By Hooshang Amirahmadi
Professor, Rutgers University
Please note: This is a summary of a paper to be presented at Cambridge University on November 1, 2017
The speech will start with the question: where does Iran stand today and what could happen to its future given the many forces at play, domestically and internationally? I will argue that the Iranian political system is at a standstill as the political Islam that guides it has lost its organizing and development potentials for real change. Iran is also facing the challenge posed by the Trump administration, who is hostile to its Islamic ideology and behavior. This is the case for a country in which no other serious ideas have emerged to challenge the establishment’s ideology. I will argue that the void can be filled by the nation-builder idea of “Nationism” (mellat garaei).
Nations are changed by ideas before they are changed by movements. Iran has been no exception. For example, the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1906) was based on the idea of Western Liberalism, the Iranian Nationalist Movement (1950s) was based on the idea of Nationalism, and the Iranian Islamic Revolution (1979) was based on the idea of Political Islam. I argue that the next Iranian movement for change should be based on the idea of Nationism, where people and their geography are considered as inseparable parts of a single whole called nation, and planning for development should involve people and territory as two distinct but unified parts.
Nationism is a new idea for nation-building in Iran and much of the developing world, including Islamic nations. The term is even new to the English language, which uses "nationalism" instead. However, the term nationalism (melli garaei) in Iran and much of the developing world is based on a wrong translation of the term "nation," making it incomplete, reactive, and indeed counterproductive (largely a xenophobia idea), as history and political practices have shown in these countries.
Specifically, nation in Western usage of the term means a people with their geography; it is a proactive concept. Thus, the Iranian nation will mean the Iranian people and their national territory. No wonder that Western nationalism involves people and territory together. Yet, in Iran, as in other nations with incomplete nation-building, the term nation has been equated with the Iranian geography only. Thus, the Iranian nationalism is essentially territory-based, largely void of people, and therefore incomplete, defensive, and undemocratic.
As opposed to the Iranian incomplete nationalism, Iranian Islamism (Islam garaei), like Islamism elsewhere, is people-based and void of geography. However, Islamists reduce people to the ummah or the Islamic community. That is, they do not view people as "citizens" (shahrvand), thus limiting their rights. This is the case with Islamists because, Islam is a universal religion (just like all religions) and does not have a nation-specific geography: Islam's geography is where the ummah lives. No wonder that Islamists are not often nationalist (some are even hostile to nationalism). Accordingly, their foreign policy is also "expansionist" in the sense that it tends to move beyond the home nation, to territories where Muslim ummah lives.
The idea of nationism offers a synthesis of the traditional Iranian nationalism and Islamism and yet it is neither. This is so because, the idea of nationism involves people and their geography together. I argue that nationism, in the wake of the failure of the incomplete Iranian nationalism and the failed Islamism, offers the best hope, as a new idea for change and as a practical guide for democratic nation-building and national development planning. Nationism is particularly helpful for Iran and much of the Muslim world because it can help them avoid their traditional anti-West nationalism.
Indeed, nationism has the potential to unite both secular and religious Iranians in a new movement for political change and true nation-building, which Iran has not yet fully experienced, as is also the case with much of the Islamic world. It also focuses attention on people as well as geography in an integrated development planning. For an Iranian nationist (mellat gara), people and geography are inseparable, and their union and betterment would always be upheld together. They should also be able to forge a proactive, non-interventionist, foreign policy based on their actual national rather than perceived national interests, based on the interests of their geography and their people.
What I have argued here applies to much of the Muslim world today, particularly to the nations in the Middle East. In most, if not all, these Islamic nations, Islamists remain hostile to nationalism and focused on the Muslim ummah, refusing to recognize the people’s citizenship rights. The Arab Spring was an idea that people hoped will break through this incomplete nation-building impasse, but it failed because it was not based on a political thought that would unite the people with their geography and move them beyond their ummah condition. The next Arab political movements would do better if it applied the concept of nationism for a new political movement.
However, ideas, before they can become a force for material change, must become “hegemonic,” meaning they must be accepted by most of the people who wish their plights changed. For this to happen, ideas must be well packaged and propagated. Nationism is no exception. Thus, the vanguard Iranian as well as Arab nationists will first digest the idea fully, especially in terms of its organizing ability and development potentials, and then take it to the people for initiating a political movement for nation-building and socioeconomic and political development.