Adoption of Western Culture in Reza Shah Era

  December 04, 2021   Read time 4 min
Adoption of Western Culture in Reza Shah Era
Motives for the adoption of Western culture were manifold. There certainly was a feeling of backwardness, especially regarding technological progress, but concerns to improve the Iranian “race” and to prevent the society from degeneration were also determining factors in adhering to Western role models.

Important, but often overlooked is also the very individual motivation of returnees to continue the lifestyle they enjoyed in the West, whether for reasons of comfort or in order to distinguish themselves as avant-garde. Being modern in the sense of being up-to-date with latest Western trends could serve the middle class as a marker of their social status, as some of the following articles will show.31 The aspect of entertainment played a crucial role in popularizing modern culture and was tightly connected to the spread of new forms of pastime activities (tafrih) and technical innovations. Gramophones and radio popularized different kinds of music, new transportation led to the emergence of tourism, and visiting cinemas and theatres replaced traditional participation in religious performances.

The frequently mentioned sense of inferiority and backwardness became a commonly accepted motive to explain the Iranians’ adherence to Western modernity, thus giving a very negative connotation to the country’s quest for modernization. While reviewing the contributions to this volume, however, we had the impression that the reforms of the 1920s and 1930s had been undertaken in an open-minded, almost relaxed atmosphere and we could scarcely detect a pessimistic impetus for modernization. There might be inklings of concern about a specific Iranian identity, but not to the degree of the regularly invoked fear of Westoxication, to be encountered from the 1960s onwards. Of course, the fundamental question of how and to what extent to embrace Western forms of culture was permanently debated by different groups of reform-minded Iranians. In the course of their discussions a great number of reformers advocated a total adoption of European models, almost the introduction of Western culture in its pure form.

This leads to another question: Was there a distinct cultural policy of the Pahlavi state? When we look at the actual implementation of reforms – which many of the contributors to our volume did – we see a high degree of pragmatism, so that Western innovations were adapted in a rather nonchalant and unconcerned way. This pragmatism was characterized by many ad hoc decisions which persons in charge of a specific cultural institution made in order to meet a demand that was pressing at that particular moment. The development of an Iranian system of higher education, the efforts for the protection of national heritage, the introduction of Western forms of music or sports, the establishment of a public health service, a modern transport system, or even of official censorship are examples of pragmatic cultural politics, since none of these efforts followed a coherent long-term plan.

This can be ascribed to several reasons. First of all, the state was confronted with a number of already existing initiatives that had been started privately, building on the great enthusiasm of individual modernizers. Concerted plans for cultural modernization by the government could be thwarted by such projects, especially during the first decade of Reza Shah’s rule, when the young Pahlavi state had to face more urgent problems than cultural reform and therefore kept its involvement in this sector limited. Additionally, due to Iran’s highly personalized power structure a decision in favour of a specific reform or against it was very much dependent on personal antipathies of the officeholders.

However, this pragmatism is just one aspect that characterizes the implementation of specific reforms and does not sufficiently answer the question whether the Pahlavi state actually followed a distinct cultural policy. The answer heavily depends on which stage of Reza Shah’s reign one considers. There is a clear change in the state’s cultural involvement in terms of both quality and quantity, with a striking increase during the 1930s. This second decade can be considered as the crucial period in the enforcement of reforms aiming at a deep transformation of the country’s society.
While Stephanie Cronin regards the years between 1925 and 1927 as the factual starting point of the strong Pahlavi state and thereby suggests a convincing periodization with regard to Iran’s political history, for the cultural history we propose an alternative periodization which emphasizes the second decade of Reza Shah’s rule. During the 1920s, the state had still been concerned with internal power struggles, military reorganization, and the project of national unification under a strong central government. At that time, first activities aiming at cultural change, such as the reform of men’s dress, appear rather as a test run for the newly established administrative apparatus. From 1930 onwards, however, the state carried out more and more social and cultural reforms, created fundamental institutions for modernization, and took advantage of the initiated bureaucratic institutionalization to control the public and cultural sphere.