New Perspectives on the Iranian Diaspora

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


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The presence of Iran in the Caucasus and Azerbaijan was realized not only in the political, economic and military spheres, as well as in the social sphere, i.e. by its population-citizens. The history of presence in this quality has begun since the beginning of the nineteenth century, from the Russian-Iranian wars. People, mainly Azerbaijani Turks which at first, in 1801 was the subject of the kingdom of Georgia, then under the Gulistan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828) treaties subjected formally (de jure) to Iran, but actually (de facto) were independent feudal states, that in the past freely moved in these areas, with the amalgamation of Azerbaijani khanates to the Russian Empire divided as a single nation and became the subjects –citizens of Russia and Iran. Thus, “the Iranian” problem in the Caucasus–arrival of the Iranian citizens to Northern Azerbaijan which had already become the administrative area of Tsarist Russia and their long-term or permanent living there has the 200-year history. In different stages of this history arrival of Iranians getting mass character had a variety of economic, political and social reasons. This is a very broad topic; therefore, in this lecture my goal is to consider the emergence, place and nature of the Iranian community on the bases of historical stages. The arrival of the Iranians to Azerbaijan, exactly to say, to Russian Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijan People's Republic, Soviet Azerbaijan and the present day Republic of Azerbaijan can be divided into 5 stages.
The first stage covers from the mid-nineteenth century, a 70 years period (until 1917) and according to the nature it can be characterized as “laborer migration” of the Iranians.
The second stage covering from 1917 until April 1920, mainly the period of Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan characterizes an eventful period in the history of the Iranian community in the Caucasus, as an intense period for the split in the community on the basis of class composition.
The third stage covers the period of 1921-1940 years, and is considered to be the most difficult period for recent results in the history of the Iranian community in Azerbaijan – to be completely destroyed and the abolishment of the community.
The fourth stage covers the period of 1946-1990 years, and is characterized with the leaders and participants of the national liberation movement in Iran, with emergence and activities of new political “community” of the new Iranians as a result of immigration of the national and left-wing party members to Azerbaijan.
The fifth stage covers from the 1990s up to present and is characterized by emergence of the community involving the Iranian citizens working within the framework of bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, in construction and industrial business, trade, cultural and educational activities and those studying in Azerbaijan.
Since its inception, more than 100 years of existence in this or any other form, the “Iranian” community in Azerbaijan in the best case had the function of a “civil society” abroad and has not been able to influence on the state's political, social and cultural life in any way.

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Many Iranians have been protesting in front of Roberto Cavalli stores, accusing the designer of plagiarizing a symbol that is trademarked by Maktab Tarighat Oveyssi, School of Islamic Sufism (MTO). The Maktab’s members are vehemently expressing concern over the violation of their sacred imagery. The trademarking of their logo, the objection to its infringement, and the fervent mobilization to contest this violation all speak to the significance of the exclusivity provided by the boundaries constructed around the movement, meant to distinguish the group as both Iranian and Shi‘i Sufi. In this paper, I examine similar instances of religious innovation within the Iranian diaspora in the U.S., by looking at three new religious movements: MTO, the International Association of Sufism (IAS), and the 19ers, all in Northern California.

The socio-political disenchantments that characterize the post-Revolution diasporic experience have created a diverse religious landscape for Iranian expatriates. Religious innovations facilitate the continuous construction of identities at the intersection of being Iranian, American, Muslim, exiled, modern, progressive, and religious. Such constructions facilitate assimilation and subjectivity to newly formed notions of modernity and belonging. Their sense of modernity is multi-dimensional: it adopts the idealized modernity that was communicated through the Shah’s mythologizing of an ancient past that is pristine, superior, and able to abolish centuries of Islamic history to encompass a modernity that is post-enlightenment and European in character and non-Iranian in nature; it includes a modernity characteristic of the Revolution and the Islamic Republic; and it is a modernity that is painted with the anxieties of exile and separation from a homeland. How are these movements, which have formed through a Western subjectivity, facilitating a new sense of Iranianness?

Through a common discourse redefining both Iranianness and religiosity, these movements all reformulate Iranian history, modernity, and Islam, and this reformulation allows the reconstruction of their identity. Most importantly, it facilitates the diasporic experience. For example, MTO solidifies its boundaries to provide an exclusive, tangible space in which the angst of exile and the crisis of identity that characterize the diasporic experience can be alleviated. It allows for a transnational embodiment that consolidates the many dimensions of an Iranian diasporic identity into a single form of belonging, so that being a member of MTO is enough to alleviate the anxiety of being an Iranian in diaspora, being a Muslim in the West, and being a modern Shi’i.

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More than thirty-six years after the birth of the Islamic republic, what are the Iranian migratory rhythms and flows in the world? To speak about the Iranian diaspora, requires taking into account the trajectories of men and women who initiated and, then, staked this new tradition marked by the particular historical circumstances from the beginning of the 1979 revolution which caused a massive exodus abroad. From Iran to the four corners of the world, how are they spread over the five continents? What are the socio-economic profiles of the current four generations living in diaspora? Can we really put a precise figure on the number of people who make up the Iranian diaspora?
The aim of this paper is to answer these questions by presenting a quantitative review of the Iranian diaspora on the basis of sociological research which has been taking place over a period of 15 years in Europe, in the USA and in the neighboring countries.
This diaspora groups four generations of Iranians having emigrated abroad, and their descendants, born either in or outside of Iran, but who still identify with their Iranian origins. The political structure of the Iranian republic, the eight years of war, the demographic transformation of the Iranian population, the interference of the religious authorities in daily life and the frustration of the Iranians concerning human development, make up the structural and individual factors of the sociological reproduction of this diaspora, which we will be able to discuss during my intervention.

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There are approximately four to five million Iranians living abroad. Many of these individuals are in the United States, with lower populations in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and other Middle East countries. There have been a number of studies conducted on the Iranian-American diaspora, but fewer on the Iranian-European and other countries. This study was a comprehensive examination on the Iranian diaspora in Europe; their occupation, level of education, integration in new home country, cultural identity and interests as a migrant community in the EU.

The purpose of the study was to shed more light on the relative status and identity of the Iranian Diaspora in several European countries and when and why they moved to this specific location in Europe?

The study has been gathered through a thorough literature review and a quantitative research survey with approximately 2,000 participants in Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden and the Netherlands (the United Kingdom can be replaced with France). Participants were identified through various channels on the internet, such as through Facebook groups, blogs and other websites targeting the Iranian Diaspora.

Results of the study show the interrelationship of perceived status/identity, social integration and civic engagement of the Iranian diaspora in Western Europe, by looking at identity and perceived status. Final conclusions are drawn on the role of the diaspora and how these results can be shared with policy makers and the Iranian diaspora community.

(Paper by Pari Namazie, Ali Honari, Bijan Khajehpour)