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The other terror
How real is the threat to Persian culture if those who are fanning separatism succeed?
Part One >>> Part Two

Februry 5, 2005

Conspiracy theories often reek of escape from positive action by trying to find a scapegoat to blame. Some conspiracies, however, are so blatant as to call for positive action to counteract them. A review of a book by Christin Marschall, Iran's Persian Gulf Policy: From Khomeini to Khatami, (Iranian Studies, September 2004) has her quoting an official of the State Department in Abu Dhabi that American policy in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s aimed at "securing the free flow of oil at reasonable prices, freedom of navigation and the support of the friendly Arab regimes in the area." And the main threat to that policy was Iran, the quote adds, because of the "policy of its government, [but also because of] Iranian society and the pride that comes with being Iranian."

If there was any doubt, it is not only about the molla regime, it's about all of us, our culture and our pride and it goes a long way in explaining the main motivations behind the containment policy towards Iran. It gave power rise to monsters such as Saddam Hussein and the Taleban and is now breeding a host of new threats to peace. More than the alleged threat of terror (used conveniently for internal consumption), this surely explains the ubiquitous American presence in countries that border Iran as well as in countries that, in one way or another, have historically been part of the larger picture of the wide-ranging cultural influence of Iran.

A sufficient number of giveaway signs, other than the passage mentioned above, seem to indicate a deliberate attempt to undermine our culture and even our language within the context of their historical sphere. To mention a few: the exclusion of Iran from Eurasian or Central Asian studies (but not Afghanistan, nor Turkmenistan, both of which include major centres of Persian culture and history, such as Herat, Balkh and Marv), the most recent instance being the rejection by Harvard of a study on the Georgian population of Faridan near Isfahan); the insistent differentiation between Tajiki, Dari and Farsi, instead of the standard historical 'Persian' for one and the same language which also share a common literature (notwithstanding local idiosyncracies that also occur within Iran); turning a blind eye to the human rights' abuses committed by the government of Uzbekistan against the Persian-speaking Tajiks whose schools in Bukhara, Samarkand and elsewhere are being closed down; the moribund condition of Iranian Studies in many academies in the United States and Britain, in favour of Arab or Turkic studies which increasingly incorporate chapters ripped out of Iran's, or, at best, ignore common accomplishments more often than not derived directly or indirectly from Iran. The list of examples could go on and on..

Admittedly some of the attempts may be due to funding by Arab petrodollars, and in the case of the new republics arisen out of the debris of the Soviet Union, to the continuation of cultural distortions developed by occupiers in seventy years of Soviet rule and now taken up with renewed emphasis and inventiveness by countries badly in need of creating an independent identity for themselves. What we witness today, is in, cultural terms, almost as bad, sometimes even worse, than what Stalinists did. History is being rewritten even more and in more places than before. Sadly, some Western scholars have not been immune to the trend, either because they have chosen to attract available funding instead of defending historical truth, while some others are incapable of understanding the larger picture, mainly because they have entered the field from the wrong end of the road (such as specialists of Slavic studies tackling Central Asia and the Transcaucasus from the Russian angle).

A not too hidden agenda to deny or at least to ignore the far-reaching cultural influence of Iran in a strategically important region of the world has added new fuel to a raging fire. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, very few were aware that the liberated countries of its southern republics had histories and cultures linked with Iran. The realization of this fact must have come as a shock to the governments of Western nations. The result was pressure on scholars to revise their writings and reattribute to others the chapters hitherto devoted to 'Iran extérieur' (a phrase coined by the French historian, Grousset, for lands belonging to wider cultural context of Iran).

The same fate befell the ingenious use of the terms turco-perse or Turko-Persia, used in the early days of the Soviet breakup by knowledgeable scholars to designate the historical symbiosis that occurred in Iranian lands as a result of massive invasions by Turks whose leaders, arriving 'with the lightest of cultural burdens' (a phrase once frequently used), wholeheartedly embraced the Persian culture, while their warrior hordes eventually added their own linguistic legacy to the vernacular of at least some parts of Iran, as much as to that of Central Asia and the Transcaucasus.

In more recent times pan-Turkists and Stalinists, though at odds with each other, had tried hard, not unsuccessfully, to erase all remaining traces of Persian wherever they could . Their example has inspired a new breed of imperialist nation-builders who, in turn, use their clout to distort history, for immediate purposes or as a reward to nations in need of creating an identity for themselves from the many strands of that of Greater Iran.

In cultural terms, moving frontiers had never meant a lot until the colonial era arrested the dominant tide of the Persian language. Since that time, however, the territory of Persian (as expressed in qalam-ro-ye zaban-e farsi), has been contracting. This is all the more regrettable that any assault on Persian is a disservice to the world. As an Afghan scholar from Oxford once said, 'the Persian language does not belong to Iran nor to any one country, it belongs to the world'.

Thankfully, Iranians are aware of this heritage and resist, together with a sufficient number of an endangered species -- the impartial scholar -, the insidious ways in which a form of 'cultural terror' has been operating. But both groups must contend with propaganda, ignorance and false information with regard to Iran and, by absurd extension, to both its history and cultural achievements, which are slowly losing ground in academic studies in the United States and even in Britain which, because of the erstwhile primacy of Persian in their Indian, was an important bastion of Persian Studies.

This also extends to ancient Iran, at a time when traditional Eurocentric attitudes have been somewhat revised by serious scholars with new tools in hand, though without percolating to the wider public or even to academia, if one is to believe some scholarly complaints. As one of the foremost experts of the Achaemenian Empire has remarked, ancient Iran, with all its accomplishments, is 'a regrettable black hole', even for classicists who should be better informed. It is much worse, of course, in the United States, where objects with origins in Iran, are banned from entry, as though the British Museum, which has loaned the Cyrus cylinder to Iran, would retrieve it with a bomb planted inside.

The Iranian sensitivity came to the fore with the Persian Gulf issue and the remake of a film on Alexander 'the Great', which brought passions to a boil. It is almost as though Alexander, as remarked in a number of articles, operated in a void, an attitude developed in the colonial era, when the British saw themselves as heirs to the Greeks. Objective historians are well aware that his aim was not only to conquer but to emulate the power of the first universal empire of the world. One Iranian scholar remarked, 'he came to Iran, became a Persian prince, and never returned', which, put simply, is true.

The colonial view is back with a vengeance, however, and with the impunity that goes with the restrictions now placed on anything remotely connected with Iran. On a recent trip to New York, I read about an exhibition on Alexander 'the Great' at the Onassis Foundation, whose theme was that Alexander brought civilization and of all things, tolerance, to the lands of the East. A simple perusal of serious studies, instead of the biased vulgarization by Robin Lane Fox (on which the film was based) will dismiss a lot of the insistent nonsense about Alexander bringing civilization to Asian barbarians ('barbarian' having meant 'non-Greek' to the Greeks, as Aneran meant non-Iranian to the Sasanians).

Alexander's empire was far too short-lived and he himself too enamoured of the Persian foe to have that effect. His Seleucid successors, who were partly Iranian by marriage, had none of the tolerance which the Bible, for one, attributes to Achamenid rule. Whereas the Achaemenids endorsed local gods, the Greeks and Macedonians, who were never very good at assimilation, imported their own and the one and only lasting effect was in terms of iconography and even that had begun long before them in the 'international Achaemenid style'.

Nor was Alexander the great builder he is often made out to be, a physical impossibility in a very brief reign. Most of the cities allegedly founded by him were, apart from Alexandria in Egypt, already established and were either renamed Alexandria-this or -that, or had ramparts repaired after the damage inflicted by his troops, with only a temple hastily erected on or near the site. At best he re-fortified existing frontier posts against the incursion by nomads from the steppes and that was an accomplishment for a mere seven years.

Even more absurd is his association with the so-called Silk Route, when he never ventured beyond the territory conquered by his role model, Cyrus the Great, and even refused an offer to return to Europe by way of the Eurasian steppes. His notions of geography, as instilled by no less than Aristotle, were indeed too deficient to make him understand the importance of the feat of tackling a route that the Iranian Scythians on the steppes plied regularly.

If I have spoken about Alexander at some length in spite of the avowed intention not to do so, it is because of its pertinence to Western ignorance about that which Arthur Upham Pope called 'the great unpaid debt' of the West to Persian civilization, for an already existing prejudice left the way open for misappropriations such as the absurd 'Arabian Gulf', now used by countries created as pumping stations, countries whose existence does not extend beyond a century at most. It is significant that Oman, with a documented history stretching back more than two thousand years, does not have to resort to such lies or ploys, and dares to admit the Sasanian origins of some of the forts for which it is well known. Rewritten history and reattributed art are the tools of upstarts.

As for the blatant ignorance of the West, there are exceptions, but voices like that of Gore Vidal, who still consider Iran one of the greatest civilizations of the world (as reiterated in a recent article in response to the possibility of an attack on Iran) are few and far between. The anti-Iranian propaganda has reached such proportions by now that, instead of their former association with great empires, great art and great poetry, Iranians are widely perceived as 'terrorist fanatics' and a threat to world peace.

The demonization of Iranians runs so deep in the American psyche that no less than a Kinzer has written that the Taliban were inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran. Surely a serious journalist should have known what everybody, one would think, has found out, namely that the Taleban were promoted as a foil to Iran and were tolerated until they decided to aim for the very jugular of the West.

For years they were allowed to attack every aspect of Persian culture in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, and ban, for example Nowruz and customs predating Islam, as well as Persian literary works and even Persian words used in Urdu, not to mention Pashto (a notorious example is Allah hafez instead of the habitual Khoda Hafiz used in Pakistan and even India). It reached its high point with the burning of over 55 000 books of the Nasser Khosro Library, which were found in their hideaway in the Panjshir Valley a few days before the end of Taleban rule (how many newspapers talked about that?)

The Taleban also got away with killing Shiites in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Reactions came too late. The Persian-speaking Shiite Hazaras had by then borne the brunt of Taleban intolerance and brutality, as taught by their well-funded Wahhabite teachers, who were first invited to Pakistan by General Zia-ul-Haqq, a Deobandi himself, in other words an adherent of the Indo-Pakistani equivalent of strict Wahhabism. What a change from the 1960s when Indian Moslems criticized their Pakistani cousins for taking their Islam 'too lightly'.

One would have thought that after 9/11 things might improve within Pakistan, but in fact they are getting worse by the day. The persecution is extending beyond the Twelver Shiites to the heretic Zekris of Baluchistan and various other unorthodox sects, even to the Agha-Khan-protected Ismailis of northern Pakistan. It will get evfen worse, now that America has decided to woo Pakistan again and seems to have forgotten Osama Bin Laden, unless he is pickled him for some later use.

The Wahhabites of Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, continue to fund fundamentalist movements, while the American public remains under the impression that Iranians are the ones who pose the main risk to their security. A look at the petition against an attack on Iran shows a number of Americans pleading "don't bomb 'em, nuke 'em". A call for genocide and an equivalent with respect to Iranians as perceived as anti-Semitism with respect to the Jews.

Even Europeans have not remained immune to the trends dictated by the vicious agenda of the superpower. A recent directive to some, if not all, European academies, was that Iran should no longer be included in Asia (even less, of course, in Central Asia), but referred to as part of the vague 'Middle East' which once had a Near and a Far (with respect to the British Empire), now forgotten and lost, with only the 'Middle' remaining and even that, extending to North Africa, all the way to the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco) which ironically means 'West' and which, other than a different brand of Islam, has little historical connection with Iran.

Apart from the fact that, to the ancient Greeks and Romans 'Asia' referred to 'the Persian Empire', this goes against the geography learnt by my generation, and moreover, it makes no geographical sense, as seen from America, to which Europe is east and the former Far East, now 'Asia', is west . If the mollas are perceived as a menace to peace, why should geography be changed and a culture once praised be neglected because of their sins? Were Goethe and Bach re-attributed to others because of Hitler?

In a counter-trend, meanwhile, the mollas themselves, or some of them at least, have come to realize the reality of Iran . A look at the history of Iran should have shown that such an evolution was inevitably written in the cards from the start. Sooner or later the populists, who had chosen to speak in the name in the name of Islam, would have had to revise their solely Islamic view of Iran, if they were to hold on to the seat of power. Iran's interests are hardly the same as those of Arabs.

The Iraq-Iran War, having being backed by all the Arabs, gave them the first shock. Rhe Americans have to endorse the Shiites this time around, and this has the Arabs worried to death, most notably panicky little King Abdullah of Jordan, who never misses the chance to pour blame on Iran, as duly communicated to the world by no other than Ms. Amanpour. He has plenty of reaons for panic, of course, but that it should express itself at the expense of Iran, is due to the many sympathetic ears he has in Washington D.C.

The Persian Gulf issue is a good case in point. The government of Iran decided to react and has even renamed the major highway from Tehran to Qom 'The Persian Gulf Road', and a 'Persian Gulf Festival' is due to be held. One wonders, of course, what took them so long, and what their UNESCO office in Paris was doing, while the august Louvre was risking its prestige with the compromise invention Golfe arabo-persique? That does not prevent the upstart emirates, replete with pouches of petrodollars, from trying to buy off whatever the great minds of Iran contributed, admittedly often in Arabic, to the Golden Age of Islam.

It was not always so. Once upon a time, the more cultured Arab nations with a sense of history were happy to acknowledge their debt. Things are not the same with the newer Arab nations calling the shots. So whoever happens to rule in Iran, must perforce come to terms with the reality of the land and its long history.

It has taken time, given the obtuse views of the older generation of mollas and their acolytes who depend, in the absence of merits, on handouts from them. But a new generation is coming to the fore and it has to accept the full identity and reality of Iran, of which Shiite Islam is a major component, but no more than one among many others. The secret of our endurance may well be the diversity of elements that have combined to form such a rich identity that, in case of the failure of one, one is not left without choice.

The initial opposition to pre-Islamic Iran has reversed to the extent that a sizeable budget is available now for archeological excavations and the whole cultural scene has been handed over to experts truly devoted to the field. The forthcoming exhibition on the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids, scheduled for September in London as a result of a collaboration between the British Museum, the Louvre and the Iran Bastan Museum in Tehran, has been planned, in the absence of a penny granted by the Blair government, with funding provided almost exclusively by the government of Iran and private sources.

The nationalist resurgence and the desire for a more open-minded society is so strong that it is spreading to younger mollas. In their justified hatred for the mollarchy at home, Iranians abroad have been slow to notice how rapidly things are evolving in the vibrant atmosphere of Iran and affecting the very ones whom one might have thought would have much to lose if Islam weakens. Yet some of the younger mollas are moving in wholly unexpected directions. Recently the prize for the best research was given to a professor from the University of Göttingen in Germany for his commented translation of the Pahlavi Zoroastrian Neirangestan.

When he went to receive the awarded prize, he was invited to Qom, where his talks with erudite mollas impressed him as greatly, if not more, in his words, than any such conversation with Western scholars. Even more surprising was that he was requested to stay on in Qom and lecture on Zoroastrianism at least for a year, in the very bastion of Iranian Shiites and moreover, to put them in touch with the Parsees and Zoroastrians abroad, in view of a dialogue on reconciliation. That the latter should be wary is understandable, of course, but sooner or later, it is bound to happen.

In addition, the professor was astounded that a number of mollas were proficient in Buddhist studies, and bragged to each other about who amongst them was the better Buddhist. Philosophy has, of course, always been a part of theological studies in the Iranian world, and Zoroastrians, despite persecution, were included as 'People of the Book'. But Buddhism was regarded as an idolatrous faith and the very name of the Buddha has given our language bot for 'idol'. That it should no longer be so constitutes a trend of great consequence, one which one hoped might eventually emerge from the ruins of a government run by tmollas. It is happening now, if one is to judge by eyewitness accounts.

Left alone, this kind of evolution should lead to an ecumenical spirit that could potentially benefit not only Iran but adjacent countries like Iraq and perhaps the wider world beyond -- a world badly in need of new food for the soul to replace or at least complement the by now somewhat fatigued monotheistic faiths. But a more tolerant and open spiritual trend would constitute a danger, not only to Islamists, but to fundamentalist thinkers across the whole board, including the anti-Darwinian missionaries in search of converts to their Armaggedon, and the Wahhabites and Zionists who justify the existence of their countries on the basis of revelation alone, in other words to all those who hold on to their faith as a drowning man reaches for a lifesaving buoy. To the many Iranians searching for new paths, it would be a great boon.

For now, however, even though the trend is very much on track and irreversible, it remains within the confines of an inner circle, whose interest is mainly intellectual and they have yet to come up with practical applications for the future of Iran. More immediately it should at least rid Iranians of the spectre of apostasy as prescribed by the Koran. It would not be the first example of opposing the Sharia law. The Majles has already voted in favour equal inheritance of females and males.

This does not mean that the mullas at the helm have softened their grip, or that Iranians are any happier with them. But the usuurper hardliners are a dying breed now, when not metamorphosed into corrupt businessmen. Sooner or later the new patterns of thought will have to attain a wider public, if only to satisfy the great thirst for change. The full potentiality of Iranian Islam, inherent in its history of syncretism, as intimated in one of my articles, 'Swan Song', is bearing fruit faster than anyone hoped or dared to believe. No wonder the long arm of the dynamic culture of Iran with millennia of ramifications beyond its frontiers, should be felt as a threat.

Iranians abroad are doing a lot to preserve their culture. This is especially important when that culture is under deliberate attack through piecemeal distribution of the components of the whole. A realization of the real issues at stake is more urgent than being drawn into the battle for the dwindling resources of the world under the guise of love of freedom. When it really hurts, we tend to put aside our proverbial discords and present a united front against any abuse. There is need for much more to counter the threats and they are legion. Fragmentation of Iran is actively pursued from many quarters.

In Baluchistan with Pakistani collusion, in Azarbaijan with Turkish collusion, amongst the Arabs of Khuzistan with the collusion of the Persian Gulf Emirs, and in Kurdistan with the collusion of Israeli agents, whose efforts may yet backfire, if only because the Kurds, are aware of their being 'Iranians' and even though they suffered at the hands of the mullas, when their Iraqi cousins were attacked with chemicals by Saddam Hussein, their refuge was Iran. (Surely a nation that welcomes some four million refugees in its midst, cannot be all bad).

No other nation feels as close to their Kurds as Iranians do. They too are Iranians, more Iranian than most, notwithstanding the fact that they have often been stirred into opposition by many troublemakers and they too have at times been badly treated. I have Kurdish ancestry (through Aziz Khan Mokri, who was Naser-al-din Shah's top chief of staff) as well as Kurdish relatives who would never think of themselves as anything but Iranian. Even their esoteric tendencies, although shunned by orthodox Shiites, strike a chord in most Iranian hearts. That often shows through.

I remember a concert, given in Geneva by Shahram Nazeri soon after the end of the Iraq-Iran war. When he was requested to give an encore, he responded by singing a Kurdish ballad. The spectators went wild with genuine applause and as I happened to look around the large hall, I noticed that the applauders included an uncle of Queen Farah as well as the consul-general of the Islamic Republic which, in those days still sent its hardliners abroad. Political fences had fallen apart thanks to a song. Such a reaction, due to common cultural roots, is hardly conceivable in Turkey and perhaps even in Iraq.

How real is the threat to Persian culture if those who are fanning separatism succeed? As real as the threat to the countries busy creating false history, for they cannot persist on the path of deceit without losing themselves. In the long run they may well erode our culture, but the price they will pay will be much heavier. One has only to look at eastern Anatolia, whose majority population of Kurds and Armenians were incorporated from the mid-16th century to the mid-17th into the expanding Ottoman Empire, without ever integrating and with tragic results.

The 'Turks' (whatever that means in the changing terminology of today), like the Arabs, are delighted to delve into our heritage and pillage what suits them to pass it off as their own. Rudaki, Nezami and Rumi were 'Turks' (when not 'Afghan' or 'Uzbek', both of which terms would have been alien to them)'; the Shahnameh miniatures are 'Islamic art'. I have nothing against Turks, indeed most Iranians have Turkish blood too, probably much more in Khorasan than, ironically, in Azarbaijan, but I have little use for the Kemalist view of history which includes Scythians and Sumerians amongst the Turks.

As for the Arabs, who now stick the label 'Arabo-Islamic' or simply 'Arab' on the great minds of Iran, they expect every scholar to follow suit instead of using the 'Perso-Islamic' once applied to the famous names of Iran, some of whom the Turks of Turkey, the Uzbeks, the Kazakhs, - and formerly the Russians -- have also claimed at times.

The list is long, as inexhaustible as our contributions to the 'great unpaid debt'. 'Arab philosophers', 'Arab geographers', 'Arab polymaths'. One has only to look at the names of the allegedly 'Arab' scholars: Biruni, Tabari (from Tabarestan or Mazandaran) Khwarazmi (from Khwarazm), Ebn-e Sina (a Saka or eastern Scythian name and one whose knowledge of Arabic was notoriously questioned in his time), Ebn Khordadbeh, Farabi (from Fariab or Pariab, now located in Kazakhstan) or Razi (from Rey) and many others, who wrote in Arabic, the lingua franca of the caliphal world, partly to attain a wider public and partly, as in the case of Biruni, because they believed that Arabic was a better tool for philsophy and science, while Persian was better for literature.

Another telltale sign, apart from the books they wrote in Persian, are their detailed accounts of ancient Persia, its culture, its myths, its kings, its customs - something no Arab was able to do or interested in (to them the majus were part of the jahiliyya or 'age of ignorance' preceding Islam).

That an Avicenna or Biruni could handle the complexity of science and philosophy in Arabic was thanks to a Persian, Sibuyeh (otherwise known as al-Sibawayh ), who laid the foundations of the Arabic language systematically. Recently, in a discussion on al-Jazeera, motivated by a book devoted to him, Sibuyeh was referred to as 'an Arab from Basra', in spite of his name. Nor was he the only Iranian to master Arabic better than the Arabs themselves. He was followed by others as far away as Khwarazm, with the 11th-century Iranian linguist, Zamakhshari, who is known to have challenged Arabs to equal his proficiency in the Arabic tongue. This one remains to be rediscovered as either an Arab or as a Turkmen. On a visit to Turkmenistan, I noticed that none of the Turkmen, in whose country his place of origin now lies, knew about the links of this scholar with the now neglected and grotesquely mispronounced Izmukhshir, in Chorasmia or Khwarazm (now also deformed to Khorezm, as pronounced in the Russian language).

What will be next? Art, of course, an issue I will deal with in >>> Part Two

* On the issue of Iranians and Arabs, I refer the interested reader to an eloquent and knowledgeable article by Dr. Kaveh Farrokh.

* On the issue of the contraction of the territory of the Persian language, I recommend the book 'Persoponia' by Professor Bert Fragenr of Austria.

Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian was born in Tehran in 1940 and studied in Iran and Switzerland. In Iran she was on the committe of a number of organizations, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Women's University. She also did volunteer work for the Deparment of the Environment, where she planned education for schools and TV on environmental subjects. Since the Revolution she has been focusing on research and writing. Her latest appeared in The Journal of the Society for Iranian Studies (Summer/Fall 2000) called "Haft Qalam Arayish: Cosmetics int he Iranian World".

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