At the end of the 19th century, under the looming shadow of European colonial encroachment, political and intellectual elites in Iran began to draw on nationalist forms of belonging as a way to unify the various ethnic and religious groups that lived within its territory. The nation was gaining ground at this time as the acceptable and legible idiom of collective political demands. As in most of Africa and Asia, nationalism was anticolonial, understood as a liberatory basis of solidarity to gain independence (or protect) from European colonial rule. Among its distinctive features is a conflation between land, a national(ised) language, and a people. But nationalism also sought to produce cultural homogeneity, and so fostered ugly forms of subordination and violence against peoples who, amid new ideals of the nation, suddenly became linguistic and religious minorities. In the case of Iran, nationalists seized upon the Persian language as a crucial basis of national identity, one that could be shared across religious and sectarian lines. But at the turn of the 20th century, fewer than half of the population of Iran spoke Persian as a first language (or at all).
Bound up in the spread of nationalism was not just repression of ethnic minorities (linguistic, as with Azeris, but also tied to other affiliations, as with the Sunni Kurds) and the repurposing of language as a basis of this necessary homogeneity, but a whole transformation of how it was possible to know oneself, one’s collective, and one’s relationship to other selves and collectives through the modern conceptual systems that came with a nationalist frame. In order for Iran to repurpose Persian as the national language of its people, it had to efface a number of significant aspects of its history and traditions shared with other countries. In the process, what it meant to be Persian changed profoundly.
Before modern nationalism, which led to today’s Iran (before 1934, the country was called Persia in European languages), Persians had an entirely different relation to land, origin and belonging. Prenationalist Persians (possessors of the Persian language) belonged to many lands, religions, kingdoms, regions, in what is now Iran and far beyond it. This earlier form of belonging allowed for a kind of pluralism, one in which Persians spoke other languages, observed different religions, and were part of various states or empires. Indeed, they accepted and even celebrated such overlapping multiplicity in language, religious affiliation and regional identification, which in more recent times has been the basis of so much conflict. [Continue reading…]