Religious Minorities

Erfan Sabeti: Shia Clergy's Antisemitism Stems From an Inferiority Complex

December 13, 2021
Maryam Dehkordi
6 min read

Antisemitism has compelled tens of thousands of Iranian Jews to leave their homes and move abroad over the past 42 years. Those who chose to remain in the Islamic Republic have had to endure continuous hatred, promoted and institutionalized by the state.

Since the foundation of the Islamic Republic, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, state-owned news agencies and government-affiliated media outlets have produced reams of antisemitic audio-visual content and online propaganda. Articles, films, TV series, and stories rooted in the historical antagonism between Islam and Judaism, anti-Israel sentiment and baseless conspiracy theories have harmed and isolated Jews in Iran. IranWire’s investigative report, Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979, gives a detailed account of how this has content developed and was received over time.

IranWire spoke to Erfan Sabeti, sociologist, a scholar of religion and translator, about this report and antisemitism in the Islamic Republic.

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“Today the Islamic Republic is employing a combination of methods that Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia and Fascist Italy once used to purge the society of minority groups one after another.”

So says Erfan Sabeti, translator and academic, of the Islamic Republic’s antisemitic policies over the past four decades. The phenomenon, he says, has everything to do with “the concept of moral panic, often explored in the sociology of deviance. In 1972 Stanley Cohen published a book titled Folk Devils and Moral Panics that defines this concept as when the media, the judicial system, the politicians, the legislature and pressure groups incite public opinion against an imaginary social problem.”

The definition of “moral” in a given society depends on its norms and values, says Sabeti: “In a society in which tolerance in religious, political and social spheres does not exist, and the rulers tend towards uniformity, imitation and homogeneity, it is hardly strange that groups who do not follow the majority’s belief are labeled ‘deviant’. Indeed, these minorities are presented as the main factor behind social problems.”

Sabeti believes state-controlled media, politicians and the judiciary in Iran follow this pattern, presenting the existence of minorities as a social and security problem. “If the judicial system, politicians and pressure groups are all actors in a play called ‘moral panic’, then the main actor in this play is the media. The Islamic Republic says these particular individuals or groups are the root of our problems, and they threaten our national security. So all resources in the society are mobilized to fight against this imaginary, fabricated problem. The media plays a very significant role in this; it’s the media that influences public opinion, and lays the groundwork for purging individuals and groups from society by presenting them as threats.”

Iranian media has also repeated the “blood libel”: an antisemitic canard that accuses Jews of murdering Christian or gentile children to use their blood in the performance of religious rituals and in the preparation of matzos, the unleavened bread consumed during Passover.

“The blood libel was a common accusation against Jews in Medieval times,” says Sabeti. “But the interesting point is that the same one was first directed against Christians by Greeks and Roman after the spread of Christianity. Later, when the Christian church gained power in the Middle Ages, they turned this against the Jews. Today the Islamic Republic uses it against Jewish and Baha’i communities. See, how a lie has journeyed through history to get here.”

First Step: Dehumanize

Sabeti believes the aim of creating a moral panic is to dehumanize: “All societies believe that human beings have an inherent dignity. Innocents cannot be killed, tortured, harmed and denied their natural rights. So, what is a government to do if it wants to justify the harassment, torture, imprisonment, killing-off of a minority group? It must make the ‘other’ subhuman so moral considerations will no longer apply.

“This was evident in the way that the Nazis treated the Jews. In Rwanda, this was what the Hutus did to the Tutsi minority [in 1994]. And, in present-day Iran, that is what the Shiite regime is doing to systematically various minority groups.’

Part of the Islamic Republic’s antisemitic campaign has, more recently, been Holocaust denial by politicians and clerics. Hefty budgets for promoting antisemitic policies were allocated with the start of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, including Holocaust cartoon exhibitions and contests in a number of Iranian cities.

“During the Second World War, Japan was an accessory of Nazi Germany and committed its own share of crimes,” says Sabeti. “But what did they do in the United States to incite American soldiers to confront the Japanese more violently? American media dehumanized the Japanese and compared them to animals.

“The Islamic Republic claimed this Holocaust cartoon contest was anti-Zionist. But in fact, it was antisemitic. It was meant to dehumanize Jews, similar to what they did in Nazi Germany. Even there, they didn’t start by saying ‘Let’s take all the Jews and burn them in ovens’. These things happen at a very slow pace, because most human beings only change their moral points of view slowly. Getting used to seeing Jewish faces as ugly in the media is a start. Then they would tell you that the Jews had caused historical problems, and so on.”

Why is the Shia regime in Iran is so antisemitic? This, in Sabeti’s view, is a deep-rooted historical issue. “The Shia clergy never stops saying ‘My tribe is absolute good; the others are infidels and absolute evil.’ They never stop saying they’re superior. But look around: many of the world’s prominent intellectuals, artists, jurists and politicians in the world are Jewish. This has created an inferiority complex among the ruling clergy in Iran; it’s made them feel threatened. And this is not limited to the Jews. They even feel threatened by Muslim intellectuals.”

One of the main pillars of antisemitism is conspiracy theories, Sabeti agrees: “When the Shia clergy sees that Jews or members of another minority group have advanced and enjoyed success, they don’t react rationally. Instead of saying ‘Let’s see what we can learn from them’ they try to convince people wealth and success, or excellence in science, the arts or culture, comes about because of hidden conspiracies.

“Some might say that religious fanaticism has subsided in Iran. There’s no doubt that people are not as religiously fervent as they were 43 years ago. But nationalism can also be instrumental in promoting antisemitic policies. In Europe, too, groups that support extreme nationalistic ideologies threaten Jews. The difference is that in those countries, the law and the judicial system stand against it.”

What Can Be Done?

In this day and age, Erfan Sabeti believes, “We can stand up to antisemitic policies – and those against any other minority group – only when we stop being passive in response to statements that are antisemitic, misogynistic or against sexual minorities. When their rights are violated we must respond immediately. And if we have the chance, we must address our dear friends, fathers, mothers and sisters, and tell them that what they say goes against historical facts. Only then can we say that we are conscientious citizens.”

 

Related Coverage:

Lawyer: Persecution of Iran’s Jewish Community Started with Execution of its Leader in 1979

Mehran Barati: Iranian Media is Emanating Nazi Germany

Shadi Sadr: Jews Have Been Cut Off from Iranian Public Life

George Haroonian: Antisemitism is Inherent to the Islamic Republic

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

Battling COVID, Iran Regime Makes Jews its Bogeyman

Debunking the Rothschilds Conspiracy Theory: From Frankfurt to Tehran

Khamenei’s Open Dream: Finishing Where Hitler Left Off

Decoding Iran’s Politics: Anti-Semitism in Iran

Anti-Semitism and Neglect Have Destroyed a Historical Jewish School in Isfahan

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Crime and Denial, or Why Does the Leader of Iran Deny the Holocaust?

Eye for an Eye Justice, But Not For Jewish Victims in Iran

''Jews Use Sorcery for Espionage''

Iran’s Cartoon Goons: Behind the Scenes of the Holocaust Cartoons Exhibition

Denying Denial at Holocaust Cartoons Exhibition

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Erfan Sabeti: Shia Clergy's Antisemitism Stems From an Inferiority Complex