The Politics of Culture in Iran

How have Persian tradition, Islamic religion, and Western thought influenced and shaped the contemporary political sphere of Iran?

The political history of Iran is complex, tumultuous, and has left many political scientists scratching their heads. Both the establishment and the structure of the current regime illustrate a plethora of political paradoxes: the people elect some important government officials, but it is clearly an authoritarian regime; the regime is known for the brutal punishment of its critics, but its networks of underground resistance movements are thriving (Milani 1); it’s a theocracy, but the notion of secularism has been discussed and propagated amongst intellectuals over the course of the last 150 years (Rahnema 34). We can attempt to make sense of such inconsistencies by analyzing both the unique historical context in which they have developed and the numerous ways in which Iranians have reacted to their shared history.

Iran: The cat that wanted to be alone.

Iran: The cat that wanted to be alone.

Iranian history has been marked by the collision of nationalist Persian traditions, Islamic proliferation, and Western hegemony as is argued by ‘Abdolkarim Soroush. In his writings he is prescriptive in the ways he believes Iranians should interact with this collision. Soroush warns against the dangers of accepting or rejecting any of these three cultural forces in their totality– namely the development of extremist ideologies. He argues for individual construction of cultural identity by adopting valuable aspects of each culture while rejecting their drawbacks (Soroush 169). This sort of cultural construction and transcendence of boundaries encourages a political attitude that we have seen evolving in Iran from the 1990s developing into the Green movement beginning in 2009 (Mahdavi 94). The Green movement and similar campaigns can be considered as both a reaction to the three extremist socio-political tendencies discussed by Soroush as well as a faction of the pro-revolutionaries in the post-revolutionary era.

Prior to the revolution, the pro-revolutionaries had one goal: overthrowing the brutal Shah who seized power from a democratically elected leader in a coup sponsored by Western powers, particularly the US and England (Algar 28). Seeing that this is such a broad goal it easy to imagine that many people with many different ideologies were taking part in the revolution to achieve it. We can also see how dislike for the Shah could both encourage and discourage the incorporation of Western ideology into Iranian culture. The coup can be seen as an attack on Western values such as democratic elections, or it can be seen as an attack by Western nations leading to the demonization of the West. Considering these things one can understand how the revolutionaries united in defeating the Shah fragmented into several different groups with conflicting ideologies in the post-revolutionary era.

If we examine the structure of the post-revolutionary government it is evident that its founders were attempting to establish a political system that would satisfy, at least superficially, the variety of revolutionaries’ political wills.  The ultimate authority of the Ayatollah is demonstrative of the ultimate authority of Islam, while election of certain public officials such as the president is demonstrative of the people’s call for democratic governance. Both of these seemingly contradictory features illustrate exactly how carefully the post-revolutionary government was crafted.

I argue that the construction of the current regime and its resulting politics is a direct reflection of revolutionary and post-revolutionary citizens’ interactions with Islam, Western ideas, and Persian history. Whether intentional or not by accepting, rejecting, or blending any of these three cultural realities the Iranian citizen is making a political statement and shaping the politics of the country. For example those who reject Western thought and Persian customs entirely increase the power of the authoritarian regime by propagating their belief that Islam is incongruent with Western values and Persian history. At the same time those who engage with either Western or Persian culture are often seen as criticizing the politics of the regime and questioning the ultimate authority of Islam and the Ayatollah even when it is accidental. For example naming your child a traditionally Persian name can be read as a call for embracing Persian culture and return to the pre-Islamic era. It can also be read more simply as a rejection of the regime’s incredible control of personal freedom. If read in the second way we can see this sort of action as a call for secularism. It is not a rejection of Islam, but rather a rejection of an authoritarian state ruled exclusively in accordance with Islam. An increasing number of Iranians have adopted this view calling for “secularity” by restructuring the current regime and increasing democratic representation. Secularity is in quotation marks in order to emphasize the different conceptions of the incredibly abstract concept of secularism (Rahnema 34). For example many of the people involved in the Green movement discussed earlier support the idea of secularism and democracy; however many of these people are also relying on the majority Muslim population in Iran to elect leaders that promote Islamic values and create policies that reflect those values (Rahnema 44).  This conception of a warped secularism is yet just another example of the many different ways Iranian’s interact with their multi-faceted culture to shape the politics of their country.

In conclusion, I believe that the contemporary political sphere of Iran has developed from and continues to be shaped by a collision and interaction between Persian tradition, Islamic religion, and Western thought. Furthermore, I would argue that the increasing synthesis of individual cultural identity we see within the Green movement and amongst activists like Soroush, will lead to another great shift in political power towards a more representative democracy while preserving the Persian and Islamic histories of Iran.



Algar, Hamid. “Iran and Shi’ism.” Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran: Four Lectures. Oneonta: Islamic Publications International, 2001. 13-26. Print.

Foody, Kathleen. “Interiorizing Islam: Religious Experience and State Oversight in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” J Am Acad Relig Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 2015, 599-623.

Mahdavi, M. “Post-Islamist Trends in Postrevolutionary Iran.”Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 31, no. 1 (2011): 94-109.

Milani, Abbas. “Iran’s Paradoxical Regime.” Journal of Democracy:Volume 26, Number 2, 2015, 52-60.

Rahnema, S. “Retreat and Return of the Secular in Iran.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 2011, 34-45.

Soroush, Abdolkarim. trans. Ahmad Sadri and Mahmoud Sadri. “The Three Cultures.” In Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam Essential Writings of ʻAbdolkarim Soroush, 156-170. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Illington, Leslie. The Cat that Wanted to be Alone. Leslie Illington Cartoons. In the News & On this Day. Punch Magazine

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