In Iran, Islamism (religious identity), Iranianism (national identity) and modernity (global identity) are the most important sources of national identity. (Supplied)

By Behnam Gholipour

February 5, 2022

The Quarterly Journal of Strategic Studies recently published a study, Identity Policy, Education and National Security in Iran, which analyzes the content of the Social Studies textbook used in the first grade of high school. Space given in the book to national identity, religious identity and global identity are explored, and the results of this official study are a good indicator of the prevalence of religious, ethnic and gender discrimination in the Islamic Republic.

What are identity policies?

The most important dimension of national security that should be considered is social security, which is reflected in the identity of each country. Identity shapes “us” and if the concept of a national “we” is not formed in a country, national security will be meaningless. Therefore, through “identity policy”, governments seek to revive and preserve “national identity” as the most important and legitimate form of collective identity in any society.

What are the sources of national identity in Iran’s contemporary history?

In the contemporary history of Iran, Islamism (religious identity), Iranianism (national identity) and modernity (global identity) in their social, cultural and political development have become the most important sources of national identity which recent Iranian governments, either singly or in combination, in the process of building a national identity.

For the past 44 years, the Islamic Republic has built an identity based on religious legitimacy for its grand policies; but currently and for several years, this has lost the ground to national and global identities.

National identity, which for many years was the most important and legitimate form of collective identity in Iran, as in many other countries, was replaced by religious identity when the Shia clergy came to power. National identity was marginalized.

The unilateral and fanatical emphasis on expanding such an identity has now been inverted in Iran, after 44 years of the Islamic Republic, and many generations in Iran today avoid defining themselves based on a religious identity.

Due to this change in the approach of Iranian society towards national and global identities, the study by the Quarterly Journal of Strategic Studies, titled Identity Policy, Education and National Security in Iran, discusses major educational policies of the Islamic Republic and the extent to which it promotes each of these identities in schools.

The focus of this research was the Social Studies textbook used in the first grade of high school; which, due to its historical, geographical and sociological topics, reflects, more than other textbook, the identity policies of the Islamic Republic.

This study examines 5,787 sentences in this book, of which about 3,600 reflect identity policies.

What measure of space in this textbook is given to national identities, and religious, gender and ethnic identities?

The results of this study say that the highest frequency of mentions belongs to national identity ideas, with a total of 3,118 sentences (87 percent), followed by religious identity in second place with a frequency of 282 sentences, or 7.8 percent.

Ethnic identity policy, with a frequency of 121 sentences, and other [non-Muslim] religious identity ideas, with a frequency of 63 sentences, are in third and fourth positions.

Content analysis of the textbook also shows that 595 sentences have a negative orientation towards different identities in society. Of this number, the share of national, religious and ethnic identity was 519, 62 and 16 sentences, respectively.

Regarding the images selected for the textbook, national identity policy has a frequency of 855 among the images used. Gender identity, with a frequency of 414 images, ethnic identity with a frequency of 58 images, religious identity with a frequency of 45 images, and [other] religious identities, with a frequency of six images, respectively, attracted the most attention.

What is the share of Iranian-ness, Islamism and modernity in the textbook?

This study acknowledges that, with the arrival of Islam in Iran, in the 7th century AD, a kind of cultural dichotomy was created in Iranians, and this dichotomy has not been properly resolved and has been transferred to the contemporary context in a new form.

In addition to this dichotomy, the early 20th century, Constitutional Revolution, as a turning point, introduced Iran to the concept of modernity. Now the two concepts of “national” and “global” have become the two most serious identities in Iran.

The study says that, out of 3,118 sentences in the book, the share of Iranian-ness, Islamism and modernity is 1,355, 1,443 and 320 sentences, respectively, of which 366 sentences are negatively oriented against Iranian-ness and 151 sentences are negatively oriented against modernity. But there is no case of a negative orientation regarding Islam.

The study goes on to say that this type of identity policy poses a challenge to national security because Iranian identity and modernity, especially among young people, in preference to Islam, have become an integral part of their national identity.

The study also said that ethnic identity policy – relative to national identity – has received very little attention from education identity policymakers.

This research shows that, in the total number of sentences studied in this field, there are 121 sentences, 16 of which are negatively oriented, regarding the Azeri people. No attention is paid to the identities of other ethnicities in the book.

What is the frequency of images belonging to different ethnicities in the textbook?

The frequency of images related to Kurdish, Lor, Baluch, Arab, Turkmen, Azeri and Taleshi ethnicities in the textbook are 10, 10, 2, 10, 2, 17 and 7, respectively.

The study criticizes this finding, saying: “Ethnic diversity in Iran is not a phenomenon that is gradually disappearing and paving the way for integration into a unified common culture. Therefore, not paying attention to, or having a negative orientation towards ethnic identities, will strengthen ethnic solidarity while breaking the national solidarity,” adding that such an approach will undermine national identity and challenge national security.

Which official religious minority has the largest presence in the book?

This study also shows that the three religious identities recognized in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic – Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism – have little relevance in the eyes of education identity policymakers.

The total number of sentences on religious minorities analyzed in the study is 63 sentences, among which the Zoroastrian religious identity, with a total frequency of 30 sentences, claimed the most of the policymakers’ attention.

Christian and Jewish religious identities were in the next positions with a total of 25 and 7 sentences, respectively.

Regarding the images, there are a total of six images related to religion identities, three of which are related to the religion of Zoroaster, and there is no image related to the Jewish religious identity in the textbook.

Another part of this research shows that the attention to religious identity in the book translates to a total of 282 sentences. Of these, the share of Shias and Sunnis is 201 and 81 sentences, respectively, of which 61 sentences related to Sunnis have a negative orientation against this religion.

In terms of images, there are a total of 45 images related to the policies of religious identity, of which 41 are related to Shias and only four are related to Sunnis.

This type of planning stems from unification policies that have proven ineffective and, after 44 years, have also backfired.

“This kind of orientation will lead to resistance and even armed struggle, to defend [minorities] religions, and violate national security,” the study added.

What role does gender identity play in the social studies textbooks?

In the images selected for the textbook, most of the images, especially of women, are based on Islamic identities.

In addition, given the population of women versus men in Iranian society, the identity policy view of women as opposed to men is also unbalanced.

Out of 414 sentences related to gender identity, 329 sentences related to the male gender identity, and only 85 sentences were assigned to women.

The study explicitly stated: “The disregard for women’s rights will incite pressure from the international community on the Islamic system, which may be accompanied by Iranian women and girls protests against the system.”

Emphasis on discriminatory and misguided policies, accompanied by more obvious forms of extremism in recent years, stem from the fact that religious identity in Iran is weakening, while its custodians want to maintain imbalanced and unjust gender relations. As a result, they oppose many of the demands of women and do not legitimize them.

This system of shaping identity – which also has power over Iranian politics and its military – considers the fulfilment of women’s demands as a serious threat to its ideological foundations and tries to prevent the spread and fulfilment of these demands through various pressures, restrictions and threats.

The Islamic Republic is currently engaged in six major conflicts, of which the conflict between modern identity and religious identity is “strong”, while the conflict between national identity and religious identity is “growing.”

In recent years, numerous reports and news articles have been published about the tendency of the Iranian people to revive and strengthen their national identity in favor over the religious identity.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.