The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism
Race and the Politics of Dislocation
Columbia University Press 2016
New Books in HistoryNew Books in Intellectual HistoryNew Books in Middle Eastern StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in PoliticsNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in World AffairsNew Books Network December 20, 2017 John Ghazvinian
Over the past century, virtually every Iranian—whether living in Iran or in the diaspora—has been exposed, to one degree or another, to certain commonly held nationalistic beliefs about what it means to be Iranian. These beliefs include the idea that Iranians are an “Aryan” race; that pre-Islamic Iran was a sort of golden age, marked by a glorious Persian Empire; and that this pure Iranian “soul” was subsequently “polluted” by the arrival of Arab culture, language and even religion in the seventh century.
As Reza Zia-Ebrahimi shows in his deftly argued new book, The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism: Race and the Politics of Dislocation (Columbia University Press, 2016), these nationalistic myths are largely a modern invention—a phenomenon he describes as “dislocative nationalism.” Following a “traumatic encounter with Europe” in the nineteenth century, Zia-Ebrahimi argues, Iranians were left searching for explanations for their perceived backwardness vis-a-vis western civilization. And the answer increasingly offered by modernist intellectuals was that the genius of Persian civilization had been degraded by the invasion of an alien other—in the form of Arabs and Islam. These ideas, which borrowed heavily from contemporary European racial thinking of the time, were adapted and hybridized by Iranian intellectuals keen to cast Persians as a master race, superior to the Semitic Arabs. And in the twentieth century, they were enthusiastically taken up by the Pahlavi state as part of its drive towards secularization and western-style modernity. Zia-Ebrahimi calls these ideas “dislocative” because they suggest—implicitly and sometimes explicitly—that Iran’s physical location, in the middle of a region dominated by Arabs and Islam, is a mere accident of geography, and that Iranians are actually Europeans manques. The persistence of such dislocative ideas about Iranian nationhood, which continue to animate much of the chauvinistic discourse indulged in by Iranians both sympathetic and antagonistic to the Islamic Republic, makes them ripe for critical enquiry, and Zia-Ebrahimi offers a long-overdue assessment of the phenomenon.