“Erm… I can’t show you here”, says Saudi researcher Mohammed Alsulami (1973) in the Lipsiuscafé. “That would really give people the wrong impression.” He looks round cautiously and points to his arm. Then he finds the word he wants. “I mean: they gave the Nazi salute. You can watch it on YouTube.”
Alsulami isn’t talking about a meeting of Stormfront somewhere in dank shed, but a football match between Iran and Germany in Teheran in 2004. When the German national anthem was played, some of the Iranian audience gave a Nazi salute.
Last Wednesday, Alsulami was awarded his doctorate for his research into the rise of Iranian nationalism in the nineteenth century. The desire to express an Iranian national identity led to powerful feelings of anti-Arabism, which Alsulami even describes as Arabophobia.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Iran – also known as Persia for long periods of history – allied itself to Germany, a country regarded by some Iranians as a nation of Aryan brothers. Alsulami’s dissertation reveals that the Nazis and the Iranian nationalists were influenced by the same ideas. Even in modern-day Iran, traces of Aryanism can still be found, as the behaviour of the Iranian supporters at the match against Germany demonstrates. “But most of those feelings disappeared after the horrors of the Second World War”, says Alsulami.
As a nation, Saudi Arabia shows little interest in the history of Iran and Alsulami had trouble finding an opportunity to study it. “We know very little about our neighbours, even though so many Muslims visit that country for the hajj. And we don’t have any historians who focus on Iranian history, either. Extensive studies are made of America and Europe, but nobody wants to study the country to the east of us, which is only separated from us by the Persian Gulf.
When I was at secondary school, we had a subject that taught us about epics from all over the world. We learned about Homers’ Iliad and Odyssey and spent some time reading the Shahnameh, a Persian epic poem of some 60,000 lines, written by the poet Ferdowsi in the early part of the eleventh century. The Shahnameh, part legend and part factual history, describes the history of Persia – more than three thousand years of it, up to the time of the rise of Islam in the seventh century.”
It aroused Alsulami’s curiosity. “But the university in Riyadh did not have anywhere where I could study Persian history and culture. However, they taught Persian at the university’s Faculty of Languages and Translation, so I did that.”
In the end, he even won a grant from the Saudi government to spend a year in at Umm al-Qura University in Teheran. “That was in 2004. At the time, the president was the relatively reformist Mohammad Khatami and the country welcomed foreigners; relations with Saudi Arabia were good. It’s all changed since then. When I visited, I took my wife and children and we had a very enjoyable time, although I’m a Sunni and Iran is Shiite. Even though it’s a sensitive issue, I didn’t have any problems. But there are barriers for Sunnis – Teheran does not allow any Sunni mosques, for instance.”
Alsulami started to read up on Iranian nationalism. “In the nineteenth century, people in Persia started to take an interest in the West and Iranian intellectuals would travel abroad. They realised that their country was lagging very much behind Europe and called for modernisation. They said their country was “backward”; a group of writers and thinkers linked this backwardness to Islam, and then equated Arabs with Islam. Their way of thinking put the blame on the Arabs for the fact that Iran had not kept up with modern developments: it was all the Arabs’ fault.”
The nationalists were influenced by European scholars such as the French philosopher and expert on the Middle-East, Joseph Ernest Renan, who had written a history of Persia. He also held strong anti-Islamic and anti-Arabic views. In his opinion, the original Iranian peoples, the Aryans, were stifled by Arabic domination. “That idea reverberated with the Iranian nationalists. They read about their own culture and longed for those days of glory to return. In their work, they inflated the Iranian identity in defiance against the Arabic world. I must stress that these nationalists were particularly motivated by a desire to modernise the country.”
Fath-Ali Akhundzadih was one of the first writers to target the Arabs, writing, for example: “Oh, what a pity, Iran. What happened to this mighty nation? Where is its divine sovereignty? A handful of naked, bare-foot, hungry and wild Arabs arrived in this country, bringing pain and darkness.”
Aqa-Khan Kirmani, a writer who was to publish fiercely patriotic articles, even described the Arabs as “thieving mice-eaters, the worst and most evil of people, inferior even to animals. These people are to blame for the destruction of Iran’s civilisation.”
Linguistics distinguishes between Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew and Indo-European languages which include French and German, for instance, but Persian too. Moreover, as racial doctrine advanced in the nineteenth century, distinctions were made between Semitic and Indo-European ethnicity.
The Iranian nationalists sought affiliation with their Indo-European brothers, focusing mainly on Germany. In the nineteenth century, Persia often locked horns with Russia and the United Kingdom and consequently, an alliance with Germany against these two major powers seemed the obvious course.
Between 1916 and 1927, a new generation of Iranian nationalists published the journals Kavih and Iranshar in Berlin. Then, in 1925, Reza Khan Pahlavi seized power in Persia and became the new shah. He brought the Berlin group to Teheran and institutionalised Aryanism. In 1935, he announced that his country was the birthplace of the superior Aryan race and should, from then on, be called Iran, derived from “Aryan”.
Nazi Germany and Iran, led by Reza Khan Pahlavi, maintained cordial ties: Iranians are described as pure Aryans in the infamous Nuremburg Laws, introduced in September 1935. “In 1939, the Nazis sent an entire academic library consisting of 7,500 books to Teheran; the books had been selected to convince the Iranians of the kinship between the Greater German Reich and Iran’s Aryan culture.”
In 1941, the Shah was disposed by the British and the Russians and succeeded by his son, Crown Prince Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Breaking radically away from the Nazis, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi remained in power until the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Relations between Iran and its Arabic neighbours are still troubled. “The anti-Arabic sentiments of modern-day Iran are less prominent than they were at one time, although there is still tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia – about Syria, for instance. Soldiers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are fighting in Assad’s army – much to the disapproval of Saudi Arabia. The Syria issue must be resolved if relations with Iran are to improve; I hope they can work it out.”
As it is, Alsulami hopes that his native country will show more interest in Iran: “I want to set up a Study Centre at my university in Riyadh so there will be at least one place in Saudi Arabia where you can learn about the history and culture of Iran.”