I believe that like an individual, an entire nation can have a low self-regard or low self-esteem. But, like so many personalities, the complexities reach its peak, when talking about a nation. The nation I would like to discuss here is the nation of Iran.
To attempt to talk about Iran, even of one particular aspect of this ancient land and culture may be inevitably futile. The reason is simple, the Iranian people are inheritors of a rich and pluralistic history with many thousands of years in profile. It is highly difficult to categorize, characterize, and to define. But in the absence of such wishful thinking, and the knowledge of the aforementioned challenge, I would like to discuss the downfall of Iranian culture, at the hands of Iranian culture, if I may. Note, I am not a scholar and this is merely my opinion.
So, what is the root of the downfall of Iranian culture? For many years, during the reign of Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi, there seemed to be a glorification of nostalgia, and a remembrance of great Persian kingdoms and dynasties. This was engineered predominantly by the regime itself, but it was indicative of something inherently Persian – the passion for storytelling and glorious occasions with elements of mythological fantasy.
As one studies Persian culture and history, they will find the most powerful works of art and mesmerizing literature, from the likes of grand poets such as Ferdowsi, Rumi, and Hafez, to name a few. The beautiful Persian creativity in art and agriculture to music and dance is world renown. However, the medium to showcase this culture came to decline, during the 17th and 18th centuries,
With the gradual decline in political and economic power, particularly during the Qajar dynasty, more and more of Persian aristocracy found solace in other cultures. As this exposition to European culture increasingly grew stronger, it became more prestigious for the Persian aristocracy to say they spoke a foreign language. And, at the time, it was particularly prestigious to study abroad, and/or master the English or French language. Thus, through time, and with the consolidation of worldwide power by European cultures, the Persian culture gradually went under a veil of insecurity.
What then later came to be known as Iranian culture, as we know it today, was a culture left in fantasy, mystics, legends, and nostalgia. Today, one of the elements that has kept Iranian culture, and the nation from moving forward is predominantly its affinity for the past, and its dialogue and language, through metaphors, analogies, symbols, and all things imaginative. Contrarily, we can see quite evidently that in countries that have had political and economic superiority, a strong emphasis is put on the material world, and rationality – and thus, on realism.
These concepts are culturally foreign to Iranian society, and thus have kept the nation well-rooted, with the ability to use memories of a distant past to safeguard against those who attempt to uproot its language and culture. The means to remember and maintain this identity is visceral – through Persian poetry, music, art, and a glorified history and taking solace in nostalgia defines the modern Persian identity.
Yet, ironically, the very same psychology of the Iranian nation that has helped preserve its Persian identity, has also entrapped it from seeking modernity in an Iranian sense and form. The society in Iran today is still longing for modernity for the wrong reasons, whether it is to return to the economic glory during the Pahlavi dynasty, or the glory days of the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great. The Iranian psyche is centred on being accepted by foreigners, hence explaining why Iranians are more welcoming to foreigners coming to Iran, than to each other.
The Iranian nation is now more than ever losing its cultural perspective for the future. One can set blame on Islamic ideology, foreign political interference, and imperialism for the decline in Iran’s cultural influence in the world, and its ability to re-innovate itself and propel itself into the future. Although, the aforementioned reasons did arguably have some influence on Persian culture, one cannot lose sight of the fact that Persian culture has in it a value system based on the past, used to preserve the present, with little to offer for the future. The religious and national values and belief system have left Iranians simply to mourn of legends, be grateful for the present, and but disregarding of the future.
In the end, with this mentality, Iranians may believe all they have is history, and all they are to be are survivors, and the rest is up to God. However, to construct a great modern nation that references past achievements is still possible, but requires a renaissance in Iranian society. It should realistically look at its current state of affairs and use Persian history and culture as a minimal source of reference for reconstructing Iran for the future.
It should be acceptable to believe that modernism is not a “Western idea” and is not contrary to Iranian cultural values and beliefs. A mentality centred more on the future of Iran is beneficial, and will not diminish the cultural legacy of Persian history, but will rather strengthen it and bring it back to prominence. If this cultural change does not occur, Iran will always remain stalled within its cultural fantasies, walking backwards into the future.