Conversation with Dr. Alireza Asgharzadeh about racism in Iran

Advocacy-Farzin Farzad: Earlier in my blog posts, I mentioned that I regretted not giving adequate coverage on civil rights and racism in Iran. Being that my own personal experiences are quite limited to the Persian community outside of Iran, I decided to go to an expert, if not the foremost expert on racism in Iran against Azerbaijani Turks, Dr. Alireza Asgharzadeh.

Dr. Asgharzadeh holds a holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and currently a faculty member in the Department of Sociology at York University, Toronto, Canada. His areas of concentration and research include Globalization, Iranian Studies, Middle Eastern Cultures and Societies, Social Theory, the Sociology of Education, and Social Inequality, among others. His work has been published in various journals, including: Middle East Review of International Affairs, Journal of Studies in International Education, Canadian and International Education, Language and Education, Journal of Educational Thought, Journal of Post-Colonial Education, Journal of African Studies, Anthropology and Education Quarterly. His most recent book is Iran and the Challenge of Diversity: Aryanist Racism, Islamic Fundamentalism, and Democratic Struggles (This happens to be the book that I mentioned earlier that I was reading. I highly suggest it). He is also co-author of Schooling and Difference in Africa: Democratic Challenges in a Contemporary Context, and co-editor of Diasporic Ruptures: Globality, Migrancy, and Expressions of Identity (in two volumes). I’ve had the pleasure to talk to Dr. Asgharzadeh a few times and must note that he is truly an inspiring person and one of the most brilliant people that I have had ever met. Since he currently teaches in Toronto, I couldn’t get a chance to do a video interview, however I was able to communicate with him through e-mail. Since it’s quite long, I’ve broken it down. Here’s part 1 of our interview:

Me: First, if you would please introduce yourself, your profession, work and your background.

Dr Asgharzadeh: Generally, I consider myself a universal subject who has multiple identities and occupies multiple social and geographical locations: a world citizen, a Canadian, an Azerbaijani, an Iranian, a Turk, an Azeri-Canadian… As a young student I participated in Iran’s 1978-79 revolution. This revolution did not only transform the socio-political order in the country (for better or worse), it also fundamentally changed the way members of my generation thought about a variety of social, political, and cultural issues. I was simply fascinated by how ordinary people could bring down the most powerful institutions like the monarchy and the state in a society. Hence my interest in politics, social sciences, philosophy, etc. I have been passionately pursuing these interests ever since, and more academically since my arrival in Canada, from the late 1980s. I have studied political science, philosophy and sociology throughout my mature life, and now am teaching different aspects of these subjects at York University and the University of Toronto.

Me: Dr. Asgharzadeh, please describe the nature of racism in Iran, its history and who it affects. Is racism in Iran an institution, or is it simply a societal flaw? Does racism serve as a tool of control?

Dr. Asgharzadeh: Well, in a nutshell, it all goes back to this Orientalist scholar named Sir William Jones and the observation that he made in 1786 regarding the affinity among various European languages, the Sanskrit and what he called in passing “the Old Persian.” In this brief speech to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Jones brought a fresh insight to the questions concerning the ancestral language of peoples of Europe and their original homeland, sparking a debate that eventually culminated in the creation of Comparative Linguistics and the Aryanist/Indo-Europeanist enterprise. This of course opened the floodgates for numerous European scholars, historians and philologists to try and establish a connection between White Europeans and the ancient East. Using mainly linguistic signs and traits, some of these scholars identified central Asia, some India, and some Iran as the original homeland of the white Nordic race, which later on came to be constructed as the infamous ‘Aryan race.’ A side from intellectual curiosity, the main objective for many Orientalists was to move ‘the white race’ as far away from Semitic races and Biblical traditions as possible. In Europe this enterprise reached its logical conclusion in fascism and Hitler’s Nazism. After Nazism, the Europeans became disillusioned with the entire enterprise of the so-called ‘Aryan race.’ Irrespective of this, the fascination with this illusory race continued in a different fashion in places like Iran and to some extent India, where certain groups saw an enormous opportunity in attaching themselves to this so-called ‘Aryan race’ and in identifying themselves as “Aryans.”

I should emphasize that William Jones and many of his contemporaries did not intend to purposely promote racism, anti-Semitism or fascism through their scholarship. They simply believed that they were engaged in scholarly research on Orient and the Orientals. The German scholar Max Muller had a major role in digging out the term “Arya” from ancient Sanskrit texts and redefining it, quite intentionally and erroneously, as a racial concept, as the name of a racial group. But he too came to his senses and quite vigorously repudiated this earlier conviction of his in 1888. Here is what he said in a book titled Biographies of words and the home of the Aryas:

“To me an ethnologist who speaks of Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar.” (1888, p. 120)

However, the Iranian elite, scholars and government were not ready to give up on this notion of “Aryan race” so easily, even after the fall of Nazism and Fascism in Europe. They built up on Max Muller and others’ earlier definitions and refashioned a definition of Arya as a purely racial group, building a whole new literature on “Aryan race” and how the true Iranians were carriers of this “superior race’s” not only language and culture but also genes and blood. This racist ideology, of course, had serious ramifications for Iran’s non-Persian and non-Indo-European communities, namely the Turks and the Semites (Arabs and Jews) along with others.

As you can imagine, this Iranian version of racialization was quite oxymoronic in the sense that in terms of skin color and physiology, the supposedly non-Aryan Turks and Semites had more resemblance to Hitler’s white-skinned, blue-eyed and blond-haired Aryans than the original Persians whom Hitler would probably classify under “the brown race” category. This simple discrepancy, however, did not stop our Persian Aryanists from advancing the strongest claims to “the superior Aryan race.” Logically, they didn’t (because they couldn’t) emphasize too heavily on “blood” and “skin color” the way Hitler did; they, however, placed a greater emphasis on “Persian language” and history–as if other people had no history and no language! In the Iranian reconstruction of Aryanist racism, then, the emphasis on “language” replaced the Nazist and Hitlerite emphasis on “blood” and “genes.”

In 1934, the Reza Shah government officially changed the name of the country from Mamalik-e Mahrouseh (protected countries) to Iran and defined it as “the land of Aryans.” Simultaneously the Persian ethnic group was singled out as the most authentic representative of these Aryans where the language of this group was seen as an Aryan- and hence superior- language, which was in turn translated into the banning of non-Persian languages from schools and government apparatuses. It is important to note that the term “Persia” was an Orientalist construct and has never been used by diverse ethnic groups to refer either to themselves or their country, neither historically nor currently.

In today’s Iran, just as throughout history, only the Persian ethnic group calls itself Persian. Irrespective of this, the Orientalist scholarship abroad still insists on calling all residents of Iran Persian, which is a clear case of epistemic violence against non-Persian communities. Anyway, this notion of fixed Aryan/Persian identity has been imposed on Iran with no consideration for diversity, social dynamism and historical evolution. This process still continues and the non-Persian communities are left with no choice except to adopt this “superior Aryan” identity by leaving behind their supposedly “savage and barbaric” heritage. This racism is reinforced through the education system, the media, as well as official and non-official literature produced in Persian language. In contemporary Iran then, Aryanism and Aryanization constitute the core of Iranian racism. We should also note that since 1979, Khomeinism and Shi’ist fundamentalism have been added to the existing Aryanist racism.

Me: Aside from the government, what kind of racism exists within Iranian society? You could use academic or anecdotal evidence.

Dr. Asgharzadeh: Basically, all sorts of racism(s) exist/s in this society, from systemic to individualistic, cultural, linguistic, internalized, scientific and academic. For instance, lately there has been a lot of fuss about this presumably marvellous Iranian biologist who has apparently done DNA testing in a British university on the Azeri Turks, the Anatolian Turks and the Persians and has “successfully proven” that the Azerbaijani-Turks are not genetically related to the Anatolian Turks but are (genetically) almost the same as the Aryan Persians! They have been talking about this for the past couple of years and we are all anxiously waiting to see when the results of these “path-breaking experiments” are going to be published and in what esteemed scientific journal! I for one, am very interested in seeing the kind of research methodology, the size of research population, and the kind of terminologies and their definitions (e.g., race, racism, etc) that are used by this brilliant scientist. As you can imagine, the dominant group in Iran constructs all these hyperbolic racist discourses to deny one basic human right to over 20 million Turks in Iran: Education in their own natural language.

Me: Many say that if Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is a reported Azeri, how can racism still exist in Iran? And the same could be said about Mir-Hussein Mousavi, the “unofficial leader” of current opposition movement in Iran, who happens to be an Azeri. How can you explain this?

Dr. Asgharzadeh: The supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s father was an Azeri from the city of Khameneh, but his mother is Persian and he himself was born in the Persian city of Mashhad. A few weeks ago, on the occasion of The Mother’s Day in Iran, a group of children and adolescents were visiting him. And in this visit he talked about his own childhood, his upbringing, and his parents, identifying his mother as a Persian and a “Hafez-Shenas” (someone well-versed in Hafez, the great Persian poet). So his mother tongue is Farsi but he has picked up some Azeri words from his Azerbaijani father which he occasionally blabbers–for the sheer purpose of demagoguery– when he visits Azerbaijani cities or when Azerbaijanis visit him. Interestingly enough, the leader of current opposition movement, Mir-Hussein Mousavi, too, is an Azeri-Turk, born in the Azerbaijani town of Khameneh and migrated with his family to the capital city of Tehran at the age of 12. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that, in the context of Iranian politics, ethnic lineage plays any role in disturbing Iran’s dominant national identity as modeled on the identity of the Persian ethnic group.

People like Mousavi and Khamenei are assimilated Azerbaijanis to whom the local Azeri vernacular refers as “Manqurt”: i.e., someone who has forsaken his/her own roots and embraced the identity of the dominant to the exclusion of his/her former identity. Put differently, a “Manqurt” is someone who assumes someone else’s identity and at the same time fights against the “former” community from which he or she has originally come. As such, it would be a mistake to presume that Mousavi’s ascendency to power will bring about any improvement in the condition of his Azerbaijani community, just as the role of Khamenei as the supreme leader has not done so. If anything, the dominant Persian group uses the examples of individuals like Khamenei and Mousavi to deny the existence of racial/ethnic discrimination in the country, employing these assimilated figures as decoys to masquerade its domination of non-Persian communities.

Conversely, the elite and assimilated members of non-Persian communities whole-heartedly support the dominant group and its racist/exclusionary policies vis-à-vis the marginalized communities. These “Manqurts” include elite members of parliament, heads of local and provincial apparatuses of government, mayors, governorates, university presidents, local educational authorities, heads of police stations and military units, and so on and so forth. In terms of representing the rights of local communities, the “Manqurts” not only fully support the repression of human/ethnic/linguistic rights of their community members, they even go farther than the central government’s oppressive policies in an attempt to show their loyalty to the state which in turn guarantees their positions of power and privilege. This process could be viewed in recent Iranian election, where the choice between the Persian candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Azeri candidate Mir-Hussein Mousavi, to Iran’s Azeri population was clearly a choice between Scylla and Charybdis.

Me: Does Racism exist among Iranians outside of Iran?

Dr. Asgharzadeh: Yes, it does and its degree depends on their socialization, their age, etc. Usually, it is not that prevalent among younger generations particularly if they grow up in multi-racial environments. However, it is more rampant among the older generation who has come with its cultural and linguistic baggage from the old country. Among members of this group- many of them highly educated- you’ll see a lot of references to Aryan race, Aryan blood, superior civilization, superior language, and that sort of things. Anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism and anti-Turkism are also very prevalent among them.

Particularly, in recent years we have witnessed the emergence in Iranian Diaspora of a group of hooligans and, if you will, intellectual thugs, who run around and blatantly attack whoever talks of Iran’s Azerbaijani or Turkic population, a population which numbers over 20 million. Whoever defends the rights of this particular community, even the scholars who do objective research on the situation of this community in Iran, and even those members of the community who self-identify as Azerbaijani-Turks are attacked by these racist thugs who, using various pseudonyms, label these individuals as “pan-Turkist” and so forth. In my book, Iran and the Challenge of Diversity, I have given some samples of racist literature produced in Iranian Diaspora.

Me: Let us turn to your book then. When was it written and what is it about? Can you explain its core arguments?

Dr. Asgharzadeh: My book Iran and the Challenge of Diversity: Aryanist Racism, Islamic Fundamentalism, and Democratic Struggles, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in the summer of 2007. Basically, the book explores a number of important questions such as: How is the racist order produced, maintained, and perpetuated in contemporary Iran? How do the acts of othering, misrepresentation, and racism take place through works of literature, history, religion, and other textual/discursive means? What role does language play throughout the processes of ‘otherization,’ foreignization, cultural annihilation, and assimilation in contemporary Iran? What are the ramifications of Aryanist racism for Iran’s non-Persian ethnic groups? How do the victims of this racism engage in acts of resistance against the ongoing racial/ethnic oppression? What role can the intellectuals, scholars, social activists, and the education system play in helping to eliminate racism in Iranian society?

The book, then, seeks to establish the existence of racism and its detrimental ramifications for social, political, economic, and educational developments in Iran. It examines the role of Europe, and the West in general, in the origination and development of modern racism in Iran. It also explores possible mechanisms, ways, and sites through which racism can be eliminated in Iran, for instance through empowering the marginalized languages; providing space for the expression of indigenous histories; reforming the education system, etc. In so doing, the book deconstructs the dominant Euro-centric ideas of nation, nationalism, nation-statism and Aryanism in an Iranian context. It implicates the dominant members of Farsi-speaking community in their capacity as writers, poets, and intellectuals in producing, reproducing, and maintaining unequal ethnic, cultural, and linguistic relations in the country. At the same time, it provides a space for marginalized communities in Iran to articulate their condition through their own voices, in their own languages, and by way of their own literatures, as opposed to being exclusively represented through the dominant Persian language and literature. It redefines and rearticulates the question of citizenship based on equal cultural, linguistic, and human rights of each citizen, each collectivity, and each community. This rearticulation challenges the dominant notion of citizenship, which has granted the ownership of the country to certain group(s) based on their ‘Aryan-ness.’

Me: What was some of the backlash you have received as a result of your work and your book? Have you yourself experienced any direct racism?

Dr. Asgharzadeh: Well, to expose Aryanist racism in Iran, to talk about ethnic, linguistic and cultural rights for the non-Persian communities, these are taboo topics among Iranians, regardless of whether they are inside Iran or in Iranian Diaspora outside, and regardless of whether they are a part of the current Islamic regime or a part of its opposition. This is an act of daring, a speaking of truth to power. And when you do that, the power reacts. This reaction takes many forms, from the blocking of your publications in Iran-related and Middle East-related academic journals to attacking you in conferences and seminars to threats of getting you expelled from your job and so on and so forth.

Recently a progressive Canada-based Persian newspaper named Shahrvand interviewed me on the events leading to the tenth election and its aftermath in Iran. In response to one of the questions, I compared the current political regime in Iran to the Apartheid system in South Africa and said that, in order to defeat the current fascistic regime in Iran, we Iranians could learn a lot from the struggle of South Africans as well as from the Civil Rights Movement in America. Soon after the interview was published, I received a threatening email from an “academic,” asking me, among other things, “How dare you compare the Aryan race of Iran to Black Africans?” The email concluded that if I had a single drop of Aryan blood in me, I wouldn’t disgrace “the Aryan nation of Iran” by suggesting that they should learn from “Black Africans.”

I suspect this email was coming from a group who has published a 300-plus page monologue to refute and reject my “false book.” Published on a well-known racist website, this monologue starts by an epigraph in Persian, depicting me as a “Mongol demon” with a Dracula face and long nails, “blood constantly dripping from his fingernails”… I think you can imagine how the rest of this brilliant critique unfolds. Suffice it to say that the only connection between my work and this “review” is my name that the anonymous authors remember to throw in every now and then. Other scholars such as Dr Reza Baraheni, Dr Brenda Shaffer, Dr Zia Sadrul-Ashrafi and courageous Azerbaijani human rights activists such as Ms. Fakhteh zamani have been regular victims of this group.

This group even managed to pressure the editors of “Ethnologue,” an international website pertaining to world’s languages, to reduce the size of Iran’s Azeri population from about 23.5 million to 11 million, and this, despite the warning that many scholars and human rights activists from the Azerbaijani community had given to the Ethnologue editors regarding this group. In an open letter to Ethnologue, these scholars complained about the aggressiveness of some ultra-nationalist Iranians abroad and expressed their hope “that the editors and researchers of Ethnologue will not cave in to various ultranationalist bullying, and will not allow Ethnologue’s scholarly reputation to be tarnished by ideologically motivated hyperboles.” Despite this, their prediction came through in Ethnologue’s latest issue: a whopping 12 million reduction in the number of Azeri-Turks in Iran!

Me: What in your opinion is the solution? Do you have any policy recommendations for government structure?

Dr. Asgharzadeh: I think we have to expose this racism and bring awareness to the world community about it, like the things that you guys are doing and ADAPP is doing. This is a first major step. In the course of recent elections, the government authorities emphatically made it clear that in the Islamic Republic of Iran “issues pertaining to ethnic minorities are considered a matter of national security” to the extent that even the regime’s own majles/parliament could not have any say on these issues. What this means is that in Iran, ethnic minority related issues are dealt with by the regime’s security agents. They are not even considered as normal social and political issues–let alone as human rights issues. Thus, we cannot expect much from the Islamic regime in this regard.

Me: What would Iran look like without racism?

Dr. Asgharzadeh: We have to remember that, what “blood” was for German Nazism, “language” is for Iranian racism. So I will leave you with this thought: when I see that millions of children belonging to Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Baluchi, Turkmen, Arab, Lur, Bakhtyari, Gilani and other communities have schools in their own languages, that will be a good sign towards the creation of an Iran without racism.

Me: Thank you very much Dr. Asgharzadeh. Your words have been insightful and inspiring.