Overcoming the Arab-Persian divide: On bigotry and racism

Persian and Arab bourgeois nationalism has paved the way for racism and disregard of a rich and diverse common past.

The oil-rich Khuzestan province has attracted migrant workers from across Iran [Reuters]

“An Arab-Iranian poet and human rights activist, Hashem Shaabani,” according to a report published on Al Jazeera, “has been executed for being an ‘enemy of God’ and threatening national security”. The report further added that, “The Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal [had] found Shaabani and 13 other people guilty of ‘waging war on God’ and spreading ‘corruption on earth’.”

These are standard, now almost cliche, charges based on Shia jurisprudence that the judiciary branch of the Islamic Republic has regularly brought against people they consider a threat to their state security. In this particular case, Hashem Shaabani and his fellow defendants were charged with “separatist terrorism”. In a follow-up report, Huffington Post identified Shaabani as “a member of the Arabic-speaking Ahvazis ethnic minority”.

Labour migration and cosmopolitanism

Much confusion and disinformation cloud the circumstances in which such atrocious violations of civil liberties are perpetrated in Iran and much of its violent neighbourhood. I was born and raised in the city of Ahvaz. The term “Arabic-speaking Ahvazi ethnic minority” is a misnomer.

Ahvaz is a major cosmopolitan city in southern Iran, the capital of the oil-rich Khuzestan province, which has attracted labour migrants from all over the country. The nature of urbanisation and labour migration in Ahvaz and other major Iranian cities has created a mosaic of ethnicised communities brought together by the force and necessity of labour and not by the delusional fantasies of bourgeois nationalism of one sort or another.

My own father came to Ahvaz from Bushehr as a labourer for the Iranian national railroad and my mother’s family from Dezful. Neither of them were Arabs. From Azerbaijan and Khorasan in the north to Isfahan and Yazd in the centre and down to the coastal regions of the Gulf, labour migrants regularly come to Ahvaz in search of work. As the capital of Khuzestan, Ahvaz belongs to all of them, and as such the term “Arabic-speaking Ahvazis ethnic minority” is categorically flawed.

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While Ahvaz has a major Arab population, not all Ahvazis are Arabs, as indeed not all Tehranis are “Persians” or even Persian-speaking. A significant wave of labour migration to Tehran has been from Azerbaijan and they continue to speak their native Azeri language, as some Ahvazis who are Arabs speak Arabic.

All forms of manufactured ethnicised identities among the Iranian Arabs, Kurds, or Azeris categorically disregard the centrality of labour migration in the formation of cosmopolitan urbanism in cities extending from Ahvaz or Shiraz in the south to Tehran and Mashhad in the North. As in all its other fantasies, bourgeois nationalism uses, abuses and dispenses with labour when manufacturing its ideologies.

We don’t know whether or not Shaabani was indeed a separatist. However, separatist movements have existed not just among the Arab Iranians in Khuzestan province, but also among the Kurds in Kurdistan, Azeris in Azerbaijan, and Baluchis in Baluchestan. Before bourgeois nationalism gets hold of and abuses their legitimate causes, a sustained and horrid history of racism against these violently ethnicised communities has given them every legitimate reason to be separatist from the central government and at times even pick up arms to defend that cause.

Calling these separatists “terrorists” without ever addressing the institutionalised forms of racism against people around the country will not address, but in fact exacerbate the issue, as does disregarding their dire social and economic malaise to which the central government seems to be oblivious.

Bourgeois nationalism galore

Separatist sentiments around Iran rightly point to a sustained history of “Persian racism” against systematically ethnicised minorities. Persian racism against Arabs is echoed in Arab racism against Persians – a prolonged bourgeois binary that has dialectically sustained itself for generations of colonised minds mimicking European ethnic nationalism.

The history of both Persian and Arab bourgeois nationalism is solidly predicated on a sustained genealogy of racist bigotry, partaking in its European prototype.

The history of both Persian and Arab bourgeois nationalism is solidly predicated on a sustained genealogy of racist bigotry, partaking in its European prototype. Today the legitimate criticism of the Islamic republic easily degenerates into a nasty Islamophobia among a wide spectrum of Iranian bourgeois liberalism that fancies itself “secular”. There is a very brittle and porous line between that Islamophobia and a rabid anti-Arab racism, astonishingly shared by a significant portion of the selfsame constituency for whom a delusional notion of “Cyrus the Great” is the ahistorical panacea of an entire history of imperial nostalgia.

This racism is not limited to the history of Islamic republic and extends well into the Pahlavi period and before it to the Qajar dynasty, when leading Iranian intellectuals ranging from Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani coming down to Sadeq Hedayat, harboured the most pernicious anti-Arab racism. They categorically attributed what they thought was Iranian backwardness to Islam, Islam to Arabs, Arabs to fanaticism and stupidity and thus began ludicrously to celebrate a lopsided reading of the pre-Islamic Iranian history that was informed mostly by the figment of their perturbed imagination.

The feeling, alas, has been mutual. Arab bourgeois nationalism has reciprocated in kind. As Joseph Massad has demonstrated in his magnificent study of Arab sexuality, Desiring Arabs, the colonial construction of Arab modernity was very much predicated on the production of “the Persian” as a sexual pervert.

Even today a leading Arab scholar like Leila Ahmad in her classical study Woman and Gender in Islam considers the source of polygamy to have been the selfsame Persians. In other words, the construction of Arab Eurocentric modernity is yet to decide whether this “Persian” other is a model of sexual perversion for being homosexual or a philanderer, or evidently both, so much so that were it not for these Persians, Arabs would have presumably all been properly heterosexual and monogamous with corresponding Christian morality and Victorian ethics.

The height of this Arab-Persian binary was during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein had managed to recruit the leading Egyptian film-maker Salah Abu Seif to make a film about the Battle of al-Qadisiyya. The depiction of the decisive battle between the invading Muslim army and the Sassanid Empire was useful for his propaganda machinery mobilising Arab sentiments against Iranians. The full dimensions of the carnage that this bourgeois nationalism has wreaked on both sides of the divide is unfathomable. 

This is part one of Hamid Dabashi’s article. Part two will be published on April 21.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.