The discourse of reform was entwined with discourses of nation and patriotism, as these writer-activists constructed and disseminated notions of ‘Iranian’ identity and history. Tensions between ideas that the renewal of ‘Iran’ demanded the use of imported insights, techniques or institutions, and ideas of a distinctive and valuable indigenous culture emerging among reformers in the late nineteenth century became central to cultural politics and political culture during the twentieth. Ongoing debate about the links, or lack of them, between ‘modernisation’, ‘reform’ and Europeanisation or westernisation featured in both.
As the early initiatives and arguments of reformers became frustrated by the indifference and resistance of the governing establishment, the idea of constitu - tional as well as administrative or educational reform began to be put forward. The wish to direct or contain monarch and government if progressive aims were to be achieved, led modernisers to add ideas of consultative or representative government to their depictions of transformation. This fed the protests over misgovernment, oppression and threats to ‘ulama and bazari interests which led to the grant of a constitution in 1906. In that ‘moment’, groups of reformers were able to play the role of enlightened leaders, guiding others on to the path of progress as they used the mass occupation of the British legation grounds to advocate constitutional solutions to the protesters’ grievances. The establishment of the Constitution and the Majlis (national assembly) focused attention on the parties, elections and public politics associated with them, and the attempts by Shah, ruling elites and foreign interests to undo them between 1906 and 1911. In reformers’ political activity and thought, the defence and advancement of ‘Iranian’ progress, security and autonomy became bound up with the fate of these ‘modern’ institutions.
In the ‘constitutional era’, understandings of ‘reform’ as either alien or indigenous were intensified by controversies over the role of shari’a law and Muslim identity within the new polity and its institutions. While some constitutionalists argued that they were compatible with and even enjoined by Muslim precepts and practice, others differentiated the modern agenda of the new system from religious and despotic predecessors, leading yet others to denounce it as godless and heretical. The first group were exemplified by the senior mujtaheds who worked with the Majlis and developed arguments linking Shi’a ideas and representative government. The second emerged in the radical, sometimes religiously dissident, sometimes anti-clerical or secular, support for constitutionalism from preachers like Sayyid Jamal al-din Isfahani ‘Va’iz’ (‘the preacher’) or Hasan Taqizadeh, both of whom played prominent roles in the struggles to establish and then maintain the constitution. The third emerged among members of the ‘ulama who opposed secularist elements in the pro-constitutional coalition, and among members of established elites who distrusted the social radicalism of some of those elements. While cross-cut by short-term or opportunistic alliances, and personal links and rivalries, they shaped reform discourses in which relationships to indigenous cultures and religious traditions, and issues of ‘moderate’, as opposed to ‘radical’, change, were defined and contested. The extent to which peasant interests should influence land reform, the rights of non-Muslims or women as citizens, or the role of shari’a law and popular access to justice were issues through which these different perspectives took political form.