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Sardari Project

Blog: Defining the Enemy Under Totalitarian Regimes

July 1, 2022
Omid Shams
8 min read
The Nazis under Adolf Hitler popularized the bogus tenets of 'scientific racism'
Writer Omid Shams notes that in Iran today, the regime has a special vocabulary for the various minority groups and 'undesirables' it frames as 'enemies'

On May 18, 2022, I had the privilege to participate in a webinar organised by IranWire in collaboration with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, as a part of series about the Holocaust. The subject of this particular event was ‘Defining the Enemy: Nazi Racism’. The USHMM historian Patricia Heberer Rice and anthropologist Krista Hegberg talked about Nazi ideology, the key elements involved in defining an expansive concept of ‘enemy’ that took in a range of racial, religious, ethnic, and other social groups.

The speakers discussed the concept of ‘enemy’ as defined by the Nazi regime as falling into three categories: ‘enemies of belief’, such as Jehovah’s witnesses, ‘enemies of action’, including dissidents, artists and intellectuals, and ‘biological enemies’, from Jews to the Roma, Sinti and even disabled people. This vast scheme of vilification and othering led to the most terrifying project of systematic civilian killings, on the largest scale, in modern history. From this perspective it was truly incomparable to any other atrocity in our time. But there are certain aspects, or rather symptoms, of this event that can be detected in other current totalitarian regimes, such as the Islamic theocracy in Iran.

What particularly interested me was the scope and nature of the process. The concept of ‘enemy’ is an essential discursive tool for all totalitarian regimes to control all aspects of private and social life. It is a tool to dismember society in its entirety and reassemble it as a series of isolated collectives, in which one is preserved at the expense of others. The justification for this othering came from various religious, racial, cultural and political prejudices that predated the Nazis. But it was the Nazis that forged them all into a gargantuan propaganda drive. They not only institutionalised but also industrialised the production and dissemination of hatred. And this is the main similarity I observed between the Nazi regime’s and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s conceptualisation of ‘enemy’: their mass-production of hatred through an ever-expansive propaganda apparatus with the purpose of dissecting society and systematically removing the ‘undesirable’ parts.

The 1979 revolution was quickly hijacked by Islamists and renamed the ‘Islamic Revolution’. The passionate revolutionary emotions that had enchanted the masses paved the way for populists to take over and quickly establish a deadly personality cult around Ruhollah Khomeini as so-called ‘Supreme Leader of The World’s Oppressed’.

Soon after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), the theocratic regime began to promote its own conceptualisation of the ‘enemy’ and gradually established today’s most sprawling state-sponsored hatred machinery. In October 1979 the Deputy Prime Minister of the interim government expressly mentioned a plan for ‘reshaping Iranian society’. The process of othering under the IRI involved the use of two key terms: ‘enemies of the revolution’ and ‘enemies of Islam’. Those labelled enemies of the revolution were also vilified as a threat to Islam and, thus, as the enemy of God. They were to be both suppressed as the former and eliminated as the latter.

The first groups marked as ‘enemies of the revolution and Islam’ were Jews and Baha’is. Though Jews were officially recognised as a religious minority in Iran under Article 13 of the Constitution, they were immediately made ‘enemies of the revolution’ through accusations of being Israeli spies or sympathisers. Before the Islamic Revolution, more than 80,000 Jews lived in Iran. Within a year after the number declined to 50,000. In 1986 the estimate stood at 26,354 and in 1996 there were only an estimated 12,737 Jews left in Iran.

Baha'is, the largest non-Muslim religious minority group in Iran, were a different story. They were not recognised by the new Constitution as a religious minority and were regarded not only as ‘enemy of the revolution’ but as the number one ‘enemy of Islam’. Between 1979 and 1984 alone, at least 166 Baha’i citizens were murdered or executed. At the same time a massive project of dispossession, quite similar to the Nazi project of ‘Aryanization’, started with the mass confiscation of Baha’i property and their forced displacement. This program later expanded to include the confiscation of properties belonging to political dissidents as well.

The second stage of expanding the definition of ‘enemy’ within the IRI began with the Cultural Revolution: a ‘cleansing’ of academic, educational and cultural institutes across the country of ‘Western influences’. Now liberals, socialists, feminists, secularists and anyone with the slightest divergent opinion was labeled an ‘enemy of the revolution’ and, thus, of Islam. On the pretext of ‘the Islamisation of culture and education’, the IRI purged tens of thousands of academics, teachers, students, artists and writers from public education and cultural institutes and set up a vast ideological vetting system for future public-sector workers. More importantly, the Cultural Revolution led to the establishment of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution (SCCR) as the highest policymaking body in cultural affairs –  and one of the main institutions tasked with defining the ‘enemy’.  

The third stage was to alienate other groups from public life. Women, homosexuals, Arabs, Turks, Kurds and Balochis were persecuted anew. The SCCR played a key role in this by issuing directives that made that vilification possible. All of these groups were imbued with an imposed, artificial inferiority toward the newly-established ruling social group: straight, male, Shia Muslim, Hezbollahis (supporters of the IRI) of Persian ethnicity. This forced sense of ‘inferiority’ on groups excluded from power was another similarity between the Nazi regime and the IRI. 

As a prerequisite for all of this, the IRI created its own propaganda apparatus: an ever-expanding hate machine built upon historic prejudices, cultural and religious sensitivities. Nazi propaganda affairs were mainly conducted out through a single institution, the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. The IRI’s propaganda apparatus, however, is a multi-layered and multicentric system consisting of numerous institutions, outlets, quasi-governmental and private entities, with different tasks and targets. The SCCR, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the Islamic Propaganda Organisation, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, and the Basij are just a few of them. This network actively dehumanises those marked as ‘enemies’ and frames their most innocuous activities, even their appearances and lifestyle choices, as manifestations of an explicit enmity with God. It is through this process that the state tries to prepare the public for the removal of certain members of society.

A key part of the process is controlling discursive representation. In fact, another similarity between the Nazi regime and the IRI lies in the efforts of both to expand their control over society by creating a captive language. 

The Tunisian author and social critic Mustapha Khayati argues: “As the ‘social truth’ of power is permanent falsification, language is its permanent guarantee.” The first thing both regimes attempted to do was to annihilate the identity of their enemies by changing their existence in language: essentially, by renaming them. In 1938 the Nazi regime started a process of changing Old Prussian names, while inventing numerous new, discriminatory and degrading names and titles. E.H Gombrich writes that Nazi propaganda created a mythic world by “transforming the political universe into a conflict of persons and personifications” in which Germany was portrayed as a virtuous force fighting evil conspirators, especially Jews. Degrading and vilifying terms such as “international Jewry”, the “world conspiracy of Judaism” or, for political opponents, “Bandenbekämpfung” helped create the idea of an inferior identity within the realm of language.

In a similar way but on a much larger scale, the IRI has tried to rename every element in Iranian society. The names given by the IRI’s leader to the social groups or opponents of the regime becomes their new identity wherever the state has control over the language used. Using terms such as ‘deviant cult’ for Baha'is, ‘taghooti’ (‘demon lovers’) for those who live a secular, Western lifestyle, ‘faheshe’ (whore) for women who wear their headscarf loose, ‘soosool’ or ‘gherti’ (‘sissy’) for members of the LGBT+ community , ‘monafeqin’ (‘hypocrites’) for the People’s Mujahedin Organization or ‘dust and trash’ for the pro-democracy Green Movement are not merely pejorative, but quickly became the only standard way to refer to these groups in media, books, and movies. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel argued: “The first act by which Adam made himself master of the animals was to impose a name on them; that is, he annihilated them in their existence (as existents)." Renaming social groups ends their former identity as a part of a society and gives them a new one, a branding of inferiority within the symbolic realm of language that paves the way for their annihilation in the realm of reality.

Defining the enemy in this sense aims to reshape the world, and to re-forge it as a new one based on a delusional idea of perpetual war. This view inevitably longs for an apocalyptic ‘ultimate’ or ‘final’ war in which what has been marked as ‘evil’ will be eradicated once and for all. If the Holocaust was the end result of such a worldview under Nazi Germany, the massacre of tens of thousands of political prisoners in Iran in 1988 was a mere starting point for the IRI.

These similarities should not be seen merely as common aspects of two totalitarian regimes. They should rather be seen as symptoms of an alarming disease: a sign that a deadly and highly contagious scourge is on the rise. These symptoms were taken lightly once before and led to a tragic blow to humanity. Let’s hope this time things are different.



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