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A “Persian” Iran?: Challenging the Aryan Myth and Persian Ethnocentrism

Over the next few months, Ajam Media Collective will host a series that focuses on and describes various elements of the cultural, ethnic and linguistic mosaic that we refer to collectively as Iran. This is Part 1 in that series.

I am often confronted by the question “Are you Iranian or Persian, and what’s the difference?” and it has become something of a bonding ritual among Iranians I know to discuss the various ways in which we answer that question. For many years, I answered that there existed little difference between the two besides a political connotation, “Persian” being the adjective of choice for those who avoided any connection to the Islamic Republic. Noted Iranian comedian Maz Jobrani, similarly, points to the historically alluring and exotic sound of “Persian,” as well as its connection to [Persian] cats and rugs, in order to explain why many people prefer to use this word instead of “Iranian.”

This worked pretty well for me until the day I met a young Iranian-American of mixed Azeri-Bakhtiari Iranian heritage. While flippantly describing us jointly as “Persian,” I was pointedly informed that besides the language she spoke and a mainstream Iranian culture we shared, there was not much “Persian” about her. I had been describing myself and other Iranian-Americans I knew as Persian not merely because it was convenient, but in fact because we were Iranians of Persian ethnicity. And this was the day I found out that Iran is not, in fact, a wholly “Persian” country, contrary to popular belief and the continued insistence of many Iranians.

In fact, Persians- here defined as those whose mother tongue is Persian and identify themselves as such- make up about 49% of Iran’s population, the rest being composed of Azeris, Arabs, Balochis, Kurds, Gilanis, Mazanderanis, Loris, Qashqais, Bakhtiaris, Armenians and a whole host of other ethnic groups who collectively identify as Iranians and speak the Persian language but but whose ethnic identity is other than Persian. In addition to these ethnic and linguistic minorities, there exists a host of religious minorities- Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews, Bahais, Zoroastrians, etc- who also fit across the ethnic mosaic described above, some identifying as Persians and others not.

On some level, I had always known Iran was not a “Persian” country. I grew up hearing jokes about “Turks”- meaning Iranians of Azeri extraction, sometimes called “Azeri Turks” because of their cultural and linguistic affinities to Turkey- and noticed that I could not always understand languages I heard spoken on Tehran streets. And yet, despite this, every journalist and every Iranian I knew insisted Iranians were Persians, in the process denying the existence of 51% of Iran’s population.

The injustice and absurdity of this denial finds its roots not just in ignorance but in the prevalent and virulent brand Persian racism rooted in mid-20th century Iranian nationalism that sought to wipe out our country’s ethnic diversity.The development of nation states around the world over the last two centuries has been accompanied by violent attempts to overlook or erase national diversity within the boundaries of the state. The natural diversity of human culture has been manipulated and condemned by state leaders and by politicians seeking re-election, narrowing the limits of belonging and attempting to draw lines to distinguish those who are a part of “us” and those who are “not.”

In the United States, Native American children were often forcibly removed from their parents and sent to boarding schools where they were forcibly given English names and could be beaten for speaking their own languages.

In countries like France this process has involved the development of a school system that brutally forced children with linguistic and cultural backgrounds other than proper [Parisian] French to assimilate and forget their languages or dialects; often, this was achieved by beating students who spoke their mother tongue at school and teaching them that it was worthless (history of French linguistic nationalism here). In places like Germany, meanwhile, territorial expansion into areas inhabited by German-speakers combined with physical extermination was used to rid the nation of religious minorities (like Jews and Catholics) and cultural minorities (like the Roma and Sinti) who seemed impossible to assimilate while uniting geographically disparate ethnic German communities (overview of those policies here).

The creation of nation states outside of Europe, a process facilitated through both colonialism as well as resistance to it, spread the development of exclusivist national projects globally. Iran has been no stranger to this process; indeed, the development of an Iranian national identity, under both the Pahlavi regime and the Islamic Republic, has involved controlling and marginalizing those who do not fit correctly within the normative construction of what it is to be “Iranian.”

The Pahlavi regime’s definition of Iranianness finds its roots in the construction of an exclusivist Iranian identity in the 1920’s and 30’s. The increasingly centralized and authoritarian state of Reza Shah Pahlavi sought to eliminate linguistic and cultural diversity by crafting a narrative of Persian Iranian history that went back nearly 2500 years that was united by the determination of the Persian people. This was of course an artificial history, just as nationalisms always are- both the Qajar and Safavid dynasties preceding the Pahlavi were Azeri Turkish, for example, and historically it was not ethnicity but ethnically neutral imperialism and the use of Persian language as a lingua franca that had brought together the incredibly diverse peoples populating the lands under control of the “Persian Empire.”

Reza Shah took his cue from the nationalist ideological currents sweeping Europe and Turkey, where colonial scholarship had long equated language with ethnicity as part of the efforts to understand the success of certain nation-states as compared to others. Aryanism was one of the most influential of these ideologies, and it identified the Indo-European language tree (which includes Sanskrit, Persian, and most European languages) as proof of a migration of an imagined Aryan nation out of India, through Persia, and into Europe. Aryanism was highly convenient for Europeans because it made sense of the Indian and Persian civilizations they were encountering through their colonial enterprises.

According to this theory, Europe represented the pinnacle of the racial hierarchy while Indian and Persian civilizations were mere steps on the way to contemporary greatness. Additionally, it distanced Europeans from the Semitic languages of the Jews and Arabs, offering a pseudo-scientific rationale for both racialist anti-Semitism and Orientalism.

Meyers Blitz-Lexikon (Leipzig, 1932) divides “Europäid” types into: Nordic race, Dinaric race, Mediterranean race, Alpine race, East Baltic race, Turks, Bedouins, and Afghans.

Meyers Blitz-Lexikon (Leipzig, 1932) divides “Europäid” types into: Nordic race, Dinaric race, Mediterranean race, Alpine race, East Baltic race, Turks, Bedouins, and Afghans.

Pleased to be offered a position just below his European masters on the ladder of civilizations, Reza Shah declared Iran a nation of “Aryans.” He subsequently banned the use of languages other than Persian in schools and written media more broadly. We all became Persian, and other languages became mere dialects not suitable for official use (especially non-Indo European tongues like Azeri Turkish and Semitic Arabic, but also Indo-European Kurdish).

On one hand, this form of nationalism allowed religious minorities that consider themselves Persians- like most Jews, Bahais, and atheists- to be a part of normative Iranianness, because being Iranian was defined by how Persian you are and thus offered a secular national identity for those 10% of Iranians who were not Shia to be a part of. On the other hand, however, this came at the expense of the 49% of Iranians who now had to either lose their heritage or exist silently at the margins.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi at the tomb of Cyrus the Great, a 2500-year old emperor known for his commitment to human rights who probably would not have liked the Shah, a tyrant known for a CIA-trained secret police.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi at the tomb of Cyrus the Great, a 2500-year old emperor known for his commitment to human rights who probably would not have liked the Shah, a tyrant known for a CIA-trained secret police.

Although his co-option of ancient Persian and Zoroastrian symbols in order to describe his rule was anachronistic and repulsive to some Iranians- many of whom scoffed at his references to Cyrus the Great and divine rule by using terms like, “universal ruler,” Shahanshah (“King of Kings”), and Aryamehr, (“light of the Aryans”) to describe himself- most Iranians eventually bought these racialist myths of Iranian-ness and the narrative became naturalized.

Even today it’s not uncommon to hear Iranians describe themselves as Aryans, usually when emphasizing their non-Arabness to white people and linking themselves to Europe (“Really, we are Aryans, our language is more similar to German than Arabic!”). Of course, these attempts are often received with awkward horror, the term “Aryan” having fallen out of usage following Adolf Hitler’s unfortunate decision to wholeheartedly adopt the Aryan theory as a rationale for genocide.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 dramatically shifted these meanings of Iranianness. Secular Persianness was replaced with religious Shianess; in the course of just a few years, the official way to be Iranian was by being an observant Shia Muslim and thus lost a great deal of its association with ethnic Persianness.

In contrast to Pahlavi Iranianness which excluded non-Persians, under the Islamic Republic all Shia Muslims regardless of ethnicity could be normative Iranian citizens, meaning that 90% of Iranians could potentially fit the new Iranian national identity.

However, religious minorities- including those who considered themselves Persian, like most Jews and Bahais- were no longer part of mainstream Iranianness, and secular or non-observant people of Shia Muslim background found themselves marginalized as well.

The Islamic Republic dealt with these in different ways: while seculars were to be forcibly assimilated as much as possible, Jews (and other non-Persian religious minorities, like Christians and Sunni Muslims) were to be respected as citizens with equal rights but slightly different status.

 President Ahmedinejad speaking Azeri to a crowd of Azeri Iranian supporters

Languages other than Persian rapidly entered the public sphere and print use of other languages was legalized. Despite this, the ethno-supremacist version of Persian-Iranian nationalism did not disappear overnight; even as ethnic minorities like Mir Hossein Mousavi (Azeri), Mehdi Karroubi (Lori), and Ayatollah Khamenei (Azeri) reached top political and religious posts, the war against (mostly Arab) Iraq ensured the longevity of Persian nationalism in the face of a virulently anti-Persian foe.

Persian ethnocentrism has remained an influential part of public discourse within Iran, and many Iranians outside of Iran as well cling to notions of Aryanism and Persianism deeply antithetical to an inclusive, egalitarian democratic future. In popular discourse these representations are rife, as the youtube videos above provide evidence of. Alireza Asgharzadeh’s book, “Iran and the Challenge of Diversity: Islamic Fundamentalism, Aryanist Racism, and Democratic Struggles,” tackles this discourse in depth, albeit with numerous methodological flaws (a shorter interview of his can be found here, while an extensive rebuttal to a number of his arguments and sources can be found here).

The 2006 riots in Iranian Azerbaijan highlighted the persistence of this racist discourse- and its linguistic roots- in public discourse. In May of that year a satirical cartoon was published depicted a boy speaking to a cockroach in Persian as the cockroach responded “What?” in Azeri.

An accompanying article pointed to the inability of cockroaches to understand reason and to the incomprehensibility and silliness of their own language, a provocation that led to riots across the majority-Azeri areas of Iran and left four dead. The cartoonist, an ethnic Azeri himself, was subsequently arrested and the newspaper shut down, but it can be surmised from the timing that the state’s reaction was to prevent more rioting, not tackle the prejudice at the heart of the issue.

In our struggle as Iranians both in Iran and the diaspora to develop a national identity that is religiously inclusive, we must not simultaneously build one that is ethnically and linguistically exclusive. Crafting an inclusive national identity by recognizing the historical marginalization and silencing of Iran’s minority languages must be a crucial part of our national struggle for freedom and equality.

Indeed, in a world full of exclusivist nation states and ethnic cleansings with the goal of “purifying” and homogenizing populations, Iran’s diversity stands out. We are a nation united not by ethnicity nor religion but by history and a shared, rich, diverse national culture.

Azeris protest for linguistic rights at a soccer game in Iran.

About Alex Shams

Alex Shams is bacheye Los Angeles, a fact he has spent years trying to deny but eventually learned to embrace. Raised in the diaspora but with as many summers as possible spent in Tehran, he first became interested in regional politics after being chased out of a history class debate at his evangelical middle school during the Iraq War. After a few years dividing his time between Beirut, Istanbul and, most recently, Boston, he is now working in journalism and is based out of Palestine. His interests include feminism, urbanism and Islamism in Iran and the Arab World. Follow him on twitter: @SeyyedReza He is a co-editor of Ajam Media Collective, a blog focused on Iran, Central Asia, and Diaspora societies and cultures.

Discussion

32 Responses to “A “Persian” Iran?: Challenging the Aryan Myth and Persian Ethnocentrism”

  1. This article is a real breath of fresh air. I am looking forward to the sequel.

    Posted by Professor François de Blois | May 20, 2012, 08:52
  2. It is very difficult to be religiously inclusive when in these days and times religions are not upholding the moral and ethical exclusivity that their good books universally demands. Secularism provides paints society with a very broad brush, and is therefore very inclusive. This is good in some ways but very bad in other ways. It is good in that it provides a compatible social/political matrix for humans to develop on what ever level they are on. It is bad in that being so inclusive has also given license to the most virulent and toxic social/political/economic/ human viciousness and catapulted them on to center stage of the main stream. Thus corrupting the both the impressionable youth and the both the body politic and the mystical body of religious idealism. I think the author’s thesis is well meaning. But let us not be unmindful of the human tendency to throw out the baby with the bath water.

    Posted by Shaykh Ali Abu-Talib Son Of AbdunNur | June 22, 2012, 07:55
  3. I really enjoyed this article. I’m half Persian/Assyrian myself and I had to explain to the Assyrian side of the family (who were offended and started lecturing me) that saying I was Persian instead of Iranian was not some sort of propaganda to avoid “middle-easternizing” myself. I’ve bookmarked your page for further articles as well as Ajam Media Collective. I can’t wait to read more in my spare time!

    Posted by Monika Phoenix | October 9, 2012, 02:34
  4. Irans name was Persia until the 20s century. So when you say I am Persian, it means you are from the country that is currently and incorrectly called Iran in the west. Being French does not mean you are ethnically white….

    Posted by ehsan shahos | November 5, 2012, 18:09
    • That’s not actually correct; “Iran” has been the name of the country and empire in the Persian language for many, many years. “Persia” is a derivation of Greek “Persis” which itself is a corruption of the Persian word “Pars,” so it is neither more correct nor less correct, it is just a different word.

      Being a French citizen does not mean you are white, you’re right. But in France there is one thing- French ethnicity- and another- French citizenship. The first is a white ethnicity, while the second is not an ethnic classification and a French citizen can be of any ethnic background. Anyone can go tomorrow and become a French citizen, but you cannot go become ethnically French just because you change your documents.

      Similarly, in Iran until 1935, one could be a citizen of “Persia” and not be of “Persian ethnicity” (as indeed, neither the Ghajar not the Safavid dynasties were Persian ethnicity, they were Persian by nationality and Azeri Turk by ethnicity and mother tongue). However, today in English, “Iranian” is the name of the Citizen while “Persian” is the dominant ethnic group among Iranians.

      This distinction exists in Persian language itself, between “Farsi” and “Irani,” though ethnic identification as “Farsi” is not particularly powerful since “Farsi” is the normative majority in Iran.

      Posted by Alex Shams (@seyyedreza) | November 5, 2012, 19:53
      • Iranians can be racist but not nearly as much as you guys are making it out to be. Most Iranians I know are pretty tolerant and friendly with all other peoples, and I cant tell you how many Iranian guys and girls I know who marry outside their race and the parents are okay with it.

        Also why do you not criticize people from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan etc from calling themselves “Arab” instead of strictly by their nationality?

        Posted by word | January 7, 2013, 14:47
      • It doesn’t sound like you read the article.

        No one is saying Iranians are a bunch of intolerant racists. The article is about an ideology of Persian racial supremacy that persists in Iranian discourse. My point is about how Persians looks down upon Iranians of other ethnicities, the fact that Iranians abroad marry outside of their race isn’t really relevant.

        I didn’t write about the countries you mention because this is a post and a blog about Iran and Central Asia. I also have no idea why I would criticize those people? Most of them are both Arab and of their specific nationality, I don’t see any thing to criticize.

        Posted by Alex Shams (@seyyedreza) | January 8, 2013, 11:00
      • In Iran itself everyone says they are “Irooni” I never heard anyone use “Farsi” as a personal identity word. Usually just refers to the Gulf and the language or other objects as an adjective. The people say they are Irooni.

        I will agree with you about the Aryan ranting. I always feel uncomfortable when I hear Iranians brag about being Aryan. First of all Aryan is not a race – it’s an ancient sanksrit / persian word for noble. Hitler misused the term. Second, the few times I heard Iranians rant about it to Americans I noticed they were very riled up and passionate and most ironic thing – the person ranting was very dark and Eastern looking, while bragging about his whiteness! Seemed like an odd complex, possibly due to insecurities.

        Posted by word | January 8, 2013, 23:34
      • While maybe you personally have never heard people identify as other than Iranian, the fact is that there are many Iranians who do identify along ethnic lines in addition to being Iranian- whether this is Azeri (Tork), Shomali, Arabi, Baluchi, Kordi, etc… or Fars Zaban/Farsi. There are 70 million+ Iranians, you can’t say that what you usually hear is absolute truth

        I still don’t think you read the article, since the roots of the “Aryan complex” are explained in the article!

        Posted by Alex Shams (@seyyedreza) | January 9, 2013, 02:55
    • Of course not!! Iran’s been Iran since the beginning, with the (mostly called by the Greek at first) second name of Persia (coming from the Pars peoples who made the Acheamenid empire later) which some times became more common to use throughout the History… Iran also means land of Aryans.Not to deny the facts mentioned in this article, but historically there were such peoples as Aryans migrating from possibly central Asia to India, Iran and Europe, who in Iran predominated most of the plateau, overcome or co-existed with the existing people of those areas and devided into 3 major groups of Maads, Pars and Parts etc. …

      Posted by mahtab | October 3, 2013, 22:44
  5. What are you talking about? Iran has been called Iran since the time of Sassanid (224AD-637AD) = “Iran-Shatr, Iran-shahr, Iran.. Iranians have always been refering to themselves as Irani atleast for the last 1900 years . Just because Greeks refered to us as Persics Persians(one tribe of ancient Iran) doesnt justify we follow. dont distort history pal , Raza Shah didnt change name he merely told foreigners to call us what we call ourselves. As Ferdowsi the great (I know ur type hates him) wrote a 1000 yrs ago;,

    Cho”Iran” mabashad taneh man mabad
    Bedin boomo barazan zendeh yek tan mabad

    Did he invent it too or Hitler was alive then ?..yes the term Iran in middle persian means “Ir” + “Ann” = “land of Aryans” but not as a racial term but a legacy of a noble culture.

    Be cool pal & cheers!!!

    Posted by sam | April 2, 2013, 20:46
  6. Changing “Persia” to “Iran” makes just as much sense as changing “Egypt” to “Misr”.

    Persia is the name that reflects the entire history and the rich legacy of this country from antiquity. On that account, I believe we should not change a country’s historical/international name to its local name.

    As far as the name of the language is concerned, it should be “Persian” NOT “farsi”, because the latter is an Arabic word. They don’t have “P” in Arabic. In India for instance, you have Parsi people.

    Posted by Knerik | June 5, 2013, 03:25
  7. The number of Iranian Sunnis are way more than 10%. 9-10% is what the regime of Iran acknowledges. 10% means less than 10 million, which is simply wrong considering the fact that most Kurds, virtually all Baloch, many Arabs in the south (Hormozgan province), a good number of Persians in the Fars province, the Turkoman, Talash and other groups are all Sunni.

    http://www.sonsofsunnah.com

    Posted by Sons of Sunnah | June 17, 2013, 02:54
  8. Interesting article, however I would like to clarify some things.

    When we look at most people groups, the most common tool we use to denote them is the language they speak. In our case, the term “Aryan” is applied to Iranic-Indian peoples due to the fact that their languages are within the Indo-Aryan language branch of the Indo-European language family. So you are correct in your claim that there exists a myth in that Aryaness is solely attributed to being Persian, which itself assumes a mythical superiority to other Iranic groups. However, this does not mean we should attach stigma to its use.

    The term Aryan itself is actually synonymous with the name Iran. The Old Persian word for the area that is today known as Iran and the peoples who migrated to it, was “aryana”, which in Middle Persian became “Eran or Eran-shahr”, and eventually “Iran” in Modern Persian. Basically what I am saying is we should treat the term the same way the terms “Latino” or “Celtic” are treated, to not denote racial superiority, but as an umbrella term to denote all people groups who descended from the ancient Aryans.

    One other point I’d like to make is that ethnic identity is usually attributed to the dominant culture/language of the region. Meaning, people will generally identify themselves more so with the dominant culture, which in this case is Persian. I’m not saying that the other non-Persian groups and their customs are not important, or not adhered to, but I am saying that most individuals, unless they live in those areas, tend to self-identify with the more prevalent culture.

    P.S.

    Bakhtiaris although a distinct tribal group, are technically considered as Persians due to 1. their tribal lands/migration routes lying within the area settled by the Pars tribe and 2. Their language (Lorish) being directly descended from Middle Persian/Pahlavi.

    Posted by haameed | June 21, 2013, 15:13
  9. I was born to Tabrizli parents in Tehran and live in LA right now. For the last 2,3 years I’ve been learning Az, and have been speaking it “dal-ba-dal” for the last few months. I write down her sayings like an apostel of a divine prophet. The solution to this ethnic diversity is a FEDERAL state, that will DECENTRALIZE the economy and let the Non-Farsi areas have some autonomy and enjoy education in their own languages. It’s much than Pan-Aryan/Persian/Turkist/Kurdist/Arabist non-sense that will lead to a bloody civil war and situation similar or even worse than Yugoslavia’s.
    Be Omide Hokumati Federal
    Har dil oz hormati var dir.

    Posted by zhubinzarindast@rocketmail.com | July 6, 2013, 17:00
  10. the author’s bio says it all :”After a few years dividing his time between Beirut, Istanbul and, most recently, Boston, is now based out of Palestine.” Another sorry excuse for a typical Iranian who has spent more time OUTSIDE of Iran rather than INSIDE the country, and who somehow becomes a genius at decoding everything Iranian and an EXPERT in all matters related to Iran….with a twist though….they only Iran these people know is through the eyes of their grandparents who more likely than not were devout muslims, hence the strong attachment to ANYTHING represented by Islam, i.e PALESTINE and ISLAMIC republic AND OPPOSE ANYTHING WHICH MAY SHAKE THAT FOUNDATION, THE STRONGEST BEING IRAN’S GLORIOUS CULTURE AND HISTORY…being proud of one’s culture and identity and being racist,or fascist are two very different things, and of course they label any one who opposes their views as such.

    Posted by Fereshteh | November 19, 2013, 14:02
  11. 60%-70% of Iran’s population are Persians.

    The author claims that only 49% are Persians, which is a lie.

    Posted by qabazard | November 24, 2013, 08:47
  12. “And this was the day I found out that Iran is not, in fact, a wholly “Persian” country, contrary to popular belief and the continued insistence of many Iranians”

    FINALLY SOMEBODY WHO UNDERSTANDS THE DIFFERENCE! Our problem is lack of Iranian unity imo. But brilliant article, thank you very much.

    Posted by Daniel h | March 14, 2014, 02:10
  13. Of course the greatest irony is that now it is better to say “Iranian” in Los Angeles instead of “Persian.”

    When Iranians first came to LA they said Persian to take off heat from the hostage crisis and look fancier.

    But a whole generation of youth have grown up in LA with these “Persians.” The people who use this term are Shahs of Sunset types. So now the new generation associates “Persian” with sleazy car salesmen, guys in clubs aggressively hitting on girls, and shady landlords. These guys gave “Persian” a bad connotation in Los Angeles. The average LA youth is too self-absorbed and ignorant to watch the news and know Iran is a rogue state, and they do not know Persians come from Iran. So if you say “Iranian” now, most people will not have the negative pre judgments that they will with “Persian.”

    Really ironic how that turned out.

    Posted by POASTER | July 2, 2014, 17:31

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