Haji Firuz or Khwaje Piruz is a fictional character in Iranian folklore who appears in the streets by the beginning of Nowruz. (March 2024)

A Tale Of Resistance: Iranian Regime's Failed Attempt To Islamize Norouz

Saturday, 03/16/2024

Iran’s Supreme Leader will not give a speech in Mashhad on the occasion of Persian New Year Norouz – with the cited excuse that this year Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month, coincides with the ancient Persian festivities.

But, the cancellation of the speech – meant to have taken place at the mausoleum of the 8th Islamic Shia Imam – likely has other reasons. Particularly since, Ali Khamenei does not typically stay away from the public during Ramadan, unlike his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini.

Throughout his rule, akin to the Grinch stealing Christmas, Khamenei has persistently sought to hijack the non-Islamic celebration of Norouz (Nowruz) with his annual speech. Exploiting the influx of Muslim pilgrims visiting the shrine of Imam Reza, he has used the day to showcase his popularity among believers. The sole exception to this pattern occurred during the peak three years of the Covid pandemic.

This year, it’s probable that the leader of the Islamic Republic is either worried about the absence of a crowd – or is struggling with health issues.

A woman is walking past symbolic decorated Nowruz eggs, one of the traditions of Nowruz, in Tehran (March 2024)

The war against Nowruz

The attempt to steal Norouz traces back 45 years to the Islamic Revolution. In 1979, upon seizing power, Islamists immediately made an attempt to abolish the two-week Norouz holiday for schools and universities, which ultimately proved unsuccessful. Subsequently, they set their sights on the 5-day vacation of government employees at the year's onset, only to encounter staunch resistance from the workers. Following this, they proceeded to systematically cancel Norouz celebrations in public spaces, imposing bans under various pretexts. Consequently, Nowruz was gradually forced into the privacy of people's homes.

Not stopping there, the clerical regime moved to eradicate the celebrations and customs associated with Norouz Day, which falls on the Spring Equinox. They cracked down on Chahar Shanbeh Suri, the traditional event observed on the last Tuesday of the year, citing safety reasons due to the millennia-old Iranian tradition of fire jumping.

Celebrated on the 13th day of Norouz, Sizdah Be-dar, a day when Iranians traditionally seek solace in nature after the holiday season, was deemed environmentally hazardous. Authorities erected barriers on roads to prevent people from venturing into meadows, mountains, and forests. In an attempt to alter public perception, the government renamed this day "Nature Day," and yet despite several attempts in parliament, they failed to abolish the ancient tradition.

However, aspects of Norouz that could be utilized for the regime's propaganda, such as the leader's address broadcasted on state radio and television channels after the Spring equinox – but were Islamized.

The traditional Persian Norouz table saw a significant change imposed by Islamists, who replaced the revered Divan-e-Hafez, the masterpiece of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez, with the Quran. The government's strategy with these measures was to make Islamic holidays like Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha into national holidays with extended breaks, while simultaneously eliminating ancient Persian holiday festivities such as Chaharshnbeh Suri, Mehregan, and the 13th of Norouz from the national calendar.

In contrast to Iranian monarchs, who traditionally celebrated Norouz with opulent banquets, gift-giving, and audiences with their subjects, Khomeini and Khamenei diverge in their approach to the holiday. While Khomeini remained out of the public eye during the 13-day spring festival, Khamenei broke this tactic by delivering a speech, often utilizing pilgrims as his audience.

In the process of Islamization, every aspect reminiscent of ancient Iran and its traditions was sidelined to make way for ceremonies, symbols, and signs of the Islamic era. Just as the grand Zoroastrian fire temples were converted into mosques following the Arab conquest, Iran’s new conquerors wanted to infuse and paint Nowruz with a religious hue.

A scene from ChaharShanbeh Suri festival in Tehran (March 2024)

Iranians defy Islamization

On the flip side, Iranians across the globe commemorate Norouz with increasing grandeur each year, regarding it as a fundamental aspect of their national identity. With the advent of the Spring equinox, millions meticulously arrange traditional Norouz tables (Sofre Haftsin), sharing photos of their festive displays with enthusiasm. Despite economic adversities, families steadfastly uphold cherished traditions, ensuring essentials like greenery (Sabzeh) and hyacinth (Sombol) are never omitted from the Sofre Haftsin.

Across Iranians in provinces, like Kurdistan, Khorasan, and Gilan, people defiantly uphold vibrant celebrations with traditional dances and attire – disregarding government restrictions. The age-old tradition of baking sweets for the New Year has experienced a resurgence, while households across the nation engage in thorough Spring cleaning rituals. While the state television sweeps the joy of Norouz under the rug, the journey of millions of citizens to neighboring countries to participate in the concerts of Iranian artists living abroad and Norouz celebrations has become a part of the tradition every year.

While the Islamic Republic and its allies proclaim themselves as the "axis of resistance" against Western influence in the region, it is the Iranian people who embody the genuine axis of resistance against coercive Islamism.

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