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 Azerbaijanis, 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.
Posted By Farzin Farzad
Posted Aug 11th, 2009