Since the Arab conquest of the 7th century CE, Islam has been very much part of Persian culture and national identity. Yet a sense of connection with the pagan and Zoroastrian past has never disappeared, and resurfaces from time to time, according to Ze’ev Maghen. He explains how the current protests hark back to this persistent divide:
When an elderly Iranian wants to take a stand, he is just as likely to shout “Rostam!”—the name of the legendary hero in Iranian-Zoroastrian mythology—as he is to shout “Allah!” The epic poem Shahnameh was written by the Persian poet and devout Muslim Ferdowsi, who derided the Arabs as “lizard eaters” and blamed them for turning Iran into a cultural wasteland. . . .
Despite the widespread claim that their primary motivation is anger over the country’s economic situation—a claim that has been hastily made to explain nearly every outbreak of unrest in Iran, including that of 1979 [which led to the shah’s overthrow and the ayatollahs’ seizure of power]—complaints about the cost of eggs, bread, or apartments are barely heard on the streets of Iran’s cities. What we are hearing, however, similar to the protests in 2009, is criticism from around the country of the regime’s policies: “Stop investing in Syria, start investing in us”; “Death to the Islamic Republic”; “Reza Shah [the anti-Islamist, pro-Western nationalist king who founded the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925], your spirit still lives.” . . . This is a fresh spirit: yes to Iran, no to Islam.
Is this the beginning of the end for the ayatollahs’ regime? Not yet. The Islamic Republic’s apparatuses are vast and sturdy, the machine of oppression is well-oiled and brutal (and has been training incessantly in Syria and Iraq), its regional and international successes are impressive and empowering, and let’s not forget that not all Iranians identify with the protesters. . . . Moreover, it is hard to imagine what type of government would replace the current regime. . . . It is difficult to envision Iranians sacrificing their lives in a revolution to reinstate the monarchy.
And yet the events in Iran are unprecedented. We have never heard these types of slogans before, certainly not on this scope and scale. The Iranian pendulum, which has swung back and forth through the generations between nationalism and religion, perhaps has begun inching its way back toward nationalism and distancing itself from Islam.
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