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Culture and Its Relationship to Fundamentalism of Modern Iran


Culture has been defined as a set of symbols, values, artefacts, language and values that defines the members of a society. In the case of Iran, the current regime that came into power during the 1979 Islamic revolution wished to revert back the country back to the traditions, away from the modernity that had been a characteristic of the fallen Shia regime (Khosravi, 2008).

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Seeing that culture entails religion as well, the various Islamic factions in Iran have also not been left behind in as far as modernity vs. tradition issue is concerned.

Fundamentalism has been defined as “the belief in absolute religious authority and the demand that this religious authority be legally enforced” (Cashman & Robinson, 2007).One of the key issues that the Islamic-led revolution sought to uphold was the code of dressing, and what this has enable is that women have been the most marginalised. Not only have they faced stoning by fundamentalist groups, but they have also been imprisoned. Nevertheless, there is a woman’s activist group that is trying to fight for their rights.

The Iranian culture

Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (1998) have noted that cultural outer layers are artifacts and products that signify fundamental and deeper assumptions and values regarding life. The authors have further observed that the various layers of culture tend to compliment one another, ads opposed to being independent from each other. What this means therefore is that culture has everything to do with societal issues, along with the definition of a society. Some of the cultural categories that are worth exploring includes sense of space and self, language and communication, feeding habits and food, appearance and dressing, time and being conscious of time, norms and values, relationships attitudes and beliefs, learning and mental processes, practices and work habits (Harris, Moran & Moran, 2004).

In addition, Harris et al (2004) have noted that while some of the cultural elements could be overt, nevertheless there are those aspects of culture that tends to be covert in nature. Often times, anthropologists have found it worthwhile to remind us that life’s unique situations are there to facilitate in the making of presumptions as regards frustration and fulfilments in life. Some of these assumptions are plainly evident in various folklores (Mohaddessin, 2003). They may also be evident in regulation, laws, traditions or customs. A good example here is the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran that resulted in a number of cultural changes. There are also some cultural elements that are quite implicit in nature. One can only be deduced these unspoken aspects of culture by way of observing steady tendencies in both word and deed.

A division between on the one hand, hidden culture and on the other hand, one that is quite public, is a clear indication of the extent to which the day-to-day activities of individuals are directed themes and patterns. More often than not, we, as humans, appear to be quite naive as regards the meaning and origin of such themes and patterns (Tazmini, 2001). Nevertheless, it is this form of behaviour that is culturally governed that eases the daily living routine. This way, an individual is better able to undertake more than one task within a society without as much as pondering over such actions. In other words, a form of cultural conditioning takes place. Consequently, this cultural; conditioning so formed provides the individual within a society with the freedom to dedicate their time and effort in conscious though to novel and inventive pursuits.

Even then, Harris et al (2004) have noted that various behaviours exhibited by humans may not wholly be free or “consciously willed by us” (Harris et al, 2004). In addition, Harris et al (2004) have observed that this kind of unconscious behaviour “can be a national problem, such as when a society finally realizes that implicit in its culture is a form of racism, which requires both legislation and education to rectify (Harris et al 2004). A majority the cultures have a tendency to discriminate against various believers or groups, a cultural behaviour that at bets, may only be regarded as being covert. In light of this, a global movement is now in place whose sole aim is to facilitate in the rectifying of such forms of biases against women, racial or ethnic minorities, gay people, and also foreigners or outsiders (Harris, 2004).

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If we were to explore the culture of Iran from a tradition point of view, we find that Iran was initially a monarchy under the rule of a king, often referred to as a Shah. The Shah therefore enjoyed an uninterrupted dominion over the Iranians for a prolonged period of time; beginning from 1501 to 1979, when the revolution took place. This revolution was under the leadership of the Shia clergy, and their rebellion led to the monarch being overthrown, eventually paving way for the coming to birth of “An Islamic Republic” (MSN Encarta, 2009).

In the events that followed after the 1979 revolution, there was a shift in Iran in terms of leadership, form a dictator-like monarchy that has ruled over the country for so long, to a republic that had a deep inclination towards the Islamic faith. Consequently, the Islamic government decided to place a lot of emphasis on the culture of Iran, and especially the mode of dressing. The Islamic government deem such a move as being appropriate, in a bid to de-emphasise the influences of the western worlds that had infiltrated into the culture of the Iranians over the years. For this reason, the leadership saw it necessary to correct this anomaly that had led the Iranian people away from the tradition and Islam as a religion (MSN Encarta, 2009).

Harris et al (2004) opines that traditions not only provides individual with a “mindset”, but that they also greatly impacts on the moral systems of such a people, in terms of an evaluation between ‘ what is right or wrong, good or bad, desirable or not (Harris et al, 2004). By way of articulating a specific culture, traditions seek to give the members of such culture uniqueness and a sense of belonging as well. Nevertheless, there is a need to have traditions re-examined on a regular basis in order to safeguard their validity and relevance.

This is regardless of whatever such traditions may be hoping to articulate. It could be addressing a national or tribal culture, a religious or military sub-culture. This is important since in this day and age, globalisation has brought with it fast means of communication, and these are a perfect pathway for the acquisition of novel behaviour patterns and values. Left unchecked, such behaviour patterns and values have the potential to undermine ancient, religious, or local traditions in a rapid manner. This is especially the case in as far as women and the youths and see concerned, on a global scale (Harris et al, 2004). Perhaps it is from such a perspective that the Islamic regime in Iran sought to salvage the situation in Iran, starting first with the change of the government that had been a champion of the modern world, and then followed by the issue of strict dressing code.

Historical leadership perspective in Iran

Ever since the 16th century, Iranian official religion has been the Jafari Shia Islam. As it were, Shia Islam followers have had their fair share of disagreements with Sunni Muslims. It is this latter part of the Islam community in Iran that constitutes a greater part of Islamists not just in the Middle East, but also in the world of Islam (Hope & Young, 2007). Their borne of contention revolves around the rightful successor to the founder of Islam faith, Prophet Muhammad. According to the 1979 constitution of Iran, the Shia clergy has been assigned significant roles of political leadership within the Iranian government. Statistics also indicates that 93 percent of the Iranians are the followers of Shia Islam. In addition, almost all of the Shia Islam subscribes to the Jafari group. It is the belief of the Jafaris that the legitimate successor to Prophet Muhammad should be 12 in number, which is why these 12 imams or successors are also referred to as “Twelvers” (MSN Encarta, 2009).

During the time for which Iran was under the dictatorial rule off Shah, the country, according to Khosravi (2008) could be said to have been well on its way to modernity. On the other hand, the events leading to the Islamic revolution saw the country revert back top its former traditions. The Shah appears to have had a life mission of driving Iran to “the Gate of Civilisation” (Khosravi, 2008), in addition to making it “one of the five modern countries in the world” (Khosravi, 2008). Conversely, it has often been articulated that as a result of the 1979 Islamic revolution, this regime helped put Iran to the Islamic age; 1400 years.

One could then opine that it is this desire to be devoted to one’s faith that many religious groups are characterised by fundamentalists, who will go out of their way to ensure that their religion and what it teaches are not seen to be overstepped. If one were to explore the 20th century Iranian history, it emerges that Iranians used tow dichotomy terms to discuss this period; Sonal (modernity) and Tajadud (traditions). The conception between these two terms has profoundly facilitated in putting together the Iranian social-cultural trends (Khosravi, 2008).

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On their part, the clergy have time and again been against the modernity concept. Thanks to their “antimodern” politics, the clergy were able to overcome the discontent that came about due to the modernisation program that the Shah was routing for.


The Merriam-Webster dictionary (2008) has defined fundamentalism as “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles” (Merriam-Webster dictionary, 2008). According to MSN Encarta (2009), the introduction of Islamic law into the legal system of Iran came about as a result of the 1979 Islamic revolution. A key principle of Islamic fundamentalist movement in Iran is that it is only an “Islamic government” that may be termed as being legitimate, at least within the context of the Islamic world.

Fundamentalist Islamic history in Iran (often popularly referred to as ‘history of principle-ism) entails Islamic revivalism history, as well as “the rise of political Islam in modern Iran” (Scott, 1994). Currently, three kinds of Islam define Iran: modernism, traditionalism, and also a variety of types of revivalism often integrated in the name of fundamentalism (Cashman & Robinson, 2008). Consequently, Iranian religious fundamentalism is characterised by a number of elements that distinguishes it from “Islamic fundamentalism in other parts of the world” (Mohaddessin, 2003).

In addition, the Iranian fundamentalism is not just tied to religious fundamentalism. If truth be told, the secular fundamentalist in Iran could be equally ideological and dogmatic as religious fundamentalist have been. Iranian “Neo-fundamentalism”, “fundamentalism” and “conservatism” are terns that have elicited abundant philosophical discussions (Khosravi, 2008).

Ronasld Dworkin and Javad Tabatabaei, in addition to several philosophers have gone on record as having criticised fundamentalism as a terminology, in addition to offering several categorizations, at least within the context of the Iranian philosophy and politics.

According to (Scott, 1994) fundamentalism “is the belief in absolute religious authority and the demand that this religious authority be legally enforced” (Tazmini, 2001). Repeatedly, fundamentalism entails “the willingness to do battle for one’s faith” (Khosravi, 2008). Fundamentalist constitutes just a part of any groups of followers to a certain religion. Often, such a group subscribes to various beliefs, interpretations and strong values (Scott, 1997). As (Lee, 1997) has observed, there exists major differences between on the one hand, Islamic fundamentalism and on the other hand, Christina fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalists as opposed to their Christina counterparts, have a tendency to embrace most of post-scriptural educational practices that defines their faith. This is from both a legal and theological perspective.

For the last 30 years or so, there has been a reassertion of Islamic values and Islam as a religion, over the Muslim society. This has, fro the most part been augmented by the coming to power of the Islamic-led revolution that wished to assert itself, and revert the country’s traditions that appeared to have been under threat from modernity (Gheissari & Nasr, 2006). Muslim politics have also not been left out either. It is this turn of event that has come to be referred to as Islamic fundamentalism, at least in the Western world.

On the other hand, fundamentalism, whose origin could be traced to the Christian faith could turn out to be quite a misleading term, in reference to either muslin countries, or Islam as a religion Saudi Arabia and its conservative monarchy, Libya and its radically socialist state, and Iran with government that is clerically governed, al these events and more have been labelled as being “fundamentalist” (Harris et al, 2004). Nevertheless, such a description may be seen to have considered wide variations in their policies and governments. Political analysts have been known to utilize the expressions “Islamism” or “political Islam” in while examining Islam and its multi-faceted roles in both political and social movements (MSN Encarta, 2009).

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Women in Iran

Be it stoning to death or public execution, Iran has for a long time now come to be regarded as amongst the greatest human rights perpetrators in the world. Islamic fundamentalism ideologies have seen a number of Iranian women not just beaten but also bloodied by the notorious forcers of Bassij movements, in the street of Iran. This was as a result of failing to adhere to strict codes of dressing that the Islamic regime subscribers to follow (Cox, 2008).

These acts are quiet horrifying, but all may not be lost. Although the population of the women in Iran has also been quiet suppressed ever since the 1979 revolution, nevertheless, this group of the population has lately become quiet forceful, if the number of strikes and demonstrations in recent years are anything to go by (Cox, 2008). Regrettably, the movement of Iranian women has greatly been hampered following an increase in arrest cases for its members. At the moment, most of the leading activists of the women movement are serving their time in jail.


A majority of the Iranian population are members of other denominations of Islam, chiefly Sunni Islam. Amongst the towns that constitute mixed communities of Muslims, these regions have in recent times witnessed frequent religious tensions and spates of violence. This is especially the case when the country is observing major religious functions (MSN Encarta, 2009). Islamic mysticism, otherwise referred to as Sufism, is quite fashionable amongst the Sunni and Shai Muslims. In Iran, there are also small communities that constitute Assyrian and Armenian Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. There is also the Baha’i faith, whose origin in the 19th century could be traced to Iran. As it were, this faith is made up of several thousands of clandestine faithful. This is despite the fact that this faith has for a long time now been “a target of official persecution since the Islamic republic came to power in 1979” (MSN Encarta, 2009).

As of 2006, the population in Iran was estimated at 70,049,262. About 25 percent of this population is made up of people who are below the age of 15 years. In terms of linguistics and ethnicity, Iran is quite diverse. CIA World Factbook provides that the ethnic groups in Iran are made up of Persians at 55 percent, followed by Azeris at 24 percent. The Mzandaranis and Gilakis constitutes 8 percent of the population, the Kurds are at 7 percent, Arabs at 3 percent, while the Baloch, Turkmen and Lurs have been estimated at 2 percent. The reminder of the ethnic groups makes a partly 1 percent of the population. In terms of population growth, some 208 estimates provide that Iran grew at 0.792 percent (Central Intelligence Agency, 2008).

In addition the Iranian birth rate has been estimated at 16.89 births in every 1,000 members of the population. On the other hand, 5.69 out of 1,000 Iranians are believed to have died in 2008.


Following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the Shia government that had been in power since the 1500s was overthrown by, and the government that came into power was largely under the control of the clergy. In addition, this new government sought to restore the culture and tradition of the Iranian people, something that the previous regime had literary, thrown away, by embracing modernity. The most affected groups were the women, because the new regime was especially concerned with the dressing code that would have to be adhere to, if at all the country wished to revert back to its traditions. As a result, a lot of Iranian women have faced stoning in the streets of Iran, while others have been arrested. Still, there is still hope from women activists groups.


Cox, B (2008). “The women suffering in Iran”. (2008). Web.

Central Intelligence Agency (2008). The 2008 World Factbook. Directorate of Intelligence

Harris, P. R., Moran, S. V., & Moran, R. T. (2004). Managing cultural differences. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinneman

Hope, M & Young, J. (2007). “Crosscurrents: Islam and ecology”.

Gheissari, A. & Nasr, V. (2006). Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty. Oxford University Press.

Cashman, G., & Robinson, L. C. (2007). An introduction to the causes of war: patterns of interstate. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.

Khosravi, S. (2008). Young and defiant in Tehran. Pennsylvania: university of Pennsylvania press.

Lee, R. D. (1997). Overcoming Tradition and Modernity: The Search for Islamic Authenticity. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Merriam Webster Online dictionary (2008).

Mohaddessin, M. (2003). Islamic fundamentalism. Sydney: Anmol Publication PYT. Ltd.

MSN Encarta (2009). Iranian hospitality and culture

Scott, R. (1994) Accounting for Fundamentalisms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tazmini, G. The Islamic revival in Central Asia: a potent force or a misconception? Central Asian Survey 20.1(2001): 63-83.

Trompenaars, F & HampdenTurner, C. (1998). Managing people across culture. New York: McGraw Hill.

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