Saturday, December 30, 2017

How the Aryan nonsense infects Persia

The past few days have seen protests in Iran.

@Ghasseminejad tweeted:  "Protestors in Iran: "We are Aryans! We don't worship the Arab [God]"
This is not the first time people have used this anti-Islam slogan. The Islamist regime has given birth to strong anti-Islam sentiments in Iran."
Where does this come from? Does it come from a historical consciousness of many centuries?

Simple answer: No!

Alex Shams explained back in 2012:

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.

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.

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.

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....
Believe it or not, a similar "Dravidian" ethnocentrism is creating trouble in India.  That is a political reason why Indian nationalists abhor the "Aryan Invasion/Migration" theory.   The other reason is that if one takes the content of the Veda seriously (and Hindu nationalists do), the 1500 BC date for the arrival of Aryans in India is way too late.  The Rg Vedic people were in India when the Saraswati flowed and supposedly the constellation that the Sun was in during the winter solstice in their period  is now about 70 days away from the solstice, which is about 5000 years ago (I say supposedly because this is something I should be able to check for myself, and I haven't so far.)