Cultural Politics of Reza Shah Era

  December 04, 2021   Read time 3 min
Cultural Politics of Reza Shah Era
The reign of Reza Shah marks a crucial turning point in the history of modern Iran, when centralized efforts were made to rebuild the state in terms of aprogressive nation. During the last decade the early Pahlavi period has increasingly attracted scholarly attention.

This development can be ascribed to several reasons such as the quest for the roots of the revolution of 1978–79; the sentimental glorification of the Reza Shah era (1926–41), both inside Iran and in diasporic communities; and the ready availability of primary source material after access to Iranian archives has finally become possible. The culture and cultural politics of this period, however, remain widely neglected. Until now, the reign of Reza Shah has been viewed primarily through the lens of politics, international relations, and militarist or autocratic modernism. Throughout, the political history of this period has been at the centre of research, with an equally strong focus on tribal politics and the military. At the same time, particular studies devoted to the literature or the arts of this time rarely paid attention to the socio-political background and the actual agendas of the state and its administrative apparatus.

Taking up the new stimulus provided by the concept of subaltern studies, an increasing number of books have been published during the last couple of years that challenge conventional historiographical approaches in writing the modern history of Iran.4 Still, a state-centred perspective and an emphasis on authoritarian modernization by the autocratic state remain the predominant angle from which the 1920s and 1930s are examined. This might help to explain the multitude of reforms implemented in such a short period of time, as well as their long-term success, but fails to consider other central agents of Iran’s modernity. Moreover, the study of the early Pahlavi period has been dominated by generalizations and affected by black-and-white dichotomies including admiration for Reza Shah’s modernization efforts on the one hand and criticism of authoritarian censorship and stifling suppression of artists and writers on the other. The overall negative evaluation of cultural life under Reza Shah resulted in the firmly entrenched belief that the restrictive climate prevented any positive development in theatre, press, or literature and drove creative individuals to withdraw into academia.

There is a clear contradiction between the idea of Reza Shah as a basically uncultured and uneducated boor and the notion that everything in Iran, including the country’s social and cultural renewal, originated in Reza Shah’s authoritarian policy. From early on, he was ridiculed by Western diplomats and observers as a Cosack and brutish drill sergeant. Statements such as the one by the American minister Charles C. Hart, characterizing him as an “illiterate peasant’s equally illiterate son,” were to stay. This makes it so difficult to imagine a deliberate cultural policy in the early Pahlavi period.

This pessimistic image of culture during the years of Reza Shah’s reign prompted us to critically analyze different facets of the relationship between cultural politics, the educational system, and the “life-world” of modernist Iranians. We regard the relationship between politics and culture not as a hierarchical order where politics determine culture, but rather as a double-sided process of interaction – cultural production influences politics and politics shape modes of cultural representation. Since our understanding of culture is deliberately wide and open, it includes medicine and sports, theatre, literature and music, architecture and iconography, the press and the educational system with schools, museums, and universities.

With special reference to the practical implementation of specific reforms this goes beyond the state-centred view by acknowledging the significance of reform-minded individuals as masterminds of modernization. It also regards the modern middle class as a crucial agent in the reform process and sheds light on the mass of Iranians as the main target of cultural reforms. In order not to adopt the state’s view too easily, such an approach must use new sources as well as new readings of the available material; the contributions to this volume integrate primary sources from Iran to a great extent. Hence, this volume continues the recent trend in writing the history of twentieth-century Iran by “moving away from the state as reference point of societal action” and challenging the paradigm of authoritarian modernization; however, not by focusing on subaltern forces in society, but rather by stressing the highly significant symbiosis between the state and individual reformers and the common people’s contribution in appropriating modern culture.