Secularism and Identity: Non-Islamiosity in the Iranian Diaspora

  • Book Title:
 Secularism And Identity
  • Book Author:
Reza Gholami
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This book is foremost the result of a personal fascination – by why some diasporic Iranians from Shi`a backgrounds seem so determined to distance themselves from Islam. This question began to occupy me in earnest towards the end of my teenage years.

It stemmed primarily from experiences I had had growing up in a diasporic Iranian family, as well as from encounters with friends (who were by all accounts ‘normal Iranians’) and with the wider Iranian diasporic community.

Whenever I posed the question – initially to friends and family and later to academics – the most common, though perfectly logical, explanations circled around rather predictable historical narratives and events: the pre-Islamic Persian Empire; its glories, power and potentials; its conquest and subsequent conversion to Islam at the hands of the Arabs around 1400 years ago; the Pahlavi dynasty (1925–1979) and its close ideological and political ties to the West; the 1979 Islamic Revolution; over 30 years of hardline Islamic governance; being placed in the ‘Axis of Evil’

… For many people, these milestones wholly explain why so many Iranians are tired of, or outright detest, Islam and wish to ‘return’ to a more ‘original’ Persian identity by way of jettisoning all things Islamic.

The aim of this book is not to dispute the explanatory power of the aforementioned events; nor is it necessarily to suggest new reasons. Similarly, my intention is not to indict the Iranians who oppose or relinquish Islam – though I am morally and politically against the often extremely crude and antagonistic anti-Islamic representations and practices which, as we will see throughout the book, now seem to abound.

 My aim is to critically examine the idea that this phenomenon – the jettisoning of the Islamic – is a mere reaction to historical, social and political events. I analyse it as a particular and productive way of living diasporic lives; a unique and powerful form of secularism; a consciousness and mode of living predicated upon eradicating ‘the Islamic’ from ‘the Iranian’.

 As a teenager, I noticed that among Iranians this way of living and behaving was more than common; it seemed to be everywhere, or at least everywhere Iranians would congregate in significant numbers to live, experience and express themselves as ‘Iranian’. And everywhere, it seemed to be accepted, unquestioned, normal.

I spent my teenage years in Aarhus, Denmark. But after a year-long sojourn in Los Angeles and an even shorter one in Paris and Lyon, France, in the late 1990s, I moved to London in 2000 where I have since lived. I both was and was not astonished to find Iranian attitudes towards Islam very similar in all these places to that in Denmark. In fact, the prevalence of what I have since come to call ‘non- Islamiosity’ was one of the deciding factors in choosing to research this topic more seriously.

Of course, there are many devout Shi’a and Sunni Muslims in the Iranian diaspora, too, as well as people practising other religions. But as I aim to show, it is not in the main their discourses, practices and sensibilities that animate the public or community spaces and activities of the ‘Iranian’ diaspora – including media and virtual spaces; the Iranian diaspora, as many analysts and laypersons agree, is predominantly a secular one.

And I am interested in better understanding this secularity and examining some of the transformations it is bringing about.

Another reason why these questions have fascinated me is that despite the regularity of my exposure to the discourses and practices of non-Islamiosity, especially as a youngster, I did not grow up to despise Islam. In fact, I not only have a deep respect for the holy texts and figures of Islam and for their teachings, I have also always considered myself a student of Islam, asking it the most fundamental of anthropological and philosophical questions. Indeed, these are questions that I find myself asking of all human ways of life, religious or otherwise. And by the same token, I extend my respect to all these ways of life.

The book is mainly based on data collected during fieldwork in London roughly between February 2009 and May 2010. However, it also builds on data and experiences from the wider Iranian diaspora, including Los Angeles, commonly cited as the cultural and political hub of the diaspora. The book, thus, certainly addresses issues which extend far beyond London; issues which cannot be properly understood without their wider global connections.

As such, it is of course directly relevant to anyone with an interest in the Iranian diaspora. But by the same token, the book should also appeal to those who are generally intrigued by the workings of ‘the secular’ in diasporic communities from Muslim backgrounds or from Muslim-majority ‘homelands’, or indeed those interested in Islamophobia. My hope is that the book will contribute to deeper understanding whilst precipitating dialogue and further research.

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