“When you look at the Muslim populations in different Western countries, every Muslim community in every Western country has a different experience, based on the way that religion is situated within that country’s frame,” Dr. Kathryn Spellman Poots observed during a recent interview. Rather than examining those differences closely, she says, Islam too often is characterized as a singular source of fundamentalist oppression and sectarian violence, a view that results in prejudice and irrational fear, as well as heavy-handed attempts at erecting barriers to no one’s benefit.
Presently a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, Dr. Spellman Poots works in issues relating to Muslims in Europe and North America, the Iranian diaspora, transnational migration networks, and gender and religion in the Middle East and North Africa. On March 19, she will participate along with other experts and artists in a panel discussion, “Banned: Iranian Diaspora Arts as a Force for Rapprochement,” during the Persian Arts Festival at National Sawdust, timed to mark the New Year’s celebration Nowruz. Reached by telephone, she spoke about issues regarding Iranian migration, assimilation, and success abroad, and about the unique qualities that make Nowruz universal to Iranians of all classes and creeds.
Over the years, have there been particular dominant reasons that caused Iranians to emigrate? My research focused mainly on Iranians who left because of the Revolution: just prior to the Revolution, those who were tied to the Shah, who was deposed, and then following the Revolution, a very diverse group of people who were in different ways affected by the rise of an Islamic revolution and [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini at that time. There were so many different groups of people that united together to get rid of the Shah, who was seen as tied to the West and creating inequality in Iranian society – there were leftists, nationalists, Islamists, very different types of people who banded together to overthrow the Shah – so then after the Revolution happened, a wide, diverse group of people went into exile, which made up the bulk of the Iranian diaspora.
That said, you did have a lot of students during the Shah’s time, in the 1960s and ’70s, who went to the West mainly to study or to gain skills. So you did have thousands of Iranians in the West prior to the Revolution, but for the most part they thought they were going back home. My work focused mainly on Iranians who came after the Revolution, and then there’s been different movements of Iranians who’ve left Iran since then.
The overwhelming impact of the 1979 Revolution would seem to be the clearest catalyst in modern times for population flux. But I wonder how that might have changed during the more moderate Rafsanjani period, and if it shifted again during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Yes, exactly. Basically, you had the major influx after the Revolution, and then you had sort of a trickle of different people after that – mainly people who were of different religious groups, and those who were trying to get away from the Iran/Iraq War. What’s interesting, it has to be said, is that when [Mohammad] Khatami came to power… and [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani, as well, Rafsanjani actively invited Iranians in the diaspora to come back to Iran. So there started to be more people traveling within and between Iran during the Khatami period. They changed policies toward Iranians living in the diaspora; instead of shunning them, they were welcoming people back.
When you started to have the reform movement in Iran – I would call it the post-Islamist period, in a sense, when people started to challenge and question the policies of the Islamic regime – there were a lot of negotiations going on within the government itself, and social movements happening in Iran. And then there were clampdowns, where people questioned and found problems with these reformers; you then had more people leaving Iran at that time, as well. That’s led all the way up to the Green Revolution [post-2009], and it’s really continued on.
I remember being profoundly affected by American media during the 1979 Revolution, getting the sense that “Shi’a” was a dirty word and Shi’ite Muslims were something of which to be terrified. That alienation and antagonism seem to have intensified despite successive waves of moderation. The rhetoric of our present administration, in its attempts to impose border restrictions, is that such populations immigrate but refuse to assimilate. Is that view supported at all by evidence? No, no. That’s a really interesting question. I find it really frustrating to look at the gulf between the stereotypes of Iran and Shi’ism and Iranian people and the realities on the ground. I’m part of an edited volume now of the most recent research on the Iranian diaspora in many different countries, and I’ve been reading all the chapters, and I contributed a chapter on the U.K. Across the board, what all of the chapters have in common – this is in mainly Western European countries, and there’s also a chapter on North America, the U.S. and Canada – are the negative stereotypes that Iranians have to deal with.
In popular discourses, political discourses, it’s been very hard for Iranians to try to negotiate the sort of essentialized images that people have of Iran and Iranian people. And at the same time, if you look at the different ways that Iranians have integrated into different countries, for the most part they have been hugely successful. In the U.S. they’re a highly successful group, which is not surprising, because a lot of the Iranians that came to America came from educated backgrounds, and from middle class backgrounds.
But even in countries where you have a real mix of Iranians from all different economic backgrounds and situations, like in the U.K., for the most part Iranians are not focused on in the U.K. because they don’t cause any social problems. Economically they’re doing extremely well. Their employment rates are high as a group. Many Iranians have broken into the mainstream in the arts, in the business world, in education, and in politics; many have high-profile jobs. And this is the case in many of the countries that we focused on in the book. So there’s a great disparity between attitudes toward Iran and Iranians, and the contributions that Iranians are making in these different countries.
What do you foresee as the likely impact of the current administration’s attempt to prevent Iranians, and citizens of other Islamic-prevalent nations, from coming into this country, integrating, and contributing? I think that the current administration is humiliating our country. It’s embarrassing. It’s shameful. And the world is laughing at us. It’s hugely detrimental to our reputation as a world leader. It’s laughable what’s going on now – and people are laughing. People are making jokes about us. It’s an embarrassment, from my perspective, and I think that it will be counterproductive. This sort of ban will make the situation, in terms of security, worse.
We’ve seen evidence already that President Trump is being used as a sort of proselytizing tool among radicalized factions to continue the movement by saying, essentially, “This is how the West views you.” Yes, exactly.
We see traces of the same animus in Europe. Anti-Islamic sentiment was rejected soundly in the Dutch election, but nationalistic movements are on the rise. We’re looking with extreme concern at France. We see this rhetoric arising everywhere, but America seems to be the flashpoint. Exactly. We have gone through a process of exceptionalizing Islam, and this is an enormous problem. When you look at the Muslim populations in different Western countries, every Muslim community in every Western country has a different experience based on the way that religion is situated within that country’s frame. So the Muslims in France, due to laïcité and the French secular state, have a very different situation than Muslims in the U.K., or in Germany.
But unfortunately, instead of doing nuanced studies to see the different situations that are very complex, that relate to the types of people who happen to be Muslims who ended up in these countries and why, and how they have different obstacles in integrating because of the different nation-state models, the history of colonial ties, etcetera, etcetera – instead, we exceptionalize Islam and place it into a single identity, and then we’ll start sentences like, “Islam oppresses women,” “Islam is incompatible with democracy.”
These questions are misguided. We must not start with Islam as the starting point – Islam is not like a shield that you wear. We have to look at how people interpret Islamic doctrines. How does it fit within their lives? Are they from a Muslim background and atheist? We need to look at their national formations, we need to look at religious authority, we have to look at their day-to-day life, we need to look at people’s education level, class, etcetera. There are very many different levels of analysis, so starting with the starting point as Islam defining something is misguided.
Let’s turn to Nowruz, the Iranian New Year’s celebration, and the motivation for the event in which you’re participating March 19. You’ve described Nowruz as “the only calendrical occasion that is acknowledged by Iranians from all backgrounds.” What accounts for that remarkable universality? It is so deeply embedded in Iranian culture. It goes back to pre-Islamic times. It’s linked to the Zoroastrian faith: although Nowruz isn’t written about in the Avesta, there’s evidence that it was very much practiced in Zoroastrian feasts in a very similar way. When the Arabs invaded Iran – actually, I think it was on Nowruz that they invaded Iran, because they knew that their guard would be down – when Iran became Muslim, it was still so profoundly important in Iranian culture that it continued. And then it ended up being co-opted by the leaders during the Safavid period [1501-1736] and later.
Historically it’s evolved over the years, and has maintained its strength through all of the different political chapters in Iranian history. What’s interesting is that historically it was not celebrated only by the royal courts or the elite; it was celebrated by people from all backgrounds, all classes. And it’s always been celebrated across all religions, so Iranian Jews, Iranian Armenians, Assyrians, Zoroastrians, Muslims, and all of the different ethnic groups – the Azeri, the Balochi – they all unified around this celebration.
It’s all about growth… it’s about springtime. And there’s a lead-up to it – it’s so exciting. The Wednesday before Nowruz you have Chahar Shambeh Suri, where you jump over the fire. It’s about getting rid of the past, and jumping over the fire into the present. It’s a cleansing. You plant sabzeh, the greens, two weeks beforehand so they’re grown for the time of Nowruz. There’s lots of preparation. It’s all about cleansing – everyone cleans their house, and you get new clothes. It’s a wonderful lead-up to the actual day.
And it’s a very important holiday now in Iran, even though at the time of the Revolution there were some influential clerics who tried to dampen the festivities around Nowruz because they were worried that it was too social and too nationalistic, and not religiously inclined enough. It didn’t work – there’s no way you’re going to have Iranians not celebrate Nowruz [laughs]. So instead, there’s a long history of religious clerics that tried to co-opt Nowruz into Shi’ism, and tried to find hadiths that referred to something like Nowruz. They tried to Islamize Nowruz.
If you can’t beat it, own it. Exactly. And what’s fascinating is that, as part of my research, I made a point of going to so many different types of people who had Nowruz parties, who had different politics, different socio-economic backgrounds, different religions. And this was so interesting: When you see the Haft-Seen [traditional celebratory table setting], you really could tell a lot about the type of people. Some people would have the Quran on the Haft-Seen. Almost all groups had Hafez [14th century Persian poet], very interestingly, on the Haft-Seen table. The Iranian Christians would have a Bible. Every single group, you would see the different symbols that would reflect their sort of stance. But it was all unified, at the same time, with the Haft-Seen.
Dr. Kathryn Spellman Poots participates in a panel discussion concerning Iranian diaspora arts at National Sawdust on Sunday, March 19, at 4pm, part of a daylong Persian Arts Festival; www.nationalsawdust.org