“Arabi ‘Ilm Ast, Parsi Shikar Ast”, Arabic is knowledge but Persian is sweetness, goes a famous Iranian saying. We Arabs and Iranians are close, yet we are so far apart. Such has been the nature of the relationship between Arabs and Iranians for many long centuries. So much common ground, yet so much alienation and division.
“They hate us and we hate them,” proclaimed Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam, saying the hatred was caused by the Iranian perception of the bitter history with Arabs. He said, candidly, “it seems that we as Iranians haven’t yet forgotten our historic defeat at the hands of the Arabs, and didn’t forget [the battle of] al-Qadisiyah 1,400 years later. So we harbor a deep and profound grudge and hatred toward Arabs, as though it’s fire under the ashes that can turn into a flame whenever opportunity arises.”
Closeness and repulsion, partnership and animosity, it is a conflict that has not ended centuries later. This is reflected in the political clash and proxy wars taking place in multiple parts of the Arab world. Both sides are to blame for this relationship that has been strained for centuries. Both Arabs and Iranians live far too much in the past, to an unhealthy extent for any nation.
Arabs say that Iranians are condescending and arrogant, and do not want to forget their Persian empire which was obliterated at the hands of Muslim Arabs in the seventh century. Iranians say that Arabs have brought to them their backwardness, and hindered their progress by occupying their lands and attempting to disfigure their Persian identity stretching back thousands of years. Either way, the outcome is one: A neighborly loathing that continues to fuel the region’s political-sectarian conflicts.
“I don’t deny that there are old anti-Arab pieces of literature in the Persian heritage. But I firmly believe that the hatred we see today is the result of the Pahlavi effort to revive Persian nationalism at the expense of other ethnicities,” says Dr. Arang Keshavarzian, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, in an interview with Raseef22. But Dr. Keshavarzian doesn’t confine the rise of nationalist sentiments to Iranians alone, and says that the same applies to Arabs.
Dr. Keshavarzian also blames other factors in explaining the reasons for this mutual antagonism. These include a mutual ignorance about one another, a lack of intermingling between the two peoples, as well as living in the confines of historic conflicts.
Dr. Keshavarzian narrows down the stereotype about Arabs in the Iranian mindset to the relationship with Iraq, which he says is the “Arab façade for Iran,” adding that Iranians “don’t know much about Egypt for example or other Arab peoples compared to what they know about the Iraqis, because of the geographical proximity and the history of the two countries.” Since the conflict between Iran and other powers in the region, most notably the Ottoman Empire occupied an important part of Iraq’s history, we can understand the problematic and complex Arab-Iranian relationship.
Leaning on historical feats to compensate for present-day failures is a trait shared by both Iranians and Arabs. Iranians boast of the glory of the Sassanid Empire, and imagine that Iran (Persia) would have remained a great power in the region, were it not for the invasion by the Bedouins who came from the dark corners of the Arabian desert. For their part, Arabs perceive Persians as a “fifth column” in the Arab-Islamic state, incessantly hatching plots and instigating sedition, recalling the examples of the Barmakids and Ibn al-Alqami.
The most pertinent factors that bolster sentiments of hostility between the two nations can be summed up as follows.
In the sixteenth century, Iran converted to Imami Shiite Islam at the hands of Ismail I, Shah of Iran and founder of the Safavid dynasty. The card of sectarian conflict between Shiites and Sunnis has been used since in the battle for hegemony between the Ottomans and the Safavids. This played out especially on Arab lands (Iraq,) whose history came to witness much tragedy and devastation as a consequence.
To this day, the majority of Sunni Arabs perceive Iran with the same sense of suspicion and mistrust as the Ottomans did. But perhaps changing political attitudes had an impact on Iranian-Arab relations. In 1947, Sheikh Muhammad Taqial-Qummie established together with a number of Sunni scholars an association for rapprochement between Islamic sects in Cairo.
The association included members like Sheikh Abdul-Majeed Salim, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar at the time, Sheikh Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Palestine, and Sheikh Ali bin Ismail al-Muayed who was a Yemeni Zaidi Shiite, in addition to Sheikh al-Qummi and Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltout. One result of the rapprochement was the famous 1959 fatwa by Sheikh Shaltout, who would become the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, declaring it lawful – from a Sunni perspective – to worship according to Imami Shiite tradition.
In contrast, the Azhar itself has now created a committee to combat the promotion of Shiite Islam in Egypt. Both sides are using archaic terms to refer to one another, with some Sunnis calling Shiite Rawafid (Rafida), and Shiites calling Sunnis Nawasib (Nasibi). Politics is once again tainting the perception of the other, borrowing the worst features of the shared Arab-Iranian history in the service of the conflict today.
The Arab-Islamic State
The Arab-Islamic state was a double-edged sword, in that it served to both bring the two nations together but also to drive a wedge between them. Political history beginning with the Muslim conquests originating from the Arabian Peninsula is full of bitter events for the Persian Iranians. Under the new state, following the collapse of the Sassanid Empire, they became Mawali – a Medieval Arabic term for non-Arab Muslims that carries connotations of second-class citizenry.
Yet at the same time, the contributions of scholars, intellectuals, and poets of Persian origins have enriched beyond measure the cultural heritage of the Muslim state – from Abu Hanifa al-Numan, founder of the first Sunni Muslim school of jurisprudence, Ibn al-Razi in medicine, Sibawayh in linguistics, and Abu Nawas in poetry in the Abbasid era, to the most prominent Arab poet in the twentieth century, Mohammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri.
All those and many others became an inseparable part of Arab heritage, and serve as proof of the extent of integration of the “citizens” of the Islamic state throughout history, in a way that transcended narrow ethnic boundaries.
Historical labels are an indication of the identitarian tension between the two sides. The old name of the Gulf is the “Persian Gulf” similar to the name “The Roman Sea” that was used by the Arabs in ancient times. According to Dr. Houchang Chehabi, professor at Boston University and an expert on Middle Eastern Politics and Cultural History, Shiite Islam, and International Law, the meaning of the name was “the road to” Persia denoting Persia’s ownership of the Gulf. But the tension between the conflicting identities on both sides of the Gulf means that it is not nomenclature that is actually at the core of the issue, but rather hegemony and subservience among other things.
As a result of a long legacy of conflict between world powers and the colonial intervention in the Middle East, many problems arose between Iran and its Arab neighbors, complicating further an already tense relationship.
Examples include the border disputes between Iraq and Iran since the beginning of the twentieth century, which eventually led to a devastating war lasting eight years; the dispute over the Emirate islands that the British occupation transferred to Iran; and the political-sectarian tensions in Bahrain. All these issues paved the way for later problems that further complicated the relationship between Arabs and Iranians, perhaps more than ever before in their joint history.
For instance, after Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003, Iraq saw a lot of Iranian meddling that precipitated a major sectarian-ethnic polarization. Arabs, who are in their majority Sunni Muslims, have thus come to see Iran and its Shiite Islamic regime as a threat.
This can perhaps explain the Arab response in the form of proxy wars in Iraq and Syria, or the exaggeration of the presented by Iranian-Shiite expansion. The old memories of political-sectarian conflict were summoned from the dark corners of history and now, the flame of sectarianism is blazing once again, burning everyone in the Middle East.
The drama reached such an extent that a renowned Arab thinker like Dr. Abdullah al-Nafisi declared “Iran a bigger threat to the Arabs than Israel.” He reiterated his warnings against the Iranian threat and the Iranian bid to control the Gulf many times, quoting statements by current Iranian President Hassan Rohani, when he was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Shura Council.
Iranians blame Arabs for Islam. This sentence may seem like a strange utterance. Indeed, Iran is an “Islamic” republic, and the majority of its people abide by Islam and are committed to performing its rituals. So how can they blame their neighbors for introducing them to Islam?
The Iranian mindset has resolved this conundrum by dividing Islam into an Iranian Islam and a non-Iranian one. The Iranian Islam in this logic is the correct understanding of the religion that must be presented to the world. This version of Islam accommodates the Iranian interpretation of Sharia and is consistent with the Shiite doctrine it has adopted.
The issue here is much deeper than one of traditional sectarian partisanship between Shiites and Sunnis. It is an Iranian attempt to preserve the distinct Iranian character that refuses to melt in a large religious pot that would place it on an equal footing with those it considers to be culturally inferior – that is Arabs. This defensive attempt acknowledges that there is no way to alter the Islamic identity of the Iranian people, but that there is another way to circumvent this by fracturing the link with the Arabs, namely, with religion.
That is the gist of remarks made by Esfandiar Rahimi, adviser to former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This was a prelude to Ahmadinejad’s attempt to emphasize the nationalist spirit in his political discourse. At the same time, it was an honest expression of what most devout Iranians believe. To them, Arabs brought Islam from the Arabian Peninsula, but they did not understand it or implement it well. This is how the paradox of embracing the message but hating the invading messengers was resolved.
The former president’s attitudes were not entirely the result of his own ideas, but are rather a different version of what Khomeini declared after the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran. Back then, Khomeini divided Islam in the world into a “Mohameddan Islam,” the true Islam embraced by the Iranian revolution, and “American Islam,” the Islam others have embraced. This division also expressed a desire to maintain a distinct Iranian identity within the wide umbrella of Islam.
A quick look at the map of the region reveals two different relationship models between Arabs and Iranians. Wherever there is extensive bilateral trade and the interests of both sides are fulfilled, we see a healthier relationship, as in the case of Dubai. Wherever links are severed with mutual fear-mongering and jingoism, we see a very tense relationship, as is the case between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
There is much to build upon in areas of economic cooperation, cultural activities, tourism, and emphasis on the many positive aspects of this shared history which has been absent from the prevailing narrative. When interests overlap and people meet, bonds are solidified and the space for dwelling on the bitter past shrinks. All this, however, needs goodwill that we have yet to see.
This ethnic animosity with sectarian ramifications doesn’t seem to have an ending in the near future. It has become part of the existential battle in the region, whose chapters are unfolding in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen as we speak.
The conflict is fed by fear, repulsion, and rejection of the other, which both sides keep perpetuating rather than attempting to end. But perhaps the two sides will remember that they have a lot of common ground they can build upon when they are exhausted. Particularly so when they are confined to be neighbors as neither will soon move to a different continent.
Hatred is no way to build a future, nor does is protect future generations from death, destruction, and the loss of resources. Perhaps the two sides will recall that the main function of history is that we should learn from it, so as not to repeat it and relive its mistakes.
Ali Adeeb is an Iraqi journalist. He wrote for the New York Times in Baghdad until he moved to the United States where he currently lectures on Media and the Arabic Language. He also serves as an editor in many Arabic-language magazines. Follow Mr. Adeeb on Twitter @aliadeeb