Legacy of Confrontation with Iran
By: Dr. Kaveh Farrokh
Few Iranians (or
westerners) have heard of Pan-Arab nationalists such as Satia Al-Husri, Sami
Shawkat, Michel Aflaq or Khairallah Tulfah. Their version of Arab nationalism
is as anti-Western as it is anti-Persian. The philosophies of these men have
done much to inspire generations of Arab leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser,
who passionately advocated the changing of the Persian Gulf to "Arab
Gulf", or Saddam Hussein, who defined his Arabism by the extent of his
brutality against Iranians (Kurds, Persians, etc.).
Before we engage in
this relatively long discussion of pan-Arabism and Arab chauvinism, let us
(Iranians) remind ourselves, that we too have our faults and are not perfect.
In fact, I have always found the attitudes of a number of Iranians against
Arabs embarrassing and unfair. Nevertheless, I also find the hostile anti-Iranian
attitudes and actions of the pan-Arabists shocking (you will read some of
these in this commentary). As you read this article, please balance your
feelings with how many of us Iranians are also embarresingly chauvinist, with
cultural expressions such as "uncouth Arab" or "Lizard
eaters". Undoubtedly, Iranians of all stripes are offended at the
"Arab Gulf" scandal, not to mention pan-Arabist attempts at
fomenting Arab racism against Iranians. A powerful distinction must be made
between people who project ignorance and hatred, versus Arabs as a whole,
who, in my opinion (and by personal experience), are kind, compassionate,
intelligent, and resourceful.
To understand the
pan-Arabists, it is necessary to briefly sketch the history and origins of
this movement and how this mindset remains a danger to international peace
and stability. Al-Husri, along with other pan-Arab thinkers such as Michel
Aflaq, helped forge the basis of the modern pan-Arabist identity of the 20th
century. Unfortunately, as with other chauvinist philosophies such as Nazism,
pan-Turkism, Persian chauvinism, Nordicism, pan-Arabist thinking leads
inevitably to violence and confrontation, in this case against the Western
and Iranian worlds.
Osama Bin Laden is in
fact the latest product of such pan-Arabism. The only difference between Bin
Laden and previous pan-Arabists such as Gamal Abdel Nasser or Saddam Hussein
is that he overtly perverts the spiritualism of the Islamic religion, to
further aggrandize his vision of pan-Arabist imperialism.
At the popular level,
many Arabs continue to appreciate and respect the Iranians for their
contributions to Arab and wider Islamic civilization. These same Arabs are
continually distressed by the anti-Persian rhetoric of the pan-Arabists. A
perfect example of this are e-mails from Arab countries condemning the recent
use of the term "Arab Gulf" by National Geographic. Note two
examples cited below by the local Iranian Payvand newspaper in Vancouver
(Vol.11, Issue 667, Friday, Dec.3, 2004):
"I am an Arab
from UAE, my dad as well as my grandfather still call it Khalij Al-Farsi
which means Persian Gulf…why do some people want us and Iranians to be
"I am an Arab
from Kuwait. I agree that the Persian Gulf should remain Persian
Pan-Arabism is simply defined as
the desire to forge a single Arabian super state. The movement has its roots
in the Arab revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule in World War One. British
intelligence agents, personified in Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935) "Lawrence
of Arabia" or "Al-Lawrence" (see photo), excited the Arabs
against the Turks, with promises of an Arab superstate stretching from the
Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal (and beyond…). The Arab revolt was not
anti-Persian, it was, for all intents and purposes, an independence movement
against Ottoman Turkish rule.
The pan-Arab revolt was
first proclaimed in the Hijaz. Pan-Arabism found its second home in Damascus,
Syria. It was in Damascus that Turkish rule dramatically ended on October, 3,
1918, when victorious Arab warriors swept into this ancient city. The Arabs
were to be sorely disappointed. Having used (or tricked?) the Arabs, the
British and the French simply carved up the ex-Ottoman Empire's Arab
possessions into a series of artificial states such as Syria and Lebanon
(under French supervision), with Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq falling under
British jurisdiction. Faisal, a hero of the Arab revolt, was defeated by the
French in Syria (Battle of Maysalun), but was recompensed by the British, who
installed him as king in the newly formed state of Iraq. The birth of
"modern" Arab nationalism, is to be found in the aftermath of these
events, namely the Franco-British creation of separate Arabian states. The
Arabs felt used and cheated by the west, a sense of anger that has pervaded
their consciousness for a period close to 90 years.
By 1932, Iraq had been
recognized as an independent state by the League of Nations; Syria, Palestine
and Lebanon however, remained under French rule until the 1940s. Men such as
Michel Aflaq (discussed later in this commentary), directly experienced the
effects of French rule.
can be seen in one of the father's of pan-Arabism, the aforementioned Satia
Al-Husri. Of special interest is one of Husri's works entitled "Iranian
Teachers who caused Us (Arabs) Big Problems". His campaigns against
schools suspected of being positive towards Persia are well documented. One
dramatic example is found in the 1920s when the Iraqi Ministry of Education
ordered Husri to appoint Muhammad Al-Jawahiri as a teacher in a Baghdad
school. A short excerpt of Husri's interview with the teacher is revealing
(see Samir El-Khalil's Republic of Fear, New York: Pantheon Books, 1989,
Husri: First, I want to
know your nationality.
Husri was overruled by
the Iraqi ministry and Jawahiri was appointed. Jawahiri was in fact an Arab,
however like many Arabs of his day and the present, Jawahiri saw no reason to
follow Husri's bigoted anti-Iranian racialism.
It is interesting that
Husri, though claimed as a Syrian-Arab, was actually raised as a Turk in a
Turkish household; he struggled to learn spoken and written Arabic. It would
seem that Mr. Husri may have suffered from an identity or inferiority complex
and like many such individuals in history (e.g. Adolf Hitler) found an outlet
for his confused emotions by preaching hate against those of the
"other" (i.e. Iranians).
Husri correctly deduced
that it was through education, especially children, that the "new
morality" of Arabism was to be transmitted. In this endeavor, he
achieved a great success. In this mission he was helped by a certain British
advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of education by the name of Lionel Smith. Smith
seems to have admired Husri's passionate zeal for education, but is on record
for stating that many of Husri's "views were wrong". Husri's
attitudes against non-Arabs seem to have been adopted by his son Khaldun al-Husri,
a nationalist Arab historian who has attempted to minimize the violent
destruction of the Assyrian community in Northern Iraq in the 1920s. This is
Husri, H. (1974). The
Asyyrian affair. The International Journal of Middle East Studies, 5, 161-176,
For an account of the
Assyrian tragedy consult:
Stafford, R.S. (1935).
The Tragedy of the Assyrians. London: Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Satia Al-Husri spawned
a whole generation of men who advocated violence. One example is Sami Shawkat
who is famous for his 1933 speech "Sina'at al-Mawt" (manufacture of
death) in which he rationalizes mass violence and war as the way to achieve
Arab aspirations. Tragically, this speech was widely distributed in Arab schools
and in Iraq in particular. It is interesting that Shawkat teaches that
"force is the soil which sprouts the seeds of truth". Although not
widely known, Shawkat was a main force in the organization of the Futuwwa
Youth Organization - a movement modeled directly after the Nazi Hitler Youth
Movement. The Futuwwa set the pace for future Arab chauvinist movements, such
as the B'aath party of Iraq and today's followers of Bin Laden. It is
interesting to note that Shawkat's ideas became somewhat too hot to handle,
even for the pan-Arabists - Satia Al-Husri later disowned Sami Shawkat.
It is worth noting that
Sami Shawkat's brother, Naji, who by 1941 was a member of the Arab committee
in Iraq (which had absorbed the Futuwwa), gave Franz von Papen (a high
ranking German official of Nazi Germany in 1941) a letter which actually
congratulated Hitler for the brutality that he inflicted upon the Jews.
Of far greater
significance is the following quote that vividly describes Sami Shawkat's
thinking (see again Samir El-Khalil's Republic of Fear, New York: Pantheon
Books, 1989, p.177):
that discredit the Arabs should be burned, not excepting the greatest work on
the philosophy of history by Ibn Khaldun".
But why Ibn-Khaldun? As
a historian, Khaldun (1332-1406 AD) is ranked among the best in history, on
par with the earlier Greco-Roman historians such as Plutarch or Xenophon;
truly one of the most best scholars produced by the Arabs. To understand why
pan-Arabists feel uncomfortable with Ibn Khaldun, one has to read a direct
quote from his work, The Muqaddimah Translated by F. Rosenthal (III, pp.
311-15, 271-4 [Arabic]; R.N. Frye (p.91):
"…It is a
remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars…in the
intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs…thus the founders of grammar were
Sibawaih and after him, al-Farisi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian
descent…they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar…great jurists were Persians…
only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic
scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the propher becomes
apparent, 'If learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven the
Persians would attain it"…The intellectual sciences were also the
preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate
them…as was the case with all crafts…This situation continued in the cities
as long as the Persians and Persian countries, Iraq, Khorasan and Transoxiana
(modern Central Asia), retained their sedentary culture."
You now see why Mr.
Shawkat saw the need to destroy the history of Ibn Khaldun. Arab chauvinists
from Gamal Abdel Nasser to today's Bin laden have chosen to pretend that that
the Persian intellectual legacy does not exist. It is not an exaggeration to
state that Arab nationalists have re-written much of Arab history, especially
as it pertains to Persian contributions to Islamic and Arabian civilization.
The following observation by Sir Richard Nelson Frye encapsulates the crisis
in Arab attitudes towards the Iranians (See R.N. Frye, The Golden Age of
Persia, London: Butler & Tanner Ltd., 1989, p.236):
longer understand the role of Iran and the Persian language in the formation
of Islamic culture. Perhaps they wish to forget the past, but in so doing
they remove the bases of their own spiritual, moral and cultural
being…without the heritage of the past and a healthy respect for it…there is
little chance for stability and proper growth"
It may argued that one
source of the political, economic and technological stagnation so evident in
the Arab world at present may stem from what has been taught (and continues
to be taught) to Arabs at primary, secondary and post-secondary education.
It should come as no
surprise that many Arabs (including high ranking statesmen and highly
educated professors) now believe that the following Iranian scholars of the
Islamic era to be all Arabs: Zakaria Razi "Rhazes" (860- 923 or
932, born in Rayy, near Tehran), Abu Ali Sina "Avecenna" (980
-1037, born in Afshana, near Bukhara, ancient Samanid Capital), Abu Rayhan
Biruni (973 - 1043, born in Khiva, Ancient Khwarazm now modern Afghanistan),
Omar Khayyam (1044-1123, born in Nishabur, Khorasan), Mohammad Khwarazmi (d.
844, born in Khiva, Ancient Khwarazm, now in Modern Afghanistan). Not a
single one of these scientists hailed from an Arab-speaking region, all were
born in what is now Iran or the former realms of Persian speaking world.
This has posed an
awkward contradiction for pan- nationalists. Their counter to these facts,
are mainly based on two premises:
(a) Men such as Biruni
are claimed as Arabs simply because they had the name "Al-"
attached to their last names or had Arab/Muslim names such as
"Omar". This is tantamount to saying that all great people in
history with Christian names such as Chris, Michael, or John have been Jews,
simply because their names are Jewish. Following this logic, we then must
accept Christopher Columbus (Spain), Michaelangelo (Italy), and Johanes
Kepler (Denmark) as Jews. Persia accepted Islam after the 7th century AD,
just as Europeans accepted Christianity in great numbers after the 3-4th
centuries AD. Simply, put, nationality and religious confession are not the
same thing. One does not "become" an Arab simply because one is
Muslim, just as one does not "become" Jewish simply because one is
Christian. Pan-Arabists have simply stretched the definition of Muslim to
conveniently include those non-Arabs whom they view favorably as Arabs.
Many Arab nations, such
as Egypt, simply avoid mentioning where the Iranian scholars were born and
where they ultimately died. Many Arabs would be surprised to learn that the
grave of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) is located in Hamadan, Iran.
To understand the
awkwardness (and indeed irrationality) of pan-Arabism (or any form of
racialism), one is compelled to also briefly learn about the true founders of
the B'aath party; Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar. Both were born in
Damascus; Aflaq was a Greek Orthodox Christian and Bitar a Sunni Muslim. They
both experienced the humiliating treatment of their country, Syria, at the
hands of the French, especially during the 1925-1926 uprising. The two met as
students in the University of Paris in 1929. It is unclear if they actually
joined the Arab communist students in Paris at the time, but what is clear is
that they formed their party on the basis of pan-Arabism, like the movements
that had taken place in neighboring Iraq in the 1920s. Another influential
and French (Sorbonne) educated Syrian, was Zaki al-Arsuzi. Al-Arsuzi was
especially outspoken in his racism against the local Turks of Syria and
especially venomous in his hatred against the Jews. To summarize, the
followers of Arsuzi joined up with the Aflaq-Bitar team. Arsuzi himself
intensely disliked Aflaq, which explains why he himself never joined in.
As a non-Muslim, Aflaq's
interest (see photo at left) was not in the cultivation of a pan-Islamic
identity, but in the promotion of pure pan-Arabism in the spirit of what he
called "al-ruh al-Arabiyya" (the Arabian spirit). Faith and love
for one's race is the cornerstone of pan-Arabism, as it is with any kind of
racial chauvinism. That same "Arab spirit" is what Aflaq relates to
"the great deeds (of the Arabs) in the past, and can continue to do so
in the present". It is interesting that Aflaq also rejected those Arabs
influenced or sympathetic to Western culture; exactly as Bin Laden does
Michel Aflaq defined
Islam only as "a revolutionary Arab movement whose meaning was the
renewal of Arabism" (see Khalil, p.198). It would seem that Aflaq, Bin
Laden, Saddam Hussein, or the Husri and Shawkat clans have chosen to forget
one crucial point: Islam (like all great religions), since its inception,
went beyond the moronic and barbaric concept of race worship - Islam, like
all of the world's great religions (Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Hinduism,
etc) rejects racial self-love in favor of the acceptance of others
irrespective of race, ethnicity or color - all of mankind are seen as members
of one another (to quote the Persian mystic Jalal-e-Din Rumi). As for Islamic
civilization, one can again quote Samir al-Khalil (Republic of Fear, p.199-200):
hegemony was terminated under the Abbasids, Arabic culture very quickly
metamorphosed into a wider Islamic civilization with the peoples of the
fertile Crescent - Persians, Turks, Berbers, and Spaniards as well as Jews
Pan-Arabists such as
Bin Laden, have perverted religion to further their own truly nefarious
pursuits - one can look to many current white supremacists or religious
fundamentalists to see the parallels.
Aflaq went further than
Satia Al-Husri in that he clearly outlined the "enemy of the (Arab)
nation". This broad encompassing term has entered many Arab educational
and popular circles, resulting in a whole generation of individuals believing
Iranians to be the "enemy of the Arabs" (Aflaq's article "Us
and Our Enemies" is often cited as providing insight into this type of
thinking). Fortunately, many Arabs have bravely and courageously rejected
this thinking; nevertheless, the impulse of anti-Iranianism has taken root in
Arab education and mass media (e.g. the Al-Jazeera TV network).
It was in Saddam
Hussein's Iraq where Arab racism attained its most vulgar form, truly on par
with the neo-Nazi philosophies of today's white supremacists. A prime example
is the tract by Saddam's maternal uncle, Khairallah Tulfah, entitled
"Three Whom God Should Not have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies".
Tulfah's writings were widely distributed in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's
rule. Even more incredible is the following description by Said Aburish (in
Saddam Hussein: The Politics of revenge, London: Bloomsbury, 2000, p.123):
government offered 'pure Iraqis' married to anyone with Iranian blood 2500$
reward for anyone divorcing them"
This quote is a
chilling reminder of what happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s (e.g.
Nuremburg Rally) and the ensuing Nazi 'racial purity' laws against the Jews.
Saddam in fact expelled thousands of people of Persian origin from Iraq in
the 1970s, many of whom live in Iran today. Although not generally known, up
to a third of Baghdad's population may have been Persian-speaking by the
early twentieth century. Decades of sustained anti-Iranian propaganda
certainly has had its effect in destroying Iraq's vibrant Persian community.
The Kurds, an Iranian people like the Persians, have certainly felt the
violent brunt of pan-Arabism. The tragedies of Saddam's gassing policies
(i.e. Halabja) and the forceful expulsion of Kurds in favor of Arab settlers
in Iraqi Kurdistan is so well known and documented that we need not
pontificate further on this issue.
Even as I quoted
Aburish's description of Saddam's 'divorce reward' policy, I was personally
amazed. The Arabs would be shocked if they learned what 'Iraq' actually
means. 'Iraq' is derived from Middle Persian or dialectical Pahlavi; it means
'the lowlands', like the Germanic term "Niederland" for modern day
Holland. There is a region in Iran today which shares the same Pahlavi root
as 'Iraq' - modern day Arak. The term 'Baghdad' is also of Iranian origin -
"Boghu" (God) + "dad" (provided by, given by, bestowed
by) - "Baghdad" is rough Iranian equivalent of the term
"Godiva". The remains of the capital of the Sassanian Empire,
Ctesiphon, stand only 40 kilometers from modern Baghdad. Iranians themselves
may be shocked to learn that the term "Tehran" is not of Aryan
origin - this was an Assyrian settlement (before the Aryans came to dominate
the Iranian plateau); the Assyrian term "Taharan" is roughly
translated as "The place to which I shall return". Of all Arab
countries, Iraq has the strongest Persian legacy, as highlighted by this
reference by Fred Halliday (Arabs and Persians - from Cahiers d'etudes sur la
Mediterranee Orientale et le monde Turco-Iranien, no.22, July-December,
for centuries to Iranian influence, not least in the period of the Persian
influenced Abbassid Empire, the very culture of the Arab speakers is suffused
with Iranian influence. One only has to listen to spoken Iraqi, or look at
the turquoise domes of the mosques of Iraqi cities, to see how strong the
Iranian influence is…while Kurds who, by language and culture, fall very much
within the Iranian cultural sphere".
Negative portrayals of
Iranians continue to appear today in Arab media and education: the recent
caricature portrayal of Iranians by the Al-Jazeera Television network is one
recent example that is truly lamentable. Arabs have complained (with
justification) that they are portrayed negatively in western press, media and
education, yet so many in the Arab world are unaware of the
Husri-Shawkat-Aflaq legacy of racism within their own ranks.
Incredible as it may
seem, Pan-Arabism's anti-Persian attitude has found unexpected allies in the
western world: a handful of western academics and politicians propelled by
political, economic and even romantic interests.
It was Richard Farmer
in his book "A History of Arabian Music to the XIIIth Century"
(London: Luzac Oriental, first published in 1929, reprinted in 1967, 1994,
and 1996), who began to instill doubt on the Iranian nationality of the men
of sciences cited above (e.g. Razi). The outright attack on Iran and its
contributions to the Arabs is exemplified by Montgomery Watt (The majesty
that was Islam: the Islamic world, 661-1100, New York, Praeger, 1974) who
bluntly downplays Persian contributions as outright irrelevant. Watt's denial
and/or downplaying of any Persian heritage in Arab and wider Islamic
civilization would have made Shawkat himself proud indeed.
The term "Arab
Gulf" neatly encapsulates the history of western (mainly British)
economic interests. It was Sir Charles Belgrave who first invented the term
"Arab Gulf" and attempted to change the name of the Persian Gulf.
Belgrave was the British advisor to the Arab leadership of Bahrain in the
1930s. Belgrave proposed his "Arabian Gulf" invention to the
British Foreign and Colonial offices in London, where the project was quietly
dropped. Belgrave however had succeeded in a way; he had set the stage for
future Iranian and Arab friction.
The British themselves
soon began to see the benefits of propagating the "Arab Gulf"
project, especially after Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh took control of Iran's oil
industry from the British in the 1951. Furious at this perceived outrage,
Roderic Owen (see photo), a British secret agent linked to British Petroleum
(originally Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) saw the potential of using "Arab
Gulf" as a weapon against Iran. Owen eventually published and promoted a
book called "The Golden Bubble of the Arabian Gulf: A Documentary"
(London: Collins, 1957). The British were not going to be ejected from the
Persian Gulf without a fight - and what better way than the famous
"Parthian shot" of attacking the heritage, history and
civilizational legacy of Persia herself. For an excellent synopis of the
attack on the name of the Persian Gulf, please refer to Mahan Abedin's
Owen's success as a
British secret agent is outmatched only by Ian Fleming's James Bond 007. His
genius set the stage for the full ignition of the Arabs against Iran,
allowing the British to avoid direct confrontation. Significantly, Owen had
provided fresh ammunition to a new generation of post Al-Husri Arab
chauvinists, now coincidentally coming to the fore in the 1950s.
Western Arabism is
basically a combination of political-economic interests (briefly addressed
below) and raw admiration of the Arab Bedouin. The latter (admiration of the
Arab Bedouin) deserves some mention. As noted by Barrie Pitt in History of
World War One (edited by A.J.P. Taylor, London: Octopus Books, 1974, p.136):
the Arabs' virtues…have overlooked their weaknesses…when subjected to the
persuasive charm of the Bedouin…".
charm" (along with petro-dollars) has been able to overpower a number of
western (mainly English-speaking) academics, politicians and businessmen. To
obtain an understanding into the mindsets of such men as Sir Charles
Belgrave, Roderic Owen, or Montgomery Watt consult:
McLoughlin, L. (2002).
In a Sea of Knowledge: The British Arabists in the Twentieth Century.
Reading, UK : Ithaca Press.
Kaplan, R. D. (1995).
The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite. New York: The Free Press, A
Division of Simon & Schuster Inc.
but naïve westerners often selectively and exclusively praise the Arabs for
their contributions to medicine, the sciences and mathematics. The Arabs
certainly are on par with all the great peoples of history, and their
scientists such as Al-Heitham, or scientific contributions in areas such as
Ophthamalogy certainly cannot be dismissed. Nevertheless, the extent of their
contributions are being highly exaggerated by certain Arab chauvinists and
their western Arabist sympathizers with political, economic and romantic
From the western
viewpoint, this error can be traced to the false fallacy of defining all
Muslims as Arabs, a problem that began during the Arab occupation in Spain.
The terms "Arab science" or "Arab soap" gained currency
among the Western Europeans of the period. Europeans then (and today)
identified "Arab" and "Muslim" as synonomous.
"Muslim" is no more a "race" than is
"Christian". No one speaks of "Christians" as an
"ethnic group". This false and simplistic logic in the western
world has resulted in the identification of Iranians as Arabs by current
western education, popular media and press.
This logic can be
applied to Catholic Christians, with silly results: as Filipinos are Catholic
then they must be Italians! Many Westerners have fallen victim to this
dangerously false line of logic as it pertains to Iranians, with tragic
An example of this amateur
scholarship is evidenced in the Newsweek magazine articles by Fareed Zakaria
(see photo) "Why Do They Hate Us?" (October 15, 2001) and "How
to save the Arab world" (Dec. 24, 2001). Zakaria inaccurately (or
perhaps deliberately) portrays Iranians as Arabs by depicting Iran as a
member of the Arab world (depicted on map of p.37 of October 15, 2001
Newsweek article). He also states that "Arabs…invented algebra"
(October 15, 2001, p.29). To my knowledge, Newsweek has never replied to,
apologized or retracted from Mr. Zakaria's statements.
It is true that Islam
is the predominant religion of Iran, but that does not make it an
"Arab" country. By "Arabs", Mr. Zakaria may be referring
to general facets of "Islamic" culture; however this would include
other non-Arab Muslims such as Che-Chens, Turks, Bosnians, Pakistanis,
Filipnio Huks, or the Sinkiang Turks of Northwest China. Islam is a
multi-cultural society that includes many races and distinct cultures. The
use of the term "Arab" is analogous to our previous example of
Filipinos being "Italian" simply because they are Roman Catholic.
With this failure at distinguishing religion from ethnicity, Mr. Zakaria has
set the standard of academic mediocrity. It is a mystery as to (a) why he is
so favored by the American media (he is regularly invited to television as an
"expert") (b) why he has received awards for his misleading and
simplistic writings on the Near East.
One should not be
surprised as to why over 80 percent of North Americans (and a growing number
of Europeans) believe Iranians to be Arabs (see Jack Saheen's "The TV
Arab", Bowling Green Press, 1982). The recent row over the use by
National Geographic of the invented term "Arab Gulf" in parallel
with the historical and legal "Persian Gulf" is simply another example
of substandard (and politically motivated?) scholarship.
Gulf" gospel was picked up quickly in Egypt by Eli Cohen, a Syrian Jew
in league with the B'aath party. Cohen was later executed in Syria on charges
of being an Israeli spy.
It was Gamal Abdel
Nasser however, the enigmatic pan-Arab nationalist leader from Egypt, who
truly popularized Belgrave-Owen's "Arabian Gulf" to the Arab masses
in the 1950s. His fiery rhetoric and emotional calls for Arab unity
envisaging confrontation with Iran, found a largely receptive audience,
thanks to a generation of Arabs exposed to the Al-Husri-Shawkat school of
education. The tiny Sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf gleefully chimed in with
Nasser, bankrolling the Belgrave-Owen project with vast sums of petrodollars.
The aim was to not only change the name of the Persian Gulf, but to change
world history as it applied to Persia. The "Arabization" of Persian
contributions on the world stage was in full swing by the 1960s and 1970s.
Politics makes strange
bedfellows indeed: British oil imperialism and pan-Arabism were united in
their quest to diminish and ultimately marginalize Persia's legacy and
heritage in world history. This is exemplified by the BBC's adoption of the
term "The Gulf", truly one of the pan-Arabists' greatest successes.
Other British media have followed suit, and thanks to the standard set by the
BBC for its "impartiality", other European and North American media
outlets have followed suit.
Nasser's prestige greatly suffered however, after the Israeli armed forces
crushed Arab military might in 6 days in 1967. The mantle of pan-Arabism was
adopted by the B'aath regime of Iraq in 1968, which saw Saddam Hussein, rise
to full power by 1979. The B'aath regime struck a very close alliance with
Abu Dhabi in order to provide international legitimacy to Belgrave-Owen's
The Iraqi-Abu Dhabi
axis proved successful. A series of fabricated academic conferences and
dubious institutions (e.g. Centre for Arab Gulf Studies in Basra) were
established to project pan-Arabism into western academic and political
circles. With respect to the latter, the pan-Arabs have had a powerful and
receptive lobby in the west. The aforementioned British Petroleum and other
companies such as Aramco, Llyods Shipping and Shell simply could not resist
the prospect of billions of petrodollars being pumped into their coffers.
Acceptance of the Belgrave-Owen "Arab Gulf" in financial and
political transactions is simply "good business".
The fact that western
(mainly English) academics are vigorously supporting and promoting the
Owen-Belgrave "Arab Gulf" project cannot be mere coincidence. In
fact, a plethora of books, especially from the 1980s onwards, have greatly
aided the cause of pan-Arab nationalists such as Bin laden. Note just three of
such texts that have been published in England, Europe and North America
since the publication of Owen's book in 1957:
(1985).The Arab Gulf and the West. Published in London: Croom Helm and Centre
for Arab Gulf Studies, University of Exeter.
Potts, D.T. (1991). The
Arabian Gulf in Antiquity: Volume I: From Prehistory to the Fall of the
Achaemenid Empire. Oxford University Press.
Rice, M. (1994). The
archaeology of the Arabian Gulf, c. 5000-323 BC. London ; New York :
These titles are
oxymoronic in academic, historical and legal terms. Ever since recorded
history the Greeks have referred to the waterway as "Sinus
Persicus", followed by the Romans (Aquarios Persico). Historical
archives, maps and historians, including Arabs, have recognized the waterway
as such (see George F. Hourani, Arab Seafaring, New Jersey: Princeton
University Press, p.85):
Refer also to the
Iranian Studies Group at MIT for a recent compendium of maps that indicate
the Persian Gulf as the name for that body of water:
The only reference to
"Arab Gulf" is found with respect to the Red Sea of antiquity (e.g
see Herodotus' "Histories", p. Penguin Books). It is interesting
that neither Belgrave nor Owen made the proposal to change the name of the
Red Sea to its former name, Arab Gulf. This is because neither Belgrave nor
Owen were interested in scholarship; their aims were political and economic.
Despite Arab attempts (and their western political and academic protégés),
the United Nations has twice recognized the legality of the term
"Persian Gulf" (UNAD 311/March 5, 1971 and UNLA 45.8.2 (c) on August
10, 1984). It is significant that all Arab countries (including Iraq, Egypt
and Abu Dhabi) have signed both of these documents.
The above mentioned UN
resolutions, or historical references are simply ignored by Arab
universities. Note the link below pertaining to the University of Sharjah's
College of Arts & Science course description for "History of the
Arabian Gulf (course code: 0203102)":
One can only guess at
what is being taught in these classrooms. These are people who will represent
future Arab leaders in business, education and politics.
The ultimate tragedy of
Arab chauvinism is indeed expressed by the attack of Saddam Hussein against
Iran in September, 22, 1980, 47 years after Sami Shawkat's "Sina'at
al-Mawt" (manufacture of death) speech.
On September 22, 1980,
Pan-Arabism graduated from hate literature to outright violence: the Iraqis
invaded Iran. Just as the Iraqi tanks were rolling into Iran, King Khalid of
Saudi Arabia (1975-1982) (see photo) stated publicly to Saddam to "crush
the stupid Persians". It is sad that so much of the world at the time,
threw its support for the Saddam regime and its genocidal policies. Note the
following excerpt by Eric Margolis in the Toronto Sun (Sunday, January, 19,
"Britain, the U.S., Kuwait
and Saudi Arabia convinced Iraq to invade Iran, then covertly supplied Saddam
with money, arms, intelligence, and advisers...Italy, Germany, France, South
Africa, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Brazil, Chile and the USSR all aided Saddam's
war effort against Iran, which was even more a victim of naked aggression
than was Kuwait in 1991".
The Saddam regime
believed that they would win the war in less than 2 weeks. Instead of a
lighting victory, the Iraqis and the Arab world became bogged down for eight
years in a wasteful, useless and inconclusive war against Iran. This was a
war with no winner, millions of lives were lost and billions of dollars worth
of damage was inflicted upon the national infrastructures of Iran and Iraq.
Arab volunteers streamed from the entire Arab world to fight against what
Saddam Hussein called the "fire worshipping Magi of Persia" (in
reference to Iran's Zoroastrian past). Arab volunteers included Sudanese,
Egyptians, Morrocans, Syrians, Jordanians, Yemenis, Algerians, Lebanese and
Palestenians. Note in the photograph below, the diverse range of Arab
nationalities and races in Iraqi service, seen here captured by the Iranian
army in February, 1984 (photo below):
The above point must be
balanced with a sobering fact. Many of the "volunteers" were
uneducated and poverty-stricken in their home countries and were given
financial stipends to fight the Iranians. Many others were guest workers to
Iraq (i.e. Egyptian farmers) who were forcibly pressed into service for
Saddam. Morale and fighting qualities were generally very low, and many of
these men would simply surrender to Iranian forces. Many of Iraq's native
troops (especially Shiites, Kurds and Assyrians) also deserted regularly, not
having the desire to fight against a neighboring nation against which they
had no animosity.
Saddam's invasion also
aimed at permanently severing Iran's Khuzistan's province from Iran.
Pan-Arabists have long claimed Iran's southwest Khuzistan region as a
"lost" Arab province, requiring "liberation" from the
"racist Persians". It is true that Iran's multi-ethnic mosaic
includes Arabs in Khuzistan as well as the Persian Gulf coast. Nevertheless,
Khuzistan has been Iranian since the days of the founding of the Medes and
the Persians. This is the region of ancient Elam (an Elamo-Dravidian people)
and was also known as Persis by the Greeks. Arab migrations into southwest
Persia can be traced to the time of Shapur II (309-379 AD).
The Sassanians settled
many Arabs inside Iran as a buffer against other marauding Arabs of the
Arabian deserts. The Lakhmid Arabs were very loyal to the crown of Persia,
and proved excellent warriors for the Sassanian army - a prime example is
their role in support of Sassanian general Azarethes' Savaran (elite cavalry)
at Callinicum in 531. At Callinicum, the Lakhmid leader Al-Mundhir supported
the Savaran's left wing, an action which helped defeat the Romano-Byzantine
general Belisarius - in AD. Khuzistanis can be described in a variety of
ways: Arab speaking Iranians, Iranisized Arabs, Iranian-Arabs, etc. The fact
remains that Khuzistan has been an integral part of Persia since antiquity.
Pan-Arabist hopes were
dashed when the Arabs of Khuzistan resisted Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran
in 1980; very few (reportedly less than 500) joined Saddam's men. Although
not known by many Iranians, the Arabs of Khuzistan fought very bravely for
Iran. Saddam believed (as he still does today) that the Khuzistani Arabs
would rise up and take over the cities themselves on behalf of Mr. Saddam's
army. Note the following quote by Dilip Hiro (The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq
Military Conflict, London, Paladin Books, 1990, p.43):
engulfed the (Iranian) military…and civilians - including the Khuzistani
Arabs…instead of being welcomed as liberators by Khuzistani Arabs - the
majority community in Khorramshahr and Abadan - as the Iraqi forces had been
led to believe, the y found themselves facing spirited resistance."
To the dismay of the
pan-Arabists, the Khuzistani Arabs fought against Saddam from the start of
the invasion, giving the Iranian army precious time to re-organize and
counterattack. It is worth noting that only 200 of the defenders of the city
of Khorramshahr were professional soldiers - the rest were locals of the city
- many of them local Arabs. Together with the Iranian army personnel, they
literally fought to the last man. The Khuzistan Arabs, like their Lakhmid
ancestors at Callinicum, remained faithful to their nation.
It was these same
Khuzistani Arabs who again fought alongside the Iranian army when the city of
Khorramshahr was liberated from Saddam's occupation in 1981. Unfazed by this
failure (and rejection from the Khuzistanis), the pan-Arabists continue to
advocate for the separation of Khuzistan from the rest of Iran (see
The tragedy of the
Iran-Iraq war can be partly attributed to the Al-Husri and Sami Shawkat education
philosophies dating to the 1920-1940s - these have done much to found Arab
animosity against Iran. The Belgrave-Owen "Arab Gulf" invention
(and their disciples such as Pridham, Rice or Olson) is undoubtedly another
factor that continues to inflame Arab feelings against Persia. In my humble
opinion, Belgrave and Owen are also responsible for the catastrophic loss of
life and property suffered by both sides in the Iran-Iraq war. It is also
tragic that the western world failed to see the dangers of pan-Arabism
espoused by Saddam Hussein during that war, especially when he repeatedly
used poison gas against Iranian troops and civilian centers, as well as his
own helpless Kurdish Iraqi population. Instead as noted by the aforementioned
Margolis (Sunday, January, 19, 2004):
To this day, few speak of the atrocities committed on Iranian
civilians by Saddam's troops. Atrocities against Iraqi civilians or Kuwaitis
are only mentioned due to current political expediency. Sixteen years after
the Iran-Iraq war, Iranians must speak out.
The most recent
individual to espouse the Al-Husri version of anti-Persianism is Osama Bin
laden, a man who openly despises Iran and Persian culture. Before the Taliban
were ejected from power by the US following the tragedy of 9/11, Bin laden practically
ruled Afghanistan as his personal caliphate where he made vigorous efforts to
stamp out Persian culture (i.e. Persian language, music, the Nowruz, etc.).
This attitude has been adopted by many of Bin Laden's non-Arab followers in
Pakistan where his supporters frequently shout "Death to Iran"
during their regular anti-western rallies. Many in the western world
misconceive Mr. Bin laden as a religious fanatic; he is in fact a racist in
the tradition of Mr. Satia Al-Husri, Sami Shawkat and Khairallah Tulfah. His
less than exemplary treatment of Persian speakers in Afghanistan certainly
speaks for itself.
These attitudes ignore
one very important fact: many of today's Arabs virulently oppose Arab
chauvinism. These include the aforementioned Samir el-Khalil as well the late
George Hourani. Samir el-Khalil has attacked pan-Arab chauvinism and reminds
Arabs of the legacy of Persia in their culture as well as in Islam. Khalil
was for years a hunted man by the Saddam Hussein regime. The late Arab
scholar, George Hourani, not only appreciated the Iranians for their role in
helping the Arabs form their civilization, but was rigorous against
politically motivated attempts to re-name the Persian Gulf as the "Arab
Gulf". Many Iraqis have dismantled Saddam's anti-Iran propaganda props
from their streets and monuments after the US invasion - this was done in
order to destroy Saddam's legacy of hate against Persia. This must be
applauded by the Iranians.
Calm discourse and
education are the best weapons - the pen is truly mightier than the sword.
The Arab world and Iran have a great deal to offer each other - not to
mention Turkey, a nation with strong ties to Iran, culturally and ethnically.
No matter how hard the disciples of Satia al-Husri, Sami Shawkat, Sir Charles
Belgrave or Roderick Owen may try, a calm examination of historical archives
(and common sense) will confirm the legitimacy of Persia's past (like that of
Greece, Rome, India, Europe, the Arabs, the Turks and China) and the
importance of appreciating her.
Kaveh Farrokh: [email protected]