The Iranian Political Language: From the late Nineteenth Century to the Present

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By: Yadullah Shahibzadeh

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan. 246pp. $105.00, ISBN: 9781137539779

Volume: 6 Issue: 1

January 2018

Review by:

Fatemeh Kamali Chirani

Augsburg University

Augsburg, Germany

The opportunity to publish a review of the book The Iranian political language coincides with massive protests in Iran, which started at the very last days of 2017. I wrote the final sentences on the book that defines “democracy as a condition of politics in which the right to govern and to be governed are the rights of everyone and anyone” (p. 189) simultaneously when Iranian protesters were criticizing the way of being governed. The recent demonstrations in Iran have started for economic reasons, a surge in prices of basic food supplies, such as eggs; but they developed into political statements like criticizing vast corruption and the lack of transparency of governmental organizations in Iran. What attracted me to continue reading the book of Yadollah Shahibzadeh, was his analysis of political demands of Iranians at the local level since the 19th century.

Shahibzadeh departs by criticizing Bernard Lewis, who reduces the political nature of movements of Iran to analysis of Islam or an anti-Western ideology of the Islamic Revolution 1979. He claims that the nature of the political language is beyond those. In his view the Iranian political language has been constructed since many years ago, specifically since the Constitutional Revolution in 1906, to search for democracy or Hokumat-e Melli. To explain this language, Shahibzadeh presents facts from the Iranian workers protests against the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (in chapters 1 and 2), emancipation resistance in Bushehr (in chapter 3), political participation of women of Bushehr (in chapter 4), the politics of Arab identity in Khuzestan (in chapter 5), public speech and the reformist-oriented public sphere in Bushehr (in chapter 6) and from the analysis of films of pre- and post- Islamic Revolution eras (in chapter 7). The book presents different analysis of modern social history of Iran, through investigation of concept and practice of democracy of/ for ordinary people.

The strong points of the book are as follows: firstly, the book can be considered as a quite convincing response to the Clash of Civilizations (Huntington, 1996, 2011) and Political Language of Islam of (Lewis, 1991). Iran is seen in both texts (indirectly and directly) as part of the Islamic discourse. Subsequently, many concepts and actions in the Iranian Revolution are perceived to be resulting from Islam. But, in the view of Shahibzadeh, the social and political dynamics of the Iranian society are diverse. They are not limited to Islam or to its political language. Shahibzadeh, in this regard, is among authors (Mottahedeh, 2005; Said, 2005; Sen, 2007) who actively bring facts to confirm that the identity of people in the Middle East is not dominated by religion or a single cultural factor. Shahibzadeh generally successfully promotes this counter-discussion.

Secondly the book challenges arguments of political analysts who think Iranians are unfamiliar with any democratic language and are unable to understand their own problems. The book provides facts to prove that Iranian people, even those who are not well educated or not intellectuals, have actively engaged to fulfill their rights and criticize the government to do specific tasks. The constitutional revolution in 1906, nationalization of oil in 1951, the overthrown of Shah Pahlavi in 1979 and the Green Movement in 2009 are his examples. Shahibzadeh reminds that despite efforts of Iranians, they often were interrupted to pave the way to democracy, by foreign powers: “Until World War I, one of the obvious reasons for the failure of the representative democracy in Iran was the occupation of the country by British and Russian forces” (p. 161). The 1953 Iranian coup d’état against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq is another example of sabotage of democracy which was supported by British and Americans, the author argues.

Thirdly, analysis of letters of Aziz Rasouli, a worker of the Oil Company of Khuzestan, to high ranking officials and different politicians, is an original case study of the book. In 1962 Rasouli was informed through a letter from the company that he was dismissed. He started to contact a variety of relevant people, questioning the legality of the decision. The letters were sent over almost four years. This case study is presented by Shahibzadeh like a master piece. It is developed with a rich context to help the reader to understand why Iranian political groups and intellectuals at that time (1960s) were irrelevant to help the workers’ movement. The author comes to the point that even Iranians who were not well educated, were still aware of their rights. This case study fits well to demonstrate a democratically oriented political language of Iran.

Fourthly, chapter three presents an interesting discussion on emancipatory resistance in the south of Iran. Rais Ali Delvari is discussed here as a Farsi-speaking political leader in Bushehr, who did fight against the British during World War I. The second figure of the emancipatory resistance is an Arab-speaking leader, Mir Mohanna, who forced the Dutch East Indian Company to leave the Island of Khargh (Khark) and the entire Persian Gulf in 1769. Shahibzadeh presents contradictory views of local historians about Mir Mohanna; some consider him a national hero and some as a pirate. According to Shahibzadeh in both cases it is significant that the central government did not support local emancipatory resistances. Shahibzadeh considers both cases as a clear historic evidence of striving for democracy at the local level.

Fifthly, politics of Arab identity in Khuzestan, which reached its high point in time of reformist President Khatami (1998-2005) is a remarkable aspect of the book, in my view. Chapter five argues how the local Arab population of Khuszestan used the public sphere during the time of Khatami to extend its political participation. The Arab population felt to be discriminated against, comparing with non-Arabs on the one hand and the politicians on the national level on the other. As a matter of fact, in the realm of education Arab teenagers lagged behind non-Arab teenagers (p. 127) and after the Iran-Iraq War the main cities of Khuzestan have not received enough attention to be reconstructed. Shahibzadeh explains how the Arab politics of identity successfully developed. Arab local political figures and journalists could mobilize people through the first years of presidency of Khatami and won the local election in 2003. But the politics later failed, by its radical advocates. Several demands were put to Khatami’s administration which often were impossible to realize immediately. For instance, it was demanded to offer 85% of key positions of Khuzestan to Arab local population. The downfall of the politics of Arab identity happened when demonstrations of Arabs in Khuzestan against Khatami were put down harshly by the Iranian government in 2005.

The book also has some minor weaknesses, which could have been avoided by more concentration on answering the guiding question and focusing on the main topic of the book. Firstly the introduction of the book is a bit complicated and not precise. It could provide a better picture on why the book exactly consists of the following six chapters, what is represented in each chapter, what are the case studies, and why at all the book is concentrating on Khuzestan and Bushehr, and why not on other provinces. A reason of selecting these provinces could be that the author, who is now an instructor of the Middle East studies at the University of Oslo, originally comes from south of Iran. Consequently he is richly informed about its social affairs. But he does not help the reader to understand his logic of the case study selection. Secondly, the book presents a variety of interesting topics. But these topics are not used to construct the main argument and answer the main question of the study, in a systematic way, at the end of the book. Thirdly, the discussion about women in Bushehr is interesting. It brings light to a very neglected dimension of the social and political participation of women in Iran. But the discussion is limited to some articles of female journalists in local newspapers. If they are the only collected data of this case study, they are not sufficient for such a discussion. Fourthly, chapter seven, which is on “politics of words and images” is a worthy analytic discussion on films and cinema of Iran. It gives a rich analysis on Iranian films like Qeysar (1969) and A Separation (2011) according to the political context of Iranian society. But this analysis is only indirectly relevant to a historiography of political language of Iran, and for practices of ordinary people towards democracy.

Despite some minor gaps of the book, I am recommending it to scholars who have an interest to understand political and social changes of Iran. Specifically now when demonstrations of Iranian against unfair politics of the Iranian government comes to the top of the worldwide news, reading the book helps to understand which local political elements shape the future of the country.


Huntington, S. P. (1996). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order: Penguin Books India.

Huntington, S. P. (2011). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Lewis, B. (1991). The Political Language of Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mottahedeh, R. p. (2005). The Clash of Civilizations: an Islamicist’s Critique. In E. Qureshi & M. A. Sells (Eds.), The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy (pp. 131-151). Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford University Press.

Said, E. W. (2005). The Clash of Definitions. In E. Qureshi & M. A. Sells (Eds.), The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy (pp. 68-87). Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford University Press.

Sen, A. (2007). Identity and violence: The illusion of destiny. New York: Penguin Books

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