Iranian nationalism and Zoroastrian identity

One of the most famous performances of Iranian nationalism was the elaborately choreographed celebration of 2500 years of Iranian monarchy by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi before Cyrus the Great’s tomb in 1971. Scholars have pointed to Iranian nationalism’s use of the ancient past in an attempt to construct a modern, secular nationalism free from the institutional power of the ulama and legal constraints of shari’a law. Iran as a nation and identity was thereby imagined as an entity of longue durée — and thus distinguishable from more recent history of decadence and decline.

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Increased centralization, accompanied by the reduction of ulama power and shari’a law led to increased legal status and socioeconomic opportunities for religious minorities. The emphasis on the ancient past was also welcomed by religious minorities eager to embrace a national identity that was not primarily Islamic. Although all religious minorities benefited from nationalism and increased centralization and secularization, no minority group was as closely associated with the pre-Islamic past than the Zoroastrians.

Iranian nationalism’s relationship to the Zoroastrian community was unique. The ancient, pre-Islamic past of the Achaemenid and Sassanian empires, although (re)imagined as a secular, historic and national past, was in fact ethnically Persian and religiously Zoroastrian. Nationalism was envisioned as inclusive — seeking to embrace and unify all Iranians — yet was unable to include all Iranians equally. The Zoroastrian community not only appreciated this fact, but actively participated in promoting nationalism and their special place in it. Yet their enthusiasm was not without some ambivalence. The intimacy between Iranian Zoroastrians and Iranian nationalism obscure the fundamental underlying tensions in this relationship. Nationalism produced profound complications within the Zoroastrian community over the basis of its identity. By seeking to universalize the pre-Islamic past, the past was articulated as a historic and thus national past. But in so doing, the secularization of this past denuded it of religious content. Were the Zoroastrians thus an ethnico-historic group? Or a religious group defined by tenets of faith? Modern, reformist Zoroastrianism in the Pahlavi period increasingly defined itself as an individual faith yet the community never abandoned a strong, and implicitly contradictory, sense of historico-ethnic identity. This paper explores the Zoroastrian articulation of, participation in and uneasy relationship to nationalism in the Pahlavi period.

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