The Aryan myth is one of the fundamental pillars of Iranian nationalism and a widespread paradigm in popular culture. It figured prominently in the Pahlavi state’s repertoire of narratives, and has been widely used to claim parity with Europe and dislocate Iran from the perceived backwardness of the Islamic world.
Born in early nineteenth-century Europe, the Aryan myth was a product of linguistics, of racial anthropology – a pseudo-science today discredited – and a political ideology. It often claimed to empirically demonstrate the inherent superiority of Europeans over the non-European subjected ‘races’. It later became a fundamental component of Nazi and other fascist ideologies.
Believing in the Aryan kinship of Iranians, German Orientalists and cultural emissaries introduced the Aryan myth into Iran in the first half of the twentieth century. After Iran’s traumatic encounter with the West, a disoriented intellectual elite still struggling to diagnose Iran’s ills welcomed the myth as the missing link explaining the country’s ‘reverse progress’ (taraqi-e ma’kus). The convenient intellectual device produced from this curious importation is well known: Iranians are part of the Aryan race and thwarted from their glory by religious and cultural miscegenation with Semites (in this case Arabs). It is remarkable that although both terms ‘Aryan’ and ‘race’ have – for good reasons – fallen into disuse in the West, they loom large in Iranian popular but also scholarly discourse to this day.
This paper intends to shed light on the origins of one of the most widespread narratives of Iranian ethnic identity. Both European and Iranian variants of the Aryan myth, and their interconnectedness, will come up for scrutiny. The paper will assess the claims of the Iranian narrative in view of existing research on the meanings of the term arya- in Old Persian. An analysis of key texts in Persian will hopefully show that the success of the Aryan myth in Iran proceeds from two premises: a collective complex of inferiority directed at Europe (evident in modernist writings), and the need for a digestible explanation of Iran’s perceived backwardness that lays the blame on the doorstep of aliens (Arabs). This study is significant as it exposes a rare case of ‘self-orientalisation’: rather than emancipating Iranians from the West’s domination (a common endeavour in developing nations), Iranian nationalists attempted to transfigure Iran into a lost member of the ‘commonwealth of Europe’, while adopting European racist attitudes against Semites (Arabs) and Islam mutatis mutandis.