Iranians and the ‘Aryan Myth’: Answering questions posed by readers

Published by IranWire

A recent article on the concept of the “Aryan Race” in Nazi Germany and why this racist and criminal regime didn’t consider Iranians to be a part of it generated questions and inquiries. IranWire is publishing this article to address some of them.  

The views raised in this article are that of the author and not necessarily that of the Sardari Project or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

What is the “race” of Iranians?

In the previous article, we spoke of the “Aryan myth.” That is because the Nazi belief in an “Aryan race” has no existence in reality and it is a legend constructed by their pseudoscientific and racist imaginations. But some ask: If this is so, then what is the race of Iranians?

To answer this question, we must first ask what is “race”? In its common usage, this term refers to a group of people with suppoused shared ancestry who have defining physical features such as color of skin and eyes, type of hair, etc. But advances in biology and genetics in recent years have shown that the concept of “race” is of no scientific credence. Humans naturally have physical and genetic differences with one another but genetic diversity in no way maps out to common racial categories such as Black, white, etc. “Racial” categories are constructed in various cultures with specific political and cultural goals and have no scientific credibility. In February 2016, four scholas published an article in Science, known as one of the most credible academic journals in the world, that explained how common racial categories did nothing to adequately explain human genetic diversity. They asked for all use of the concept of “race” to be stopped in sciences. Writing in the credible magazine Scientific American to explain the Science article for a broader audience, science journalist Megan Gannon wrote: “Today, the mainstream belief among scientists is that race is a social construct without biological meaning.” Michael Yudell, a professor at Drexel University and one of the four authors of the Science article, spoke to media to explain that him and his co-authors were not the first to point out the fact that ‘race’ was, scientifically speaking, a meaningless and misleading term and that its use should cease. Most scientists backed the Science article when it came out.

An interesting case in the article was comparing genetic differences of two well-known American scientists of European descent, James Watson and Craig Venter, with a Korean scientist, Seong-Jin Kim. The comparison showed that Watson and Venter shared fewer variations in their genetic sequences than they each shared with Kim. This is true in many cases. For instance, two Black people hailing from central or southern Africa might not be genetically similar to each other. Or a Black person from South Africa might be more genetically similar to an European than to a Kenyan.

The Iranian nation

While there is no such a thing as “an Iranian race” or an “Aryan race,” a national-cultural identity rooted in history has helped form and prolong an Iranian identity. Scholars such as Asghar Shirazi and Ahmad Ashraf have written in length about intricacies of this “Iranian identity” which is defined in the Iranica encyclopedia as follows: “This sense of identity, defined both historically and territorially, evolved from a common historical experience and cultural tradition among the peoples who lived in Irānzamin, and shared in Iranian mythologies and legends as well as in its history.”

As you see, even here, the encyclopedia entry speaks of ‘peoples’ (plural) because plurality has long been a point of strength for the Iranian nation. Various peoples who have lived in Iran’s historic lands have, throughout history, helped shaped the national-cultural identity of Iran. Iran’s demographic composition has seen a lot of changes throughout the years due to various foreign invasions (two most important cases include Arab and Mongol invasions in, respectively, seventh and thirteenth centuries), migrations and mixing with other peoples. Based on some estimates, 75 to 90 percent of the people of Iran died in the Mongol invasions alone. (See Ahmet T. Kuru, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A global and historical comparison, Cambridge University Press, 2019, p. 121.) But the strong national-cultural Iranian identity once more rose its head and survived because its basis is the culture of Iranzamin and not racial or kinship concepts.

Nuremberg laws 

A user had wrongly written that “based on Nuremberg laws, all Iranians counted as Aryans.” But as we explained in the previous article, these racists laws didn’t even use the term ‘Aryan’ because, by 1935, Nazis had concluded that this concept was so hard to define that it was of no practical use. The practical defeat of racist pseudoscience of Nazis could be seen here because, ultimately, they used cultural definitions to advance their murderous plans and had no way to prove their contentions about ‘race.’.

Nazis and Reza Shah

Some users had pointed out to the good relations between Iran and Nazi Germany during Reza Shah and saw this as a sign of Nazis considering Iranians to be Aryans. But as we showed, by pointing to the work of leading historians such as Jennifer Jenkins and David Motadel, the relationship between Iran and Nazi Germany had an economic basis and it’s not fair for Reza Shah to be accused of being a fascist in this regard. His political opponents nave naturally done this repeatedly throughout history and versions of this theory has been spread about by many including, recently and controversially, famed French philosopher Bernard Henry Levi. During Reza Shah’s period, Nazis and fascists sure had supporters both in the government and amongst the populace. But so did other political currents and world powers. The Iran-German relations predated the Nazis and could be explained as part of the attempts by independent countries of the Middle East, such as imperial Iran and Republican Turkey, to counter Britain and France which were the main colonial powers and had been recognized as mandatory powers over Arab lands following the First World War. Tehran and Ankara thus established far-reaching relations with both Germany and the USSR in those days. The base of these ties had nothing to do with race or racial ideas. Although, naturally, some politicians on both sides tried using racial concepts in diplomacy, as explained in the previous article.

Common linguistic roots

Some readers had pointed out common linguistic roots between Persian and European languages. It should be noted that such common roots and membership of Persian and European languages in the grand family of Indo-European languages is true. But this has nothing to do with racist concepts of Nazis. All of humanity today has origins in an event that took place around 200,000 years ago: migration of a small number of people from southern Africa to the rest of the world. Throughout history, as human populated the earth, languages also spread and various language groups were formed. But this process took tens of thousands of years and has nothing to do with racial proximity since spread of languages didn’t require physical migration of human beings.

We should also note that many theories about similarity of some names lack a sound etymological basis. Some users, for instance, had noted the similarity of the word Kerman with German. But, in their article on historical geography of Kerman, French geographers Xavie de Planhol and Bernard Hourcade denied this theory and considered it to be etymologically impossible.

Cultures of other nations

A user had claimed that “peoples of Hijax and northern Asia” lacked culture and civilization “prior to entering Iran.” Sadly, a form of racism that is common amongst many Iranians is to deny that other peoples of the world have had civilizational achievements. But, in reality, peoples all over the world and throughout history have had many achievements and we Iranians don’t need to put down others to prove our own history. For instance, let’s look at the cases mentioned by the user: Arabian Peninsula has, throughout history and even prior to Islam, been a site of emergence of many civilizations, especially in its southern parts. They include the Kingdom of Sheba which is described in both the Old Testament and Quran. Even if the famous story of Solomon and Queen Sheba is not true, contemporary historians believe the the kingdom of Sheba did historically exist and was based somewhere in today’s Yemen. Scottish historian Kenneth A. Kitchen believes that the kingdom existed for more than a millennium, from around 1200 BC to fourth century AD. Other historians don’t agree with such longevity but still affirm this civilization’s importance and its rich cultural heritage. The northern Asian regions, too, have been site of various civilizations throughout history, each of which has left some marks behind. Many of these civilizations were nomadic but this doesn’t mean they didn’t have cultural achievements. Take Gokturks who lived in northern and central Asia during the medieval period and founded a civilization now known as the First Turkic Khanate. They left behind many cultural and artistic works: from petroglyphs of 6th to 8th centuries AD to the ancient tomb of Shoroon Bumbagar, all of which are amongst the tourist attractions of Mongolia today. As a people with a storied civilizations, Iranians must learn from, not denigrate, culture, art and civilization of others and their cultural achievements, which have also affected our culture throughout history.

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