INTERVIEWER: Lisa A. Hamdoon, University of Toronto

Lisa: I have just finished reading your book, Iran and the Challenge of Diversity: Islamic Fundamentalism, Aryanist Racism, and Democratic Struggles, and must say, am quite impressed. I mean, this book is nothing like the others on Iran and the Middle East. In general, I never find the work coming out of Middle East departments to be critical. Is your work critical because you work outside conservative Mideast departments? Can you tell us what makes your book so different?

Alireza: Thank you Lisa. My work is critical for many reasons. First of all, I am deeply rooted in the critical tradition of social scientific research and consider myself and my work to be a part of this rich tradition. I have always valued critical thinking and reflection, and try to illustrate this through my work. Secondly, the environment is of course very important. If you work in environments that stifle critical reflection, if you work with individuals who do not know the first thing about critical thinking and freedom of expression, of course you won’t be able to produce critical work. If you work in the departments which still espouse positivistic research methodologies of the 1940s and 1950s, of course you won’t be able to do anything of significance. Such methodologies usually consider praising of the dominant order (e.g., patriarchy, racism, sexism, nationalism, nation-statism, the homeland, the nation, the ruler) as positive, impartial, and objective research; but when you critically engage issues of marginality, systemic oppression and exclusion, your work is considered to be “emotional,” “non-objective,” “non-scientific,” etc. Maybe that is why the Middle East departments in general are not able to produce critical work. Particularly, the work coming out of these departments on Iran is for the most part a regurgitation of Orientalist and Aryanist views on Iran’s history, culture, ethnography, anthropology, philology, antiquity, etc. With the exception of a few works, you don’t come across anything challenging, different and fresh.

Lisa: Is that why some of these academics show hostility toward critical work and critical thinkers such as yourself?

Alireza: Yes, that could be one of the reasons. We have to realize that most of these individuals have built reputations for themselves around a repetition and regurgitation of Orientalist views on Iran. So when someone like me comes along and says that, for instance, Iranian is not synonymous with Persian and that Persians are but one minority ethnic group in Iran, constituting about 36 percent of the total population, these folks get furious and start calling us names, this and that.

Lisa: Recently I came across a review of your book written by Dr Kaveh Farrokh and posted on a number of Iranian sites, including one titled “Aryamehr.” The reviewer labels your work as anti-Iran! How would you respond to this?

Alireza: These kinds of labels are normally used in dictatorial environments and by individuals with extremely undemocratic mindsets. Such labelling represents a very reactionary approach to any kind of text. What does it mean for a book to be anti-Iran? Imagine that you write a book criticizing the Canadian government’s approach to Aboriginal peoples, and then someone turns around and labels your work as anti-Canada! Or someone critiques the caste system in India and is labelled as anti-India! These are fascistic methods that are used to stifle free expression and to silence the voice of dissent. My work exposes the unbearable racism and Hitlerite Aryanism practised in Iran since 1925. In any racist situation, there are those who benefit from racism and there are those who suffer from it. Those who benefit from the existence of racism and systemic oppression in Iran label my work as anti-Iran. It is as simple as that. But they are in the minority. My work speaks to the suffering and marginalization of Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Baluchs, Lors, Bakhtyaris and other excluded groups such as women, workers, peasants, students and so forth. And these are the oppressed majority in Iran.

You have to realize that in all racist environments, the dominant group who benefits from racism comes to believe that it has the sole ownership over the entire country. Just as it seeks to define ‘the nation’ in terms of its own ethnicity and identity; so too it imposes its language on the entire population, masquerading it as the so-called “national language;” its history masquerades as “the national history,” its identity becomes the identity of all peoples living in that country. So if someone critiques the privileged position of this dominant group, that critique gets identified as a critique of the entire ‘nation’ and country. This exclusionary act in itself testifies to the existence of racism and systemic oppression in Iran. The way they try to intimidate us, to silence us by threatening to get us expelled from our jobs, all these McCarthyist methods show that we are dealing with very undemocratic and indeed fascistic mindsets. In my book I clearly show that this racism is not limited to the government in power but includes many writers and intellectuals from the dominant group as well. You say they identify my book as “anti-Iran” on a website called “Aryamehr.” You might be interested to know that “Aryamehr,” the site you say has published this review, in Persian means “the light of Aryans!” This title alone should suffice to expose the kind of ugly racism with which we are dealing here. So, is it any wonder that those glorifying “the light of Aryans” to call an anti-racist book “anti-Iran”?

Lisa: In addition to you, other authors and academics like Brenda Shaffer, Mehrdad Izadi, and Naser Pourpirar are also identified as “anti-Iran.” How would you comment on this?

Alireza: Brenda Shaffer wrote a wonderful book in 2002 titled "Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity." Through this work she studied, among other things, the impact of the independence of northern Azerbaijan on the processes of identity formation in southern or Iranian Azerbaijan. Brenda’s research showed that the independence of northern Azeris has a major influence on how Azeris of Iran (will) identify themselves. She reached a conclusion that contrary to the dominant perspective, Iranian Azeris view themselves as a distinct ethnic group within Iran. That is to say, they are cognizant of their distinct history, their language, their ethnicity, and their nationality; and they are aware of their differences with other ethnic groups such as the Persians, the Kurds, the Arabs, and so on. This was a sound scholarly observation that had been misrepresented by generations of Orientalist scholars. So when the book came out, these so-called scholars of Iranian studies started dismissing it, obviously not so much from a scholarly standpoint but for a variety of ideological reasons.

However, those of us who were active in the field knew very well that Brenda had hit the nail right on the head. Azerbaijanis were a divided nation and any development in one part of this nation would inevitably influence the other part. Now after five years since the publication of Brenda’s work, everybody can see how objective and accurate her study was; and how vacuous her attackers have been. All you have to do is take a look at what is going on in the streets of Tabriz, Urmiyeh, Aradabil, and Zanjan; see how hundreds of thousands of people came out on May 22 last year to reclaim their Azerbaijani and Turkic identity; take a look at the prisons in (south) Azerbaijan and you’ll see they are full of individuals identifying themselves as “hoviyyat-talab” (reclaimers of identity). Brenda Shaffer had hypothesized this situation several years ago, when the Azerbaijani movement in Iran was still quite invisible. If her book is not a scholarly work, then I wonder what a scholarly work is, filling of thousands of pages about Div-e Sepid, Ashkboos, Rostam-e Dastaan, and other mumbo-jumbo from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi? Or weaving colourful narratives about “Takht-e Jamshid” or Persepolis, an Orientalist constructed Achaemenid palace that now local Iranian historians, architects and engineers prove with certainty that never existed?

Lisa: Naser Pourpirar is also labelled as Anti-Iran. I noticed you reference him quite a bit in your book. What is his story?

Alireza: Naser Poorpirar (or Pourpirar) is a very intelligent historian, and a very complex character. I respect him for his originality and his independent research, but I don’t agree with his methodology and with some of his conclusions.

Lisa: How do you mean? Can you expand on it a bit more?

Alireza: You see, in my book I explore some aspects of an emergent anti-colonial and critical historiography in the region. In Africa, for example, we have T.O. Ranger who initiates over 40 years ago the importance of writing African history from an African standpoint, based on African epistemologies and methodologies. And in India, we have the Subaltern Studies Collective, a group of researchers and scholars who come together in early 1980s and begin writing a history of India and South Asia from the standpoint of the subaltern, the marginalized and excluded. This kind of historiography is not a top-down method of history writing; it is a bottom-up historiography. And this is a major departure from all sorts of elitist, ‘nationalist,’ Orientalist and colonialist historiography. Well, in Iran this historiography starts effectively with Naser Poorpirar. For the first time in Iran’s modern history, a local historian decides to take on the challenging task of re-examining a history written by foreign missionaries, travellers, priests, ambassadors, anthropologists, philologists, and historians. And this local historian is Naser Poorpirar. No one else has done this before him. In Iran he is the first to produce a local historiography by exposing misconceptions and misrepresentations inherent in the Orientalist historiography of Iran. He has done a great job in this field and he will be remembered because of this.

Lisa: What about the problematic area of his work that you mentioned?

Alireza: You might have noticed that my book starts with a mild criticism of Edward Said’s Orientalism. I critic Said for failing to properly discuss “Aryanism.” The reason for this is, in an Iranian context we are dealing with Aryanism more than anything else. As a matter of fact, in my book I show the evolution of this concept of “Aryan race” from its inception up to the emergence of fascism and Nazism in Europe. I show clearly in the book how Adolph Hitler’s definition of this term does not differ that much from its current definition in dominant Iranian literature. In an Iranian context then, we need an interrogation of this concept of ‘Aryanism’ more than any other term. Poorpirar does not do an effective job in this area. Aryanism, moreover, was a discourse constructed to reject Judaism, Semitic races and biblical religions. It was an anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish project from the very beginning. How can such a project be manufactured by the Jews? And herein lies a major contradiction in Poorpirar’s methodology.

Lisa: Is he saying Aryanism is constructed by the Jews?

Alireza: He does not discuss Aryanism per se. He tends to indicate that the current animosity among different ethnic groups in Iran and in the region is a result of historical Jewish conspiracy. Now the way I see it, there are several things wrong with this picture. To begin with, various non-Persian ethnic groups in Iran have no animosity against the dominant Persian group. All they want is to be treated equally as equal citizens of their country. It is only the elites of Persian group and their culture that constantly humiliate other groups as subhuman, lacking in culture, lacking in civilization, lacking in linguistic abilities, and so on. For instance, the Persian culture identifies Turks as donkeys (Tork-e khar); it identifies Arabs as dogs (Taazi), and so on and so forth. It bans the languages of non-Persian groups and seeks to supplant them by its own Farsi language. Obviously, here we are dealing with a racist and colonial condition in which one group dominates others. There is a huge power configuration and power imbalance at work here that Poorpirar’s conspiracy theory does not and cannot address.

Instead of focussing our attention on Persian racism and its elimination through our democratic anti-racist struggles, he wants to divert our attention to some historical wild goose chase regarding Purim, this and that. Now I have nothing against doing historical research; but I am against linking in a deterministic way the events of 2500 years ago to contemporary situations. Contemporary conditions require contemporary solutions. It is not a Jewish conspiracy that today the language of the Kurd, the Turk, the Arab, the Baluch, the Lor and the Turkmen is banned in Iran. It is a result of an 80-year-old racism. Of course, we should go back to history and try to see what has happened that we have ended up this way; we should try to analyze, if we can, the historical roots and causes of our contemporary problems. But this is different than getting ourselves stuck in the swamps of history. An engagement with history is useful insofar as it provides insights for our contemporary issues. Historicism, antiquarianism, and a superficial fascination with ancient history will not solve our contemporary problems.

The other loophole in Poorpirar’s conspiracy theory is the phenomenon of colonialism. For the most part, Aryanism and bio-genetic racism were discursive constructs to justify the colonization of other lands by white Europeans. The idea was that the white Nordic race was a superior race genetically, mentally, and culturally while other races were inferior and could not create higher civilizations, could not properly run their own affairs, could not manage their own resources. It was thus seen as a mission of the white Aryan race to colonize these supposedly inferior races and run their affairs for them. You cannot single out Iran, as Poorpirar does, and say that in the case of Iran it was a Jewish conspiracy to infiltrate Aryanism into the country, but in the case of India, for example, it was the work of British colonialism. This historical conspiracy theory does not hold much water.

Furthermore, if the current racism in Iran was a result of Jewish conspiracy, then the presumably anti-Zionist Islamic regime in Iran should have done away with this racism immediately after dethroning the shah and seizing the political power in 1979. But why didn’t they? Why doesn’t the current Islamic regime lift the ban on Non-Persian languages? Why does it not allow these languages to become languages of instruction, of schooling, of reading and writing for their speakers? Is this too a Jewish conspiracy? Is the current Islamic regime in Iran controlled by the Jews as well? The historical conspiracy theory is a ridiculous argument promoted particularly by the government of president Ahmadinejad and his fundamentalist supporters. Thinkers like Pourpirar, in order to survive and to write, capitalize on these foolish sentiments so that they may get some kind of immunity from Iran’s sensor and torture organizations.

Lisa: So why doesn’t the government do these things that you mention?

Alireza: Well, why didn’t the apartheid regime in South Africa relinquish its power and its racism willingly? Why does not any group benefiting from systemic racism denounce its power and give away its privileges willingly? Why does any dictatorial person or regime cling on to power till the last moment? It is about power and privilege and maintaining it forever. As I discuss in the book, Iranian racism is not limited to the government and state apparatuses. There are many intellectuals, academics, writers and thinkers outside the government circle that support this racism. You cannot identify a dozen Persian intellectuals who support the lifting of the ban on the use of non-Farsi languages, let alone fighting for the human rights of their oppressed countrymen! These members of the dominant group do not support the anti-racist struggle of non-Persian communities in Iran simply because they themselves benefit from the ongoing racism. They are not on the receiving end of racism and they benefit psychologically, materially and culturally from the smooth functioning of this racism. At this day and age one would expect that as intellectuals, writers and scholars they would start familiarizing themselves with their own privileged position, and would start interrogating such position. Unfortunately this has not happened in Iran. It has happened in India, in South Africa, and even in Euro-western contexts by interrogating notions of “whiteness” and “white privilege;” but not in Iran and amongst Persian intellectuals.

Lisa: In the book you talk of democratic struggles for a democratic Iran. How does your version of a democratic Iran look like?

Alireza: In order to answer your question, we have to ask another question: What should an Iranian version of democracy be based on? In my view, the first step should start from the acknowledgment that Iran is a diverse multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural society. Any democratic system should be based on a humane, fair and equitable management of this rich diversity in economic, linguistic, educational, political, and socio-cultural realms. This could be the real bases for a democratic Iran. How well prepared are Iranian intellectuals to come down off the clouds of abstraction and discuss democracy in the real society, among real communities of difference? Obviously, those exiles who have the ears of the White House and Hollywood and who are awaiting to bring back the monarchy through “the baby shah” are not even close to understanding democracy. Likewise, those who mistake democracy with Arab-bashing and Islamophobia, on the one hand, and a return to a supposedly golden era of “the Aryan race” of Cyrus and Darius and Xerxes have no idea about democracy. What I mean by democracy is a way of running the affairs of one’s community/society which is based on principles of human rights, equal access to resources, respect for difference, respect for freedom of expression, and more importantly, respect for the right for self determination of individuals, communities, and ethnicities. This right for self determination includes political, economic, cultural, and collective rights and freedoms at both individual and communal levels. This kind of democracy cannot be imposed either from above or outside. It has to be developed and implemented in accordance with the requirements of local conditions, local needs and demands of diverse communities.