On Wednesday evening, Reza Zia-Ebrahimi, history lecturer at King’s College in London, painted a detailed picture of the rise of Iranian nationalism to an audience of students, faculty, and community members in East Pyne 010.
The talk, entitled “The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism: Race and the Politics of Dislocation,” explored a topic Zia-Ebrahimi called “dislocative nationalism.” The term “dislocative” does not refer to any sort of geographical migration, Zia-Ebrahimi explained, but instead refers to the efforts of Iranian nationalists to “dislocate” or separate the culture of Iran from the surrounding Middle East and paint it as similar to European cultures. Zia-Ebrahimi’s research seeks to pinpoint the origins of this dislocative effort.
“I came to see the sheer unanimity of these myths as something that is begging for an explanation,” Zia-Ebrahimi said. “We needed to be able trace the origins and find out who formulated them first and for what purpose and in what historical circumstances.”
Zia-Ebrahimi argued that dislocative nationalism in Iran was based on three things: first, the belief that Iran is a land of Aryans; second, an infatuation with pre-Islamic Iran; and third, a hostility against, as Zia-Ebrahimi put it, “Arabs as a people, Arabic as a language, and Islam as a religion.”
“I would be lying if I said I always wanted to do this research,” said Zia-Ebrahimi. “Like most Iranians of my social background, I grew up in an environment that absolutely upheld all these myths I ended up researching.”
Zia-Ebrahimi explained that many of the main concepts of dislocative nationalism came from the hybridization and selective choosing of ideas from European scholars in the 19th century, especially that of Mirza Fath’ali Akhundzadeh, who Zia-Ebrahimi argues is the founder of dislocative nationalism. These ideas, expanded on thirty years later by the scholar Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani, were foundationally anti-Islamic and focused on Aryan superiority, he explained. They consistently used the Arab and Muslim populations as scapegoats for most if not every problem Iran experienced.
“There is a consistent trend among dislocative nationalists to assume that the problem of inequality between the genders in Iran can be entirely attributed to Islam and taking Islam out of the equation creates full equality,” said Zia-Ebrahimi. “The Arabs become a very convenient scapegoat of Iran’s decline. Backwardness and despotism from that period to this day are explained by a simple all-encompassing reference to Islam and Arabs.”
Out of this hostility towards all things Arab and Muslim, Zia-Ebrahimi said, came the dislocative nationalist’s obsessions with the Persian figure of Cyrus the Great and also symbols of Zoroastrianism. Those days were and are seen by Iranian nationalists as a utopian “Golden Age.”
“There is simply the assumption that whatever is there before Islam and whatever was supplanted by Islam must have been good,” said Zia-Ebrahimi. “The representation of pre-Islamic Iran ... is really a utopian paradise devoid of poverty, devoid of corruption and injustice.”
Zia-Ebrahimi emphasized the distinction between dislocative nationalism and modernism; modernism and ideologies like it are far more pragmatic and deal with policy change, while dislocative nationalism is narrative-focused, honing in less on any sort of desire for political or policy change and more on the idea of “taking back” a culture.
“There is hardly any blueprint for reform to be found in dislocative nationalism” said Zia-Ebrahimi. “[The] ideology is a narrative, a historicist narrative, and what explains Iran’s downfall and how it stands today.”
Zia-Ebrahimi is a senior lecturer in history and an associate professor at King’s College in London, and was formerly a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. He has been a fellow of the Swiss National Science Foundation and of the Government Department of the London School of Economics, and is currently a visiting scholar at the Holocaust Center in Oslo.
Zia-Ebrahimi goes deeper into the topic of his lecture in his 2016 book of the same name, “The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism: Race and the Politics of Dislocation.”
The lecture, sponsored by the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, was held at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 6.