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Identity

On the Aryan trail
Honest discussion of Iranian identity is essential to building a prosperous future for Iran

 

Mohammad R. Jahan-Parvar
April 27, 2005
iranian.com

A dialog on identity of Iranians as a nation is both healthy and desirable. Respected Iranian scholar Dariush Ashuri considers these discussions as signs of transformation of Iran from an Asian despotism to a modern nation-state. Admittedly, this process is taking a very long time, given that Iranians clearly have access to other nations' experiences. As usual, in such debates nothing is sacred. We are supposed to critically question many comfortable "facts". But critical thinking requires intelligent and methodical processing of knowledge.

This is where I find faults in Mr. Madadi's analysis of origins of Iranians ["Are Iranians really Aryans?"]. His view of Reza Shah Pahlavi's nation-building project is historically accurate. Reza Shah and many of his intellectual supporters, including at a certain point in time Taghizadeh, Hedayat, Kasravi, and Pir Nia, indeed tried to build a national identity for the modern Iran based on a glorified view of ancient empires of pre-Islamic Iran. In many ways, that project required a tool to break from entrenched and staunchly anti-modernist traditions and customs of (mainly Shi'ite) Muslim "ummat".

Bluntly speaking, no one could build a modern state in the wreck that was Iran in late Qajar period, unless power of guardians of the old system; landlords, ulama, and tribal chiefs, was crushed. Ancient Persian Empire provided this tool.

Besides an educational system to train bureaucrats, a dynamic legal system, an army and a police force, a modern nation also needs a founding myth! This myth is generally set in the distant past. There are exceptions, US being one of them. But you need a myth to rally the nation. Whether Reza shah was right or wrong in his choice of the founding myth is an open debate. But Aryan origin of (majority) of Iranians is not part of that founding myth.

There is a huge deal of controversy extant in Western world over the word "Aryan". The dominant political terminology of early and mid 20th century indeed attached a largely erroneous racial description to this name. If by Aryan one means "of European or Nordic" origin, the answer to Mr. Madadi's question is a clear "no". Iranians are not European. The absolute majority of Iranians belong to the Mediterranean subgroup of Caucasian race along with Arabs, Armenians, Turks, North Africans, Albanians and Greeks.

But it is a historical fact that eastern Indo-European people (a linguistic term and not a racial term) indeed called themselves Aryan. That includes ancestors of many present day Afghans, Armenians, Azarbaijanis, Iranian, Tajik, northern Indians, and Pakistanis.

Moreover, in today's terminology, Aryan is a person who speaks an Aryan language, a large family of Indo-European languages spoken in western and southern Asia. In Iran this definition includes Persian, Kurdish, Luri, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Baluchi and many other languages and dialects. Thus, calling a majority of Iranians Aryan does not seem as problematic as the author would have us believe.

He also makes an assertion about based on official statistics, on percentage of Persian speaking population, and by extension, percentage of Iranians with Aryan heritage. As a trained statistician, I would like to see the source of Mr. Madadi's claim, since numerous field studies show the exact opposite.

Many internationally recognized sources including CIA and National Geographic report a slim absolute majority for Persian speakers (51 to 52%) and a size able majority for all Indo-European speakers (70 to 73%). Azrabaijani Turkish is the most widely spoken non-Aryan language in Iran (about 20 to 22% of the population).

Yet, there are not many marked cultural and anthropological differences between Azarbaijanis and other Iranians. In other words, first majority of Iranians are indeed speakers of eastern Indo-European languages (hence Aryan if you will). And second, the number of Iranian citizens who do not share racial or linguistic background with the majority is negligible.

I agree with the author that an honest discussion of Iranian identity is essential to building a prosperous future for Iran. But in doing so, careful choice of statements and checking the facts are essential. Unfortunately, the author has failed in this respect. I do agree with the author that nationalism (as opposed to patriotism) makes a weak foundation for a nation. The other extreme project of 20th century, nation building around Shi'a Islam, has also failed.

An honest revision of Iranian history is a very good starting point. Also, redefining the Iranian identity based on a modern definition of liberty, citizenship, human, political, and cultural rights, as well as common historical and cultural experience would not do us much harm. In a modern society, the point reference is the individual. A nation should be viewed as a union of free individuals. Collective definitions such as race, ethnic group, tribe, clan, and religious faith are unfortunate legacies of our past.

About
Mohammad R. Jahan-Parvar is an instructor in Macroeconomic in the Department of Economics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Homepage.

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