Western Persephobia: A Brief Overview​ and Possible Reasons for its Origins

July 2, 2019 by  

part one

Kaveh Farrokh, Sheda Vasseghi, & Javier Sánchez-Gracia

Professor Avram Noam Chomsky (political scientist, linguist, social critic and philosopher) noted in an interview on August 25, 2018 that the American “… hatred of Iran is such a deep-seated part of modern American culture. To eradicate it is going to be very hard.” This antipathy is defined as Persophobia (or anti-Iranism) which is prejudice, hostility, and animosity against (1) Iranians (2) the Persian language and wider Iranian culture and (3) the Persian (and wider Iranian) historical and cultural legacy in Islamic, Turkish, Arabian, European, Indian and Asian civilizations. There are plenty of examples of Persophobia or anti-Iranism in Western media outlets. These include Ann Coulter’s reference to Iranians as “ragheads (CNS News, Feb.13, 2006), with a cartoon by the Columbus Dispatch Newspaper (Sept.4, 2007) portraying the country of Iran as a sewer out of which emanate cockroaches (presumably Iranian people). This is surprisingly parallel to the Persophobic propaganda of the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein which referred to Iranians and Jews as being equivalent to flies. Several Western government officials have continually expressed profound Persophobic sentiments. What is of significance here is that this discourse makes no distinction between the people of Iran versus the pan-Islamist regime currently ensconced in Tehran. However, it would be mistaken to state that these types of statements solely emanate from the republican wing. It is notable that despite their sharp political differences on a variety of political, cultural and economic issues, Democrats and Republicans stand strongly in parallel with respect to Persophobia. For example, instead of specifically identifying the “Mullah regime” or “the Islamist regime”, politicians of both parties routinely direct their statements towards the country and people of Iran as a whole. One example is Debra Cagan (advisor to US President George Bush) who directly declared to British MPs that she “hates all Iranians” (Daily Mail, March 6, 2008). South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham stated on May 24, 2015 that “I met a lot of liars, and I know Iranians are liars…” and equated the Iranians with Nazis. More recently, Senator Graham expressed on Fox News TV that it would be “terrible” if a DNA test revealed him to have Iranian heritage. While the Senator’s office attempted to downplay the remarks, Western policy makers routinely pathologize Iranians at the DNA level.  Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute for example has stated: “The Iranians…have terrorism in their DNA”. James Stavritis, a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander wrote in the Foreign Policy news outlet in 2015 that Iranians are all endowed with imperialistic malfeasance which is “…woven into their national DNA and cultural outlook”. One can only imagine the political and human rights outcry, if “genetics” were being used as talking points by the same policy-makers, politicians and military leaders in reference to any other ethnic group. Almost certainly (and rightly) they would be censored by the mainstream media and then meted out the according punishment by the political and legal establishments. However, when it comes to Iranians, these same rules apparently do not apply at this time.  During the 2015 US presidential debates Hillary Clinton (Democrat) made very clear to her diverse (and Democratic) audience that “the Iranians” were her “enemies”. Again, Clinton made no distinction between the pan-Islamist government versus 80 million Iranian citizens as well as millions of these in the diaspora, including Iranian Americans. While several more examples of Persophobia by Western political outlets can be provided, it is remarkable that some Western policy makers have also advocated for the use of starvation and violence against ordinary Iranian citizenry, despite their lack of control over Tehran’s ruling theocratic establishment. Republican Illinois Senator Mark Kirk (in office 2010-2017) has stated for example that “It’s ok to take food out of the mouths of innocent Iranians” who have no ties with the Tehran regime, and has also advocated for the “ruin” and “pain” of the Iranian population.
Interestingly, Persophobia has also permeated into print literature, media and entertainment venues. While a virtual cornucopia of examples can be provided, note Jeffrey Ludwig’s essay in the American Thinker (November 10, 2014): “There is no … tradition of rationality in Iran.  They are a deeply disorganized, primitive people …  crude … devoid of … grace, love, faith, or hope. … Deception, glib talking, and sycophantic posturing … hatefulness, rage, and utterly evil intentions … is the Iranian norm.” Excepting extreme right-wing and white supremacist outlets, would such literature have been printed if this had been directed towards any other (non-Iranian) ethnic and religious groups? It would appear that when it comes to one singular group (Iranians), the machinations of human rights and political correctness in Western print outlets stand in abeyance.  Even the historical legacy of ancient Persia or Iran are not beyond the reach of Persophobia. It was in June 2008 when major Western media outlets such as Germany’s Der Spiegel Magazine and Britain’s Daily Telegraph (citing several prominent Western Iranian Studies academics), wrote very strong diatribes against Cyrus the Great (r. 559-530 BCE) and even criticized the entire Iranian populace for their appreciation of the ancient king’s legacy. Western entertainment outlets, especially the Hollywood movie industry, also regularly produce movies promoting Persophobia. While a full tabulation of these are beyond the scope of this paper, a notable example is the movie Not Without my Daughter (1991) (presented as a “true story”) which questions the very civility of Iranians. Not be to be outdone, the 300 fantasy movies (2007 and 2014) go as far as to portray Iranians as non-human – literally as mindless automaton-demonic beasts at the command of the whip. While its movie writers and producers will undoubtedly disagree, the 300 movies have been highly celebrated by extreme white supremacist and Eurocentric groups. One example is Italy’s apparently neo-fascist and ultra right-wing party, the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance). The Alleanza Nazionale has used imagery from the 300 movies for its official poster declaring: Difendi i Tuoi Valori la Tua Civilta’ il Tuo Quartiere [Defend your valour, your civilization and your quarter]. This example is no exception as neo-Nazi groups often use 300-movie imagery and scenery to produce internet YouTube videos promoting racialism and hate. Warnings of these dangerous activities have been raised by Germany’s Netz Gegen Nazis (Network against Nazis) news outlet which states the following: “Nazis interpret the film [the 300 movies] as a struggle of good, honorable and powerful Greeks against the wild Persian hordes. This is … reminiscent of … the struggle of “Aryans” against the “subhumans”. ” It is thus also ironic that the name Iran literally translates as “land/domain of the Aryans”. What it is clear is that the 300 movies have been highly successful in the portrayal of Iranians as “subhumans” and of course: the “Other”. 
Even fantasy/sci-fi movies and video games have embraced Persophobia. In the introductory scene of the 2014 remake of Robocop, US military robots are seen enforcing the military occupation of Tehran. There is also the video game “Battlefield 3” in which US forces inside Tehran are killing Iranians who are labelled as “Terrorists”. Another video game propelled by Perosphobia is “Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey” which targets ancient Iran (in the same manner as “۳۰۰”) and portrays Iranians as eternal enemies of the West. As noted already, would movies such as “Not Without my Daughter” or video games such as “Battlefield 3” have ever passed Western human rights and political correctness codes had these focused on any other (non-Iranian) ethnic group? In fact as reported by the National Interest journal (December 30, 2018) the Apple company removed a video game app portraying the Afghan Taliban as the enemy of the Americans due to concerns that this ”… targets people from a specific government or other real entity as the enemies in the context of the game”. Netflix also obliged, according to a report by The New York Post (January 1, 2019) by removing a TV program that was critical of Saudi Arabia. In contrast, no (Western) objections have been raised with respect to “targeting people” against either Battlefield 3, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, Netflix, nor any of the movies, etc. cited earlier. Why then is this Western double standard so strongly (and specifically) rooted against Iranians per se? Chomsky argues that this is based solely on the 1979 revolution. While Chomsky is partly correct, we argue that the reasons behind Persephobia are much more deep-rooted and complex, reaching much further back in time. 

Western Persophobia: When and Why
did this Begin?
What are the origins of Persophobia? Three general explanations have been proposed. The first traces Western Persephobia to the long-standing wars between Greco-Roman civilization and pre-Islamic Iran (Achaemenids, Parthians and Sassanians). This has been co-opted into the so-called “War of Civilizations” narrative that has allegedly existed between the “East” and “West” for thousands of years (see Farrokh & Sánchez-Gracia, Persian Heritage, 85, pp.12-14). This thesis argues that Iran has always been an implacable foe of the West since ancient times. This can be critically challenged on a number of levels, especially the fallacy that relations between the Iranian realm and the Greco-Roman world were solely characterized by war. Far less emphasized is the fact that the two realms were often also involved in several exchanges in the arts, architecture, philosophy, culinary arts, sciences and learning, etc. (Farrokh, Rivista Internazionale di Studi Culturali, Linguistici e Letterari, No.7, pp.64-124). The terms “West” and “East” are in themselves simplistic. If we are talking of the “West” in ancient times, Greco-Roman civilization was actually distinct from the “Barbarian” Celtic, Germanic and Dacian realms residing in Western, Central and Eastern Europe. While many contemporary European scholars, political and cultural figures may disagree, there have been significant cultural, linguistic and mythological links between Celts, Germanics, Dacians and pre-Islamic Iran/Persia (Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert, 2007, pages 170-175; Farrokh, 2018, Persian Heritage, 90, pp.28-30). Less known for example, is the fact that Ostrogothic king Witiges who felt threatened by the Romano-Byzantine Empire in actually sent embassies to Sassanian king Khosrow I in 538 or 539 CE. The myth of “Iran as eternal enemy of the West” becomes even weaker when one arrives into the Safavid Era (1501-1722/1736) of Iran. Few Westerners are aware that Europe and Iran were practically allies from the early 1500s to early 1700s against the threat of Islamic expansion into Europe by the Ottoman Empire, which was the seat of the Caliphate up to its dissolution in 1924. Examples documenting the Europe-Iran alliance are Shah Ismail’s letter (in Latin) to King Charles V (r. 1519 –۱۵۵۶) in 1523, a painting by Gabriele Caliari at the Museum of Palazzo Ducale, Venice illustrating the 89th Duke of Venice hosting ambassadors from Iran and the Cabinet des Estampes depiction of Iranian ambassador Reza Beg entering Paris alongside his cavalry escort carrying the traditional Lion-Sun flag motif to a warm welcome by the local French populace in 1715. Apart from select scholars, knowledge of this type of history remains virtually absent in Western historiography, movie entertainment and political outlets.
The second explanation (recall Chomsky) for the origins of Western Persophobia is traced to the political fallout resulting from the overthrow of the Pahlavi establishment by pan-Islamists in 1979. This thesis is based on the fallacy that Western relations with Pahlavi Iran were cordial and constructive up to the establishment of the Mullah system in 1979. There is however, plenty of evidence demonstrating that Western relations with Iran had been problematic with both Reza Shah and his son and successor Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Much like Ludwig discussed earlier, there are plenty of documented cases of Persophobia among high-ranking Western statesmen during the Pahlavi era (1925-1979). One example is seen in the posthumously published memoirs of British ambassador to Iran in 1939-1946, Sir Reader Bullard (1885-1976): “…Persians have so little moral courage… hopeless search for signs of nobility of character in the Persians… The Persians have most of the wickedness of the Germans, without their courage, ability and energy”. 
The differences between the Persophobia of Bullard and Ludwig are virtually negligible. Despite the late Shah’s status as a friend of the West, and a military ally of the West and the United States against Soviet Russia the mainstream media at the time, was less than favorable of not just the Shah, but even against Iran as a whole. News reports often criticized Iran’s efforts to strengthen its military capabilities against the former Soviet Union, whose imperial Czarist predecessor had already swallowed up Iranian territory in the Caucasus in the 19th century.
to be continued


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