By Alireza Nader
Nowruz (New Day), the Spring Equinox celebrated in Iran and across the Middle East as the new year, is considered a time of renewal and revival in Iranian culture. Nowruz is believed by many historians to be older than Iran itself. Rooted in Zoroastrian tradition, Nowruz is now a secular celebration that’s inclusive of Iranians of all religions. One can celebrate Nowruz and be Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or an atheist. It’s also a holiday that the ruling Islamic Republic dislikes but begrudgingly tolerates, as it evokes Iran’s pre-Islamic and imperial past. This year Nowruz will be a very difficult time for Iranians as they face economic collapse, environmental devastation, water shortages. But the importance of Norouz as a time of renewal, hope, and tolerance will endure.
Nowruz evokes a more tolerant time for many Iranians, many of whom will proudly tell you that Cyrus the Great, the founder of Iran and the Persian Empire, was the first ruler of the ancient world to proclaim a written record of human rights and religious toleration. By the measure of his time, Cyrus was a tolerant man, as he allowed conquered peoples under his rule to practice their own religion and traditions.
The Islamic Republic, by contrast, is known for its systematic abuse of human rights in Iran. Before the 1979 revolution, religious minorities like Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians lived side by side with Muslims at peace. While Iran was not a liberal democracy, religious minorities lived a life of largely peace and prosperity. Under the Islamic Republic, religious minorities such as the Bahai and Sufis are severely repressed. More than ninety percent of Iranian Jews have left their homeland under threat in the past forty years, mostly to reside in Israel and America. While traditional Christian communities such as the Armenians are somewhat tolerated, converts to Christianity are harassed, jailed, tortured, and encouraged to leave the country. Yet Christianity, mostly underground, is reported to be the fastest growing religion in Iran.
Iranians are not silent in the face of these challenges. Since December 2017, people from all walks of life have engaged in peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience across Iran. The women’s freedom movement is one of the most noteworthy, but teachers, truck drivers, farmers, and environmentalists have also demonstrated the ability to mobilize.
Nowruz, a time to celebrate renewal, will be a time of water shortages, blackouts, food rationing, lines to buy meat, and fears for the future. But Iranians have an instinctive drive to endure even the worst of times. For the past four decades, they have survived revolution, war, sanctions, terror, and isolation. But many still believe that a new and better Iran can also be at hand.
During this Nowruz, Iranian-Americans and their American friends should think of the struggles of their homeland while they celebrate the spring. As Iranians peacefully fight for a better future, Americans of all political and religious persuasions should stand by their side and publicly express support for Iranian pro-democracy forces. Broader coverage of Iranians’ struggle in the American media is vital, as are statements and actions demonstrating support from policy-makers on the Hill and the executive branch.
Iranians, like people anywhere, desire freedom and liberty. Nowruz this year will be a time of immense difficulty, but a time of hope and revival as well.
Alireza Nader is founder and CEO of New Iran, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington