President Obama ruffled more than a few feathers in his final State of the Union address with his assertion that the ongoing violence in the Middle East is “rooted in conflicts that go back millennia.” The online response was immediate and unforgiving, as otherwise sympathetic foreign policy observers derided the president’s construction as regrettable and cringe-worthy.
Obama left the details vague, but it wasn’t difficult to guess that he was referring to any number of “ancient hatreds” assumed to plague the region — paired oppositions that include Muslims against Christians, Arabs against Persians and especially Sunnis against Shiites. The rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran seem to confirm the widespread bias that sectarian conflict is endemic to the world’s second-largest religion, that what happened on the plains outside Karbala more than 13 centuries ago is all that we need to know to understand the foreign policy maneuvers between these two regional powers in this century. But have Saudi Sunnis and Iranian Shiites really been divided for eons by an inescapable conflict of faith?
My research on the Iranian educational system offers some novel evidence that, in fact, this sectarian divide has not been the central issue in the decades since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. In the 1980s, during the most fervently ideological period of Islamization following the revolution, educational planners in Iran struggled to piece together a primary-school curriculum that would “purify” and train the next generation of Iranians. What stands out is that even then, with its founder Ayatollah Khomeini still very much alive, the Islamic republic’s earliest textbooks simply ignored or played down Shiism as an identity and a practice.
Why revolutionary Iran did so has important lessons for today. The logic of the revolution meant that Iran aspired to take on the leadership of the world’s Muslims. Its educational planners could ill afford to draw distinctions between Iran and the rest of the world. Islam, rather than Shiism, provided the essential building blocks.
At the same time, the textbooks reveal themselves to be acutely nationalistic, centered on producing and promoting a distinctly Iranian identity tied ineluctably to being a Shiite. The paired opposition that mattered most to the textbook authors was, simultaneous, interlocking and inextricable duality: to be a Shiite Muslim was to be Iranian. This intersection of the Shiite dimension of Islamic identity with the formation of a new national identity can be clearly seen in the textbooks produced and used in those pivotal days.
Textbook content throughout the period — and indeed to this very day — oscillated between elements of Iranian and Islamic identity, sometimes within the same lesson. For example, consider the third-grade lesson Better than Whom. This story opens with prophet Muhammad engaged in conversation with his closest companions at a mosque when, unannounced, friend and follower Salman al-Farsi appears. Muhammad invites Farsi, an ethnic Fars or Iranian, to join the group in prayer, a gesture of hospitality that is not well received by the others.
Muhammad’s companions do not hesitate to shout their objections: “Salman is a Farsi speaker and we are Arabs! He ought not sit in our group and or above us [in the assembly]. He must sit in a lower level of the room than us.” Greatly upset, Muhammad reprimands his followers. “Being a Fars or an Arab,” he exclaims, “is not a reason for thinking better or worse of a person. Neither color nor ethnicity makes one wiser.”
The lesson draws a bright line across its principal thesis: “We Muslims know each other as equals and as brothers. Accent and language do not separate us from one another. Where we live, ethnicity, or our color cannot separate us one another.” The use of Farsi to promote tolerance and a vision of cosmopolitanism is hardly by accident. His character is a crafty maneuver, a political tool used by the textbook authors to stealthily teach young readers that as Iranians they should never accept second-grade status in the Muslim world, least of all to their Arab brothers and sisters.
This same point is made again, less subtly, in the retelling of the Karbala story in Lesson in Freedom, also from the third-grade curriculum. Invited by the people of Kufa to be their spiritual leader only to be abandoned to his fate by their fecklessness, the death of the prophet’s grandson Husayn at the Battle of Karbala is the seminal trauma for the Shia and the principal source of the schism between the two major branches of Islam.
Lesson in Freedom reimagines the slaughter of Husayn and his entourage as a selfless act of salvation and rebirth, not for Shiites but for all of Islam: “With his martyrdom, Imam Husayn saved the Koran from danger, so that the Koran and Islam might remain on this earth to guide and help humanity.” Layered thick with the markers and signals of Shiite practice and memory, but denuded of any and all labels that directly or plainly identify Iran as a Shiite country, the lesson leaves enough room for teachers and students alike to imagine themselves as Shia and Iranians, the one abrogated to the other in equal measure.
As Iran entered the 1990s, narratives of Shia identity diminished across the curriculum, now stripped of stories like Better than Whom and Lesson in Freedom. With Khomeini passed from the scene and the great war with Iraq ended, state planners became more comfortable with imagining a national identity constituted by the pre-Islamic past. Appeals to Iranian and Islamic identity appeared side by side in purposeful fashion, sometimes in the same lesson, and always in overlapping sequence to reinforce the notion that being Iranian and Islamic was simultaneous and incontrovertible.
This effort took on even greater momentum in the 2000s. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proved a key driver of the secularization of the curriculum. His rhetorical broadsides against the clergy and advocacy of the “Iranian school of thought” eroded taboos against criticism of clerical rule, even as it reflected the preferences of an Iranian population that had moved on without much fanfare or posturing from the dual-cultures debates of the past.
As education became increasingly important to professional advancement in this period, Iranian families cared more about getting their children into college than prevailing over their Sunni neighbors. Religious and national identities mattered now insofar as they were testable items at which students could excel in the all-important examinations that would determine their professional fate. Iranians, like people elsewhere, proved quite capable of imagining their community in all of its complexity and chewing the proverbial gum at the same time.
What does this all mean for the debate over “ancient hatreds” in today’s Middle East? Iran’s textbooks show that even a revolutionary Islamic state has grappled with the modern problem of adapting Western ideas while remaining true to its “authentic” past. This dilemma of modernization, common to many late-developing countries in the Middle East and in Asia, explains Iranian behavior in the world — including its pursuit of nuclear energy — more than an imagined hatred or intractable desire for historical revenge on its Arab and Sunni neighbors. The confusion of a revolutionary exceptionalism rooted in Iranian chauvinism but that nonetheless aspires to be the model of change for a world oppressed by Western powers is the only paired opposition that matters.
Shervin Malekzadeh is a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College and the author of Children without Childhood, Adults without Adulthood: Changing Conceptions of the Iranian Child in Postrevolutionary Textbooks (1979-2008).