Iranians in the U.S.
May 2, 2001
From "Does host hostility create ethnic solidarity? The experience
of Iranians in the United States" by Mehdi Bozorgmehr published in
the Bulletin of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies (BRIIFS),
vol. 2, no. 1, (Spring 2000). Bozorgmehr
is an associate professor of sociology at the City University of New York.
He has published numerous scholarly articles and book chapters on Iranian
immigrants in the United States, and is starting a new research project
on the second-generation Iranians. He is establishing a Center for Middle
East and Middle Eastern American Studies at the Graduate Center, City University
of New York, funded by the Ford Foundation.
This paper focuses on the causes and consequences of host hostility towards
Iranian immigrants in the United States of America. It is a sociological
truism that external hostility encourages in-group solidarity.
Host hostility strengthens ethnicity, and even translates into ethnic
solidarity. The Iranian experience, however, challenges this causal relationship.
At least since the "Iranian Hostage Crisis" in 1980 Iranian
immigrants have been subjected to discrimination and prejudice in the U.S.
Although anti-Iranian sentiments have subsided over time, they flare up
every time the Iranian regime engages in an allegedly anti-American activity.
Instead of reactive solidarity, however, some Iranians have opted to
disassociate themselves from their nationality. This is especially the case
for religious minorities from Iran (e.g., Christian Armenians, Bahais, and
Jews) who can identify more with their religio-ethnic backgrounds than with
their Iranian origin.
Muslim Iranian immigrants do not have this option because they are by
and large secular and nationalistic. Moreover, there are many negative stereotypes
associated with being a Muslim in the US.
Class resources (English proficiency, high levels of education), as well
as professional and entrepreneurial occupations, have enabled Iranians as
a whole to avoid conflict with Americans. At the same time these factors
have reduced dependence on co-ethnics, thereby reducing the potential for
Any attachment to Iranian culture, language, and national pride has had
more to do with exile status rather than with host hostility.
This paper explores the causes and consequences of inter-group
conflict between Americans and Iranian immigrants in the United States.
These conflicts date back at least to the Iranian revolution of 1978-79.
In the two decades since the revolution Iranian immigrants have been subjected
to discrimination and prejudice in the United States,(1)
yet there is no record of the extent of this experience, its sources, and
its implications for this ethnic group.
After presenting a brief background to the sources and nature of conflict
between Americans and Iranians, I proceed to review the relevant theoretical
literature. I next discuss immigration patterns to the US, and the socioeconomic
characteristics of Iranians, and the ways in which these interconnect with
anti-Iranian hostility. I then turn to a discussion of discrimination and
prejudice faced by Iranians based on a survey of Iranians in Los Angeles.
Lastly, I discuss ethnicity and ethnic solidarity among this population,
and relate this to host hostility.
The stereotype of Middle Easterners, particularly Iranians, as terrorists,
Muslim fundamentalists, and zealot nationalists has become so ingrained
in the U.S. that any time an act of terrorism is perpetrated against Americans,
Middle Easterners are blamed.
The most widely publicized case was the bombing of the federal building
in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. As the worst terrorist act recorded
in the US, this devastating explosion killed many innocent people. Previously,
a massive bomb had exploded in the World Trade Center in 1993, and several
Muslims of Arab descent were tried and convicted for masterminding this
Since in Oklahoma City an empty car loaded with explosives was detonated
automatically also, some Americans blamed Middle Easterners, and more specifically
the Iranian government, for masterminding this terrorist act. Although the
terrorists were found to be Americans, the stereotype of the Iranian regime
as a sponsor of terrorism endures.
Americans cannot make a distinction between the actions of the Iranian
regime and sentiments of Iranian immigrants, particularly in times of crisis
when they become aware of Iranians amongst them. Starting with the Iranian
revolution of 1978-79, with its vehemently anti-American slogans, and culminating
in the taking of 52 American hostages in 1980 for 444 days until January
1981, Iranian immigrants have become scapegoats anytime conflict between
Iran and the US has raged.
The widespread allegations now are that the Iranian government is sabotaging
the delicate Arab-Israelis peace process, and has acquired the raw materials
and technology to build an atomic bomb (Risen and Miller 2000). These allegations
comprise the main obstacle toward normalizing the strained relationship
between Iran and the US.
The terrorism stereotype does not stop at "state terrorism"
and apply only to the Iranian regime, however, since Iranians abroad are
also sometimes perceived as Islamic fundamentalists. Ironically, Iranians
in the US have done nothing to perpetuate this stereotype. As one of the
most educated and skilled immigrant groups, very few social problems are
associated with Iranians. Yet, they have suffered disproportionately and
inadvertently from host hostility.
Whenever anti-American sentiments surge in the Middle East, which is
all too frequent, all Middle Easterners in the US, regardless of nationality
or religious affiliation, become scapegoats. Most Americans cannot distinguish
Middle Eastern groups from each other due to unfamiliarity with this region
and the diversity of its immigration.
While other groups such as Asians are also diverse, Americans are much
more aware of their differences. For instance, in response to the arson
of Arab-owned businesses during the Iranian hostage crisis, Arab shopkeepers
in different parts of the U.S. put up signs stating that they were not Iranian.
A similar display occurred during the Gulf War, only this time the roles
were reversed, with Iranian shopkeepers indicating that they were not Arabs
(Bozorgmehr, Der-Martirosian and Sabagh 1996).
Iranian exiles and political refugees left their homeland due to opposition
to government policies and actions or fear of persecution (Jones 1984).
The hostage crisis occurred right after the revolution in Iran (November
1979 to the end of 1980), which hastened a massive influx of Iranian exiles
into the US.
Ironically, these exiles faced unfair targeting and scapegoating in the
US right after being persecuted by a regime they left behind. Iranian exiles
found themselves in a hostile environment, despite their opposition to the
Iranian regime. Even former college students from Iran, most of whom decided
against returning to Iran after the revolution, felt vulnerable in their
newly adopted "home."
This was especially the case during the hostage crisis, when the Carter
administration decided to deport students who were in violation of their
visas in the United States. The hostage crisis prompted a presidential order
referred to as the "Iranian Control Program."
The program screened, on a case by case basis, almost 57,000 students
to make sure that they were legally in status. "After holding a total
of 7,177 deportation hearings, 3,088 students were ordered to leave the
US, and the departure of 445 was verified" (Bozorgmehr and Sabagh 1988,
The main stereotype of Iranians in the US (i.e., Muslim fundamentalists)
is a mirror image of highly politicized Iranians back in Iran (Bozorgmehr
1996). Drawing on vivid images of angry mobs in the media, especially during
the Iranian hostage crisis, Americans often think of Iranians in the US
as devout Muslims and even religious zealots (Naficy 1995).
Obviously, this stereotype is inaccurate since most Iranian Muslims in
the U.S. are secular (religious Muslims from Iran have no reason for leaving
a strict Muslim society) (Bozorgmehr and Sabagh 2000). Moreover, there are
many non-Muslim Iranians in the US (Christian Armenians and Assyrians, Bahais,
Jews, and Zoroastrians), to whom the Muslim label does not apply (see Kelley
and Friedlander 1993).
Despite Iran's relative religious homogeneity, where about 98 percent
of its pre-revolution population were Muslim, religious minorities are over-represented
among Iranians in the US. Although religious diversity is not unique to
Iranians, it is more pronounced than expected for a group from a religiously
This type of migrant selectivity is often the case for refugee groups,
and even some immigrant groups. In the Iranian case, however, the main reason
is that the revolution and its outcome in Iran were Islamic, and, as such,
a threat to religious minorities. Members of religious minority groups suffered
varying degrees of persecution after the Iranian revolution and establishment
of the Islamic Republic in Iran.
Labeled as heretics, the Bahais have suffered the most -- several members
of the community were executed. Accused of ties to Israel, the Iranian Jews
also have been singled out for persecution. Even Christian Armenian and
Assyrians have encountered problems in observing and maintaining their religion
in a strict Muslim society.
Ironically, the revolution erupted just when religious minorities in
Iran were beginning to feel more secure under the Shah after a long history
of being susceptible to the rise and fall of religious fervor.
Partly as a result of living in a Muslim society over a long period,
and partly due to discrimination and prejudice towards minorities in Iran,
religious minorities had a developed sense of ethnic identity and ethnicity
even before leaving Iran (Bozorgmehr 1992). This was especially the case
for Armenians and Jews who are ethno-religious groups.
In the post-migration phase, however, the situation is reversed and religious
minorities are less susceptible than Muslims to discrimination and hostility
from the host society.
Ethnic solidarity refers to collective action on the part of an ethnic
group to advance its goals and objectives. It is a well known sociological
theorem that external hostility leads to internal group solidarity. Originally
developed by German sociologist Simmel (1955), and popularized by American
sociologist Coser (1964), this general proposition is particularly applicable
to inter-group conflict, ethnicity and ethnic solidarity.
Empirical studies on Jews, Asians (Japanese and Koreans), and Cubans
have born out this proposition. Lewin (1948) argued that anti-Semitism heightened
ethnic identification and solidarity among the Jews as a form of self-perservation.
In a study of Holocaust survivors in America, Helmreich (1992) found
that not only were they active in Holocaust-related causes and organizations,
but they were also more likely to be members and leaders of other Jewish
organizations than American Jews. Bonacich and Modell (1980) applied a variant
of the Coser model to early Japanese immigrants in California.
They argued that host hostility towards the Japanese entrepreneurs strengthened
group solidarity (e.g., clannish behavior), which in turn further encouraged
host hostility. Min (1996) has maintained that much of the hostility experienced
by Korean merchants in Los Angeles (riots) and New York (boycotts) is due
to their precarious middleman minority role.
He has shown that the type and location of Korean businesses in central
cities exposes these entrepreneurs to hostility from the dominant group
suppliers (i.e., whites) and minority customers (i.e., blacks). Portes (1984)
has shown that the "rise of ethnicity" among Cubans in Miami came
about in the course of increasing contact and conflict between Cubans and
While useful, these models, like other theories of inter-ethnic relations,
all involve some form of competition (economic or political) between groups
(Olzak and Nagel 1986). "Competitive ethnic relations" models,
to borrow Olzak and Nagel's terminology, by definition, are restricted to
one society (often the host country). Inter-ethnic relations today, however,
are often more dynamic, and may also be dictated by global forces, especially
the relationship between the sending and host societies.
The classic American example is the internment of the Japanese Americans
after the attacks on Pearl Harbor (Takaki 1989, ch. 10). Host hostility
towards the Japanese, while in part responsible for their relocation, escalated
dramatically after this historical incident.
In the past, political refugees have been more susceptible to strained
bilateral relationships between the country of expulsion and country of
reception than have economic migrants. Refugees from often find safe haven
in countries that had backed the old regimes, and the revolutionary regimes
severe these ties (e.g., the U.S. and Cuba).
However, globalization and transnationalism have altered this pattern,
and now even economic migrants are at the vagaries of international relations
between the sending and receiving countries (e.g., American economic sanctions
imposed on China). Therefore, in addition to the "competitive ethnic
relations" models, hostile relations between the sending and receiving
societies can also cause inter-group conflict.
When bilateral relations are strained, however, host hostility is less
likely to promote ethnic solidarity. For one, the ethnic group, due to its
vulnerable minority position, cannot challenge the policies and the legal
sanctions of the receiving state against it, at least initially. But even
when these sanctions are lifted, host hostility often persists.
At this point, immigrant groups can organize to defend their rights.
In addition to these external constraints, ethnic mobilization also depends
on group characteristics (e.g., socioeconomic status) and makeup (heterogeneity).
Using Iranians as a case study, in this paper I argue that the main source
of host hostility towards this population is the anti-American policies
of the Iranian regime, not the actions of the Iranian exiles and immigrants
themselves. Furthermore, this case study challenges the inevitability of
the relationship between hostility on the one hand, and ethnic solidarity
on the other.
Extensive and continuous host hostility for about two decades has not
resulted in ethnic solidarity among this ethnic group. In that sense, Iranians
have not benefited from one of the few positive "functions" of
conflict, to borrow from Lewis Coser, i.e., enhanced group solidarity.
In fact, host hostility has not even enhanced this group's ethnicity
and ethnic identity. Instead of organizing collectively against discrimination
and prejudice, Iranians have tried to avoid it in a variety of ways, discussed
later in the paper.
I next turn to immigration patterns from Iran before and after the Iranian
revolution, and the way in which its historical context has shaped the characteristics
and make up of Iranians in the US.
Immigration patterns to the United States
The Iranian migration to the US consists of two waves or phases, with
the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 as the great divider.
The pre- and post-revolution waves of Iranian migration, however, are
different quantitatively and qualitatively. In the first wave, from roughly
the 1950s until 1977, Iranian immigrants consisted mostly of students and
In the second wave, from 1978 to present, they are mainly political refugees
or exiles. Although some Iranians migrated to the US purely for economic
reasons both before and after the revolution, their numbers are negligible
compared to those who came for educational and political reasons.
The US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) did not report data
separately for Iran in the first quarter of the 20th Century. Since 1925,
the US has admitted a total of 215,325 Iranian immigrants as permanent residents.
From 1925 until 1950, only 1,816 Iranians had been admitted as permanent
residents. By 1960, this number had increased to 3,388, and by 1990 it had
reached 10,339 annually (Bozorgmehr 1998).
Although these figures include both immigrants admitted and those who
adjusted their status after arrival, they show that the bulk of Iranian
permanent migration to the US has occurred since the 1960s.
Focusing on the population already residing in America, the US Census
documents the recency of arrival of Iranians even more so than does the
INS. In 1990, the latest year for which census data are available, the vast
majority of Iranians (83.6%) had immigrated to the US since 1975 (Table 1).
As is the case for many other major new immigrant groups to the US (Iranians
rank among the top 20), Iranian migration can be traced to the 1960s, and
especially to the 1970s. The timing of Iranian migration, however, has had
little to do with the passage of the 1965
US Immigration Act, which lifted restrictive quotas and opened the gates
to immigrants from the Third World. For instance, of the 8,895 Iranians
who immigrated to the US during the 1960s, less than half (3,692 or 42%)
were admitted as permanent residents; over half (5,203 or 58%) arrived as
non-immigrants and subsequently adjusted their status to immigrants. This
pattern remained virtually the same until the mid-1990s, when the number
of new arrivals barely exceeded the number of adjusters.
The categories of refugees and asylees had become new modes of acquiring
permanent residency, especially from 1980 to 1989, among Iranians. (Bozorgmehr
1996). The oil boom and rapid industrialization required educated and skilled
workers. Unlike some other oil exporting countries in the Middle East (e.g.,
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States), Iran relied on its sizable indigenous
But since the educational infrastructure in Iran was not developed enough
to accommodate university students, many parents sent their sons and daughters
abroad to study. Thus, migration from Iran started on a temporary basis
with students in the 1960s and 1970s.
Notwithstanding the problems of multiple counting, the students made
up about one-fifth of the total non-immigrants from Iran between 1950 and
1977, and about 16% from 1978-86 (Bozorgmehr 1998; Modarres 1998). The latter
figure, however, severely underestimates the number of Iranian students
in the US.
Before the revolution students frequently came on their own, whereas
after the revolution they often came with their families under immigrant
visas (many are even native-born). As college students, the former mostly
came under a student visa, not an immigrant visa. This student movement
was substantial enough that despite the return of some to Iran, it still
resulted in a sizable number of settlers.
The settlement process of Iranians became more permanent with the sudden
and massive influx of Iranian exiles and refugees in 1978-79. Many of the
exiles, which included members of religious minorities from Iran, at first,
had a sojourning orientation, but as time went by they realized that repatriation
was not a viable option (Naficy 1993; Bozorgmehr and Sabagh 1991; Bozorgmehr
and Sabagh 2000).
The influx and settlement of Iranians have resulted in a sizable Iranian
population in the US. Despite persistent claims by some Iranians that their
population in the US exceeds two million, the 1990 Census only counted 285,000
Iranians. This includes persons born in Iran, as well as those of Iranian
ancestry born in the US and other countries (see Table
One could argue that the 1980 Census, which counted about 153,000 Iranians,
underestimated this population because it was taken during the hostage crisis,
a time when many Iranians would not divulge their real identity for fear
of deportation. But there is no reason why the 1990 Census should have severely
undercounted Iranians since there was no major conflict between Iran and
the US at the time, and the legal status of most Iranians was no longer
The Iranian population in the US almost doubled during the 1980s. Since
nearly 80% of Iranians were foreign-born in 1990, it is clear that much
of this population's growth was due to immigration. But family growth also
contributed -- in 1990, 21% of Iranians (almost 59,000) were born in the
The next section shows how these immigration patterns have contributed
to the unusually high social and economic characteristics and achievements
of Iranians in the US, which in turn affect their patterns of inter-group
The combined presence of former college students and elite exiles accounts
for the highly educated, entrepreneurial, and professional character of
the Iranian community in the US. The basic social and economic characteristics
of Iranians in the labor force age group (25-64 years) are presented in
The data on education and occupation almost exclusively
concern foreign-born Iranians since few native-born had reached the age
of 25 by 1990. Iranians have one of the highest levels of educational attainment
among all immigrant groups in the US. Iranians ranked third, after Asian
Indians and Taiwanese, among all foreign-born groups in level of education
in 1990 (Portes and Rumbaut 1996).
Among males, almost two-thirds had completed a college or post-baccalaureate
degree in 1990. Even 39% of Iranian females were college graduates, and
another 24% had some college education (Table
Reflecting a high level of education, Iranians also ranked third after
the above mentioned groups among all immigrants in holding professional
specialty occupations (Portes and Rumbaut 1996,). Table
1 shows that over half of Iranian males held top white-collar (managerial
and professional) occupations.
Although many Iranian females were not in the labor force, still almost
half of the employed females held professional specialty and managerial
jobs. In addition to the occupations above, many Iranian females also held
clerical occupations (Table
Iranians are also one of the most entrepreneurial immigrant groups in
the US, especially in Los Angeles where they ranked second only to Koreans
(Min and Bozorgmehr 2000). Their self-employment rate for the US as a whole
was 23.7% for males in 1990, hence a high concentration in sales and managerial
Governmentally collected data, such as the census above,
do not contain any information on discrimination and prejudice and religion,
and Iranians themselves have not organized to collect such information.
Thus, the evidence on these issues comes mainly from a survey of Iranians
conducted in Los Angeles in the late 1980s by the author and his associates.
Iranians are particularly diverse in Los Angeles, partly because about
one-third of Iranians in the US live in Los Angeles. Religious minorities
from Iran are drawn to this metropolitan area by the presence of their non-Iranian
co-religionists, especially Jews and Christian Armenians. Not surprisingly,
most research on Iranians in the US, including mine, has focused on this
This survey was based on a random sample of Iranian names from LA County
telephone directories, supplemented by ethno-religious community lists to
address the problem of unlisted numbers and ensure the inclusion of a sizable
sample of smaller Iranian subgroups (Armenians, Bahais and Jews).(3)
About 700 heads of households (mostly males), were interviewed in person
-- about 200 from the three largest subgroups (Armenians, Jews and Muslims),
and about 100 from the smaller group (Bahais). But the information collected
concerned all household members. The social and economic characteristics
of the sample very closely match the 1990 Census, reflecting its representativeness
of the Iranian population in L.A.
In spite of the above socioeconomic characteristics, and their corresponding
contributions to the American economy and society, Iranians in the US suffer
from discrimination and prejudice because of negative stereotypes associated
with the Iranian regime. At the same time, high status and class resources
have enabled Iranians to lessen the experiences of discrimination and prejudice,
while also obviating the need for collectivism and ethnic solidarity.
However, class resources alone cannot account for lack of collectivism
among this population, since other similarly well endowed groups (e.g.,
Chinese and Asian Indians) are much better organized than are Iranians.
Neither can ethnic heterogeneity fully account for this since both of these
groups are also heterogeneous. Asian Indians come from different parts of
India and speak different languages; the Chinese consists of people from
the mainland and the overseas Chinese (Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc.).
These immigrant groups, however, do not suffer as much from host hostility,
especially of a type provoked by the actions of the regimes of the sending
countries. Moreover, neither are largely exiles or political refugees, and
as such preoccupied with homeland politics as Iranians are.
Discrimination and prejudice
The Iranian experience is not unique, however, and is often the fate
of exiles fleeing revolutions in the Third World (e.g., Cubans and Nicaraguans).
Revolutionary regimes often take a vehemently anti-American position in
light of past American support of overthrown dictatorships. However, unlike
the early waves of Cuban "golden exiles" before them, who were
both well to do and well received in the US because they opposed socialism,
Iranians have not enjoyed a favorable reception.
The potential for host hostility toward refugees is particularly high
in the initial period after arrival, especially if the receiving country
had backed the old regime. The anti-American rhetoric of the Iranian revolutionary
regime developed into the Iranian hostage crisis. Despite vehement opposition
to the Iranian regime, exiles became easy targets for the American public.
Given the severity of anti-Iranian feelings during the Iranian hostage
crisis from 1979 to 1981, we asked the respondents in our survey about their
actual experiences of discrimination during that period and in the late
The data collected were both quantitative and qualitative. The objective
questions posed covered a variety of issues from getting a job, being promoted
on the job, going into business, getting a loan, providing education for
children, and buying a house.
These questions were repeated and asked of the respondents who were in
the US at the time of the Iranian hostage crisis. Although retrospective
data generally suffer from selective memory, traumatic experiences such
as discrimination and prejudice are more likely to be remembered.
As expected, data show that Iranians experienced more discrimination
during the hostage crisis than subsequently. Even in multi-ethnic Los Angeles,
Iranians continued to experience discrimination, although the extent of
this had decreased since the Iranian hostage crisis. Whereas about a quarter
of the respondents reported serious cases of discrimination during the hostage
crisis, only about one-tenth did so before the survey in 1987-88.
Based on the main reason for leaving Iran, the sample was divided into
exiles (political and religious), and economic migrants (educational and
economic). Surprisingly, small and statistically non-significant differences
exist between exiles and economic migrants in the reported cases of discrimination
either during the hostage crisis or at the time of the survey (Bozorgmehr
and Sabagh 1999).
The continued anti-American rhetoric of the Iranian regime, and the incidents
of terrorism generally attributed to this regime, have sensitized Iranians
in the US to prejudice or the negative opinions of Americans.
Exile status, defined by political or religious motivations as the main
reasons for leaving Iran, appears to make a difference in the extent to
which Iranians feel that non-Iranians in Los Angeles express prejudice toward
them. Thus, 41.3 percent of exiles, as compared to 52.4 percent of economic
migrants, expressed that they felt prejudice.
Because exiles include a large proportion of religious minorities, they
perceive less prejudice than do immigrants, who include a larger share of
The data also show that Iranians experienced more discrimination
in getting a job and being promoted on the job than in the other areas listed
above. However, less than 20% of the respondents experienced discrimination
Iranian Jews experienced less discrimination than the other three subgroups,
partly because they were more self-employed. Given the hostage crisis and
its aftermath, the lower than expected experiences of discrimination of
Iranians may be partially attributed to the high class resources of this
immigrant group discussed above, thereby reducing their dependence on, and
competition with, the host population.
Although Iranians may not have experienced discrimination in occupation,
housing, and education for children, this list is by no means exhaustive.
To allow for a wider range of possible responses, we asked the respondents
open-ended questions about the "most serious experience of discrimination,"
if any, during the hostage crisis and since then.
We subsequently coded these responses by type of discrimination. The
reported discrimination, in other areas listed below, is once again too
low to be interpreted meaningfully. The most often additional cited experiences
of discrimination were at the university, not being hired, getting fired,
losing customers, and discrimination against children at school.
Although Iranians were not highly discriminated during the hostage crisis
and later, as shown above, the overall perception of prejudice is high among
this population. About half of all Iranians felt that non-Iranians are prejudiced
towards Iranians in Los Angeles.
Interestingly, regardless of ethnicity, all four Iranian subgroups felt
that prejudice towards Iranian Muslims exceeds that of the other Iranian
subgroups. This is understandable in light of the negative stereotypes associated
with Islam in America (Haddad and Lummis 1987).
The experience of discrimination and the perception that Americans are
prejudiced against Iranian Muslims contribute to the respondents' reluctance
to identify themselves as Iranian Muslims or as Muslims. In part, because
of perceived discrimination, nationality has become a more salient aspect
of Iranian Muslim identity than religion (Sabagh and Bozorgmehr 1994).
The negative stereotype of Iranians as a whole has also encouraged the
minorities from Iran to identify more strongly with their specific ethno-religiosity
(Armenian, Bahai, Jewish) than with Iranian nationality (Bozorgmehr 1997).
While quantitative data indicate the extent of the experiences of discrimination,
qualitative data best capture the personal and profound nature of these
experiences. The following qualitative material from open-ended questions
in our survey give a flavor of the most serious cases of discrimination
during the hostage crisis, organized by type. Jobs and Business:
It must be noted at the outset that Iranians, like other Middle Easterners
and North Africans (MENA), in the US are officially classified as whites.
Europeans are the only other major ethnic group classified under the white
This arbitrary classification means that MENA are ineligible for affirmative
action and other governmentally dispensed benefits to minorities such as
small business association loans, despite the fact that they are one of
the most negatively stereotyped groups in the US. Ironically, most Americans
are not aware of this exclusionary practice, and assume that MENA have minority
status and benefit from affirmative action for hiring and promotion.
Although, through a state initiative, California recently eradicated
affirmative action, the quotes below correspond to the 1980s when this policy
was in full effect. Steven Gold, an immigration scholar, in a personal e-mail
correspondence, candidly recalled his experience with Iranians when he served
on the faculty search committee in a small liberal arts college in California:
It was clear from the job applications we got when I was at [college's
name] that highly qualified Iranians, with degrees from top U.S. schools,
were not getting jobs. Compare this to some members of eligible groups
who come from elite and privileged backgrounds, yet receive generous benefits,
even though their families did not arrive in the U.S. until post-1965,
and hence did not confront the harsh treatment of earlier arrivals.
One Muslim Iranian respondent in our survey recounted his worst experience
of discrimination during the hostage crisis:
With seven years of professional experience and education I received
no responses from any companies to which I was sending my resume. Then
I changed my name from Mohammad to Mike in my resume and immediately got
four responses, including one from a company that had not responded to
Sadly, this experience could have been repeated during the Gulf War,
and the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York since Mohammad is
also an Arabic name. The following quotes are from different respondents:
When the US helicopters crashed in Iran (during the hostage rescue operations)
my already-signed job contract was canceled. I lost my job because my first
day coincided with the taking of the hostages in Iran. When I reported
to work they told me that they had changed their minds about hiring me.
An American customer returned our merchandise once he knew we were Iranian.
My children were beaten up on the bus. I was not allowed to teach at UCLA
or any other university to which I applied. They told me I was too old
but I knew it was because of my being Iranian.
Threats and violence:
Anti-Iranian slogans were written on the walls of my workplace. One
day I received a bomb-threat at his workplace. During the hostage crisis
they smashed and destroyed my car at school. They broke the windows of
the Iranian American Association.
Family and children:
My wife and children were insulted at work and in school. They also
insulted us so much in our apartment building that we had to move out of
there. They called us "dirty Iranians."
My children would come home crying because their classmates told them
they hated Iranians and that they must leave the country. Although the
question asked about the most serious experience of discrimination, some
respondents replied in terms of their perception of prejudice. This is
indicative of a high perception of prejudice among Iranians, as documented
I graduated at the time and was qualified for work but all employers
rejected my resumes. I think this was because I was Iranian. My son was
beaten in school. Later, when my son was being interviewed for entrance
to medical school, he was rejected because he was Iranian.
The following quotes report experiences of discrimination after the hostage
crisis in the late 1980s.
A Bahai fast-food restaurant owner told us, "some of my customers
have regretted having eaten at my restaurant after finding out I am Iranian."
Another Iranian summed up the influence of the media on American public
opinion towards Iranians, "The daily behavior of Americans depends
on what they said about Iranians on TV the night before."
The woman quoted above, whose children had been mistreated at school,
quipped that "My children are still being treated the same way in school."
Lastly, someone said, "I went to the Burbank airport to get hired.
They didn't accept me saying 'you're a terrorist'."
Other sources, such as the following selected headlines in the New
York Times during the hostage crisis (1979-1980), independently attest
to the Iranian immigrants' plight:
"Iranian students in U.S. frustrated by American hostility"
"Some Iranians in U.S. have been intimidated and assaulted"
"Iranians trying to avoid mandatory repatriation"
"Immigration & Naturalization Service says it will not permit
tens of thousands of Iranian visitors to extend their stays in U.S."
In the next section, I examine the effects of host hostility on the ethnicity,
ethnic identity, and ethnic solidarity of Iranians. The expectation is that
it should enhance both ethnicity and ethnic identity of this immigrant group,
and even potentially lead to ethnic solidarity.
Ethnicity and ethnic solidarity
Ethnicity has cultural, social, and psychological dimensions. As pointed
out by Min (1996), the literature mistakenly uses ethnicity to include ethnic
attachment and ethnic solidarity. Ethnic identity captures both the cultural
and psychological dimensions of ethnicity. The social dimension concerns
factors such as friendship ties, language use and endogamy.
A form of collective action, ethnic solidarity requires more than simple
ethnic attachment. The lack of solidarity is a common complaint in the Iranian
community as a whole. Community members attribute this almost exclusively
to psychological reasons, especially the individualistic Iranian character.
But there are sociological reasons for it, such as the difficulty of
organizing along the nationality lines for an ethno-religiously-diverse
population, the high-class resources of Iranian immigrants which encourage
individualism as opposed to collectivism, and a wide range in political
ideology among the highly politicized exiles, particularly Muslims, which
further fragments the community.
In spite of the lack of an all-encompassing Iranian ethnicity, however,
some Iranian subgroups are highly ethnic or unassimilated, as shown by the
results of the survey of Iranians in Los Angeles. While only 0.5 percent
of Armenians, 23 percent of Bahais, and 19.3 percent of Jews identified
themselves as Iranian only, 97 percent of Armenians, 73.5 percent of Bahais
and 78 percent of Jews identified themselves by their ethno-religious and
hyphenated Iranian background (e.g., Armenian and Armenian Iranian).
Only among secular and nationalist Muslims, two-thirds identified themselves
as Iranian only and 28 percent considered themselves to be Muslims and/or
Iranian Muslims. As former middleman minorities in Iran, Armenians and Jews
are more ethnic (less assimilated) than either Bahais or Muslims are in
the United States.
A higher proportion of Armenians and Jews than Bahais and Muslims tend
to be endogamous, live near close relatives, have Iranian co-religionist
close friends, attend social gatherings of mostly Iranian co-religionists,
and prefer to participate in Iranian co-religionist organizations (Bozorgmehr
1997). Religious observance is the only variable that clearly distinguishes
Iranian Muslims from other Iranians.
Only 5 percent of Iranian Muslims are observant, i.e., they always or
often practice religious ceremonies and rituals such as daily prayers and
fasting during Ramadan. This is mainly due to migrant selectivity; originally,
these Muslims were secular in Iran. We asked the respondents for the discrepancy
between religious observance in Iran and in the US.
Of the one-quarter who stated that they were less religious in the US,
most gave reasons such as "lack of time," "facility too far
in the US," and "negative impact of religion in Iran." The
latter refers to the way religion has been interpreted in the Islamic Republic
of Iran. The loss of ethnicity among Iranian Bahais is understandable in
light of their religious doctrine of integration and assimilation.
There is hardly any evidence that points to the ethnic solidarity of
Iranians as a whole in the US or any parts thereof. In Los Angeles, minorities
from Iran, who are better organized than Muslims because of their pre-migration
minority experience, have divided loyalties to Iran and their respective
co-religionists, and if pressed opt to support the co-religionist causes.
For instance, Armenian Iranians contributed financially to the rescue
efforts for the Armenian victims of the devastating earthquake in Yerevan,
Armenia and not to the victims of a similarly sizable earthquake in Iran.
In other cities, such as Washington, D.C., where Iranians are more homogeneous
(i.e., mostly Muslims), there is still no indication of ethnic solidarity
among this group.
Iranian Muslim immigrants lack historical experience in organizing since
the Shah discouraged most organizational activities to avert opposition
against him. But much time has passed since the large influx of Iranians
into the U.S., and they have by now should have adjusted to the American
Among the few ethnic associations that Iranians have established in Washington,
D.C., none are set up to defend and advance the rights of this group in
the US (BiParva 1994). This is in contrast to Arab Americans, who despite
their tremendous national-origin diversity and preoccupation with Arab-Israeli
conflict in the Middle East, have formed the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination
One of the objectives of ADC has been to challenge discriminatory laws
and measures taken against Arab Americans. Iranian Americans have formed
an Iranian American Republican Council, whose purposes are, among others,
"to enhance the image, promote the interests and protect the rights
of the Iranians living in the United States."
However, these efforts have been either symbolic (e.g., an acknowledgement
of the Persian New Year on the calendar), or oriented wholly toward the
homeland (e.g., asking American politicians to exert political pressure
on the Iranian regime). In either case, exile status has resulted in a preoccupation
with the homeland at the expense of the problems Iranians have faced in
The liability of Iranian nationality in the U.S. has unwittingly forced
the minorities from Iran to stress the minority aspect of their identity
over their Iranian nationality (e.g., Armenian instead of Armenian Iranian).
When prejudice or discrimination takes on an anti-nationality form, immigrant
subgroups may shed their national identity to avert discrimination and prejudice.
For instance, the English nationality-specific name of the Iranian Armenian
Society was changed to the more general Armenian Society of Los Angeles
after several threatening messages were scribbled over their building during
the hostage crisis.
Yet when these minorities come into contact with their non-Iranian co-religionists,
they are made aware of cultural and socioeconomic differences that exist
between them (Feher 1998; Fischler 1999). Ultimately, the more different
recent immigrants are culturally from their counterpart hosts, the more
inevitable the conflict between the two.
This paper focused on the obvious but surprisingly neglected topic of
discrimination and prejudice towards Iranians in the US, especially in the
last two decades. This oversight itself points to the lack of ethnic solidarity
(i.e., organizing to meet the group's interests) among Iranians to monitor,
record, report, and ultimately challenge such acts and attitudes.
Contrary to the experience of many other groups, the causes of inter-group
conflict between Iranians and the members of the host society (generally
Americans) are rooted in the anti-American actions of the Iranian regime.
This calls into question the existing models of inter-ethnic relations,
which have emphasized economic and political competition in the receiving
society. This paper shows that strained bilateral relations can also precipitate
According to a presidential order, during the "Iranian hostage crisis"
in the early 1980s, Iranians who were in violation of their visa status
(e.g., visa overstayers) were subject to deportation. An unintended consequence
of this "Iranian Control Program" was that it legitimized anti-Iranian
ill feelings among the American public. Despite this, the extent of discrimination
by Americans against Iranian immigrants has been less than one would expect
from the raging conflicts between Iran and the US.
However, the perception of prejudice among Iranians is quite high, and
as such they often interpret anti-immigrant sentiments as uniquely anti-Iranian.
Except for some fights and brawls that broke out during the revolution and
the ensuing hostage crisis, especially on university campuses, Iranians
have sidestepped major conflicts with the American public. There are several
sociological reasons for this.
First, as one of the most highly educated and skilled immigrant groups,
Iranians have avoided economic competition with the native-born.
Second, given the ethnic and religious heterogeneity of Iranians, some
Iranian subgroups (e.g., Jews, Christian Armenians and Assysrians) have
had the option of identifying with their ethno-religious background rather
than with Iranian nationality, and thereby have avoided conflict.
Third, this heterogeneity has prevented Iranians from developing a strong
overreaching Iranian ethnicity, much less ethnic solidarity.
Fourth, Iranians have disassociated themselves as much as possible from
the Iranian regime, whose anti-American slogans and actions perpetrate anti-Iranian
feelings in the United States.
Lastly, the exile status, and its concomitant myth of return, has continued
to preoccupy many Iranians, and has resulted in an orientation towards the
homeland rather than the US.
Since Americans cannot distinguish between the actions of the Iranian
regime and the sentiments of Iranian exiles and immigrants in the US, Iranian
immigrants and their children continue to be vulnerable to discrimination
and prejudice in the face of an adverse relationship between the two countries.
Even after these relations have become normalized, there is no escaping
prejudice and discrimination without coming to grips with it, and collectively
organizing to challenge it as much as possible.
I would like to thank the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies for
its invitation to attend their conference in Amman, Jordan, whose theme
encouraged me to write this paper. I especially want to thank the institute's
staff for being the most gracious host imaginable. Georges Sabagh, Pyong
Gap Min, and Mitra Shavarini offered useful comments on earlier drafts of
this paper. Grants from the National Science Foundation and Professional
Staff Congress City University of New York have supported this research.
1) Discrimination refers to a negative action, prejudice to an adverse
attitude. To top
2) In contrast, about 20% of the total foreign-born and the total native-born
in the US had completed four years of college or more. To
3 ) Iranian Muslims do not have a similar list. To top
4) This is partly due to the fact that many exiles were not yet in the
labor force at the time of the hostage crisis since it occurred shortly
after their arrival. To top
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