashion Iran’s national identity in the twentieth century.
Khomeinism and the Islamic State
The Islamic Republic disseminated different ideas amongst the people of Iran and constructed an opposing stance to the Shahs. Sariolghalam argues that ‘the rise of radical Islam in Iran has partly been a response to the antireligious policies of the Shah’s regime’.16 Khomeini, however, persistently challenged the Persianist ideas and asserted that only an Islamic Iran was ‘worth glorification’. He wrote that, ‘Before Islam, the lands now blessed by our True Faith suffered miserably because of ignorance and cruelty. There is nothing in that past that is worth glorification. We will break all the poison pens of those who speak of nationalism, democracy, and such things.’17
This discourse, according to Richard Cottam, is understandable because ‘nationalism and liberalism alike are manifestations of Euro-American culture and hence deserving of total rejection’. Cottam goes on to explain that: ‘their [supporters of Khomeini’s] view is that nationalism is a secular phenomenon and ‘secular’ implies a rejection of the divine plan implicit in the Koran for the creation of the good society’.18 Accordingly, the Islamic government sought to crush any sign of secular Iranian nationalism, and posited Islam as being the only authentic identity for Iranians. The Islamic regime attempted to substitute the notion of an Iranian identity with an Islamic identity.
Ayatollah Khomeini perceived Islam as the only source of legitimacy for the state. For him, the previous regime was illegitimate because its political system was not based on Islamic principles, and it was explicitly secular. The definition of legal government for Khomeini can only be based on Islamic ideas. He also viewed the promotion of Islam as being the only means by which to attain an authentic identity. Khomeini states that: ‘The Iranian people have risen today to revive Islam and Islamic laws. Their uprising is unique in the history of Islam and Iran, for it is so deep-rooted and fundamental’.19 In the immediate aftermath of the 1979 revolution, Islamists used religious institutions in order to effectively maintain an Islamic ideology. The Islamic Revolution eventually managed to mobilise people’s religious sentiment so as to promote a pure Islamic identity. This involved the closure of universities in 1980 for two years in an attempt to eliminate higher education which was based on western and non-Islamic patterns of modernisation.
Amin Saikal writes that Jihadis (traditionalist combative) and the Ijtihadis (creatively interpretive reformists) were both forms of Khomeini’s Shiite approaches to establishing the Islamic regime. He argues that the Jihadi view was a dominant aspect of Khomeini’s discourse in the first few years of Revolution ‘which also coincided with the Iran-Iraq War’. Hence, Khomeini was aware of the importance of the Ijtihadi dimension as a counterbalance to the Jihadi dimension and he was able to manipulate these factions in order to aid ‘the reconstruction of Iran as an internationally acceptable, powerful, modern Islamic state’.20
Jihadi discourse advocated Islamic revolutionary values in terms of Iran’s internal policy. With regards to foreign policy, the regime remained strongly anti-US and anti-Israel. In contrast, the Ijtihadi camp embraced terms such as civil society, the rule of law, and social rights.21 The Ijtihadi dimension, besides this, advocated open and pacific foreign relations. The Ijtihadis, as, Saikal argues, had two obstacles: the Jihadi opposition, and the perceived US threat to the regime. He writes: ‘The more the Bush administration and some of its allies, Israel in particular, have threatened Tehran, the more they have played into the hands of the Iranian Jihadis and forced their Ijtihadi counterparts to close rank with them in the face of a foreign threat’.22
Farideh Farhi points out that war, sanctions and external pressure managed to create a sense of ‘embattlement in a hostile environment’, thus allowing the Jihadis to securitize the situation and as a result to depict themselves as the only ‘true guardians of Iranian security’. Farhi adds that ‘The hands of hardliners were strengthened by the essentially punishment-oriented nature of external pressures, allowing them to identify proponents of reform as weak on security’.23 Khomeini believed that the Revolution was to be about Islam and not liberty. This view was adopted by the Jihadi faction. Their sole frame of reference was Khomeini’s Islamic ideological discourse. Khomeini, for instance, argues that:
Our aim was not mere freedom. Our aim was not mere independence. We did not want to be free like Sweden; they may be free, they may be independent, but they have no Quranic awareness…What do you suppose the Iranian wanted? Did they want Islam? Did they die for the Quran? We did not shed the blood of our youths for mere material gains. Our martyrs gave up their lives; they willingly espoused death, to make this the land of Islam. They did not die for freedom or liberty, they died to make this an Islamic State and we will make sure that their death is not in vain, that it is not made pointless by the libertines who survived.24
Khomeini repeatedly stated that there was no utility in nationality and maintained that ‘Islam is against nationality’. He emphasised the importance of the concept of umma, which, according to Roy, does not acknowledge territorial entities (the deterritorialisation of Islam). Roy holds it to be a rather imaginary term, utopian indeed.25 Khomeini attempted to undermine the rule of Pahlavi on the grounds that their non-Islamic approach to society and governance represented apostasy. He stated that: „This government represents a regime whose leader (as was his father) is illegally in power. This government is therefore illegal. The deputies appointed to work in the Majlis are there illegally. The Majlis itself and the Senate are illegal’.26
In attempts to transform the country’s national identity Islamic dress codes (which both the Pahlavi Shahs had fought to abolish) became the legal norm and clothing codes were imposed, particularly for women who were forced to wear the Islamic Hijab. Initially the clerics also attempted to ban the ancient Persian celebration of Nowruz, which was symbolically and explicitly pre-Islamic.
In spite of this, the war with Iraq forced the regime to gradually ease their restrictive Islamic orders in favour of a diluted form of nationalism. Saddam Hussein, in order to undermine Khomeini’s religious authority, claimed the war against Iran was akin to the Muslim armies’ occupation of Persia thirteen centuries before, which had brought the Persians under Islamic rule. Saddam also aimed to gain full sovereignty over Khuzestan when it invaded Iran in 1980.27 In sum, the war was perceived of as being a threat to the territorial integrity of the country as well as to the Islamic authority of the leaders in Tehran. Both sides, then, entered the war in the hope that the Arabs in Iran and the Shi’a in Iraq would join with the respective opposing force. This assumption ultimately proved wrong, and in the end both parties were surprised to find that those who they had expected to be allegiant to their ethno-religious kin remained loyal to their countries. In sum, unlike the pan-nationalist discourse which glorified the pre-Islamic heritage of Iran as being an age of enlightenment and splendour, the Islamic Revolutionary discourse depicted it as an age of ignorance and oppression. As Khomeini describes:
Oh Lord, I told them, I told the gentlemen (of the clergy) all I know…it concerns a nation which throughout history has suffered under the rule of kings. Throughout a 2500 year history it has been under the rule of kings, kings who have brought it nothing but suffering and misery. Even those supposedly just rulers were also evil… Yes, throughout history this nation has lived under the rule and oppression of these evil kings.28
Ideological discrepancies between these two sources of identity have, during the last century, further widened the gap between the people and the state. It is certain that the increased disillusionment with Islamic ideas amongst Iranians has shifted people’s identification in opposing directions. The ancient past has, yet again, become a source of anti-Islamic, anti-clerical sentiments amongst people from different societal groups.
Many academics and elites criticised Iran’s ruling leaders, and compared the Islamic regime to the Shahs’ era. In an article written by a reformist thinker, Abbas Abdi, in the Asr-e Azadegan newspaper, a comparison was made between the former presidentRafsanjani and Muhammad Reza Shah in arguing that they possess starkly similar political ideologies.29 Contentious intellectual dialogue has raised the question of the similarity of the Islamic government and the former monarchical regime in terms of their security discourses. In other words, a combination of Islam and monarchy has now enmeshed into a single form of ideology - ‘Islamic nationalism’. This unusual confluence is a clear symptom of the rapid political changes and challenges which have exhausted most Iranians and the question of what political system can rule Iranians has been once again brought to the fore. There is also the fact to be considered that the institution of Velayat-e Fagheh has created a legal justification, which provides a basis for political legitimisation.
The Velayat-e faghih is the linchpin in this revolutionary dynamo. By controlling the basic processes of government, the jurisprudent is positioned to guarantee institutional conformity to the agenda for restructuring consciousness and to articulate by expression and example the content of the genuine Islamic identity sought. This discrepancy is made more evident by allowing the institution legality, which has ‘allowed the government to disregard the Islamic law in legislation and policy’30 and to seek to distance itself from its Islamic identity discourse and move towards gradual reform and institutional change. The constitutional amendments in 1989 indicated a shift from religious to political diection.
Khomeini ordered the establishment of the Expediency Discernment Council in 1988 in order to resolve disputes between the Guardian Council and the Majlis. Hitherto, the Council has also been used to advise the supreme leader on important issues regarding domestic and international policy. It is composed of the heads of the three branches of government, the clerical members of the Council of Guardians, and members appointed by the supreme leader, as well as the minister concerned depending on the subject under discussion.
The Dichotomy of Iranianness and Islamicness
The formulation of a cogent and coherent national identity has been a profound preoccupation in all of Iran’s contemporary history, with Iranians and their political elites struggling to create a coherent common sense of national identity. In the past century Iranians have faced a multiplicity of events which have necessitated the shaping and reshaping of their identity using multidimensional sources in order to construct a ‘national’ identity. This identity tentatively attempts to draw bridges between the extreme, divergent and contentious duality of Islamism and nationalism, pre-Islamic and post-Islamic, pro-Western and anti-imperialist approaches. These three elements of Iranian identity; nationalism, Islamism, and anti-imperialism, historically coexisted in combination and opposition. In fact, Iranian modern history has experienced a steady and at times unsteady increase in the discrepancies between these ideologies. In short, in Iran nationalism has turned into chauvinism and religion has turned into fanaticism.31
The result of these century long-struggles between Iran’s two contradictory sources of national identity is arguably the creation of a sense of identity crisis. Iran’s confusion over national identity is based on their (Iranians) being the followers of the Shahs and the Imams. This raises the question of whether it is possible to be a Persian, a member of an ethnic/religious group, a Muslim, a nationalist Iranian, and an occupant of modernity all at once. It is certain that Iran during the past century has experienced a series of sharp socio-political shifts. Two revolutions, the demise of two dynasties, the exile of several Shahs, a military coup, several popular mobilisations, attempts to demolish the national Parliament, long periods of international sanctions and foreign invasions and interferences have altogether preoccupied and confused the country’s national identity. The Islamic Revolution in 1979, however, has added yet further confusion to the crucial question of just who the Iranians are.
A nation is united by a ‘mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours’.32 In being such, the instrumental role of elites, the media, publications, administrative regulations, and the educational system in portraying other nations negatively and in imaginatively glorifying national-selves is crucial. In this sense, the national identity structure in Iran is profoundly based on anti-other sentiments and on the negative stereotyping of neighbouring nations. This is particularly important since many of Iran’s ethnic groups are transnational and shares a common identity with those neighbouring nations. Iranian culture has been perceived by nationalist Iranians as being linguistically and ethnically distinct, pure, and noble. Nevertheless, Islamist thinkers such as Ali Shariati sought a different source of identity for the Iranians. Zahed explains that Shariati ‘called youths and university students to Islam by insisting on a return to the self: to Iran’s ‘own’ culture. He defined this as a return to pure Islam’.33 Shariati believed ‘that religion is a most effective weapon to fight against imperialism and western cultural domination’.34
Tehran today tends to take an anti-imperialist stance in order to strengthen its national unity by exacerbating and catastrophising over the real threats posed to it. This, however, has resulted in the international isolation of the Islamic regime. The revolutionary slogans, calling for independence from foreign powers, indicate that the struggle to maintain the country’s national ‘dignity’ is arduous and challenging. Mahmood Sariolghalam writes: ‘Iran‘s concept of political sovereignty has deep nationalistic and Shi’a roots that will hold for many years to come as Iranians struggle with efforts to balance interaction with the world’35. Mehrdad Mashayekhi gives a historical rationale for this ‘foreigner-suspicion’. He notes that:
Major invasions by Greeks (334-330 BC), Arabs (seventh century), Turks (eleventh century), and Mongols (thirteenth century) contributed to the formation of a foreign-suspicious collective memory; a mass psychological defence mechanism that helped Iranians to adjust themselves to the alien forces undermining their collective identity.36
This nostalgia has certainly helped to form Iran’s sense of nationalism in relation to its neighbours. This is particularly important since the Islamic regime today depicts itself as the true guardian of Iran’s security and of its ‘authentic identity’. Gregory F. Giles, in explaining such paranoia, argues that this sense of insecurity is rooted in a ‘series of conquests suffered by Persia over the centuries, which have left Iranians highly suspicious of foreigners. Indeed, these periods of foreign domination appear to have fundamentally shaped Iranian inter-personal and, by extrapolation, international behaviour’.37
Nationalism and Islamism, the two main components of Iranian national identity in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran, remain key factors in the definition of Iran’s national identity. As such, this article regards a discussion of these key factors as central to any understanding of Iran’s national identity. This article, therefore, has focused on the dichotomy between nationalism and Islamism in Iran. In an attempt to explore the possible compatibility between the two sources of identity and the issue of whether Islamic ideology can be reconciled with nationalism, this article discussed the historical roots of the two ideologies and identified the distinctive features of each side. Nationalism and Islamism claim their ideological legitimacy on conceptually opposed grounds. Nationalism is an ideology that recognises the identity of certain people within a particular territory under a given political entity. Islam, however, advocates the doctrine of umma, the notion that makes it transnational, and advocates the unity of all muslims regardless of their nationality, geography and political affiliations.
This article looked at the dichotomy between „Iranianness” and the Islamic nature of the national identity. The juxtaposition of religion and ancientism has a subterranean impact upon the Iranians’ self-understanding. Nationalism in Iran is based on notions of Persianism as the authentic source of Iranian identity, and acknowledges a territorial patriotism. Prior to the Islamic Revolution, Iranian nationalism adopted an anti-Islamic, ‘anti-other’ stance, signifying the Persian language, the Zoroastrian cultural heritage and the ‘imperial history’ of Persia and its ‘civilisation’ as the key tenets of Iranian identity. This paper analysed the Pahlavi attempt to answer the identity problematic of Iranians by advocating a Persianisation policy. This helped to stoke the ire of the Islamists in 1979. The confrontation between nationalism and Islamism might yet widen the gap and disenchantment between the state and the people even further, and this may consequently impact upon levels of societal insecurity.
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ALAM SALEH –
Dr., Department of Peace Studies, University of