The Arab Spring showed the world how social media can help organize mass political dissent. In the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, single issues coalesced online into far broader and diverse campaigns that toppled ruling regimes. Recently, outside of the Arab world, discriminatory government policies in Iran against Afghans have come to light. Decried by critics as overt state-backed racism, it is a scandalous hot-button issue that the rulers of the “Islamic Republic” have little chance of defending. Already a nascent but growing social media campaign has emerged to condemn it and may soon tap into broader popular grievances against the entire regime.
“We are all Afghans” is the new rally cry among Iranian and Afghan social media users, shocked by recent discriminatory Iranian government policies against the over two million Afghans living in Iran. A Facebook page with over 20,000 members now exists. And yes, there are protests planned. Iran’s recent Oscar-winning filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi, is speaking out too.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has hardly dispelled these growing charges of racism either. On the contrary, his recent speeches have contained overt declarations of Persian supremacy. The regime of the “Islamic Republic of Iran,” whose clerical leadership claims the mantle of the Prophet Muhammad (an Arab) and his family, is baring an increasing resemblance to the resurgent Neo-Fascist parties of Europe. And it is ironic that the hated Shah Reza Pahlavi regime, overthrown by the 1979 Revolution, was once fiercely condemned by Shiite clerics for emphasizing a Persian identity for Iran instead of an Islamic one.
The BBC reports that the deputy governor-general of Iran’s northern Mazandaran Province announced late last month that all Afghans must leave the province irrespective of their legal status by July 2 (meaning it’s not an illegal immigration issue). The deputy governor has further warned the public that offering employment or any kind of assistance to Afghans is a crime “punishable by the full force of the law.” He also asserted the validity of a law passed in 2006 that made marriage between Iranian women and Afghan men illegal. Meanwhile, last month in Isfahan, Afghans were banned by officials from attending Nowruz (Persian New Year) celebrations in a public park because they “caused insecurity.”
One Iranian blogger, suggesting a more pervasive racism beyond Iranian government institutions, recently posted photos of signs in Iran that ban the use of facilities by Afghans or dictate segregated facilities for Afghans. Still another Iranian blogger compared recent events to the rise of Le Pen’s anti-immigrant Front National party in France and lamented the racism in Iran by stating: “[We tell Westerners that] we are from the land of Cyrus the Great, but we think Afghans are murderers, Arabs are savages, Turks are naive and Blacks smell.”
Responses to the controversy from officials in Iran’s “Islamic” government have ranged from silence and denial to speeches glorifying the supremacy of the Persian people among the nations of the earth. Take, for instance, a recent speech (broadcast on state television) by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on April 11, 2012, in the province of Hormozgan. In the speech, he states:
Inside Iran, some ask me why I always speak about Iran. They say this is, I do not know, nationalism, ethnic racism, and so forth. Such talk is baseless. Iran is not an ethnos. Iran is a culture, vision, ethics, and ideology. . . . You look for people similar to our people in other countries. Look around the borders and compare with neighbors, and you will see the difference. There is a huge difference. This difference does not mean arrogance and vanity. It is first of all a divine gift, the glorification of the divine gift. It points to a mission [for our people].
Ahmadinejad goes onto boldly claim that: If you take away the share of the Iranian nation from human civilization, nothing will be left. In support of his ethnocentric narrative, Ahmadinejad sprinkles his speech with a range of anecdotal stories. In one instance, he recounts how extensively he has traveled, visiting more places in Iran than anyone else. Thanks to his travels, he claims, he has seen firsthand that “the best people of the world are living in Iran today.” He also lists some recent achievements of Iran, claiming in the vaguest terms that Iran has improved “nanotechnologies and biotechnologies,” making it “among the few top countries in the world.” And finally he recounts a story that seems to be a hadith from the Prophet Muhammad (again, an Arab), although I am personally unfamiliar with it. It relates that the Prophet once told his followers that “Iranians will [one day] guide and lead, and introduce the truth of Islam to the world.” This, Ahmadinejad says, proves that Iranians have a divinely decreed mission to lead the world (and they must act on it).
This rhetoric of racial or ethnic pride and supremacy goes entirely against Islamic ideals about the equality and universal brotherhood of all Muslims as a single ummah. And yes, I do mean ideals. On an everyday level, one can find examples of racism and prejudice in every Muslim country in the world, just as one can find it in any other country, including the United States of America. But what makes this case so peculiar is that most countries don’t claim to be an “Islamic Republic” or a righteous state representing God’s Mahdi on earth. Moral condemnation aside, it is a tremendous blunder for the theocratic regime to indulge in this sort of racist rhetoric and behavior. And I cannot see how the “Great Satan” or the “Zionist entity” can be blamed for this one. At the very least, Iran’s treatment of its Afghans, many of whom arrived as refugees during the Soviet invasion, will only further alienate its Sunni neighbors and produce further international isolation.
More importantly though, recent events in mind, I have to wonder if the “We are All Afghans” movement might coalesce into something much more. After all, there is no shortage of grievances among the Iranian populace. Iran’s nuclear program has yet to produce anything but international tensions and sanctions. And the tragic martyrdom of Neda Agha Soltan amidst the 2009 election scandal has yet to be forgotten, despite the regime’s best efforts. Sound far-fetched? Perhaps, but who would have thought that a fatal case of police brutality in Alexandria, Egypt, would have led to the “We are all Khaled Saeed” campaign that grew into a popular revolution that overthrew the US-backed Mubarak regime? Perhaps there’s a “Persian Spring” on the horizon after all.