ORSAM: I would like you ask you about Iranian conceptualization of state. I assume that there is a ‘state tradition’ heritage in Iran coming from the past since different polities have always occupied Iranian geography. In your view can we trace this heritage in today’s Iranian conceptualization of “state” and how?
DR MIRI: If we look at Iranian history we can divide it into three broad sections. One is the ancient part of Iranian history, which is generally speaking pre-Islamic part in terms of experience of state, society, culture and religion. Second one is the Islamic era of Iranian history and civilizations. Then we have the modern period, which starts roughly speaking on the constitutional time that we had Iranian modern nation state with very clear-cut, territorialized borders. Before that we were an empire, as they called it “memalik-i mahluse”. Then after the collapse of Qajar and the beginning of the Pahlavi we enter into an era that we have a state with very specific borders. In the modern political science it is called territorialization of state. So these are three broad eras we have. Then how these have affected the Iranian identity? How Iranian identity is constituted or how these three broad streams have effected and had impact upon Iranian identity? How Iran views itself and her history, her culture and civilization? The pre-Islamic era, which we may call ancient, history and ancient heritage has impacted very much and one of the most important characteristic of this impact is the role of the Persian language, which has actually the literary language of not only the current Iranian state but the East and sub-continent to a certain extant. Then we have the Islamic era, which has had deep impact upon the Iranian psyche, Iranian mentality. Here we have to add another element as well, which has colored Iranian identity or the self- perception of Iranians, and that is the role of Shi’ism which has been more vocal and loud after the establishment of Safavid era where we see that Shi’ism not only as a parochial or as in the periphery of Iranian psyche but in the middle of it and actually becomes intertwined in the Iranian politics and power. It establishes different, distinguished and distinct political structure. And then we have the era when Iranians become very much influenced by Western ideas or enlightenment tradition which resulted in the constitutional revolution as a political movement and later as culture of politics, culture of power that we started to look at the source of power, the king, in a very constitutional sense. I mean this king was not any more “zellullah” or the shadow of God but was a person who based on the constitution, was supposed to have a symbolic power. Of course this didn’t last very long because after that the Pahlavid came but this heritage or the western heritage is a part of the Iranian psyche or the Iranian national self-perception. For example even in Islamic Revolution and in Islamic Republic although we have emphasized the role of Islam in the political life, we see that we have something called Kanun-i Esasi, constitutional law, and we have divided powers into three such as the executive, judiciary, and legislative. So if you look at the history of Iran and the history of Islam, we don’t have this kind of division of power. People refer to shu’ra, but shu’ra does not mean this division. So, these are the new ideas, new perceptions and concepts, which have been incorporated within the body of the political language of Iran’s contemporary wisdom.
For example in Turkey we say that Turkish people always conceptualize “state” like a father and they are like subjects of that father. Even if we have democratic constitution and state, people have the notion of demanding something from state. We say this is the heritage of Ottoman Empire. And this has intruded in today’s political affairs. I wonder if something like this legacy exists in Iranian society?
Maybe when you listen to political discourses in Iran there are sometimes very light references to that for example “hakimin” or the governors are like the father and the people are like the subject or the suns and children. But this is very light. What we have, similar to what you say about Ottoman Empire, something about the legacy of Safavid Empire. And that is the role of ulama in the constitution of the body of politics. For example during the Safavi rule, this role of ulama was more of consultative. For example they were giving advices to the king but the king was actually the center. But during Qajar time, it started to be some kind of a rivalry. Sometimes king had the power, sometimes ulama. And there was like a hidden conflict between them. But still everybody was conscious about his or her territory of power or limit of exerting power. But during the Pahlavi era, it was totally destabilized and the state got the upper hand. Here we may use that modern concept, civil society. God actually has a very smaller role to play in the constitution of power. But even in the second part of Pahlavi, I mean Muhammad Reza Shah, he was aware of the power of the ulama. But somehow the Pahlavis had the upper hand. Now in the Islamic Republic we don’t have a king but we have another role that is played only by ulama. But now we started to have some kind schism, some kind of distinction, between the state ulama and the ulama that tried to distance themselves from the state. This is something which is emerging and has not got its shape because even state does not recognize such a distance that how can Shi’a ulama do not support the state which is run by Shi’a ruler or Shi’a ‘alim’. They are still ambivalent. So this is a situation that is still emerging and has not settled. Still there is so much dust.
How Iranians define themselves?
I may say that it depends and there is no single answer to that. But if you say how state functionalize or how the people who are running the affairs of the state define social policy and how do they define Iran-hood or who is an Iranian, this is one aspect. Then, for example, how Iranian intellectuals view? And then another approach, if we go to different peoples like a sociologist, takes into consideration ethnical affiliation, class affiliation, regional affiliation and other aspects, for example religious affiliation, denominational affiliation, and then we make it a different view of who is an Iranian and who is not an Iranian. But generally speaking I think the concept of Iran is unlike for example in Turkey when we say in Türkiye who ever is Türk is a Türk. But here Iran is a multiple, multi-lever, multi-faceted notion. It is not a singular notion. For example it is wrong to consider Iran equal to Kurds, Iran equal to Turks, Iran equal to Lor. The notion of Iran is a multi-faceted notion and the history of Iran and people, who ran and still running the affiars of the Iranian society during these past at least four or five thousand years, has been multicultural. For example Kurds have been running this country when you look at Medians. Even when you look at Achamenids and Sasanids, you can see the Kurd and how they involved in running the affairs. And then after Islam you will see Turks of different tribes have been running the affairs of this state for almost thousand years. Even the current leader of Iran is a Turk as well. So it is not very easy to say who is not an Iranian. I mean the notion is a multi-faceted and multi-level notion.
What are the main characteristics of Iranian political culture?
As I mention earlier I think you may say religion, especially Shi’ism, Shi’a jurisprudence and Shi’a fiqh, is a dynamic force. We have another discourse that is the pre-Islamic notion of identity, which is very much involved. For example Iranians always defines themselves against Arabs, against other by emphasizing that we have a different history. This is itself very constructivist. Because when you see there are very elements of Arabian culture here, or other aspects of western ideas, then you can say - maybe this is negative remark - that Iranians are xenophobic. Sometimes they are very much hospitable to the ‘foreign’ but at the same time they could be very hostile to the ‘foreign’. The foreign elements are not always treated in a very moderate way.
Actually we can see what you have told in relations of Iran with other countries, for example with Turkey. Sometimes Iran and Turkey can establish very friendly relations of economic cooperation, cultural cooperation etc. But at another time we see that they can attack to a Turkish company, which is doing business in Iran. This is somehow hard to understand from Turkish point of view. How this can happen?
One of the characteristics of an Iranian is that when a foreigner comes to Iran he/she receives a very huge hospitality. They take them to their houses, treat them very well; but on the opposite it could suddenly be different. It could be very xenophobic. They are afraid of foreign elements and they tend to be very puritanistic. They want to be purified or pure Iranian or pure Islamic, etc. This obsession with purity is an aspect of Iranian national psyche as well. There are many different explanations of this. For example, because Iran has been situated in the crossroad of east and west and they’ve been attacked by Mongolian hordes, by Russians, by British, by Greek, by Romans, by Arabs and these and that. But if you have a comparative outlook this cannot explain. I can also add to that a view of history of religion. In pre-Islamic Iran we have the notion of Zervanism, or what they call it what kind of religion of Zervania, which it is about 4-5 thousand years old. In that reality, world is divided into two parts: light and darkness. Light and darkness always are opposite to each other. When the Zoroastrianism and after that Manicheism enter, they both tried to bring this view and to give it an actual political dimension as well. For example ancient Iranians believe that if you are on the side of light, you have to fight against dark. We had, for example, Romans who were considered as the side of darkness so we should fight them. Even when Islam came, these kinds of elements were not totally disappeared. Somehow they are in the under streams of the Iranian psyche. Another thing, which you say what are the dynamics of the Iranian life or maybe culture, is the role of Sufism. Actually I don’t want to call it only sufism because when we say sufism it brings to mind different orders and tariqa. That is important and has been important as well. I don’t want to deny that. But another concept that explains culture is the role of erfan or Gnosticism that is gnostic approach to life and reality. Even when you go to the most purtian or strict hekmat-i muta’aliye ulama, they are also open to erfan. Maybe they are against sufi orders but they are open to irfan and one of the most important figures in the past 5-6 hundred years in Iranian history is role of Molla Sadra as the exponent of transcendent philosophy. In him these different streams of erfan for example sufism, philosophy, fiqh or jurisprudence, hadiths, all of them merged into one system which he called it hekmat-i muta’aliye. Even the founder of Iranian revolution was a philosopher before he was a political leader and he has written a lot about hekmat-i muta’aliye. He was not like establisher of a new school of philosophy but he brought this kind of outlook into the Iranian politics as well.
How does hekmat-i muta’aliye function in Iranian politics?
You cannot be indifferent when you come to the political arena. You cannot function. In Iran if you look at the Iranian political personality you see an idealist, or you see people who are indifferent. You don’t see pragmatic politicians very much. But politics, as we understand in modern world, is the art of how to be pragmatic, how to use and abuse and let it go or give it or try to negotiate. But because we still don’t admit that political arena is not the territory of haqq va batel. Haqq va batel is another word of saying dark and light. You cannot be in batel and defend the right. So you should make a distinction and this erfani outlook, which has gone into the body and spirited the Iranian politics in many different ways, is a legacy with us or with the Iranian politicians. Because now in the Iranian politics at least they officially state that “diyanat-e ma ayne siyasat-e ma, siyasat-e ma ayne diyanat-e ma”, meaning that “our way of demonstrating our religiosity is not in contradiction to our politics and our politics is an equal to our religiosity”. So when you try to combine these two together, there must be something that should cover and that I think is erfan. But if it is abused or if it is expressed in very ugly way, then case by case we should start and say really are they following the erfan or in what sense. That is a case study project. But in meta-theoretical aspect Iranian politics, Iranian outlook or the dynamic forces of Iranian politics have been these streams of erfan as well. If you look at those who are very pivotal and crucial in the Iranian history or politics you will see that these elements are working. The most very obvious one is the late leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini or Imam Khomeini. Or others who had been very instrumental and had been killed like Morteza Motahhari, Ali Shari’ati, Taleqani, Bazargan, even a little bit in the past, for example in the constitutional time, Akhund Khorasani, Ayatollah Mirza Na’eni, and many. I can bring you a list of many of them.
I was always wondering about the deep roots of Iranian hostility towards the west, but the west in terms of dominant power or hegemonic powers. It has always been explained in political terms. But I was always wondering about the cultural roots of this hostility. This is because it is so deep-rooted and I was always thinking that it is more than something political. I wonder if the erfanic understanding of world that you explained can be somehow related to this conception of the West?
We are working with different concepts. At least today we are working with concept of haqq va batel. It is very much ideologized or very much politicized when you say so definitely if you are on the side of haqq or light; definitely those who are opposite to us they are not haqq. The language of our politics - or when we may use the Heideggarian approach and say ‘poetry of our politics’- has been very much influenced by this kind of concepts and this is maybe one of the reasons. I don’t think for example what happened in Iran has been worse than what happened in Vietnam by Americans but they have reconciled with the past and trying to engage in trade. But we cannot reconcile. There is another aspect as well. If we go back to your first question about the state heritage, Iranians still haven’t gone over that they have been once upon a time rulers of the world and they have been a big empire. Still, even we don’t have that kind of power or real hard power. If you look at politician of Qajars or Pahlavis, even the first Pahlavi came and said “I am the superpower.” After Pahlavi, the current Iranian leaders also don’t want to succumb or submit to the powers of the west. In this sense it doesn’t matter whoever comes to Iran, because this is a cultural thing. They don’t want to accept that they are part of somebody else’s power. They don’t want to play in the chess ground that has been arranged by others and they say we have actually created the game of chess.
You are currently working on Eurasian- Iranian relations nowadays. How do you assess Iranian approach to Eurasia after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Do you think that Iran established good cultural, economic, political relations with Eurasia?
Here again we see a contrast. I don’t want to use the word “double standards” but, it is real- politic in Russo-Iranian relations. The relations are not very much improved in terms of culture. Iranians don’t know very much about Russians’ daily life or how they live and Russians don’t know anything about Iranian. Mainly it is very much in terms of economy. By economy I mean very specific aspect of economy, which is the transfer of Russian technology, for example nuclear section and military and in terms of intelligence services like exchange of intelligence between the two countries. But if you want to have really deep Iranian-Russian relations and if both sides are sincere- because Russians most of time not sincere about this relationship- and if you want to have a real relationship between two nations and two cultures, then we need to do more and we need to exchange more. For example if you look at the Russian embassy in Iran, they don’t have any culture house and they don’t do any cultural activities. I asked even this question once from the culture attaché of the Russian embassy and I said “How long have you been here?” She spoke very good Persian and she said she had been here for two years. I said “Have you seen here and there?” She said “No, I just went from the consulate to the embassy. I said “but why you don’t go out?” She said “No, they said us don’t go very far away from.” Then I said “Do you know what people on the street are thinking about Russia?” She said “Maybe about communism.” I said no they are on the streets, still thinking about Treaty of Golestan, Treaty of Turkemanchai which was 140 years ago.” Iranians have a very historical mind. So, there must be a more sociological and socio-culturally integrated approach. For example, we have a very good relationship with Syria but people in the street don’t know anything about Syria and Syrians don’t know Iranians as well.
* This interview was conducted by Pınar Arıkan, ORSAM Advisor – Middle East in December 2012 in Tehran, Iran.