A Different Form of Nationalism
In Iran people were not protesting against the nation, but against the dispensation of the day
National anthems have been defined as, "a song, as of praise, devotion or patriotism". The words of the national anthem are freighted with emotions, rationalities, and centralities of the fundamentally held beliefs that underlie such a nation state.
At its essence, it ought to be all-encompassing, all-inclusive, and timeless given its expected echo of civilisational truths, traditions, and values that it seeks to represent. Perhaps along with the territorial sovereignty and the symbolism of the national flag itself, it represents the most sacred manifestation and expression of the land and its people.
But the change of political destiny and narrative in the foundational expression and life of a nation state can also change that ideal permanency of symbols like flag, constitution, or national anthem. It certainly changed with the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
A national project of rewriting history, imagery and aspired values ensued, and the Three-Coloured Flag with the Royalist emblem of the Lion and the Sun of the Pahlavi dynasty gave way to the one with the more austere and religiously inspired 'Tawhid' at the heart of the flag, with takbir written 11 times each in Kufic script.
Expectedly the national anthem which had earlier espoused the monarchical rooting i.e., Sahansahe ma zende bada (Long live our King of Kings), too had to reflect a revisionist outlook. By 1990 the national anthem of the Islamic Republic of Iran was changed yet again but the Sorood-e Melli-e Jomhoori-e Eslami-e Iran (national anthem) retained its religion-inspired anchorage. Lyrics like Payamat ey Emam, esteqlal azadi, naqse mast. Sahidan, picide dar guse zaman faryadetan. Payande mani o javedan. Jomhuriye Eslamiye Iran seamlessly conflated religion to the essential underpinning of Islamic Iran.
Importantly before the 1979 Revolution, unlike the clerical order in the Gulf Sheikdoms, many influential Ayatollahs in the Shiite religious city of Qom were known for their moderate, secular and progressive outlook on society and particularly for women's rights. Unfortunately, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who had initially promised 'a democratic political system', soon weeded out other theologians like Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari, and Hassan Tabatabaei Qomi.
Even though women had wholeheartedly supported Ayatollah Khomeini's movement to oust the ineffectual Shah of Iran, Khomeini reneged on many of his earlier promises (including hypothesizing on a Women Head of State) post the 1979 Revolution. Soon laws governing divorce were revoked, polygamy was inadvertently encouraged, forced-veiling became the norm.
Yet the civilisational power and spirit of the Iranian women ensured that despite the ensuing odds, they broke various glass-ceilings in workspace by entering new domains and in record numbers. As the Iranian-born Janet Afary, feminist activist and researcher of history and religious studies, notes, "the newly established regime of Ayatollah Khomeini moved quickly to repress feminists, ethnic and religious minorities, liberals, and leftists – all in the name of Islam".
A new constitution, flag and anthem that legitimised the post-1979 leadership emerged, and the Iranian identity sought to disassociate itself formally from all political and governance persuasions that preceded the 1979 tumult. Nationalism had new calling cards.
Earlier this year, when Jina Mahsa Amini was killed and Iran erupted in an unprecedented revolt with cries of 'Jin, Jiyan, Azadi' (woman, life, freedom) – an old civilisational impulse of the dignified Iranian civilisational was to return to the forefront. Jina Mahsa Amini was a classical 'other' (even her first name 'Jina' was not registered or referred to by officials owing to disallowances by the powerful clerical order) and yet the women of Iran were collectively raising their voice for the said 'other', in unison.
Jina Mahsa Amini was a 22-year-old woman from an ethnic-minority (Kurdish) and sectarian-minority, as opposed to belonging to the majoritarian stock. Nationalism for the revolting Iranians had suddenly become more inclusive towards all its identities, and was not only composed of the restrictive, discriminative and majoritarian instinct, as was officially posited earlier.
The people were not protesting against Iran, but against the dispensation of the day and their interpretative definition of duties, 'normalcy' and exclusionary tactics that tantamount to denialism, to many of its citizens. It wasn't even against religion as much as it was against the forced illiberality of the state and the diminishment of the proverbial 'others', in the name of religion.
Primary symbols of the dispensation's identity (not that of civilisational Iran or its cultural and historical identity) were attacked by the rioters, including setting fire to the ancestral home of the post-1979 founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini!
With this backdrop, when the Iranian footballers stayed silent in protest when their national anthem was played before their first match in the Football World Cup, a question arose if that move was anti-national and had they shamed their nation? The fact that not a single member of the Iranian team sang the National Anthem (a wholly voluntary decision, whilst knowing the consequences of their move), says something of palpable national mood beyond the officialspeak.
That they played to the best of their abilities and even managed to defeat a much higher ranked team i.e., Wales, in the second match, is reflective of the Iranian team's efforts and commitment. Though following the expected threats of consequences and asymmetric pressure from the conservative authorities, the Iranian team did half-heartedly sing their national anthem in the second game against Wales, however the message of protest and support for the societal cause back home, had already been made.
Had the Iranian players crossed a line with their visible defiance and brought shame and indignity to their motherland and its cherished symbols, or had they only brought shame onto a repressive and exclusivist dispensation that did not behoove the civilisational depth of the long-standing Iranian identity? Like all authoritarian regimes, the current Iranian dispensation leans on 'manufactured nationalism' (not liberal patriotism) to invoke a toxic admixture of pride, fear and fury to suppress all forms of public dissent and protest.
A vital part of this project is to denigrate and punish the 'others' (in this case, a women of ethnic minority) for ostensibly disrespecting symbols like the national anthem. It is a deliberate slam effected on minorities, intellectuals, free press, secularists etc., all of whom seek to posit an alternative expression of nationalism, as opposed to the religio-inspired puritanism and national identity, especially in a vivid civilisational land like Iran.
So, as the final line of the current Iranian national anthem expresses the hope that the Islamic Republic of Iran will survive forever, it is only in opposition to that specific construct of governance type that the Iranian protesters are up in arms against, and not to the timeless land called Persia or Iran. The notions of nationalism for the Iranian protestors are no longer as small-spirited, regressive and discriminative as their dispensation of the day would like it to be, to perpetuate their own regime.
Lt Gen. BHOPINDER SINGH (Retd), is the Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. Views expressed are the author's own.