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

October 11, 2019 by  

part Two – Kaveh Farrokh,، Sheda Vasseghi, & Javier Sánchez-Gracia

Iran was also acting in the Western interest as a bulwark against the Soviet Union’s potential threats to the security of the vital oil lanes of the Persian Gulf. The Western attitude would appear contradictory as their media would not criticize Iran’s militarily powerful neighbors in the region such as Turkey or even pro-Soviet Iraq which actually had more tanks than Iran. The Baathist regime of Iraq was not only ideologically founded on Persophobia but also had irredentist pan-Arabist claims on Iranian territory (see Farrokh, Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism, 2015, pp. 915-923). This was clearly demonstrated in the aftermath of the revolution in Iran which weakened the country’s military: Iraq took advantage of this by invading Iran in 1980, seeking to annex the latter’s Khuzestan province. No criticism was levied in the 1970s against Saudi Arabia for example, a country which remains as one of the world’s largest importers of Western military equipment. Neither was Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich Persian Gulf Arab states criticized by Western media and politicians for their despotic governments and poor human rights records. The same Western media were quick to criticize the Pahlavi political system for the costs of the 2500-year celebration of Iranian history in 1971. The same outlets also omitted mention that the majority of those costs actually went into the building of infrastructure such as roads, communications and accommodations for Iran’s hospitality industry. In sheer cost, the annual US Superbowl games are far costlier than the 1971 ​celebrations were in Iran. However more notable is that the same Western outlets criticizing Iran in the 1960s-1970s for corruption looked askance at the extravagance of Arabian oil-rich kingdoms such as Saudi Arabia, etc., even as millions of citizens in less affluent Arab countries suffered from abject poverty. More recent documents and publications now suggest that elements of Western governments supported leftist and Islamist political activists seeking to overthrow the Shah in the 1970s. While the reasons for this are varied and complex, it is possible that one of the ambitions of the West was the installation of a more “oil friendly” government, or as Dr. Shireen Hunter has characterized it, a “Mossadegh Light” system which would be more accommodating of Western petroleum interests than the Shah was by the mid-1970s. Whatever the specific causes, these few examples illustrate that Persophobia is not a recent phenomenon originating in 1979, nor can it be singularly traced to antiquity. 
We propose that a strong (third) factor in the origins of modern Western Persephobia may be traced to the last two centuries (from the early 1800s), a period coinciding with the British Empire. Much of what we see as modern-day Persophobia stems from this era. It is also during this time when we see the full blossoming of Europe’s age of enlightenment, during which the self-identification of northwest Europeans (the French and British in particular) with ancient Greece and Rome became well-established, along with their constructed view of the “eastern other”. This did not occur in isolation but very much in tandem with the rise and machinations of British and European imperial interests. From the outset of the establishment of their rule in India, the British attitude towards Iran was ambivalent at best, and unfavorable towards the Persian language in particular. The English Education Act of 1835 essentially banned the teaching of Persian in India and its official use in Indian courts. Up to this time, Indians of diverse backgrounds (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, etc.) were able to rely on Persian as a common Lingua Franca. Eliminating Persian was instrumental for the solidification of British rule over the Indian subcontinent. India’s large and diverse population was now also cut off from a wide swathe of Persian-speakers in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran. To further weaken the bonds between India’s Hindus, Muslim, Sikhs, etc. the British East Company also supported the promotion of extremist Islamist cults seeking to eliminate Persian and Indian cultural influences. 
The British policy of banning Persian as Lingua Franca in India parallel those of Imperial Russia which conquered Iranian territories in Caucasus and forced Iran to cede these losses in the Treaty of Turkmenchai (1828). Much like their British counterparts in India, the Russians then launched a powerful campaign to eliminate the Persian language and culture in the Caucasus (and Central Asia) in the 19th and early 20th centuries – with Persophobic policies continuing under the former Soviet Union. At present the Caucasian Republic of Azerbaijan (named as such in 1918) has continued Russia’s past policies of state-sponsored Persophobia. Put simply, Persian language and culture were considered as a threat to British (and Russian) imperial interests, as this could potentially serve as a (re)unifying factor against (British and Russian) domination. After a brief war, the British also forced Iran to sign away its possessions in the province of Herat and other territories in modern-day Afghanistan in the Treaty of Paris in 1857. 
As per Persian itself, a gradual “academic” process, driven by English thinkers and later imitated somewhat by the Soviets, was to rename various regional variations of Persian as “Farsi”, “Dari”, and “Tajiki”. Many Western media outlets and academics treat these as different languages even as all of these speakers are mutually intelligible. In contrast British and European scholars often use the term “Arabic” in the singular to refer speakers of this language from North Africa to Iraq. Even the Kurdish language family is considered by Western thinkers as a single language at this time, when in practice there are at least five different vernaculars, not all of which are mutually intelligible. In addition, Western outlets, especially the Media, make little or no mention of the fact that Kurdish vernaculars are West-Iranian languages akin to Persian, or that Kurds are close cultural and historical cousins of the Iranian family. Thus, even the contemporary classification of languages may be, at least in part, propelled by political considerations. Few are aware for example that the “Map of Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia (Ethnographical)” drafted by British cartographers of the Royal Geographical Society in London in 1906, just 9 years before World War One, was an attempt at providing an academic basis for a unified Kurdistan. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after that World War One, whole new countries were then invented by British (and to a lesser extent, the French) interests out of the carcass of the former Ottoman Empire.
Ruled by the essentially incompetent Qajar dynasty throughout the 19th and early part of the 20th century, Iran was, from the British point of view, not as interesting as India for colonization. Iran essentially was at best a bargaining chip and/or weak buffer state against Russian incursions towards India through Central Asia and Iran itself. Yet the question of whether Iran was to remain as a unified state fluctuated in the minds of British geopolitical designers who toyed with the idea of dismembering Iran. By June 23, 1908, after having tacitly (if not openly) supported the Russian bombardment of the Iranian parliament (West Asia’s first democracy), the British and Russians had in fact already agreed in 1907 to partition Iran into “Spheres of Influence” (British ascendant in the south, the Russians in the north – with a so-called “neutral zone” in between). A few years before, the British had signed agreement with Mozzafar e Din Shah on May 28, 1901 for rights to exploit the oil in Iran’s Khuzestan province, appears to be correlated with (subsequently to follow) additional Persophobic policies. Given the importance of oil, especially to the Royal Navy at the time, London initially supported an autonomous movement led by their patron the Iranian-Arab Sheikh Khazal in Iran’s southwest Khuzestan region. The British policy of supporting centrifugal forces in Iran soon shifted due to the threat of the Bolsheviks now ruling Russia. The British now supported Reza Shah’s campaigns to restore central government rule in Iran, including Khuzestan. Then Reza Shah himself was ousted by the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941. Following the Second World War and the rise of the Cold War with the Soviet bloc, the US became the geopolitical heir of their British predecessors with respect to Iran and the “Middle East” (a non-historical term invented in the 20th century for the rationalization of Anglo-Western interests – see Farrokh & Vasseghi, Persian Heritage, 88, pp.12-14). Iran was again a convenient buffer against Russia, now ruled by the Communists. But like the British, the Americans had an ambivalent attitude towards Iran during this time, as noted by a number of examples cited previously. 
The onset of the pan-Islamic theocracy in 1979 followed almost immediately by its anti-Western actions and propaganda may be viewed as a fourth factor in the evolution of Western Persephobia. This became especially pronounced by the leftist-led seizure of 52 American hostages in the US Embassy in Tehran. This event shocked not just the American public but, virtually overnight, transformed the country of Iran into an international outcast. American and international news media provided virtual non-stop reports of the 444-day hostage saga which did little to buttress the image of Iran and Iranians in Western (especially American) public and political outlets. Persophobic propaganda become mainstreamed in the Western news media, political and entertainment outlets. Despite the fact that the pan-Islamic theocracy now ruling Tehran viewed (and continues to view) the culture of Iran and (especially) its pre-Islamic legacy unfavorably, Western opinion (for the main part) continues to conflate the people of Iran and the ruling establishment as if they are the same: for example, instead of saying “The Mullahs”, or “Islamic regime” in reference to the ruling establishment, Western pundits’ talking points will often use the terms “Iran” and “Iranians”. Many of the examples of Persephobia cited earlier are typical of the post-1979 era. Persophobia was so pronounced during the Iran-Iraq war for example, that Western political and news media often downplayed (or even ignored) Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian and Kurdish civilians right up to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The impact of the hostage drama, which was still fresh in the minds of the American public, law-makers, and media, did much to support Saddam Hussein’s war effort (including use of chemical weapons) against Iran in 1980-1988. It is notable that nearly forty years after its occurrence, the hostage drama continues to animate the American establishment. However, this is not the sole post-1979 factor propelling Persephobia to this date. Another notable factor is the presidential tenure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The topic we now discuss is not the Iranian nuclear program during and after Ahmadinejad’s tenure, but his distinct rhetoric questioning the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad inflamed Western opinion further against Iran by presiding over a politically charged “conference” in Tehran questioning the Holocaust on December 11-12, 2006. Ahmadinjad even hosted elements of the European and American racist and virulently anti-Semitic fringe during the controversial event. Even as the Iranian public, diaspora and select politicians inside the Tehran establishment strongly condemned Ahmadinejad’s statements and “conference”, the impact of Ahmadinejad’s actions on the promotion of Persophobia was highly significant. The “conference” once again portrayed Iran as a dangerous and extremist country, much as the Hostage Crisis had done in 1979. Just as Saddam’s invasion of Iran and his use of chemical weapons was glossed over by the West in the aftermath of Hostage Crisis, so too has been Western support for Iran’s extreme ethno-nationalist separatists, especially after the Holocaust-denial conference. While western support for Iran’s dismemberment can be dated back to the 1930s and even much earlier, events like the 2006 (holocaust-denial) conference only serve to further promote Persophobia in Western policy-making. 
Persophobia today is as much a function of the political estrangement of the post-1979 era, along with roots dating back to British (and Russian) Imperialism during the Qajar era. As noted previously, many prominent Classicists would of course trace the roots of Persophobia to ancient (pre-Islamic) times (Farrokh & Sánchez-Gracia, Persian Heritage, 85, pp.12-14). As duly noted by Chomsky, addressing Persephobia in the Western psyche is of course a profoundly challenging task, but there may perhaps be four initial steps towards dialogue. First, in the immediate present, it would be helpful to question the practice of portraying Iran and Iranians as propaganda targets, especially in the failure to delineate the latter from the ruling establishment. The second suggestion pertains to the first: mobilizing the media to raise awareness in the general Western public as to the notable achievements and education level of Iranians in the diaspora (especially in the US) and inside Iran.
Third, is in education where a more balanced history of Iran, notably with respect to its ties and influences on the West could be finally taught in Western curricula (see: Sheda Vasseghi (2017). Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In Origins Of Western Civilization. PhD Dissertation, University of New England, Academic advising Team: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi, Kaveh Farrokh). The fourth process would be the encouragement of Hollywood to produce more historically accurate movies pertaining to ancient Iran. More importantly Hollywood has already demonstrated its power in playing a constructive role in dismantling the notion of “The Other” by breaking new ground with programs such as the “Jeffersons”, “Seinfeld”, and “Will & Grace”. Few are aware for example that among the most successful minorities in the US in the fields of business, medicine, engineering, education, etc. and that a very high proportion of Iranians (estimated at above 50% – a high global figure) complete their higher education.


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