Historian, Assal Rad, explores identity formation in modern Iran, both under the Pahlavi dynasty as well as after the 1979 Revolution under the Islamic Republic. Her book “State of Resistance: Politics, Culture, and Identity in Modern Iran” examines top-down and bottom-up manifestations of national identity as narrated by state structures and popular culture, respectively. Her fascinating analysis is based on a historical assessment of how modern state-building in Iran inculcated a sense of national belonging in the population, as well as on interviews with people in Tehran and examples taken from popular music and film. Can national identity play a positive role in liberation struggles?
Hi, I’m Talia Baroncelli, and you’re watching theAnalysis.news. Assal Rad, a historian as well as the author of a recent book State of Resistance, will be joining me today to speak about national identity formations in Iran.
But then, in a lot of cases, as I said, I didn’t say I was doing an interview. I would just go to a store, and I wanted to buy a CD. If there was a dance party and you wanted to give somebody a CD of all the best songs right now, what is that? Chat up the person who’s going to sell you what is, by the way, not an official CD. It’s like an underground CD because it’s officially allowed to be sold.
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Joining me now to speak about Iranian national identity is Assal Rad. She’s a historian and author of the new book State of Resistance. Thanks so much for coming back onto the show, Assal.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Well, your book is a really fascinating excursion into Iranian national identity, and it juxtaposes different identity formations, such as top-down formations led by the former Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and the Islamic Republic. It sets that up against different bottom-up formations and ways in which Iranians contest these limited notions of identity. Before we get into the details, I wanted to ask you why you wrote this book in the first place.
Well, it was a very personal project, if I’m being honest. As an Iranian American, as someone who was born and raised in the United States but to parents of Iranian immigrants, my own navigating that hyphenated identity made me really interested in the notion of belonging and identity. When you grow up, especially within that generation where there’s a lot of anti-Iran sentiment in the United States that creates a sense of alienation, you want to always have this idea of belonging.
I travelled to Iran as an adult, thinking in my mind, oh, I’m going to go to this place where I’m going to get that sense of belonging for sure because this is really where my core identity comes from. I travelled there and realized that that’s not the case. It’s not that it wasn’t wonderful for many reasons, visiting your family, being with people who understand certain aspects of your culture that might not be understood in the state that you live in. My idea of Iranianness was so distinct from theirs. It was so far removed. What I had expected when I visited there because I had grown up in this bubble of not only my own Iranian household but the community that we had built here; that’s really what I expected. It was a very different situation. So I became very interested in understanding that more and understanding Iran more. It also made me realize that if I, as someone of Iranian heritage in the United States, didn’t really understand the complexity of the population, the culture, and the politics of that country, how can I expect an American of non-Iranian heritage to understand? I became really fascinated with trying to understand those things.
As someone who decided to study history, there is that ubiquitous phrase, “History is written by the victors.” You understand the importance and the power of narrative, how important the story is, and people believing that story. The story and whether or not people believe it is more important than the reality on the ground. People in religious studies and historians of religion do this all the time. They’re like, “Oh, such and such story that’s in this religious text is disproven by this information.” It doesn’t matter oftentimes to the believers. So all of that I found really fascinating. I wanted to, as much as possible, try and understand how those narratives played into contemporary Iran.
I tried to trace that back to how having a national narrative and condition of nationalism was tied to the idea of the modern nation-state. In order to have a modern nation-state, you had to have the trappings of a modern nation-state in terms of modern infrastructure, an organized military, a bureaucratic state, all of those types of things. The story was so important, too, that people understood how they belonged to this, as [Political Scientist and Histortian] Benedict Anderson has put it, “imagined community.” That was such an integral part of that project. You could see that unfolding under both the Pahlavi dynasty and then continuing under the Islamic Republic.
These historians, like Benedict Anderson and [Historian] Eric Hobsbawm, play a really important role in how you make sense of identity making and identity formation. I think the Haitian anthropologist [Michel-Rolph] Trouillot also plays a big theoretical role in terms of looking at how certain narratives are silenced over time and which contested narratives actually have supremacy or are more recognized as being valid or authentic over other ones. I think in your book, by reading it, it seemed like you weren’t trying to argue that not one identity is actually more authentic than the other. If you have all these different identities, which one do you then choose? Or is it all relative?
I think there’s definitely the idea of it being relative. Yeah, I would never want to. I think anybody who tries to choose a definitive or authentic identity is doing a disservice to understanding the whole point. The point of it is, in scholarship, at least, there’s this idea that the nation-state is a construct, race is a construct, and gender is a construct. Sometimes to the nonacademic, that’s a meaningless statement. It’s like, what do you mean that there are social constructs? What it means is basically that they can change their dynamic—someone who’s wielding power at the top. A state can try and wield that narrative, and people can do the same thing. There’s a negotiation that goes back and forth. Nobody has the power to control that narrative because it’s so dynamic and fluid, and it can change over time.
But then what happens is if you take that argument to an extreme, the idea that it’s a construct, you sometimes see in scholarship the idea that then it’s inauthentic, that it’s not real, it’s fake, or it’s made up. I think that also does a disservice because the reality of it is once you as an individual psychologically attach yourself to an identity, it’s very real. It’s a very real experience, and it has very real consequences. You can say that borders are made up, and they are. If you look at a picture of the Earth, there are no borders on it. We’ve created those borders. But the experience of existing in those borders is very real. The inability to move across those borders is very real.
I wanted to be on that fence of understanding both sides of the argument, that it’s constructed in the case of, say, Iran, where I’m looking at national identity. Those national identities are constructed both from above and from below, but it’s still a certain set of characteristics and symbols that they can choose from. An Iranian identity is not… it’s going to take different symbols that are part of its very long and rich historical and cultural history. That was really what I wanted to get at. Yes, it is imagined, and yes, it is constructed, but it’s still very real, and it has very real consequences for those who are experiencing it.
Yeah, and you were looking at the former Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and how he would use certain cultural or historic symbols from Iran’s pre-Islamic age, so to speak. He kept referring to the 3,000-year history of Iran and how it was this Aryan civilization—trying to sanitize Iranian history from Islam, basically. Whereas I guess after the revolution, there was resistance to that. An opposite identity formation was taking place but in the same manner.
Yeah, so one thing to be clear about with the Shah is that the cultural pillar that he tried to use in terms of the national narrative was tied to monarchy. Remember that when he’s asked, “What ties the nation together?” He literally responds with himself, the monarchy, the monarch, the king is like the father of the nation. So in seeing that identity for himself, he tied the identity of the nation-state to this history of the monarchy; that predates Islam. He was also very much a Muslim himself. Especially with the recent protests, the anti-compulsory hijab protests that we saw in Iran, although those protests obviously went beyond the concept of the hijab. The idea that there is this compulsory hijab in Iran, a lot of people brought up the fact that, “Oh, the former Shah outlawed the veil.” The reality of it is that it was his father. Reza Shah outlawed the chador in the 1930s when he tried to enforce this idea of westernization. But his son, who would become the last Shah, didn’t enforce those restrictions on whether or not women could wear the veil. You could say, culturally, those groups may have felt more alienated because westernization and westerners were set higher in terms of something to aspire to. He wasn’t anti-Islam; that’s not the point of it. It’s more that that’s the cultural factor that he tried to bring into his national narrative.
I bring up two other elements to these three elements that make up his nationalism. It’s the concept of revolution, ironically, and the concept of independence. You see those same threads go into the revolution itself by 1979. Revolutionaries are using the idea that Iran is not an independent state, not a fully independent state. Going back to the coup of 1953, going back to the idea that they see some of these tendencies, the appetite towards westernization that the Shah had as being alien to a lot of the indigenous cultures within Iran. Obviously, they are revolutionaries. But he’s using this discourse in a historical context where you have a lot of anti-colonial national independence movements around the world. So you see that rhetoric everywhere around, and he’s trying to tap into that.
You see that in the White Revolution of the 1960s. He has an entire book called The White Revolution. So he’s using revolutionary discourse, he’s using the discourse of independence, and he’s infusing cultural symbols that predate Islam and go back to the Iranian monarchy– as far back as the Achaemenid monarchy, that of Cyrus the Great– and really directly tying his own dynasty to that era.
Iranian revolutionaries then use Islam as a counterpoint in a certain way. It’s someone like [Iranian Revolutionary and Sociologist] Ali Shariati, whose discourse becomes very popular, especially in the 1970s, when he is saying we need to go back to our indigenous roots. Now, who is he getting influenced by? It’s a figure like [Psychiatrist and Political Philosopher, Frantz] Fanon. This is quintessential anti-colonial resistance. But whereas Fanon is saying we have to leave history behind and forge new identities, Shariati is saying, “No, we have to reclaim our indigenous identities and take pride in those identities rather than trying to emulate the West.” And that’s a sentiment that you see in other thinkers at the time. Someone like [Author and Anthropologist, Jalal] Al-e Ahmad, who writes the classic Westoxification—the idea that this obsession with the West, wanting to emulate the West, is almost like a malady that exists within Iran and within maybe the greater region arguably. So that’s the historical context in which the Shah is creating this narrative.
I mean, you do see the Shah’s obsession with the West, and that’s probably what was one of the factors in leading to his downfall and leading to the Iranian Revolution; his constant reference to the West being more modern and that Iran is, because of its history, also a modern civilization, they just needed to emulate the West to drag themselves out of the impoverishment that had been brought on them by imperialists. Not that Iran was ever colonized, but its resources were colonized. I think in the ’70s, he had more of an anti-imperialist rhetoric when speaking about the oil crisis, for example.
Right. I mean, he did. There are interviews with the British. Up until 1953, Iranians tended to have a very positive view of the United States. Their negative view, vis-à-vis colonial powers or foreign powers trying to exert control over Iran, is really against Imperial Russia and the British Empire. In the ‘Great Game,’ these are the powers that are trying to influence and really control resources and even land in Iran. It was after 1953 that Iranians started to have a negative view of Americans because that’s when Americans started to impose their will as well. He has these interviews in the 1970s where he is very much talking about a confrontation with the attempt of British control over Iranian resources.
Well, you mentioned Ali Shariati, and he was an Islamic Iranian thinker. I’m wondering how you think he would have influenced modern Iranian identity because he did say that Islam was the greatest victim of colonialism. I wonder if that idea of being a victim plays into the Islamic Republic’s idea of itself as being the underdog, as having to stand up for revolutionary struggles around the world, stand up for Palestine, whether they actually do so or not is, of course, a different story. I’m not trying to equate Shariati with the Islamic Republic or with [Former Supreme Leader of Iran, Ruhollah] Khomeini, but do you think some of his views imbued the identity of the state which came after the revolution?
Well, what I think the state does, the Islamic Republic does, is it really appropriates that language from revolutionaries. Shariati is someone who’s influencing that discourse very much so. You point to something that’s really important, and it’s actually [Professor and Author] Hamid Dabashi and his book on Shi’ism where he writes about this. He says, and I thought this was so fascinating, it’s basically this idea that Imam Husayn in the Battle of Karbala in the seventh century when he’s martyred with his 72 companions, he is victorious in his defeat. It’s the fact that he’s fighting against tyranny and dies fighting for justice that makes him this heroic figure.
What happens with the Islamic Republic, especially, is when you become the person in power, when you become the power, you’re now the flip side of that. You become the symbol of injustice. You very much see that with the Islamic Republic. The reason it appropriates that language is that it tries to maintain this image that it is a continuously revolutionary state. As such, it is supporting resistance movements worldwide. You mentioned the Palestinian cause is one cause.
You see Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, talking about figures like Malcolm X or mentions of things like BLM. Why? Because they’re trying to take this facade. They’re like the modern-day Imam Husayn. They are fighting injustice, all while trying to divert from the fact that they are carrying out their own injustices and that they’re actually the ones in power.
That language is very much, I think, taken up by the Islamic Republic. There’s this attempt to pretend like they’re the guardians of Imam Husayn. Why tap into that imagery? Arguably, one of the reasons is because it’s so powerful. It’s really powerful imagery. Shiite motifs and symbols lend themselves very easily to resistance, whether it’s through stories that were told to galvanize Iranian troops after Iran was invaded in 1980 by Saddam Hussein or whether it was the revolutionary cause itself because that’s the story of the martyrdom of Karbala. This isn’t unique to Shiites. This story, these lores are ubiquitous in other cultures. It’s the David and Goliath story. It’s the Battle of Thermopylae and 300 Spartans against, in this case, thousands of Persians.
You see this story because the images are so powerful. They really tap into that. Revolutionaries tap into that imagery, and then later, the Islamic Republic appropriates that and tries to use it as one of the ways to get that rally around the flag effect in order to fight back against the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980. Of course, that’s also infused with a lot of nationalist rhetoric. It’s not just these symbols, it’s not just Shiism, but it’s Iranian Shiism. You’re not just defending the religion; you’re defending the land. That’s very much the sentiment that so many of the people who fought in that war had. It was a very, very nationalist cause because it was defined by these two nation-states that were fighting each other. So even though Iraq had a large Shia population and Iran, although it did not have a large [population], but still had, especially in the Southwest where Iraq initially invaded, an ethnic Arab population. Neither fought for the other side. Iraqi Shiites didn’t fight for Iran, and Arab Iranians didn’t fight for Iraq because they were very much defined within these national borders. It’s fascinating.
Shariati, of course, dies in ’77, so it’s before the revolution even happens. You would imagine that all of the revolutionaries who died before or soon after the revolution would take issue with the way that the Islamic Republic has manifested because of its actual actions, not its rhetoric, but its actual actions fly in the face of (A) why Iranians had a revolution. They had a revolution to dismantle tyranny, not to replace it with another one. Also that it was based on this idea of justice, and so many injustices are carried out in its name right now.
Well, Iran is an incredibly diverse place. Farsi isn’t the only language that is spoken there. I think many different languages are spoken. The Shah did embark on this nation-building project in which he made Farsi the official language of the country. You could argue that that erased a lot of the cultural diversity.
Would you say that the Islamic Republic is equating Iranianness with Islamicism? Essentially another way of trying to potentially erase some of the cultural and religious diversity? I’m also asking this question, given that my mom’s side of the family is Baháʼí, so they’re a religious minority from Iran. They had to escape Iran and go to Canada during the revolution, unfortunately. I’m asking this question from that position of knowing that there was and there continues to be large-scale persecution against certain minorities in Iran.
Absolutely. You bring up one of the most important examples of that silencing. That’s one of the things that Trouillot is talking about. Inherently, when you elevate one narrative, you’re silencing others. Both states, both the monarchy and the Islamic Republic, participate in that erasure. It was actually the father, Reza Shah, who established Farsi as the official language. It’s not unique. That’s part of a nation-state project. In order to bring people under this umbrella of the nation when you have so much ethnic language and religious diversity, there has to be something that formalizes that. It’s formalized through, for instance, secondary education.
The United States is a country that has lots of different ethnicities, languages, and minorities, but we tend to have a formalized system where everybody is educated at least– now we see a lot more dual language programs, but still, English is the dominant language in which everybody is educated in.
Something that’s interesting about that on the language front, by the way, just to understand how new this actually was. For instance, for me, my maternal grandparents are Azeri Turks. My maternal grandparents, this is not so many generations ago; this is two generations before me, spoke Persian with an accent. They spoke it with an Azeri accent. It was their second language. Their first language was Turkish. For my mother, Persian became her first language, and she spoke Turkish with an accent, so it reversed.
In terms of the minorities you’re speaking of, yeah, the Islamic Republic tries to present itself as a country that is tolerant or has religious freedom. If you are Christian, there’s a large Armenian population in Iran. If you are Sunni, if you are Jewish, Iran is home to the second largest Jewish population in the Middle East. These are all supposed to be protected religions.
Well, let’s start with them. First of all, they’re treated differently. Anytime you have a country that identifies itself as a particular religion, I mean, it’s the Islamic Republic. You’re automatically second class if you’re anything else because you’re not part of the identifying feature of the state. Baháʼís specifically are persecuted. This isn’t just you don’t get the same treatment. This is that you are basically not recognized. It is difficult to get an education. It’s difficult to own property, which is to the point that you just made why many Baháʼís have left Iran. Iran is the home of Baháʼísm. It’s a religion that emerged in Iran in the 19th century. That group, unfortunately, has been persecuted from the very beginning, from the 19th century, in part because they’re seen as heretics because, obviously, anything that comes before Islam is different. But when you have the seal of the Prophet, anything that comes after Islam is considered heresy because Islam is the last religion, and Muhammad is the last Prophet. Anything that comes afterwards is considered, in theory, heresy. That’s one of the reasons why Baháʼís are targeted the way that they are.
Also, of course, when you have a new religion emerge, and you have Shia clergy in Iran, that even in the 19th century have already become an autonomous body, who already wield a certain amount of power– maybe not political power at the time, but they have their large landowners, they have mosques, they have religious taxes that they collect, and they have a significant following– anything that might compete with that also creates challenges to the power of the clergy. These are the reasons why Baháʼís are persecuted, unfortunately, from the very beginning, and it continues in a much harsher fashion under the Islamic Republic.
There’s a part of your book where you’re talking about different symbols and military symbols. You’re speaking about the Iran-Iraq War and the Basij. The Basij being a paramilitary group which formed during the Iran-Iraq War. Then you were also speaking about the museum in Tehran, the war museum. There’s a photo of different religious symbols and how they are representative of the different Iranians who engaged in this struggle. Again, emphasizing their Iranianness, even though they came from different religions and how they were all fighting together to face Saddam, represented as Yazid in a way. But of course, Baháʼís were not included in that, so that was significant. I guess there was a time when it maybe wasn’t as bad as today, and I think that might have been under President Khatami in the early 2000s when I think he was even talking about extending certain social rights to Baháʼís at the time, whether that was implemented, I’m not sure.
I’m actually not sure about that. I’m not specifically privy to Khatami wanting to expand rights for Baháʼís. But I will say I find it believable. I don’t know personally, and so I don’t want to speak to it in that sense. It would fit with the general change that occurs with at least the rhetoric of someone like a figure like Khatami. He gets a lot of criticism for his failure to fundamentally change the system or to change the system, really, in any significant way. But I think that also misses the fact that he was very different than previous leaders in the country, and his vision of the country was quite different. Things did change under him in terms of at least newspapers opening, artistic expression, and a lowering of repression. There’s been this ebb and flow in Iran since the 1979 revolution, depending on who is the president and which political faction has more power. It’s always a repressive state. It’s always an authoritarian state. I’m not saying that any of those things change, but the atmosphere on the ground does change to a certain extent.
What we’ve seen in the last five years or so is this consistent trend toward more repression. That’s why I’m saying this fits in, I think, with that logic. You’ve seen that with the Baháʼí community as well, that increased repression and the further persecution of the Baháʼí community. We’ve seen it in terms of arrests and punishments of human rights activists.
You had someone like Nasrin Sotoudeh, who I believe had been arrested under the Ahmadinejad presidency and was released in 2013. Then again, I think it was in 2008, if I’m not mistaken, somewhere in the last five-year span, that she was rearrested again. So in the last five years, you see crackdowns on labor movements, crackdowns on protests, a crackdown on any voice of dissent, and then further repression, I think, of groups like the Baháʼís as well, unfortunately. I think that all fits into that trend. It’s just gotten worse under the Raisi administration, who took over in 2021. One of the things that they tried to implement more strictly was the hijab. The hijab law has always existed, and women have always been stopped in order to have it enforced. The morality police, I should say, so-called morality police predate the Raisi administration. However, it is under this stricter enforcement that we see a young woman, “Jina” Mahsa Amini, killed by the so-called morality police. That’s the spark of the most recent iteration of protests that we’ve seen in Iran. So that further repression is not forcing Iranians to stay quiet. They continue to come to the streets. They continue to protest. They continue to show different forms of resistance, whether it’s to the state as a whole or particular policies within the state.
Well, we will come back to the current iteration of Iranian identity or iterations. I did want to ask you about the method you used in writing this book. You’re a historian, so typically, historians will spend countless hours sitting in archives pouring through different documents. You actually went to Iran multiple times and interviewed people. So your work almost comes across as being a bridge between a historical endeavour as well as being very sociological and looking at culture. Maybe you can talk about your first experience going to Iran and when that was. I don’t know if it was actually under President Khatami or if it was already in the Ahmadinejad period. Explain how you decided to interview certain people. How did you pick those people?
One of the things is that when I was doing my graduate research, I had an anthropologist on my committee, very intentionally, because I wanted to do fieldwork. To your point, yeah, I wanted it to be a history text, but I also wanted to have very contemporary elements to it. That’s where I think the interdisciplinary approach comes across, and that’s why I wanted to do interviews and use really contemporary work.
My archive is not the same dusty archive that we think of. I’m listening to contemporary music, films, and television. Specifically, in terms of interviews, there are a couple of things that went into it. The most important part was accessibility—the ability to access people. One of the things I tried to avoid when possible was the formal interview process because I came to notice that once you’re discussing these topics, especially identity and things like that, in a very formal setting, the tone and the responses become much more politicized. Whereas in a lot of cases, I’m like, I’m not asking for your political identity. I’m just asking, how do you identify? What does being Iranian mean to you?
In some cases, they were very formal. I went in with the idea of I want to interview people, for instance, families of people who were either involved, who were soldiers in the Iran-Iraq War, or families of people who were martyred in the war. Those were much more formal because I didn’t have that access myself. Then in other cases, I really started with a small network. I think it’s called the snowball method. I tried to expand from that network, and it started with people that I knew. Then from there, I tried to get as many different perspectives as I could, but that’s why in the book, I also give a basic description of the person I’m talking to. A lot of the reasons why I don’t use their names is because of the nature of the research, the fact that it’s very contemporary, and it could be very contentious. In an authoritarian state like Iran, that’s the other layer of it. Accessibility in terms of people you can get to and in terms of people who are willing to talk to you. There becomes an unwillingness for a lot of people to speak because you’re in an environment that might feel like it’s dangerous. Assuring that anonymity is very important.
But then also, in a lot of cases, as I said, I didn’t say I was doing an interview. I would just go to a store. I wanted to buy a CD. If there was a dance party, and you wanted to give somebody a CD of all the best songs right now, what is that? Chat up the person who’s going to sell you, by the way, not an official CD. It’s like an underground CD because it’s not officially allowed to be sold. Chatting with someone who’s a taxi driver. Finding other situations where you could interact with people and talk as much as you can, but get a much more organic conversation that way. So the central limitation, though, is accessibility because I wanted it to be as under the radar as possible, both for myself and for anybody who would be willing to speak to me.
Well, one of my favorite parts of the book is where you’re talking about popular culture and pop music. There’s this one section where you’re speaking about Black Cats and Andy [Andranik Madadian]. These are very famous Iranian pop singers or pop bands from the ’90s and early-2000s. There’s this one part that just really struck me because you’re speaking about Andy’s song, Dokhtare Irooni, the Iranian girl, and you’re explaining how the lyrics paint this picture of Iranian women in general, the figure of the Iranian girl and how that ties and plays into certain stereotypes or notions of national identity.
In the next breath, you then bring up the Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno and his manuscript on popular music from 1941, in which he talks about how pop music really standardizes the idea of individual identity and national identity. So I just thought that it was so brilliant how you took this pop culture example and then analyzed it through the cultural lens or theory of the Frankfurt School. My question would be, looking at these really popular artists, Andy and Black Cats, when you were in Iran, did young Iranians think of these artists as being Iranian, or were they considered to be artists who were then traitors or from the diaspora because they had left Iran and gone to the U.S.?
First of all, thank you. That’s a great anecdote from somebody who read the book. I never got the sense that they were seen in a negative light in that sense, like a traitor or anything like that. They were also distinct. There’s a period in which, soon after the revolution, music is outlawed at the beginning, and then it’s very limited. There’s very limited space for any music, both production and consumption. Of course, it’s still limited to this day. For instance, women cannot be vocalists. Women can still not be vocalists.
I talk about a band, Arian Band, that emerged in the late ’90s or early 2000s that used women and men, but the women vocalists were just background vocalists. They couldn’t sing lead. But that was a big deal at the time because it was like, “Oh, look. Women are sort of back in the scene.” This is a country before the revolution that had, maybe you can’t necessarily say, the most popular artists, but at least some of its most popular artists were women. You have a singer like Googoosh or Hayedeh, pop staples of pre-revolutionary Iran. They still tend to be popular figures because they’re these famed female vocalists of that era.
In the ’80s and ’90s, especially, when you don’t really have a burgeoning musical scene in Iran, they relied a lot on these diaspora artists. They were very popular in the consumption of that music. I don’t remember the theorist right now, or I don’t remember the author that wrote this, but I want to clarify, this is another author who wrote about this. The author is cited in the book at least, who basically talks about how the consumption of this music in and of itself was a form of, I don’t know if she calls it resistance, or it’s more like it’s a way of pushing the limitations that they have because you’re listening to this pop music that’s not even allowed to be consumed in the country. This has evolved over time. As I said, when you have a period like Khatami in the late 90s and early 2000s, you see the beginnings of the Iranian musical scene inside of Iran really start to flourish. You get all sorts of genres, which were much less popular. The diaspora had its own pop music genre.
Whereas inside Iran, when the music scene starts to evolve, you have rock and heavy metal. In the early 2000s, you have a lot of rap music that becomes very popular. Of course, you still have the pop ballads and melodies and things like that as well. Later, you see a lot of infusion of traditional vocalists, people like [Mohammad-Reza] Shajarian, who then his son, Homayoun Shajarian, uses those traditional styles but then meshes them with more contemporary styles. You get this very diverse music scene in Iran. When that happens, I think they start to shift away from the diaspora musicians a little bit more.
What I saw when I was there in the field work and when you would ask if it was a DJ or if it was somebody who was selling music and it was for parties that they were having at the time, just things that you consume in passing. This is not a political statement at all. It’s just what do you listen to when you’re at a party? Then you’d see these songs like, Dokhtare Irooni would be playing, or they would have a song if it was at the time popular by Black Cats or something like that. So the diaspora music was still, and I assume today, that would be the case. I haven’t been. My field research ended in 2015, so it’s now been several years, so I don’t want to speak to that.
If you look at a site like Radio Javaan, which is basically an iTunes-type site. No, it’s Spotify. Maybe that’s a better equivalent. It’s like a musical streaming site for Iranian and Persian music. They have artists inside Iran as well as diaspora artists. They have a lot of views, listens, and all of that from both sides of the spectrum. I think inside of the country, they more heavily listen to artists inside of Iran because the musical taste in the country has evolved probably more distinctly than that within the diaspora, which would make sense. The cultural center is the country itself, so it has a lot more diversity within it.
You spoke to so many young people when you were there. I wonder what they think of their own history. Now I’m generalizing, but young people are Generation Z as a group. How would they see the revolution? Do they think of their history in terms of this historical rupture of pre, post-revolution, ‘ghabl as enghelaab, bad as eghelaab?’
The people that I interviewed, I didn’t make it to Gen Z because most of Gen Z were born after the 2000s. When I was there, they were far too young to be part of the group. I would be fascinated to actually go back to Iran if it was possible to do that field research. It’s not unique to Iran, but this new generation, Gen Z, is changing things everywhere. That’s just the nature of generational change and transition. I think previous generations, the post-revolutionary generation, which is a lot of the subjects that I spoke with. I spoke with the post-revolution generation, who are probably now in their 30s and early 40s, and folks who were there before the revolution– a slightly older generation, people in their 50s and 60s.
Gen Z, as opposed, I think, to the previous generation in Iran, which was more open or more, I think, strategically thought more in terms of reform, less in terms of revolution, like having another revolution. If they had grievances and discontent with the system, they thought more of the idea of reform, which is why we saw so much engagement with the political system for so many years after the revolution. This generation, and we can’t paint everybody with one brush and draw this conclusion or generalize, but there’s at least a significant portion, and we saw this in the protests in 2022 into 2023, that believes that reform is not possible. As such, they have gone a step further in the way that they protest and the way that they air their grievances. So I’d be very interested in really looking at that group distinctly.
What you mentioned, though, the ‘ghabl as enghelaab, bad as enghelaab,’ before and after the revolution, that’s very much of the people that I interviewed, that’s very much a language that they would talk about. There were two periods that they would always talk about if you wanted to have this conversation, and it would be talked about in very unique ways.
One was periodization, before and after the revolution, and also the war. The war was such a huge thing. I knew people who were born in 1986. This is the tail end, the last two years of the war. You would think they have no recollection of the war. You were a toddler when the war ended, and they were very much like, “No, I remember this.” The war was also very much, I think, a part of that generation’s experience. It affected, especially those who were children during it, it affected their childhoods, and they have these childhood memories from it. It literally changed the landscape. So many of the murals, if you go anywhere in Iran, this is not just Tehran, this is anywhere in Iran if you go, you will see street signs and streets named after martyrs of the war. Murals everywhere, either about the revolution or especially the war. That’s changed as well over time. The amount that you can really allow, the more history is removed from it. The further away we get from that history, the less it resonates with people. But you still see something like that museum in the middle of Tehran. It’s like a giant piece of land that’s been dedicated to the war, to the revolution and the war. I’ll tell you, as somebody who visited it, there wasn’t a lot of people there. How popular was it? This was in 2015. I would not describe it as the Louvre, where you go and you have a lot of people.
The state can still try to use those stories, but how Iranians themselves consume war stories is also very different. You can see that in the cinema of it.
Yeah, I think the state probably exaggerates the importance of some of those symbols. It’s like they play a role in this cultural sense-making, as you call it. But they’re not the only symbols that matter, and pop culture does matter.
My other question would be, your book really looks at identity as a construct. Of course, you mentioned that people who identify in certain ways or live these identities have a very visceral, a very real experience of it. So I wonder what your prescription would be. Identity, it seems to me, can have disadvantages and advantages in terms of how you strategize in a political struggle. Would you say that national identity in the current context of the protests could maybe serve as a political ideal of liberation, or would other forms of identity, maybe across class lines or other shared universal experiences, would that be more important?
It’s a great question. It’s hard for me to answer because on the front of nationalism, let’s say this about nationalism, using nationalist rhetoric can be liberating or extremely dangerous depending on who is wielding it and how they’re doing it. That’s very important to say. Yes, in terms of resistance movements. For example, in the state of India in the 1940s, when they were trying to liberate it from British colonialism, Indian nationalism became a force for resistance. When partition happens, it can become something that’s not as good. It can create that Indian nationalism, which can then create violence against other groups. It depends on the situation. It’s really dependent on how it’s used.
It’s funny because when you talk about nationalism, I think it’s like any other ideology. This happens a lot with religion. I think when you talk about religion, you’ll often get… I’m not talking about academia, I’m saying across the board, when people talk about religion, there’s a sentiment that religion is a wildly dangerous thing. Look at how many people have been killed in the name of religion. The counter-argument to that is that people have been killed in the name of everything. Nationalism is not religion, but in the name of certain nationalisms, we’ve carried out genocide and many atrocities. These are tools in our repertoire that can be used for liberation but can then also be used for oppression. When you use it as a way to silence minority voices, in the case of Iran, if you use it as a way to silence Baha’is, that’s a danger of nationalism.
In some circles, the nationalism you see about Iranian identity can elevate the idea of Iranianness as being tied to Arianism and whiteness. That carries some dangers within it. When it becomes exclusionary of other groups, whatever those groups are, whether they’re religious minorities, racial minorities, or ethnic minorities.
In a revolutionary movement or in a social movement, especially one that uses discourse like liberation or democracy, inclusiveness, human rights, all this very powerful and ubiquitous discourse– everybody uses this discourse now. That’s what everybody is claiming to be. But if you’re going to use it, then you have to actually execute that in reality. For instance, class struggle, I think it is very important for that. It’s one umbrella in which people can really be united across. That also carries its own dangers. As soon as you say class struggle, and then you bring in words like socialism, and then it goes communism. What I’m saying, what I’m trying to get at, essentially, is any of these identifiers, any of these ideological tools, any one of them can be used in a way that’s potentially good, but also potentially bad. It’s really the people who are wielding that identity and how inclusive they want to be.
What I’ll say about these protests that we saw in Iran, inside of the country, inside of Iran, is some of the images that I saw that were heartening, at least, where I thought, well, this is hopeful. It was images of women with their backs turned, and you would see very different variations of how they were dressed. That was actually very intentional and very symbolic. A woman in chador, a woman in hijab, a woman in nothing, dressed how she wants to, a T-shirt and pants, holding hands. That solidarity, to me, is much more positive because it’s creating that larger umbrella. That’s not about nationalism necessarily; it’s just about choice. It’s about freedom. That’s what they’re really trying to talk about. These aren’t protests that are anti-Islam. They’re not anti-hijab. They’re anti-compulsory hijab. They’re anti-repression. They’re anti-authoritarianism. I think that positive messaging resonates more because it’s more inclusive. If you want to be inclusive, I definitely think you have to take class into consideration.
If you want a successful movement, you probably want to involve the workers of a country because they’re the backbone of that country, whatever country it might be. Iranian workers have been organized politically since before the revolution and after the revolution. In recent months, it’s a continuity. When we saw some attempts at labor strikes, these aren’t unique. This didn’t happen starting in September 2022. This has been happening for years. Remember that five-year period where I said you’ve seen more repression? You see more repression of the labor movement as well.
I don’t know if that answers the question fully because I feel like I’m evading the question just a little bit because it’s hard to articulate whether something is good or bad. It’s really the way that it’s used. I would urge that the more inclusive we can be, the more I think that reflects the ethos of the discourse that we hear people use.
Even though the movement can be described as a feminist movement, it’s very inclusive because they’re not talking about women’s rights in terms of it being a zero-sum game. It’s not women’s rights at the expense of the right of men or anyone else. It’s women’s rights so that everyone else can have more freedom as well.
It’s anti-repression. It’s repression of all groups and not just specifically Iranians or minorities such as Kurds.
I also want to say since you brought up women’s rights, these are conversations that transcend Iran’s borders. This isn’t just happening in Iran. That’s the solidarity that you can see. When it becomes nationalist, that’s one of the limitations of it. When it’s about your borders, then it limits the discourse to your borders. But when you look at it as women’s rights, there’s no border that it doesn’t transcend. Women’s rights is an issue everywhere in the world. Women’s rights is an issue right now in the United States. It’s a very important issue actually right now in the United States. Despite all of the freedoms that we have, this is a huge issue in the United States because we’re seeing those freedoms being stripped away. We’re seeing a regression of those things.
Workers’ rights transcend borders. When you can look at these movements, these social movements, and see parallels in other places in the world and build that solidarity, I think those also become, in a very different way, more inclusive and, I think, more effective.
Well, I do have one last question if you have time, if you have a few more minutes. It’s just a very, maybe, I don’t know if this will elicit a short or a long answer, but what would you change or add to your book in light of the current protests? Your book does such a good job of giving the historical context to understand the protests, but I wonder if there’s anything that you would maybe add now.
Oh, yeah. I think I touched on this earlier. There’s a whole generation that it’s now missing. That generation emerged on the political scene in a very potent way, starting with the protests of September 2022. It’s not to say that they were never on the scene, but not in this fashion.
The saddest thing, the saddest evidence of that, is in the people who were killed. When you look at the age of the people who were killed, those are the people protesting. Something else you saw is you saw a lot more women killed because they were the ones out there again. If I wanted to add a chapter, and I would love to, it would be to look at this generation as another watershed moment. Not these protests necessarily, but what these protests represent about a generational shift. That’s where I think the fieldwork in Iran would be invaluable because then you could actually be on the ground to see what the distinction is between this generation and previous generations.
Well, Assal, it was really great to speak to you. I hope everyone reads your book because even though you write it in a somewhat academic context, it’s not an incredibly dense, unreadable academic book. It is very easy to understand, and it’s incredibly interesting. You also bring in these amazing historians, and you weave that in. I really loved reading it. I hope that everyone reads it. I don’t have a physical copy of it to show here but I really hope that everyone reads it.
Thank you for watching theAnalysis. If you’re able to donate to the show and contribute, you can go to theAnalysis.news. Hit the donate button at the top right corner of the screen and also get on the mailing list so that you’re notified every time a new show drops. Also, please go to our YouTube channel, theAnalysis-news, and hit like and subscribe. Hopefully, we’ll have Assal on again soon to speak about Iran.
I would love to. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me and for the very generous review of the book.
You’re welcome. You really deserve it.
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“Dr. Assal Rad is the Research Director at the National Iranian American Council, where she works on research and writing related to Iran policy issues and U.S.-Iran relations. Her writing can be seen in Newsweek, The National Interest, The Independent, Foreign Policy, and more. She has appeared as a commentator on BBC World, Al Jazeera, NPR, and others. She completed a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern History from the University of California, Irvine, in 2018 and has a forthcoming book titled, The State of Resistance: Politics, Culture, and Identity in Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2022).”