Iranian-American Identity, Community and the Cultural Space: An Interview with Professor Maboud Ansari
by Shahrooz Shekaraubi
Shahrooz Shekaraubi: So Professor Ansari with everything that is going on now in the world, what are you working on nowadays?
Maboud Ansari: I don’t teach during the summer, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to translate the Iranian-Americans book from English to Persian. The book is originally in English and as you know, this is both a reference and a textbook. As I have heard from my colleagues in Iran, there is a lack of community and diaspora studies at the university level in Iran. Therefore, this book is an example of Iranian studies, and I think that if I translate it myself, it will be very useful in Iran.
S.S. That’s great! Did you also add anything to it or just translated it?
M.A. As you know, the Iranian community in the US is a dynamic one and is still unfolding. Therefore, while translating the book, I will also update the facts and figures.
S.S. Could you tell us how you got into researching the Iranian-American community?
M.A. Well, the idea came into my mind while I was in my PHD program at the New School for Social Research. and I was searching for a topic. At the time, I thought that since we had no information regarding Iranians who were here, which at the time were mostly professional people, or had come here to study, and some went back home [to Iran] and some stayed, I was thinking that if I can develop a topic that would lead to a research project, it would be something to contribute. One motivating idea came when I was talking to a one of the students who had become politically active and somehow considered himself to be self-exiled and he said “when home is the place that you never go back there, it is a tragedy,” and that statement made me think that “what is it about being in-between?” That made me develop a new theory, namely, dual marginality, and I wrote my dissertation based on a field study of Iranians mostly in New York and New Jersey. After my dissertation was approved, it was recommended to be published. It came out as a book, Iranian Immigrants in the United States: A Case Study on Dual Marginality. The concept of dual marginality developed from my own efforts to explain that when immigrants, particularly immigrants that consider themselves to be political immigrants, remain here uncertain and undecided regarding their future, they become, up to a point, dually marginal people.
After this, I left the US, and went back and stayed in Iran one last time and came back [to the US]. Then, it was a different time, because the revolution in Iran had taken place for the first time, and many Iranians had moved to the US. So, my follow-up study also lasted about ten years, and then in 1989, my second book came out, named The Making of the Iranian Community in America. It was the Iranian revolution of 1979 which was both organizationally and culturally crucial to the making of the Iranian community in the US. There, I was able to show that there had been a shift from being an immigrant to becoming American citizens, and my second book very much covered that shift; which is a shift that immigrants go through when the time comes, they decide to settle and go through the process of becoming Iranian-Americans.
My third book, The Iranian-Americans, reflects the qualitative and quantitative changes that have taken place in the Iranian community. It is there that I present a comprehensive study of the first- and second-generation Iranians. The most remarkable achievement of the last century for Iranian immigrants has been the making of the Iranian community in America. This book shows that Iranian-Americans today constitute a distinctive and growing ethnic community. Whether in their private lives, community or in their public sphere of education, economics and politics, they have maintained a vital sense of their Iranianness. According to this book, the Iranian-Americans number less than one percent of the total population of the US. However, their contribution to science, business, education and government is perhaps equal to that of the larger ethnic groups in the US.
S.S. With the unfortunate rise in racial tension here in the US, what do you think are some of the coping strategies for younger Iranian-Americans that have to deal with tensions and racialization of various issues?
M.A. Historically, the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis of 1980 had the most formative effect on US foreign-policy towards Iran and the public views of Iranians and even Islam as a whole. In a manner reminiscent of the experience of Japanese-Americans in the 1940s, Iranians residing in the US became the immediate targets of American anger and frustration. Following the hostage crisis, a virulent, anti-Iranian sentiment was spread, therefore Iranians began to experience situations in which they felt that because of their nationality, they were subjected to racial prejudice and discriminations. In response to your question, the younger generation of Iranians have a lot to learn from other immigrants who have also been subjected to the same issues. Personally, I think the most effective strategy is to be assertive. There is a fair amount of evidence that younger generations with a blended identity of being Iranian and American, are at a personal level fighting back, are truly assertive, and question the labels that are given to Iranians, not only because of being Iranians but also because of being Muslims, who are also facing such situations.
In the last two decades, Iranians have experienced what has been called a “racial paradox”, meaning that they know who they are, and they know what race they belong to, but from a public and even a governmental perspective, they are not quite “white.” They are white, but they do not have the privileges of being white. But again, the most effective strategy to cope with that, is to be communal. I’m glad to report that the resulting defensiveness among Iranian-Americans in response to the discrimination has provided them with some sense of commonality, of shared misery and thus community. They have come to not remain passive or indifferent, but to fight back, whether they go through demonstrations or letter-writing campaigns and so on. It is interesting to add that the Iranian-Americans common defensiveness is what has elevated their interest in ethnicity to the level of conscious awareness, identifying it as something important to be preserved. I should add that in more recent times, we begin to see that a few organizations have developed and become a voice for Iranians. These new organizations have begun to play a crucial role in forging an Iranian-American political identity.
In addition, something very interesting has happened, which is the alignment of Iranian communities with other ethnic groups as part of the larger movement that are fighting back against anti-Iranian or anti-Islamic (Islamophobia) sentiments. The reactions of the Iranian-American community against the anti-Iranian sentiments indicate two things: one is that Iranian-Americans no longer stay silent when they are stereotyped and the other that though they may be the most integrated ethnic Americans, they are still emotionally tied to their homeland.
S.S. A lot of younger Iranian-Americans connect and are friends with other minorities that originate from regions around Iran, whether they are Armenian-Americans, Arab-Americans etc.,. I personally have not seen this consciousness exist as much in the first wave of Iranians who came to the US. This led me to think about why a significant part of Iranian history specifically, post-Islamic Iran and going forward towards the end of the Constitution Revolution, is not something that is talked as much within the Iranian-American community? Iranian-Americans and other communities that originate from the region have various shared histories that could play as a bridge between our communities and theirs however, this opportunity is overlooked frequently. What is your opinion on these two points?
M.A. First, I must say that the first generation who arrived here had no intention of changing their country or destiny permanently. Their sojourn in America was considered to be temporary. Therefore, we did not see any citizen activism among the first generation. Up to the mid-nineties, they remained very much uncertain and undecided immigrants, and somehow, they chose not to be active participants particularly in the political front. However, the second-generation’s story is very different: in fact, the most remarkable aspect of the second-generation Iranian-Americans is that they are fully assimilated, but at the same time, they have very strong ties and emotional connections to Iran and the Iranian culture, which is a phenomenon. Therefore, it is here that the second-generation as American citizens are being assertive and very much showing their own sense of pride and belonging to Iran and the Iranian culture. But one must remember that when it comes to the second-generation, they are the byproduct of a pluralistic culture, which started in the seventies. For them, to be Iranian-American, means to be involved, engaged, and expect that their rights are respected as such.
There is still a cultural divide between the first-and second-generation. The first-generation came with their own cultural baggage and understanding of what the Iranian culture is and what aspect of the Iranian culture they need to preserve. However, with the second-generation, it seems that while they have a critical perspective there, they feel they have the right to choose aspects of the Iranian culture that give them a sense of pride. In fact, they have a message of pluralism and are against ethnocentrism. This cultural divide also shows something else-- that we as parents have failed to create an environment in schools, summer camps, and other organizations, in which the younger generation of Iranians would learn more about their cultural heritage. An interesting phenomenon emerging from the perspective of the second-generation Iranians has been the redefinition of Iranianness. They think that speaking Persian is not the measure of Iranianness. Therefore, the definitional change has been from traditional Iranianness (being Iranian) in which proficiency in the Persian language is a necessity to a symbolic Iranianness (feeling Iranian), which is the characteristic of the American-born generation of Iranian-Americans, though the distinction is not absolute. The main component of being Iranian-American, is a sense of the values and historical and cultural perspective that makes them think about themselves as Iranian-Americans.
So, in response to your question, I think that they have lived in a community that in the last four decades has been always targeted due to the lack of relation between the two governments [of Iran and the US]. Therefore, we never really had the opportunity to provide cultural organizations in which the younger generations can be a strong defendant of their [Iranian] culture. Moreover, when it comes to the second-generation, they are very critical of the way their parents talk about Iran and their culture. For example, when it comes to Aryanism, the second-generation are very much rejecting these kinds of racial superiorities. As we know, Aryanism is a byproduct of 19th century Europe, which carried on in a sense of racial superiority. The Aryan myth is part of the Iranian immigrants’ baggage. The second-generation Iranians reject this myth and defend pluralism. What I am really amazed of, is that the younger generation, through literature, has picked a part of Iranian culture that is a great source of pride. Therefore, they look at the American society from the perspective of being American, and at the same time, being Iranian, which is a blended identity. Those who are born and raised here have a blended identity: half-Iranian and half-American. They are very happy of blending these two, despite the fact that it seems a very difficult thing to do. There is evidence that a strong sense of Iranianness exists at the forefront of the second-generation Iranian-Americans collective consciousness.
S.S. I found it interesting that you mentioned the fact that Persian language is not a very significant part of the Iranian-American identity. That leads to my next question: if that is the case how do Iranian-Americans find a place within the story and history of Iran?
M.A. Well, the Iranian community-American community is often considered a diaspora. In fact, the Iranian-American community is an extension of Iranian civilization. Wherever Iranians are, they have experienced the very connections, particularly emotional connections, that exist among Iranians with their homeland, it gives this notion that being an Iranian-American means that you know where your parents came from and what Iranians’ contributions have been throughout history. Because of the political situation, this concern is very real. So, whether the younger generation like it or not, they are a part of history-making of Iran and will know that the events in Iran have an impact on the everyday lives of Iranian-Americans in the US. Being essentially one generation removed from their homeland, Iranians in the US have retained strong cultural and emotional ties with Iran. Even though they have a high rate of American citizenship, as dual citizens, most go back and forth between the US and Iran. Going back again to your question, the Iranian diaspora, or the Iranian-American community is very much part of the ongoing history. In other words, they are out of Iran, but Iran is not out of their minds. Being an ethnic minority person outside of Iran often means that you are experiencing the issues facing being an ethnic minority but you are also, through extension, experiencing what is going on in Iran.
S.S. You know when satellite television was first introduced, there were many Persian channels based in Los Angeles and the discourse that existed throughout these channels was that ‘we will all go back to Iran’ and ‘a revolution is gong to happen’; there were all these events that were going to be the culminating event that would cause a sudden drastic change in Iran, and that the entire Iranian-American population was just going to pack up and go back. to Iran This is still going on, and I personally find it be a missed opportunity. If half of the focus of the Iranian-American community was on creating a strong foundation here, it would have not only benefitted our community and others here in the US, but it would have also benefitted our decision-making and how it would support Iranian society in the long-term.
M.A. Yes it did not happen because at the beginning, there was only wishful thinking [existent among Iranians]. Historically, there have been some involuntary factors regarding Iranians who left Iran, such as political factors. They chose not to live in Iran because they did not like the way the government was running at the time. So wishful thinking took place on both sides. In Iran, particularly from the government’s perspective, the issue was that they wanted to encourage Iranians to move back home to live and invest here and to benefit from the contributions made by Iranians in America. But these Iranians had already re-socialized in the US, especially in economic terms; they made roots here, invested here, and sent their kids to school here. So, it didn’t happen and a large number of people did not go back home to Iran. I remember before the revolution, many Iranian-Americans who were here and were mostly students, went back home. But after the revolution, when the first wave started, they thought that they would temporarily leave Iran, but when exile is more than one generation, they feel at home, even though their roots are in Iran. That is why the first generation, for a long time, remained undecided, uncertain immigrants, because they hoped that they will be back in Iran for the next Nowruz; but it did not happen. The Iranian-Americans stayed in America because they liked certain aspects of the country: its culture, values, and especially the freedoms.
The remarkable point is that they built their home away from home. Immigrants go through a shift, from being immigrant, to becoming ethnic. Therefore, while they are fully assimilated, meaning they have contributed to the American society, they remain emotionally connected to Iran and Iranian history, including Iranian music, food, poetry, etc. I think here I can talk about the most remarkable aspect of the second-generation Iranian-Americans. That is, what I have referred to as “reverse assimilation,” meaning that they are reclaiming their heritage, while they have become fully assimilated as Americans. This emerging trend, which I have witnessed, resulted largely from an increased pride in Iran and the rise of the Iranian virtual community. As you know, the Iranian community, from the second-generation perspective, is not a fixed place or location, but is a concept. When you look into what second-generation Iranians share on the internet, you see that Iranian-Americans have extended the Iranian community into what I call an “electronic community” with no geographical location. Thus, we see more and more associations among second-generation Iranians with other Iranians, whether they are in Iran or in other countries.
S.S. Earlier you talked about how for a lot of Iranian-Americans speaking the Persian language is not a significant pillar; however, the debate within other circles about what defines the Iranian identity mainly argue that its basis is the Persian language itself. I wanted to ask that what defines the Iranian identity in itself and within that definition how does that affect the Iranian-American identity?
M.A. when we are talking about Iranian identity, or Iranianness, we must make a distinction between Iranians who are in Iran, and Iranians who are away from Iran. When you live outside of that geography that you refer to as home, and when your connection to home is historical, emotional, and cultural, Persian language is the core of Iranian identity. But again, the younger generation are born and raised away from Iran, and up to this time, many of them have grown up as English-speaking Iranians. Therefore, they argue that the fact that “I am not speaking Persian doesn’t mean that I am less Iranian than those who speak Persian.” You begin to see more and more groups of second-generation Iranian-Americans who do not use Persian, but express their own Iranianness in English. That’s why when we talk about Iranians outside of Iran, we cannot say that their identity comes down to speaking Persian. In that sense, I make a distinction here, because Iranian-Americans are simply defined as those who call themselves Iranian-Americans. We cannot look at them and say that because they speak Persian, they are Iranian. So, I think this has already generated a divide among younger generations, and I can see that the younger generations are not a homogenous group. Some simply call themselves Iranians living in America, or some say “I am American but I have Persian heritage,” or “my parents come from Iran.” And you are right, that is a subjective debate among younger generations, but from my perspective, I make this distinction that as long as you live in Iran, the Persian language is obviously the window through which you learn your Iranianness. When you are born and have lived outside of Iran, that is a different situation.
By the way, in Iranian communities in some of the major cities like in San Diego, Boston, New York City, New Jersey, DC, and Virginia, Persian schools are growing, and more and more young couples who may not speak Persian, are wanting their kids to speak Persian. This indicates that despite the fact that proficiency in language is not a major criteria, some young couples, including those in mixed-marriages, really like their kids to be exposed to the Persian language. I can very much appreciate that because not only is learning another language an asset, but it is not just the language that they are learning when they attend Persian schools. They are learning the Persian values and culture, and more importantly, they get to know other Iranians in the school.
S.S. As I mentioned earlier there's that debate on whether Iranian identity is based on language or land. I always thought that if it was the other, if it was based on the land, how would affect t the Iranian-American identity and perception of ones self?
M.A. Let me add one point; of course, one must distinguish between “national identity” or “Iranian identity.” As long as people are in Iran, they are citizens of Iran, and think about themselves as Iranians who have a national identity, and there, language plays a major role. But when Iranians are outside of Iran, for example when you are born and raised here, you have a national identity of being American. But at the same time, you do have the ethnic identity, the “Iranianness.” So that is why we must distinguish between these two terms. Obviously, national identity, has had a different history in Iran, and is more of a byproduct of the mother-tongue. But “Iranianness” has been there with a long history.
S.S. In my experience, whether I’m dealing with Iranian-Americans or Iranians living in Iran, I feel sometimes there is a disconnect and a lot of misinformation and lack of knowledge about Iranians living in Iran or Iranian-Americans, and what they think about each other.
M.A. Well, this goes back to the composition of the Iranian population. I have come to see that the diversity of Iranians in the US is rather unique. In so many different ways, we are a diverse people. Although of course, we come under the notion that we all are Iranians, the larger Iranian diaspora represent the diversity in Iran. One cannot think of the population as a homogenous population. Regarding the second-generation, they are perhaps more diverse than their parents. As we know, Iranian-Americans reflect much of the religious, cultural and regional diversity of Iranian society. As such, they are comprised of numerous groups defined in terms of ethnicity, religious affiliation, occupational status and political ideology. Therefore, you are quite right, to a large extent until recent times, the Iranian community remained hopelessly diverse. This is becoming less and less among younger generations in terms of a political point of view. They do not have the same baggage that their parents brought in. Iranians who arrived here, came with a lot of biased views about Iran, depending on their political perspectives. Younger generations do not have that experience. They are born and raised in America and some have neither memory of Iran nor have ever visited Iran. However, they are more objective of their evaluation of Iran. They look forward to the future of a democratic Iran. They have become more vocal about what is happening in Iran currently. Many young Iranian-Americans are especially critical of American foreign policy and the American media’s attitude towards Iran. Once again, there is still no particular umbrella that all Iranian-Americans can come under. The fact is, that as a whole, the younger generation does not share the same historical and cultural context as the older generation.
S.S. Many Iranians in Iran and abroad find it strange when they learn how about Iranian-Americans who pride themselves in their heritage and identity. This is because of the misconception that they have about Iranians in the US. Why do you think there is that particular image of Iranians abroad that may not be as true, even though it might exist but not to the extent Iranians in Iran think it does?
M.A. There are mutual misunderstandings. Iranians in Iran have misunderstandings about Iranian-Americans, and sometimes they think of Iranian-Americans, especially those they are able to see through Los Angeles media and wonder why they are not concerned about what is happening in Iran. The fact is that Iranian-Americans have continued to show their concern for Iranians in Iran. For them, Iran is not part of the “axis of evil.” It is where their father, mother, grandmother, uncle, brother or close friend lives. In the last three decades, a number of schools and health clinics have been built in rural Iran by various Iranian-Americans organizations. Because of mutual misunderstandings, the images that are created by the biased media, makes Iranians think that Iranians outside of Iran are not concerned for the existing issues in Iran. So, I think much work needs to be done in these areas.
S.S. My last question is about Shayan Mazrouei and Bijan Ghaisar. Why do you think these tragedies were ignored by large pockets of the Iranian-American community?
M.A. this has to do with the mindset that “I haven’t experienced any issues regarding being Iranian, therefore that is not my concern.” If you have a very cohesive community, an incident that takes place in DC, will become an issue for every member of the community. Iranian-Americans have not come together as a collective entity to fight back injustices. To some extent, this has to do with not being a homogenous community, but the incidents that you referred to were examples of not taking action as a community. I think that we have many lessons to learn from other communities in America. We have seen in other communities, that when the rights of one individual are violated, there is a spontaneous overreaction by the entire community that is lacking among Iranians. In this area, we are just beginners, and I’m glad to see and hear that they are more citizen activists like yourself that show concern and do whatever they can to show that we are not going to remain indifferent.
S.S. We talked about reverse assimilation and a lot of important topics, but in the next ten years, where do you see the Iranian-American community heading towards?
M.A. Well, I do not see that this is coming soon, because the deep-rooted conflict between the two governments are not yet resolved and many things can happen. As you know, it is a challenge to have perspective on the events regarding Iranian nation when they have not yet played out. How we are going to politically respond depends on how the unjust foreign policy of America evolves. But putting aside the political part of it, I think as the 21st century progresses, more qualitative and quantitative developments of the Iranian-American community will be determined by the successful negotiation of the current impasse between the US and Iran. The 21st century will also provide an opportunity for history to catch-up with the significant contributions of the Iranian-American community. In that proud history, the second-generation will have a presence not just as occupationally successful but also as politically successful. Let me add that from the start, the Iranian experience in the US has been a blend of ethnic pride and resourceful participation in American society. As Iranian-Americans continue to integrate further into American society, they become increasingly more active in political affairs. We must remember that the most remarkable achievement of the last century for Iranian immigrants has been the making of the Iranian community in America.