Iranian Identity, the 'Aryan Race,' and Jake Gyllenhaal
by REZA ZIA-EBRAHIMI in London
06 Aug 2010 13:34
Troubling echoes in adherence to Hollywood vision of the past.[ comment ] Everybody has heard about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the recent Walt Disney blockbuster featuring Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of...a prince of Persia. That a rather fair actor with Swedish and Ashkenazi heritage plays the lead role in a story set in ancient Iran caused a minor controversy. Some enlightened people believe that Hollywood missed an opportunity to transcend its stereotypical depictions of non-Europeans, particularly Middle Easterners, by offering the part to a brownish hero. Of course, in private discussions, many Iranians, always prompt to portray themselves as "Aryans," concurred that Gyllenhaal accurately embodies how their ancestors must have looked, before Arabs invaded and imposed both their religion and complexion at the point of the sword.
So far, nothing unusual. What is surprising and alarming, however, is that serious intellectuals condoned these views. Asked to comment on producer Jerry Bruckheimer's declaration to The Times of London that many Iranians were "blond and blue-eyed" until "the Turks kinda changed everything," American-Iranian author Reza Aslan asserted that, indeed, Iranians were Aryans. "If we went back in time 1,700 years to the mythological era," Aslan said, "all Iranians would look like Jake Gyllenhaal." This pronouncement highlights the resilience of what I call the "Aryan syndrome" in modern Iran. A historical detour is necessary to show why it is so problematic.
Aryanism is a system of thought born in early-nineteenth-century Europe that divides mankind into different "races." It deems the Aryan race to be "superior," more creative and morally upright than "inferior" races. Those Semites, "Negroes," and others were believed to be characterized by vicious simplicity, cupidity, treacherousness, and an incapacity to grasp metaphysics. It all started soon after Sir William Jones discovered in 1786 that Sanskrit and Persian were related to Latin and Greek, within what later came to be called the Indo-European family of languages.
The term "Aryan" itself is a neologism coined by a French Orientalist of the era, Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron. It is synonymous with "Indo-European," although the latter has a more geographic connotation. In a Zeitgeist where nations and national cultures were given shape, where myths of genealogy were particularly appealing to intellectuals, and where some were grappling with the moral dilemma of colonizing people in far-off lands, Jones's linguistic theory was swiftly manipulated into a racial one -- linguistic similarity was assumed to denote racial kinship.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Aryanism was wrapped into the discourse of science. Racial anthropology came into being as a discipline claiming to classify humans into different racial categories with immutable psychological features by measuring noses, skulls, and ears. As we know all too well, Aryanists, in particular one Adolf Hitler, became increasingly obsessed with racial purity and elevated the opposition between Aryan and Semite to the level of paradigmatic antagonism. This opened the way for the next stage: extermination. Aryanism provided the ideological backbone for Nazi atrocities.
Today, talk of the "Aryan race" in the West is restricted to white supremacist circles in North America and neo-Nazi militants in Europe. The very concept of "race," although it is still used in political discourses, especially in the United States, is scientifically bankrupt. Leading scientific associations assert that genetic variations between human groups are so gradual that drawing lines is inevitably an arbitrary and subjective exercise. "Indo-European" today refers to languages, not to people, let alone people supposed to assume inherent characteristics. Even its now limited use has been questioned. According to prominent linguists such as Merritt Ruhlen and the late Joseph Greenberg, the theory which holds that Indo-European languages are unrelated to other language groups such as the "Semitic" is overstated, if not outright fictitious.
Despite the rather inglorious legacy of Aryanism, many Iranians still nonchalantly seize every opportunity to emphasize their "Aryanness." But how did Aryanism reach Iran in the first place? Iranian Aryanists would have us believe that we have referred to ourselves as ariya since time immemorial, and that this epithet is a racial one, used to distinguish those who are ariya from those who are not. The claim is fallacious. The term occurs only a handful of times in ancient inscriptions in the Avesta, and on the bas-reliefs of Naqsh-e Rostam and Bisotun. Absolutely no consistent meaning can be derived from these occurrences.
In spite of many attempts to force ariya into Aryanist assumptions, recent scholarship -- in particular the work of Gherardo Gnoli -- has shown that ariya was not quite a racial category. According to Gnoli, in Achaemenid times, ariya was a cultural and religious term to evoke the kings' origin, like a title of particular nobility. In its very restricted, exclusivist nature, that is quite different from a racial category. Moreover, as already mentioned, the term "Aryan" was coined by Anquetil-Duperron. The neologism is charged with modern and romantic European conceptions of "race" that did not exist in Eastern antiquity. Even more importantly, in the entire corpus of Persian literature, verse and prose, there is no reference to an Aryan race until the twentieth century.
A related myth is the one according to which "Iran" means the "land of Aryans." This myth was propagated by Max Müller, who claimed in 1862 that the term airyanem vaejah found in the Avesta is the ancestor of "Iran" and means the "Aryan expanse." This myth became so widespread that serious scholars propagate it even to this day. Suffice it to look at a dictionary.
By contrast, Gnoli contends that airyanem vaejah is not a historical land, but a legendary, cosmogonic concept in Zoroastrianism. Additionally, the "land of Aryans" would suppose that the inhabitants of the Achaemenid or Sasanian empires were racially conscious in a manner similar to nineteenth-century Europeans. This is of course highly unlikely, particularly given that the Iranian plateau already -- as it has ever since -- featured a complex mix of populations. Out of 30,000 tablets excavated in Persepolis, not one was written in Persian (most are in Elamite, and a few are in Aramean). In fact, the empire was a melting pot. To imagine that its inhabitants believed that a territory must belong to one people is an anachronistic projection of modern ideas onto the distant past. The presence of Arabs on the Iranian plateau and Iranians in the Arabian Peninsula is also attested, but somehow ignored by the prophets of Aryanism.
The now ubiquitous concept of the "Aryan race" first appeared in Iran in the 1890s. Mirza Agha Khan Kermani, one of the ideologues of a particularly bigoted version of Iranian nationalism, was the first to ever refer to it in writing. Interestingly, he spelled it àriyàn (آریان), a transliteration of the French aryen. Later, Sadegh Rezazadeh Shafagh came up with àriyàyi, the term now usually used in Persian. Hasan Priniya dwelt upon Aryans and the "science of race" in the textbooks he wrote for the first cohort of children to be mass schooled by the Pahlavi state in the 1930s.
By that point, the strange idea of Iranian-German racial brotherhood had already appeared in various writings, such as a poem dedicated to "Germania" by Vahid Dastgerdi during World War I. After the Nazis took power, the notion was actively disseminated by the German propaganda machine. The hugely popular journal Nàmeh-ye Iràn Bàstàn, the Persian-language broadcasts of Radio Berlin, the publications and lecture tours of the Deutsch-Persische Gesellschaft, and the holdings of the German Scientific Library all promoted the idea of Aryan brotherhood, as Germany sought to convince Iranians to supporting her cause against the "ugly fox" (Great Britain) and "deceitful bear" (the Soviet Union). It all worked very well. Observe how the German football team is even now welcomed in Iran, occasionally with enthusiastic collective Nazi salutes.
Why is Aryanism in Iran so resilient? Why has it never been questioned, criticized, or reevaluated? In my view, late-nineteenth-century Iran was a receptive environment for Aryanism, which came to play a crucial role in the definition of modern Iranian identity. In the nineteenth century, Qajar Iran had come into contact with Europe. This was no smooth encounter, as it first came through the defeats of the Russo-Persian wars. The Qajar elites were profoundly traumatized by the discovery of Europe's advances and Iran's backwardness. Iranian intellectuals spent decades attempting to make sense of the nation's decay.
Around the 1860s, a few intellectuals such as Mirza Fath'ali Akhundzadeh and Mirza Agha Khan Kermani pioneered a digestible and reassuring narrative, staggering in its simplicity: pre-Islamic Iran was a utopia of glory, power, refinement, and prosperity. The causes of the end of this magnificent past were to be laid entirely at the doorstep of the Arabs and their religion, Islam. Since the advent of Islam, Iranians had been miserable. If only Arabs had not brought Islam to Iran, the country would be as advanced, if not more, than France and England. The solution? Uprooting anything perceived to be "Arabic" or "Islamic" in Iranian customs and beliefs, including the alphabet, loanwords, and all religious practices. Such a project, which these intellectuals sincerely believed to be achievable, would overnight return Iran to its ancient glories. They entirely overlooked Iran's recent achievements -- of which there were more than a few -- but all this was, of course, designed to avoid examination of the nation's own shortcomings. Nationalism always needs scapegoats to protect the pristine nature of the "homeland" and its "true" people.
This was the context in which Iranian intellectuals heard, or rather read in Orientalist literature, that Iranians were members of that same superior race as Europeans. Aryanism was for them manna from heaven. It suddenly -- and, it should be added, unexpectedly -- provided them an attractive means to consolidate their fanciful theories. It is fascinating how deeply compatible Aryanism was with the emerging nationalist discourse: the opposition between Iranian and Arab fit squarely into the Aryan vs. Semite paradigm. It also came from Europe. How could the celebrated, emulated Europeans be wrong? Iranians' pride, seriously wounded by the encounter with Europe, could be assuaged with the conviction that they shared in the Europeans' racial superiority. No surprise that they adhered so tightly to the myth of the Aryan race.
Two strategies are served by this adherence. I call the first one self-Orientalization. This is a commitment to all European prejudices that regard Muslims, or generally the people of the East, as backward. The Iranian Aryan espouses these prejudices (which, in fact, also target him) and simply considers himself to be the Aryan exception. Self-Orientalization always involves an element of shame over traditional Iranian customs and features. This is patent in the justification that Reza Shah Pahlavi provided when he rendered the European chapeau (bowler hat) compulsory in 1935: "All I am trying to do is for us to look like [the Europeans], so they would not laugh at us."
The second strategy is that of dislocation, the attempt to dislodge Iran from its Eastern and Islamic reality and force it into a European one, under the claim that Iranians are members of the European family gone astray in the backward Middle East. The dislocation mentality has very deep roots in the Iranian psyche, as it was incessantly promoted by the Pahlavi state through every vehicle of education and propaganda. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi himself was a militant of "dislocationism." He once told a journalist, for instance, "We are an Asian Aryan power whose mentality and philosophy are close to those of the European states, above all France." He confided to British Ambassador Anthony Parson that it was "an accident of history" that Iran found itself in the Middle East, a startling negation of the country's empirical reality.Not only is Aryanism a relic of nineteenth-century European thought with an ignominious legacy, but its Iranian variety is a symptom of an entrenched complex of inferiority, a desperate attempt to be something other than a "mere Iranian." This complex is rooted in a traumatic encounter with Europe that took place two centuries ago. It thus alarms me that to this very day, serious Iranian intellectuals tell a wide audience that "Iranians are Aryans." Moreover, the belief that Aryans are supposed to be "fair" is rooted in a hypothesis fashionable in the 1930s according to which the cradle of the Aryan race, its Urheimat, was the Scandinavian Peninsula. It was this "Northern Hypothesis" that was at work in Nazi Germany's depictions of Aryans as a glorious blond, blue-eyed race. It is unfortunate that when people claim that we once all looked like Jake Gyllenhaal, they do not realize that they are referring to relics of the sort of thought at work in the minds of Nazi ideologues. This only highlights the urgent need for Iranians to question their identity myths and get rid of the distortional, racialist, bigoted view of their identity that they have inherited from Old Europe.
Reza Zia-Ebrahimi teaches history and politics at the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics. This article is a condensed version of his study "Self-Orientalisation and Dislocation: The Uses and Abuses of the Aryan Discourse in Iran," to be published in the Journal of Iranian Studies in early 2011. Please refer to this publication for thorough referencing of quotations and documents.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau