UReCA: The NCHC Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity 2020 Edition
The Split and Alienation of Iranian-American Identity
The identity of a minority and immigrant population is one of deep struggle, inner conflict, and existential pain. Each community faces its own unique set of challenges that it can only overcome by coming to terms with its very real traumatic history, in hopes of one day moving towards advancement and change. The minority communities and settled immigrant populations of America, for the most part, have faced their oppressor and challenged them in one form or another. The shared experiences that minorities of the United States face, as marginalized peoples, is a point of solidarity among them, becoming a mobilizing and promising source of activism and movement. In his Prison Notebooks, the cultural theorist Antonio Gramsci acknowledged that “the starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is” – it is “’knowing thyself’ as a product of [all] the historical process[es] to date, which ha[ve] deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory” (Said 25). Of course, for post-colonial theorist Edward Said this inventory involves the acknowledgment of the ideological concept of Orientalism. Orientalism is the defining European ideological creation that dealt with the “otherness” of Eastern culture throughout colonial history. It is intrinsically tied to the imperialist societies that produced it, making it inherently political in nature. As a form of cultural imperialism, Orientalism frames the East and Eastern people as objects to be viewed from the white Western gaze. It is a deliberate mischaracterization of many cultures and peoples as an exercise in reaffirming Western identity and supremacy as the subject over the Orient, which all ties back to the colonial imagination. In this representational framework the East merely exists as a point of juxtaposition to the West, and thus people of the East cannot understand themselves, or their identities, without acknowledging and separating it from Orientalism. Thus, for a displaced and excluded community (like those subject to Orientalism), the source and point of growth for change and improvement starts from a holistic and true understanding of where they come from, and why they are here.
Finding the answers to your historical inventory has proved to be a successful technique for minority communities in their battles against oppression, and has encouraged activism, particularly in the African-American, Asian-American, and Native populations. However, the rise and formation of the Iranian American community, since the mid-twentieth century, is not like any other group. The nature of Iran, and not just Iranians “over the last two hundred years, is very much informed by [a] sense of displacement,” which stems from the unreconciled trauma of a history left unexplored and intrinsically defined by the oppression of self-inflicted Orientalism (Dabashi 5). This self inflicted Orientalism erased much of traditional and communal Iranian history and culture, yet most tragically, it created a split in the Iranian subject’s identity. This has caused a sense of misinformed and “misplaced memory,” almost a confusion, “about modern Iranian history” and culture; it is a “collectively repressed notion”, a facade that “allocat[ed Iranians] a spot in history where [we ultimately do] not belong” (Dabashi 5).
Part I: The Trauma and History of Self-Inflicted Orientalism in Iran
The misinformed and misplaced memory of the Iranian people towards their history, culture, and thus identity, emerged from their encounter with Western values of colonial modernity, and the Orientalism that came with it. No culture or history of the East has been spared of the wrath of Orientalism, as it was the means by which the imperialist policies and agenda of the West could control, define, and manage its colonies of the East. Said defines “the late eighteenth century as a very rough….starting point” of Orientalism (3). This specifically took form in Iran through the various colonial economic endeavors in the tea, spice, opium, and tobacco industries. As well as a long-standing competition amongst European rivals – Britain, France, and Russia – on who could first take over, or at least influence the Qajar rule. Yet, few things ultimately changed the actual culture and identity of the collective Iranian people, at least not until the Pahlavi dynasty and the rule of Reza Shah.
In terms of culture, “men make their own history” (Said 5). Both post-colonial thinkers – Edward Said and Rey Chow – assert that the history of the East is one made by both the Western invention of “Man”, as well as Orientalism, which both “rel[y]…. on the debasement and exclusion of others” in that very history (Chow 2). This man-made history has its extensions into cultural identities, which makes “the Orient a [constructed] idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary, that have given it a reality and presence in and for the West” (Said 5). Uniquely, this exact constructed idea of the Orient has been self-inflicted upon the Iranian people, causing a fragment within their shared historic identity and culture that had formed over thousands of years. The West strategically produced the entity of the Orient. But, the leaders of 20th-century Iran imposed that very entity upon their own people and defined a new traumatic identity through it. Since then, Orientalism has become a cultural fact for the Iranian people, of their own creation. Orientalism, as an ideology, was designed to restructure and authorize the Orient, for Europeans to gain legitimacy by contrasting themselves against the East. Yet, the modernization and concurrent Westernization that occurred in Iran during the early 20th-century, under Pahlavi rule, was a self-inflicted Orientalism that just like the European strategy, set to control the Iranian people and legitimize a new dynasty.
Prior to the beginnings of self-inflicted Orientalism, Iran was in substantial chaos and disarray as a result of colonial and local conflicts during the Qajar dynasty. The next dynasty – the Pahlavi’s – rose to power as a result of this chaos. The British-sponsored coup of 1921 that led to the Qajar demise and the subsequent ascension of the Pahlavi’s seemed inevitable, but its effect on Iranian culture was unexpected. The rule of Reza Shah was distinctly defined by his relationship with colonists and his view of the West. He came to power only by the united imperial support of British and Russian ministers and diplomats, so he owed his status and power to them. However, he never desired to carry this through – in his mind he owed them nothing. Reza Shah had a clear vision for Iran – he wanted to maintain de jure independence from colonial influence, while also lessening the de facto control that the West had on his country. He wanted to establish Iran as a renewed power in the Middle East, however, he believed that the true means of doing so was to beat the Europeans at their own game (of Orientalism). By restructuring Iranian culture and history according to European standards, he believed that Iran would be able to challenge the advances and assertions of colonial powers. He rationalized that if Iran transformed themselves in compliance with European values, images, and standards, they would be able to escape the oppressions of colonial and imperial strategies. Not only would he legitimize his own rule, but he would be able to legitimize his country in terms of the White European Gaze. While in theory this may have made sense, Reza Shah underestimated the pains and repercussions such an action might have, and how it would define the rest of Iranian history by a feeling of misplacement and duality – between Iranian and Persian, Eastern and Aryan, traditional and modern, Muslim and secular identities.
Ultimately, Reza Shah’s strategy did not work. His cultural reshaping of Iran neither asserted legitimization for him, nor did it save his country from imperialistic interventions. His forced abdication by the British and the later American-led coup of 1953 undermined all hopes of achieving Iranian sovereignty. In conjunction with these failures, throughout Reza Shah’s rule (1925-1945), a split occurred in Iranian identity and culture that was marked by the duality of our Muslim, ethnic, and traditionalist past contrasted with the imposed modernism, westernization, and secularist present. During this era, “Iran began to modernize and secularize politics, and the central government reasserted its authority over tribes and provinces” (Haghighat 93). A re-education of history was also imposed, where the new standard was “that the golden age of Iran is the pre-Islam[ic] era, and that the fall of [the] Sassanid system was the result of Arab invasion against Iran” (Haghighat 93). A further division was marked in Iranian culture and identity by the very colonial and Orientalist tactic that initially had harmed us, and this was done through the hegemonic reeducation of our history and culture. Iranians, who originally were an ethnically diverse population, became defined by their “Persian-ness”. A Persian identity that is tied to not only to our pre-Islamic past, but also to how the Europeans defined us. The word “Persian” comes from the name that Europeans had given us in “the medieval ages….derived from the Greek word ‘Persis’ (Haghighat 90). This Persian-ness is also distinctly tied to the Orientalist conception of us as Indo-Europeans, which was later re-asserted by the Pahlavi regime. We were told that we were distinct from our Arab, Turk, and Jewish counterparts in the region – the very same Arabs and Turks who destroyed our “pure” Iranian culture in the first place. This hegemonic reeducation echoes the racist and hateful ideology of the Nazis and isn’t far from it. Reza Shah, in the span of twenty years (which is short in comparison to the thousands of years of Iranian history), cut our ties to Islam, to our shared culture with neighboring nations, and most traumatically, to our own communal identity that took generations upon generations to form.
Part II: The Split in the Iranian Subject
The dissemination of European ideals and standards, along with the deceptive reeducation of Iranian history and culture created a gap in the long-standing collective Iranian identity – a split, not simply at the level of divisions within the population, but in a division within each modern Iranian individuals. As the European culture that had marginalized us gained legitimacy in our own eyes by contrasting itself against our deeply-rooted traditions and history, true Iranian culture deteriorated to the point at which a traumatic schism and split occurred in our shared identity. By banning the documentation and recognition of distinctly Middle-Eastern aspects of our culture and history – e.g. the use of camels, traditional clothing like chadors, community gatherings at masjids – the elites in power labeled what we had defined ourselves by for hundreds of years as “backwards” and “barbaric”. Instead, these long-standing shared representations and symbols of our identity had become replaced by Western alternatives – cars, suits, dresses, 9-to-5 jobs, and secularism. What occurred to traditional Iranian culture was similar to that which happened in Hong Kong during British occupation – by relegating the native culture to the sidelines, “rather than being erased”, their culture “became specialized and ghettoized” (Chow 12). Yet, what occurred in Iran is uniquely differentiated – rather than this ghettoization being brought upon the native peoples through an external imperialist force, it became imposed upon Iranians by their very own people and their own rulers who were meant to protect them rather than label them as “the other”.
Of course, there were also divisions within the population itself. The Pahlavi dynasty particularly focused on racial, ethnic, and cultural distinctions in order to “accentuate the…binaries of objectification” and Orientalism (Chow 2). The very ideology that cast “some humans…as objects, while” privileging “other humans” as “subjects” (Chow 2). As a result, Iranians were put in a precarious position. They could stay true to their traditions to be left as “objects” and “others” by their own nation, or they could modernize, in hopes of becoming a legitimate “subject”. Ultimately Iranians were forced to go with the latter of choices, as those in power determined so. Iranian society, just like any other in the West, had become “controlled, selected, organized, and redistributed according to a” set of hegemonic ideological policies and agendas (Haghighat 88). How this history led to the split in the Iranian subject’s identity was therefore quite inevitable. When one cannot reconcile with the traditions, values, and customs of its past, a gap is formed. When history does not match the future, and identity does not match the symbols of ideology, the subject is split by this very gap. This split in the Iranian subject is characterized by the erasure and subsequent self-internalized despise for its past, contrasted with the façade of its new identity. This duality of existence is ultimately what splits the subject to the point at which “it never quite becomes ‘itself’” (Haghighat 89). By erasing and restructuring Iranian culture and history, by inflicting Orientalism upon themselves, the identity of the Iranian subject has become “fragmented and decentered” (Haghighat 89).
The consequences of the fragmented identity, this split, are troubling and have disseminated throughout Iranian society. In the years following the schism of Iranian culture and the splitting of their collective identity, Iranians had become reshaped to be the “anomaly” of the Middle East. They characterized themselves by their distinctness as Indo-Europeans, their unique modernity, their European-influenced institutions and culture. The emergence of “a Westernized, middle-to-upper-middle class bred on American political theory, Parisian fashion, Italian cinema” was a source of pride, as well as the popularized new form of saying “thank you” – merci (from the French) – that took over “metropolitan Tehran” (Mostafi 682). Thus, through the restructuring of our culture and the erasure of our past, the new facade that was Iranian identity became defined by the same thing that defined our colonizers – Iran was legitimized by the very same “debasement and exclusion of others” that defines Western colonization. As this split took form in the identity of newer generations of Iranians, it became a sense of dislocation” that “assumed that their country has been dislodged from its rightful place, and thought that it has been geographically arrested in a place [the Middle East] where it should not be, that is should be somewhere [or something] else” (Dabashi 5). This dangerous split has, to a certain extent, been reconciled and dealt with in the years following the rule of Reza Shah and became exposed at the next turning point in Iranian history- the 1979 revolution – but almost in the opposite direction. Yet, for the Iranians who had moved from Iran (at this turning point) to America, this split has not been reconciled. Consequently, intensifying the sense of dislocation and the facade of Iranian identity as the new norm in the Iranian-American community.
Part III: The Alienation of the Iranian-American Community
As a result of this split in Iranian identity, the establishment of the Iranian-American community was quite a different event from the immigration of its Middle Eastern counterparts. Furthermore, unlike Arab-American immigrants and refugees, who came of modest and working-class backgrounds, the first and largest wave of Iranian-American immigrants were of affluent and upper-middle-class means, which had a great impact on the formation of the community. This wave of immigrants, who predominantly settled in “Southern California prior or soon after the Islamic Revolution”, were “products of the Pahlavi era” (Mostafi 683). While there is some variance between Iranian-American’s stories and experiences, we must acknowledge that the establishment which defined the course of the Iranian-American community in the following decades came from this distinct Pahlavi-era background. They were defined by being part of “the majority class in Iran who not only immigrated with the principles of Westernization, secularization…. and modernization but also with traditional “Persian” and anti-Islamic, therefore anti-Muslim, ideals” (Mostafi 683). As a result, the traumas of the split in identity that stemmed from those Orientalist principles of the Pahlavi-era, only seemed to intensify when Iranians moved to the United States, as identity (even a façade of one) is shaped and based on the relationship between the subject and the other. In Iran, the Pahlavi principles and creation of the facade of a new Iranian identity, established the place of new modernized Iranians as the subject, while the true past of their ancestors and the historically shared culture and values of their neighbors were characterized as “the other”. So, when Iranians moved to America, they had to confront the reality that on the macrocosmic global scale, and in the eyes of the White Gaze, they were no different from their other minority counterparts. The Pahlavi- era “Orientalists ha[d] told Iranians that they are Indo-European” that they are different from their Semitic counterparts, but their reality, particularly in America, is that “they are [from] the Middle East” and so no different from Arabs, Turks, Afghans and Jews (Dabashi 5). Once again, the facade created by the Pahlavi-era narrative and principles didn’t match with the lived experiences of Iranians, and in America, this deepened the gap and thus intensified the split in the Iranian subject’s identity. The Pahlavi-era Iranians, as they settled in the US, shaped their Iranian American identity and the principles of the community around this intensified split. The intensified split, on some level, sparked an obsessive desire to reinvigorate the Pahlavi-era facade of identity and principles into the newly-found community, in the hopes of being recognized as equals in terms of the White Gaze of the American subject.
From the outset, those who established the Iranian-American community made it their goal to distinguish ourselves from our minority counterparts, as well as those residing in our homeland. The Iranian community very soon and not coincidentally became the “Persian” community to illustrate an approachable, tamed, and Orientalized version of us that would not be confused with the “barbaric” and “Islamic” Iranians at home who protested against the US and the West. This “Persian” label has ultimately taken over every aspect of the Iranian-American community today so that we become (as the famous Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani puts it) associated with beautiful, exoticized objects like Persian cats, carpets, and poetry. This deeply rooted Pahlavi-era ideology is even present in educational spheres. The Farhang Foundation (a notable non-profit Iranian-American organization), as well as the UCI Jordan Center, concentrate their educational history programs on the pre-Islamic dynasties of Iran, which further places emphasis on a “Persian” and “secular” identity. The Pahlavi-era Iranian Americans had been able to spread their ideology through the use of various media forms, and early on, they recreated a “mainstream Iranian identity through the use of television media” as well as radio, and as a result, these Pahlavi-era Iranian-Americans have “become the main source of Iranian identity formation in the United States” (Mostafi 683). This illustrates the “influence the Pahlavi regime’s modernization” and hegemonic reeducation “campaign still has on Iranian immigrants” (Mostafi 693).
The influence that the Pahlavi-era reeducation has on Iranian-Americans has unsurprisingly given rise to the dissemination of racist views towards their minority counterparts. The older generation of Iranian-Americans believe in the absolute validity of racist distinctions and Orientalist divisions, “as if they were divine revelations” (Dabashi 5). Iranian-Americans “fiercely insist” and try their best to assert “that they are not Arabs, Indians, or Turks – yet they look very much like them and are often confused with them…,” which is a source of aggravation for the community (Dabashi 5). As a result, the Iranian- American community has gone to great lengths to isolate itself from other minority groups (who ultimately have more in common with them), in the name of assimilation and to become the subject according to the White Gaze. The popularization of racial slurs in the community has bred hostile divisions between Iranian Americans and other communities, as well as bitter rivalries. There is an intense level of anti Asian sentiments in the older, Pahlavi-era Iranian-Americans, who resent Asian-Americans for being viewed as the model minority, while we get lumped alongside Arabs and Muslims as “terrorists”, “trouble makers” and an array of negative stereotypes. This anti-Asian demeanor is made evident by the fact that the older Iranian-Americans almost always refer to Asians as “chesh-tang” which serves as a double entendre that translates to “narrow-eyed” and “jealous”(it is important to note that this racial slur is entirely an Iranian-American invention and has no-ties to native Iranian roots). These are only some examples of how the Iranian-American community has only deepened their split identity in the West. While other communities have been forced to reconcile with their colonial past in the face of racism and marginalization from the white establishment, the Iranian-American community has merely ignored it and instead opted to reinvigorate the very façade that is the source of their pain. Other communities, only by their reconciliation and self-realization of identity, have been able to bond together and support shared causes due to the shared marginalization they face. Yet the Iranian-American community, in the name of assimilation and acceptance in the eye of the White Gaze, has only alienated itself. Not only has it failed in becoming a legitimate subject, but has also detached itself further from its original identity and has alienated it from every other community in the United States.
Part IV: The Importance of Identity to Progress
The explanations that Orientalism and cultural critique give to the confused duality of Iranian-American identity helps retrace the very historical inventory that Gramsci claims defines us. It sets us face-to-face with the realities and the self-inflicted traumas that the Pahlavi-era ideologies imposed upon us, and thus reconnects the gap in our history that heals the split in the collective Iranian subject’s identity. Following Foucault’s theorization of the development of knowledge by way of ordering of things, Chow points out that political and cultural legitimacy is derived from, and is a part of “an ongoing imperialist agenda” to transform “the world into observable and hence manageable units” that are “seen as inseparable from the historical condition that repeatedly return the material benefits of such processes to European subjectivities” (Chow 2). When applying this analysis to the state of Iranian-American identity, it exposes the many issues and the truly tragic alienation that we experience as a result. The Iranian people had historically inflicted “the imperialist agenda” upon themselves for legitimacy, yet that ultimately did nothing but benefit the “material benefits” of the West. When those Iranians moved to the US, this act was repeated even more intensely, and once again did nothing but strengthen the division and distinction of Iranians against the white American establishment. While the Iranians in our homeland have been able to reconcile with that history through the harsh realities of living in a post-revolutionary Iran, Iranian-Americans have only deepened the pain of the split in their identity. This unreconciled gap that has led to the split of our identity characterizes Iranian-Americans with a sense of “historical [and cultural] misplacedness” and in a position of unique alienation from other minorities (Dabashi 5). Which not only isolates Iranian-Americans from having a place in American society, but also stops them from achieving any substantial change.
The history of minority-led movements in America like the Civil Rights Movement, the American Indian Movement, the BDS Movement, and various others are enough to exemplify the pivotal role of identity in activism. Haghighat defines “the notion of ‘social identity’….as the way that individuals label themselves as members of particular groups (e.g., nation, social class, subculture, ethnicity, gender, etc.)” (85). And these social identities are decided by the shared experiences and virtues these groups embody. In the post-Marxist critique and theory of Laclau and Mouffe, the importance of identity as a source of political change is emphasized. Laclau and Mouffe assert that social movements and change are not deterministic, unlike what Marxism claims, and particularly in our contemporary democratic society of today that is determined by neoliberalism. Social movement is a difficult project for the others of society to mobilize. Which is why the endeavor of creating substantial change is no longer a solitary endeavor of a community, but a unified discourse between social groups. Breaking down ideological and “hegemonic practices are important to Laclau and Mouffe’s political theory of discourse, as they are an exemplary form of political practice” (Haghighat 87). In the contemporary era, there is a requirement for a plurality of social actors to generate change, and this can only be done by creating a counter-hegemonic discourse “which involves the linking together of different identities and political forces into a common project” (Haghighat 87). This exemplifies how Laclau and Mouffe “place great importance on the subjectivity and agency” of social groups to collectively “develop their conception of discourse”, which can only be done by an importance place on shared and “liv[ed] out identities” by which multiple social groups can agree upon a new antagonism to resist against and change (Haghighat 100).
Marginalized communities within America and across regions have been able to employ the strategies of Laclau and Mouffe, to remobilize and generate change. For instance, the solidarity between the African-American Black Lives Matter movement alongside the Palestinian Lives Matter movement expressed a shared antagonism against policed states. The joining of the Muslim-American, African American, and Arab-American communities to support Palestine in the BDS movement expressed a shared antagonism against neo-colonial agendas. The shared identity of East Asians and South Asians in America as a collective Asian-American community strengthens them in numbers and enables them to support their communities with more funds and representation every time the Census comes around. Contrastingly, the alienation of the Iranian American community has stopped them from making any of these strides. A clear example of this being our constant struggle for representation in the US census. Middle Eastern people in the United States, since the early waves of immigration in the 1910s, have been classified as “white”. Amongst a large portion of the Arab-American community, as well as newer generations of Iranian-Americans, this is seen as a clear issue of visibility. Our communities don’t receive any funds, any form of affirmative action or representation because when it’s convenient to the US government we are “white”, yet in the daily lived realities of Islamaphobia and the historic racism we face, we are evidently not white. This has led to a wide push among Middle Eastern Americans, particularly of younger generations, to push for the addition of the MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) category to the Census to solve this issue. Yet, their failed attempts in both 2008 and 2018 can be attributed to the pushback by the older establishment of Iranian Americans who assert that we are “white” and that should never be grouped with Arabs. In recent years, the rise of a voice from a younger generation, via digital platforms like social media and the internet, have enabled new voices to enter the conversation of Iranian-American identity. Second-generation Iranian-Americans have been able to somewhat reconcile the split in their identity through the much more aggressive experiences of being seen as “the other” in a post-9/11, Iraq War, and Trump-era America. By rebelling against the mindset of their parents, and fully realizing their identity as Iranian-Americans, this younger generation can escape a lot of their historic pains through a newfound shared identity as a minority and proud “other” in America. And so, these younger generations are finding solidarity with their minority counterparts and have already started various campaigns on social media, a notable one being the “Write-in Iranian campaign” that encourages Iranian-Americans to write-in Iranian instead of ticking the “white” box on the 2020 Census. While there are promising changes to come from a younger generation of Iranian-Americans, the historic split in our collective Iranian identity is something that should be more seriously reconciled.
The story of Iranian-Americans is one of historical and cultural misplacedness and of a confused false identity. It is a story shaped by the distinct ideological hegemonies of both colonial Orientalism, as well as a tyrannically self-imposed one, characterizing the Iranian subject with a split between the contradictions of their past, with their present and future. Upon the new-encountered gaps in the West, the first Iranian communities experienced an even deeper split than before. It is an important fact that every relationship of ‘hegemony’ is necessarily an educational relationship” in “common sense” that leads to the consent of the masses (Gramsci 70). And so, the only way to overcome the split and bridge the gap of this educational relationship, is to embark in a process of “unlearning” of the hegemonic ideology of Orientalism, and to relearn our true history. Edward Said eloquently defines that his aim in Orientalism:
“is to illustrate the formidable structure of cultural domination [that is Orientalism] and, specifically for formerly colonized peoples, the dangers and temptations of employing this structure upon themselves or upon others” (Said 25).
Unfortunately, the Iranian peoples did end up employing those structures, both upon themselves and others. Historically, Iranians “so desperately tried to possess” Orientalist ideology “that it had turned around and possessed us – and we weren’t even aware” (Dabashi 5). Yet, through cultural critique and a deconstruction of our past, we can once again know our true selves by connecting the traces of our historical inventory that defines us. Iranians in the West “should be aware of their Iranian identity, Islamic culture, and modernity” in order to become a part of a collective identity as a minority in America to bring about substantial change and pull themselves out of their state of alienation (Haghighat 100). Most importantly, for us Iranians in the West, we must remember that being the “other” alongside many “others” isn’t so bad. It is ultimately that very subject, that we so desperately desire to be, that is rendered obsolete in discourses of progress and times of true change.