While most of the Middle East region has been risking life and limb for the sake of a democratic future, in Iran, different factions in the regime have been busy debating the virtues of the ancient Persian King Cyrus the Great. Neither side brings any new historical insight, but it hasn't been an exercise in mere navel-gazing -- in Iran, debates on ancient history have been a high-stakes affair. Today, the question is whether the Islamic Republic should pay closer attention to the country's pre-Islamic Iranian heritage; the answers recently offered by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten the collapse of the current regime.
The dispute itself is nothing new. For decades, if not centuries, the twin enigmas of Iran's identity and the nature of Islam in Iran have bedeviled Iranian scholars and politicians alike. Iranian identity is bifurcated, split between the pre-Islamic traditions of Zoroastrian and Manichean millennium before Islam, and the Islam-influenced developments of the last 1,300 years.
But there has never been a consensus about which side of this bifurcation should be privileged. Even in the first centuries after the arrival of Islam in Iran, though Iranians had a decisive role in formulating Islamic laws, governance, and literature, there was considerable tension between Arabs and Persians: The former routinely referred to the latter with the pejorative moniker Ajam. Some Arabs (and some Iranians) even questioned whether Shiism -- the dominant sect in Iran today -- qualifies at all as a legitimate branch of Islam, arguing that it was actually a thinly disguised form of Iranian nationalism. Indeed, many scholars have pointed out that key ideas singular to Shiism in the Islamic world -- like the concept of a messiah (mahdi), and millenarian optimism -- are in fact a reincarnation of pre-Islamic Iranian ideas and concepts drawn from Zoroastrian and Manichean philosophies.
Negotiating these tensions has long been a requirement for any Iranian regime. The shahs of the Pahlavi era, seeking to blunt Islam's role in public life, accentuated the pre-Islamic age. The grandest example of that campaign came in 1976, when the shah spent several hundred million dollars to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian monarchy in a tent-city he specially erected outside Persepolis, the capital of ancient Persia. He even changed the national calendar for the occasion, away from one of Islamic origin to one that claimed to have its genesis in the age of Cyrus, the ancient Persian king praised in the Old Testament for freeing Jews from their Babylonian captivity (though the change lasted only two years).
But when the Islamic regime came into power in 1979, it attempted to obliterate the Persian pre-Islamic past and emphasize only the Islamic component. It was an agenda that required some heavy cultural lifting, to say the least, in a country where people still routinely decried the "Arab invasion" of a millennium past, and practiced with pride and care a language that had survived the era of Arab imperialism. Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic's founder, made Iran's pre-Islamic Persian holidays a special target: He derided Nowruz, the Iranian New Year celebration held on the first day of spring, as a "pagan" festivity.
Iranians, for the most part, resisted the regime's ambitions in this regard. The popular response has been to insist on even more ostentatious celebrations of traditional Persian festivities and support for campaigns to "purify" the language of any Arabic words and names. And just a few years ago, during the days of Mohamad Khatami, Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor, an Iranian scholar published a five-volume treatise chronicling the two centuries of fierce fighting by Iranians before they accepted Islam, contradicting the regime's official history that Iranians accepted Islam eagerly and as soon as they had heard its message.
It is this sort of national pride that Ahmadinejad and his closest advisor, Esfandiar Mashaei, have been tapping into with their recent calls for an "Iranian Islam." They have made Iranian nationalism a pillar of the Ahmadinejad government, repeatedly and profusely praising pre-Islamic Iranian grandeur.
Rather than neglect Nowruz, Ahmadinejad marked the occasion this year by inviting 20 heads of state to Persepolis -- once so reviled by Shiite clerics that in the early days of the revolution Sadegh Khalkhali, a hard-line judge, tried to have it bulldozed (he was stopped by angry locals). Though Ahmadinejad gave in to heavy criticism and decided against having his celebration at the ancient site, he refused to heed the threats and advice of conservatives and held it in Tehran. It was rightly seen as a direct challenge to the clerical authorities.