The ‘Arab Other’ in Iranian Mentality

ByMohammed Alsulami

The negative image of the ‘Arab Other’ or ‘Arabophobia’ emerged in recent centuries among a minority of otherwise enlightened Iranian thinkers, whose views are shaped by Western interpretations, leading them to blame Arabs for the failure of Iran compared to Western countries.
During the modern era, this thinking led some Iranian intellectuals to embrace Western nationalist ideals, which assert that the curbing of religion, as well as customs and traditions, is the primary reason for any nation’s decline.
As a result of this thinking, many Iranians in the last century embraced the ‘European Romanticism’ ideal, leading to an era of intellectual renaissance which was the origin of the Iranian nationalism that instilled a patriotic and xenophobic fervor for the supposed supremacy of Iranian ethnicity, culture, customs and superstitions and a consequent disdain for the perceived inferiority of others.
This supremacist nationalistic ideology led inevitably to a struggle between what its advocates view as the superior historic Iranian ethos and the inferior Arab and Islamic ‘Other’. Add to this that evaluating pre-Islamic Iran became possible only in the third period of the 19th century, at which stage Iranian intellectuals overlooked the western literary and intellectual products and began to realize that they owned a history that could form the foundation for their new nationalistic and intellectual orientations.
The Iranian intellectuals’ perceptions of their reactionary compatriots in comparison to the progress made by Europe in recent centuries led them to search for a glorious mythical past for Iran which would separate it from the country’s Islamic history, which they viewed in wholly negative terms. In the attempt to distance themselves and Iran from this history, they reached two conclusions; firstly, they blamed Islam, describing it as an inferior “Arab religion”, which, they asserted, had restricted Iranians from emancipating themselves from the burdens of ignorance and superstition. Secondly, they asserted, the illiteracy, which was widespread among Iranians for generations, had perpetuated this state of ignorance. To overcome these problems, some of these prominent intellectuals encouraged the Iranian people to replace Islam with contemporary ultra-nationalism and reconstruct the Farsi alphabet to make it easier for learners to master.
In other words, when analyzing the Iranian concepts of the ‘Self’ and ‘Other’ in recent history, in 19th and 20th centuries, we find that Arabs are depicted in terms of negative characteristics, with the Iranian nationalists of the 20th century (like their European counterparts) using culture, language, and history as ideological tools to construct a unilateral, supremacist modern national identity that depended frankly on secular nationalist and supremacist identity rather than an Islamic one. Moreover, (Aryan) racism and (Indo-European) linguicism were at the core of the state’s identity and had a significant impact through excluding non-Persian and non-Aryan groups from this perception of Iranian national identity.
In this context, we should mention that in the wake of WWII and the defeat of Nazism, nationalist history was largely neglected. The rejection of the myth of racial superiority led eugenicists and other racists to abandon their previous hostile rhetoric and to pursue more realistic and rational political ideologies, which had played little part in their evaluations before WWII. This re-evaluation influenced the chronicler ‘Zarrinkoob’ changing his ideological orientation and concerns, and led to a reduction in nationalist sentiments and historical revisionism in Iran.
It’s noteworthy that in historical terms, the populist movement between the 9th and 11th centuries was similar to the supremacist anti-Arab movement which emerged via Iranian nationalists in the modern age, which could be named “Modern Populism.” Most of the Iranian nationalists who engaged in the more recent anti-Arab movement ignored the problems and weak points that led to the toppling of the Sassanid Empire, as well as the pre-Islamic Conquests, in addition to ignoring the golden age of Islamic enlightenment, civilizational progress and world-changing scientific achievements, in which Iranian Muslim scholars played a prominent role.
Such defects in Iran’s intellectual identity may continue for decades to come because the country’s cultural and media products reinforce this supremacist thinking through movies, TV, literature, poetry, and etcetera. Without serious efforts to challenge this supremacist mindset and resolve this crisis, any efforts to educate younger generations away from this destructive worldview and to help them to understand their identity will face grave difficulties.
It should also be emphasized that not all Iranian writers employed this profoundly Orientalist anti-Arab and anti–Islamic narrative; on the contrary, some Iranian writers and intellectuals were scrupulously fair in their treatment of the region’s other peoples, avoiding offensive Orientalist depictions of the ‘Arab Other’ or efforts to denigrate Arab culture and customs. Unfortunately, however, these fair-minded individuals were a minority among an anti-Arab majority, particularly in the years when this ultra-nationalist worldview was most popular in Iran, and failed to strongly oppose or condemn the crude, negative images of the ‘Arab Other’ in Iranian art, literature, and culture, which have become widespread as a result.

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of The Arabain GCIS

Mohammed Alsulami
Mohammed Alsulami
Head of Rasanah: International Institute for Iranian Studies