Strange use of the word “conservative”

Iranians celebrate ancient Persian fire fest:

Thousands of Iranians gathered at dusk against a snowy mountain backdrop to light giant bonfires in an ancient mid-winter festival dating back to Iran’s pre-Islamic past that is drawing new interest from Muslims.

Saturday’s celebration was the first in which the dwindling remnants of Iran’s once plentiful Zoroastrian religious minority were joined by thousands of Muslims, reflecting a growing interest in the strict Islamic society for the country’s ancient traditions.

At the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, Iranians buy fruit, nuts and other goodies to mark the feast of Chelleh, also known as Yalda, an ancient tradition when families get together and stay up late, swapping stories and munching on snacks.

Both were discouraged by authorities in the early years after the Islamic Revolution by the conservative clerical regime, but without success.

Islamists and their ilk are regularly termed “conservative,” but they’re actually often enemies of the old and traditional. Consider the proactive destruction of Ottoman-era architecture from Mecca by the “conservative” Saudi regime.

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15 Responses to Strange use of the word “conservative”

  1. kurt9 says:

    Its only to be expected that young Persian people would reject Islam in favor of pre-existing Persian traditions. Islam, and especially Islamism, is really Arab imperialism. The Persians were forcibly converted to Islam as a result of Arab invasion. No one likes being imperialized.

  2. Otto Kerner says:

    Well, I guess the clerics think they are being conservative. If you’re looking for “conservative” to be used in a consistent way, well, it’s never going to happen. Better to simply use more specific descriptions than that. Not that you are particularly guilty of abusing the language, natch.

  3. Bob Smith says:

    One of the reasons to use “conservative” in this way is to smear by association domestic conservatives.

  4. Jeff Rogers says:


    Do you really think that this usage is a part of some conspiracy to smear domestic conservatives? I think it is just used in the commonly accepted sense of “resistant to change”. It doesn’t seem to matter how long the status quo has been in place, anyone who wants to defend it draws the “conservative” label.

  5. A bit off topic maybe, but I’ve been told that some Iranians/Persians outside of Iran that aren’t religious will label themselves as Zoroastrians. (Not sure if the same is true in Iran.)

    I’d guess this is because calling oneself “atheist” or “agnostic” is perceived as being less “socially acceptable”, and thus just calling oneself “Zoroastrian” gets (religious) people to “leave them alone” and not engage in the social shaming you’d get from some of the more religious for violating Islamic prohibitions and commands.

  6. David Hume says:

    Well, I guess the clerics think they are being conservative.

    i don’t think this is correct. i think the clerics think that they are doing the right thing, not the customary or traditional thing. similarly, the iranian revolutionary regime has also attempted to discourage nowruz, because it is unislamic. but clearly here it is the shia fundamentalists who are the innovators overturning custom & tradition.

    similarly, the salafist regime in saudi arabia has attempted to eliminate a lot of custom and tradition in the arabian peninsula, especially the area around mecca (which they conquered relatively late and was not a locus of the wahhabism movement). sure, the regime ostensibly is fixated on reverting to a utopia modeled on the days of the prophet and the rashideen, but this isn’t really conservative as much as utopian reactionary.

    the use of the word conservative actually obscures the revolutionary and transgressive nature of salafism. in the case of the iranian regime the media regularly asserts that it is *both* revolutionary and conservative, as above. use of the word conservative totally hides the reality that the current revolutionary regime and the clerical elite has its specific roots in developments of the qajar period in the late 18th and early 19th century, and that khomeini’s rule by cleric was even more innovative….

    anyway, i think the words radical, revolutionary and reactionary are all appropriate for islamist regimes. but conservative really debases semantic currency.

  7. Lorenzo says:

    V.S.Naipaul makes much the same point in his analysis of Islam as the ultimate form of colonialism/imperialism.

  8. David Hume says:

    i said islam*ism* not islam. there are ‘traditionalist’ forms of islam which have a more normal relationship with cultural diversity and continuity. shia revivalism and salafism do not. especially salafism (iranian shia revivalism is in many ways a nationally particular phenomenon). naipul’s point is well taken, but obviously scandinavians have been colonized the judaic-hellenic religion of christianity at the expense of their indigenous religious traditions.

  9. Liesel says:

    It is frustrating. Leftism and liberalism are also misused in the American media. It is very difficult to discuss political philosophies accurately as a result.

    Ever since the Revolution the Mullahs have wanted to erase all traces of the pre-Islamic Persian society. They realized they couldn’t go and raze Persepolis and other relics without losing the support of the people. I’ve heard that it is common for people in Iran to complain openly that worst thing to ever happen to them was the Arab invasion.

    A similar strain in Egyptian Islamist clerics and leaders exists but again, they cannot destroy the pyramids without losing legitimacy. Too many Egyptians are attached to their history, whether for economic or cultural reasons.

  10. Mike H says:

    In my experience any attempt to devise a political spectrum over the borders of countries is necessarily flawed as the political alignments usually correspond rather specifically to a country’s history and setup. It’s complicated enough with regards to European nations or comparing the U.S. to, say, France but when you talk about places outside of Western civilization it seems an insurmountable obstacle.

    Reporters etc. just look for familiar sights and then place familiar tags on them without necessarily taking the whole story into account. Conservatives in the West appear to place more importance on religion than leftists ergo a theocratic regime like Iran is tagged as “ultra-conservative”. It’s thoughtless and probably damaging and to some degree driven by a general distaste for all things conservative but then most people tend to think in drawers.

  11. mike says:

    “Its only to be expected that young Persian people would reject Islam in favor of pre-existing Persian traditions. Islam, and especially Islamism, is really Arab imperialism. The Persians were forcibly converted to Islam as a result of Arab invasion. No one likes being imperialized.”

    That would make them reactionaries, not conservatives. Right?

  12. Richard says:

    It’s an AP report. In the MSM, “conservative” means “bad.” Saudi monarchy? “Conservative.” Iranian Revolutionary Guard? “Conservative.” Hardliners in China, Russia, North Korea? “Conservative.” Sarah Palin? “Conservative.”

  13. mike says:

    In the MSM, “conservative” means “bad.”

    Boom. Second.

  14. John says:

    Breaking News from Haiti: courtesy of AP

    Suffering continues in Haiti, and the country remains in a state of chaos. Progressives are trying to rebuild the country, but are being hindered by conservatives who are committing thefts and acts of violence in order to keep the country in chaos.

    In other news, millions of people are still dying of conservative viruses, and thousands lose power in New England from a conservative snowstorm.

  15. Leon says:

    Well, in the nudist community who demand complete nudity on the part of the members are the conservative ones.

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