The Familiar Strange

Like a Skin

For those of us who have grown up in the ‘West’, we tend to think of religion as a customizable category. Some of us are born into a particular sect, others with no particular orientation, and as we travel through life, we’re presented with a panoply of options from which to choose. Many of us change religion throughout our lives – often for spouses, sometimes out of conviction.

There remains, however, a fairly pervasive perennialism in popular interpretations of religion. “All religions teach the same fundamental truth”, so the saying goes. And with the exception, perhaps, of the truly zealous convert, one’s adherence to a particular faith is something like an ‘optional extra’. It doesn’t truly change the nature of the person underneath. But this position on religion as a pliable, ‘put on and take off’ category is certainly not a view shared with other parts of the world. Take the case of Sepanta Niknam living in Yazd, Iran.   

The curious case of Sepanta Niknam

A native from the desert city of Yazd, 31-year-old Sepanta Niknam is a member of the country’s tiny Zoroastrian religious minority. Despite being both indigenous to Iran and associated with ancient Persian empires, the most recent census turned in a population as small as 25, 000 Zoroastrians, most of whom are concentrated in Tehran, the capital, with smaller populations in the historical cultural centres of Yazd and Kerman.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the country’s constitutionally recognised religious minorities – Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews (yes, Iran has the largest population of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel) – have all been provided with designated minority seats in the parliament. Nonetheless, up against 285 other parliamentarians, these reserved minority positions are largely symbolic, with the activity of members effectively limited to specifically representing the interests of their community, rather than comment on issues of national concern.

What is interesting about Sepanta Niknam is that, rather than running as a Zoroastrian for a minority seat, he ran for election as a general candidate. Elected as a member of the City Council of Yazd in 2013, with some 20 000 votes, coming in fifth, and again in 2017 with nearly 22000 votes, Niknam clearly garnered the support of significantly more than just his fellow Zoroastrians. His participation in the council from 2013 was uncontroversial, but following his re-election in 2017, a defeated conservative councillor took the issue to the Guardian Council, the conservative body that vets candidates and overseas the parliament.

The council under the leadership of Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati struck down Niknam’s membership of Yazd municipality, arguing that, in the Islamic Republic, minorities could not govern Muslim majority townships. In response, senior members of Iran’s political elite, including the Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, and belatedly, the President Hassan Rouhani, have spoken out against Niknam’s occlusion.

Citizen’s rights

The affair has thrown into light both the tensions between the theocratic and Republican elements of Iran’s government, and Iran’s commitment to protecting the rights of minorities. Much has already been made of the fact that Iran is one of the few nations that holds the death penalty for leaving Islam, even if in practice such sentences are infrequently carried out.

Putting our anthropological hats on, though, what I find particularly gripping is what the Guardian Council’s rejection of Niknam says about the way in which conservatives in Iran view the category of religion. Aside from the voices of a handful of particularly vociferous politicians (Pauline Hanson comes to mind), few in the Australian community would suggest that an individual’s religious identity is likely to in some way perturb their ability to act in a governing capacity.

In Australia, religion is, as I have said, something we can take on and take off. While in some cases there is an overlap (Tony Abbott’s particularly conservative Catholicism, for example), when politicians speak, administer, make laws, etc., they are understood to be doing so as representatives of their constituents and as Australians, rather than denominationally. In the workplace, one might be a Muslim, a Jew, or a Hindu, but what matters is that one is a good forklift driver, or gardener. They are separable, partible identities.

Like a skin

Not so in Iran. Rather, the category of religion effectively is one’s identity, suffusing all parts of life, coming to bear on one’s capacity to govern. Likewise, to change religion, then, is not to simply swap one or another, but rather to fundamentally re-orient and re-establish the nature of that person. James Barry, an academic researching Armenians in Iran, has noted that when Armenians convert to Islam, they effectively assimilate into the broader Iranian population, losing their particular linguistic and cultural identity. There are no Armenian Muslim Iranians.  

What I think this points to more widely is the limitations of what we understand to be a secular identity in the ‘West’.  Should we presume that individuals can simply dispense with their religious identities, and, more over, why should we presume this?

[Image by Alicia Wilson]

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