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Society & Culture

The Never Ending Saga of Iranians and Racism

October 16, 2015
Shima Shahrabi
7 min read
Comedian Akbar Abdi
Comedian Akbar Abdi

The neighborhood kids smashed the windows of their house and beat his son up at school. When he talks, Kosar sounds like he has a big lump in his throat. Once in a while, he emits a sigh that seems to come from the very top of his lungs.

“Believe me when I say I am an Iranian,” he says. “My father was an Iranian and my mother was an Iraqi. We lived in Basra and when the war between Iran and Iraq started I was not married yet. My father and I were deported from Iraq. My sisters were married to Iraqis and they stayed with my mother.”

He pauses for a moment. “Have you heard of Iraqi deportees?” Here he is referring to the Iraqis of Iranian descent who Saddam Hussein unceremoniously expelled in the 1980s.

Kosar speaks with a thick Arabic accent even though he has lived in Iran for more than 20 years. Kids smashed the windows of his house following September’s tragedy in Mecca, when more than 1,600 Hajj pilgrims, including hundreds of Iranians, were killed in a stampede. “Apparently the grandmother of one of the kids who had gone to Hajj is missing,” he said. “They were told that it was the fault of Arabs, and they took revenge on us.”

A few days later, the popular comedian Akbar Abdi related a rather crude joke on Iranian television about his own pilgrimage to Mecca. It went viral and was seen as an anti-Arab jab, although Abdi later denied that this was his intention. The kids at school showed the clip to Kosar’s son and ridiculed him. “My son came back home crying,” Kosar said.

Kosar married his wife, also a deportee, in the mountainous border region next to Iraq. “We have lived in Iran for so many years,” he said. “Our children were born here and have become attached to this place. We could have returned to Iraq but we stayed here because this has become our homeland. But since this happened we are really depressed. We have been thinking about leaving.”

Kosar is not alone. Many ethnic Arabs living in the province of Khuzestan, which borders Iraq, say they have also been offended by things they have heard on TV. “This is not the first time,” said Fouad, a Khuzestani Arab. “We are Iranians but we hear talk about ‘Arabs’ and ‘Persians’ all the time. They have called us rapists before. Now they call us Arabs murderers.”

Online, Iranians reacted very strongly to the Mecca incident and Akbar Abdi’s joke. Some did attack Arabs for the Hajj disaster, but others called such reactions racist. The question of whether Iranians and Iranian society are really racist has been widely discussed on social media.

And other non-Iranians have stepped into the debate too. Afghans have also spoken out about Iranian attitudes. “You Iranians are really racists,” Melina, an Afghan woman, said. “I lived in Iran for two years and you never treated us as equals. Now I live in Germany and everywhere they treat me as a German.”

IranWire also talked to Dr. Saeed Paivandi, an Iranian professor of Sociology at the University of Lorraine in France, about racism, historical animosities, and scapegoating Arabs. The interview follows.


Are Iranians Racist?

Racism — when one race believes it is better than another — leads to flagrant discrimination in how others are viewed or treated, especially when it is widespread within a society. The idea that the Aryan race is superior to other races or that black people are inferior to other races is obviously racist. The difference with what we are witnessing in Iran is that what we are hearing is not based on race but on historical animosities and grudges against certain groups of people. In the vernacular it is sometimes called “racism,” but if we return to an exact definition of racism we should more accurately call it “xenophobia” or perhaps “chauvinism”.


Iranians do not treat Americans or Europeans this way.  Their attitude is not necessarily always based on historical animosity. Perhaps Iranians feel a historical animosity towards Arabs — but what about Afghans?

A very important factor in my view is that we treat people from other countries based on a hierarchy. That is, we Iranians consider some people to be less civilized than ourselves and feel superior to them. And then there are people whom we consider to be more civilized, and feel equal to them.

This is not based on racism. For example, many Afghans belong to the same race that we do. We have a common historical background and religion. Our feeling of superiority is probably due to differences in development in our societies. But we Iranians do not look at Europeans and Americans that way because we believe that they have a more advanced civilization, and are therefore our equals.

Our culture suffers from a fundamental problem in that it does not regard all human beings as equals. It is based on discrimination and inequality. And when something like what happened in Mecca occurs, this attitude shows itself.


How did this fundamental problem emerge within Iranian culture?

People are not born with a worldview of equality and indiscrimination. Such a worldview is shaped through a sociological process and is largely influenced by the general culture of a country.

I believe we have not seriously confronted this question in Iran. In the past decades, many of our writers have engaged in an extremely anti-Arab and nationalistic discourse, but their works have not been analyzed or critiqued — especially because some of these writers have been very important to us. As a result we have not had the courage to teach people about creating a culture that is not based on discrimination.

Take the case of Afghan children for example. How many Iranian intellectuals came forward to defend their rights? How many young Iranians who have gone to Europe have been refused a university education because they are Iranians or from another country? In these societies if there is a manifestation of such a worldview, there are those who immediately come forward and fight it. But this does not happen in Iran.


Why have our intellectuals adopted this extreme anti-Arab discourse or nationalistic narrative?

The new Iranian nationalistic narrative took shape between 1916 and 1924, starting with publications such as Iranshahr, Kaveh and Farangestan. Important writers such as Hassan Taghizadeh and Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh wrote for them, and created a new Iranian nationalism, which was founded on the idea of returning to the great pre-Islamic civilization of Iran. In fact, this culture was created through the rejection of Islamic values and the relegation of Arabs to a belligerent people who were to blame for our backwardness. At that time Iranians needed a new definition for their identity, and this is how the intellectuals provided it. In turn, this newly-created definition of identity fed into Iranian nationalism. The seed that was sown then has remained within our society — and it can even be said to be regenerating itself now.

Sadegh Hedayat wrote that the Iranian race was a continuation of the Iranian nationalism narrative. In recent times perhaps many of our intellectuals have not directly engaged in discussion about Arab-phobia and the superiority of the Iranian race — but in practice they have sanctified Iranian nationalism and have taken a one-sided view of Iranian nationalism without a critical approach. As a result, our society is at a dead end, a dead end in which people cannot view the world with values free of discrimination. This worldview divides the world into two —those who are inferior and those who are superior. This is how the relationships are shaped. This is a discussion about pathology and unfortunately our intellectuals do not conduct such a discussion.


What role have Iranian statesmen played in this?

The position of Iranian statesmen has been very paradoxical. On one hand they champion equality and unity for the Islamic nation. On the other hand, when an incident such as this [the tragic loss of life in Mina near Mecca] occurs, government propaganda targets the whole of Saudi Arabian society. Besides, it seems that attempts to remove Iranian nationalism and its magnificent history from textbooks have led to a negative reaction among young people, which in turn drives them to a blind nationalism.

Extreme nationalism, which we sometimes see among young people or other groups, is an answer to an Islamism that rejects nationalism and humiliates it. It manifests itself when there is a tragic event like Mecca. This can happen anywhere in the world and undoubtedly someone is to blame, but it has nothing to do with being an Arab. Those who were responsible for securing the safety of the people attending the event — not a society, a race or a nation — are to blame. 


Related articles:

Afghan Children Denied Education

Afghan Workers are Scapegoats For Iran’s Poor Economy


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