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Explainer: The Politics Of Norouz

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban Aliyeva attend Norouz festivities in Baku, March 20, 2012.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban Aliyeva attend Norouz festivities in Baku, March 20, 2012.

In what has become a Norouz tradition, Azerbaijan's president participated in an egg-breaking competition with two popular characters associated with the spring holiday. And this year, as in previous years, Ilham Aliyev got the best of Kosa (Beardless) and Kechal (Bald-Headed).

In Azerbaijan, a former part of the Persian Empire where Norouz has deep roots, the president has for years used the Persian New Year as an occasion to highlight his public image by visiting Baku's old town and lighting a traditional Norouz fire.

It could be written off as fun and games, but in many areas of the world where Norouz is celebrated, the politics of the holiday can be serious business.

There are cases where regimes, whether religious or not, have regarded Norouz as a threat to their dominance and banned the holiday altogether. There are others where minority groups have identified themselves with the holiday and turned it into an unofficial national symbol. And there are those instances where even the date of the holiday has been subjected to the will of local strongmen.

But in no place is the politics of Norouz more evident than in Iran.

Pre-Islamic Iran is the cradle of Norouz, where it is believed to have been a holiday of the ancient Zoroastrian religion. It is so deeply rooted in the Iranian tradition and has such a powerful influence that even the Islamic Revolution of 1979 could not ban it. An official six-day holiday in Iran - and 14-day vacation for schools - Norouz has nevertheless been under constant fire from Muslim clerics, who call it un-Islamic.

Ironically, the rejection of Norouz has united fundamentalist Shi'ite Muslims in Iran and Sunnis in Afghanistan in their disdain of national traditions.

Iran's official attitude, however, is more ambiguous toward Norouz. While the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued repeated fatwas, or religious edicts, saying that Norouz "has no religious basis and will create a lot of damage and [moral] corruption," he is also the first to officially mark the beginning of Norouz with a national address.

Iran's conservative president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, has exploited Khamenei's mixed message. Seeing that ordinary Iranians have always considered Norouz a powerful national symbol that transcends religion and goes back into Persia's millennia-long history, he has used Norouz to present himself as a nationalist and gain more public sympathy in his power struggle with the supreme leader.

The Iranian president has also seized the day as a tool of regional influence. He has invited neighboring Armenia's president to visit Tehran to attend Norouz celebrations, for example. And this year he was joining Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Tajikistan to participate in Norouz festivities.

PHOTO GALLERY: Norouz celebrations in Afghanistan (click on link to see photos)

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