Religious Minorities in Iran
Author: Eliz Sanasarian
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 2000
xix + 228 pages, 4 tables, 9 illustrations, notes, bibliography and index, $59.95, hardbound
Review by: Robert Brenton Betts
Dr. Sanasarian's study of the non-Muslim minorities of Iran fills an important gap in the information readily available on the complex mosaic of Middle Eastern society. A native of Iran and professor of political science at the University of Southern California, she is herself a member of the largest Christian minority in Iran, the Armenians. The vast majority of Iranians (93 percent) are Shia Muslims, though barely half (51 percent) are ethnically Persian. One quarter (24 percent) are Turkish-speaking Azeris, another 7 percent Kurds. The Azeris are Shia, but half of the Kurds are Sunni and provide the primary base of the small orthodox Muslim minority (5 percent), which also includes the Baluch, Turcoman and some of the Arab communities. Shiism is relatively new to Iran -- unlike Iraq, where it began shortly after the death of the fourth caliph, Ali -- having been introduced as the state religion by the Safavid dynasty in the sixteenth century. The non-Muslim minorities account for barely 1 percent of the total population of 60 million; the affiliation of the remaining 1 percent is not made clear by the author.
Of the six religious minorities, three are Christian -- the Armenians, the Assyrians (Nestorians) and their uniate Catholic counterparts the Chaldeans (considered by the Iranian government as a single community), and the Protestant churches, some of which, like the Anglican Episcopal Church, are made up of native converts from Islam. The other three groups considered by the author are the Jews, the Zoroastrians and the Bahais. Only four of these six communities are officially recognized by the present Islamic government and allowed official representation in the 275-member Majlis (Parliament) -- the Armenians with two deputies and the Assyro-Chaldeans, Jews and Zoroastrians with one each. The largest and smallest of the non-Muslim minorities -- the Bahais and the Protestants -- are not recognized or represented; they are considered apostates from Islam and therefore illegal. The Bahais in particular have been severely persecuted by the government since 1979. The Protestants, including those of Armenian and Assyrian origins, have also been the victims of stringent restrictions and political assassinations of their leadership. The other four have also been subject to a strict governmental control that has affected their community life and especially their schools, though in quite varying degrees. Business enterprises run by minorities, especially those that deal with food and drink consumed by the Muslim population, have also been either seized or rigidly controlled by the government.
Hardest hit of the four officially recognized minorities have been the Jews. "Objective research," states the author, "leaves no doubt that the Iranian Jews have received harsher treatment than the other RRMs [Recognized Religious Minorities]" (p. 110). During the reign of the late shah, Mohammed Reza (r. 1941-1979), and his father, Reza Shah (r. 1925-1941), the power of the Shiite religious leadership was severely curtailed and non-Muslim groups allowed to flourish. The "close connection between [Mohammed Reza] shah's regime and the state of Israel" (p. 48) led to "increasing prosperity and security." Of the 80,000 Jews in Iran in the 1970s, only 10 percent were classified as impoverished; 80 percent were middle class and 10 percent wealthy. "In 1979, two of the 18 members of the Royal Academy of Sciences, 80 of the 4,000 university lecturers, and 600 of the 10,000 physicians in Iran were Jews" (p. 47).
Nevertheless, one-third of Iranian Jewry, which dates from at least the time of Cyrus the Great following his liberation of the Babylonian Captivity in 539 B.C., emigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1953. But, according to the author, "most of the emigrants from this wave were from the provinces and belonged to the lower classes" (p. 47). Significantly, the new president of Israel, who upset the favored Shimon Peres in the Knesset election of July 31, 2000, is Moshe Katsav, a previously unknown Sephardic Jew from Yazd in central Iran. But with the establishment of Khomeini's Islamic Republic in 1979, the situation for Iranian Jews soured almost immediately. The conviction and execution of leading Jewish businessman Habib Elghanian shortly after Khomeini's return set a tone that has continued until today, with the conviction and imprisonment last year of 13 Iranian Jews for spying for Israel. Only some 20,000-30,000 Jews remain. The Islamic government's distrust of local Jewish ties to Israel was exacerbated by popular Shiite myths, one of which holds that a Jewish female companion of the Prophet Muhammad had poisoned him, "causing his eventual death" (p. 111).
The only minority to have grown during the last 20 years are the Zoroastrians, whose numbers have risen from 30,000 to 50,000. Centered primarily in Tehran, Kerman and Yazd, these survivors of pre-Islamic Persia flourished like the Jews under the late shah and his father. The elder shah saw them as "a unique instrument" for his new nationalist ideology. "Ancient Persian symbols (closely associated with the Zoroastrians) became the cornerstone of modern Iranian nation building" (p. 49). The most obvious manifestation of this trend was the renaming of the country "Iran" rather than Persia in 1934. The name derives from an expression in the Zoroastrian holy book, Avesta, and "in the new ideology it was closely associated with the glorious past of the Persian Kingdom in the period before the Arab invasion." In 1960, "the first Zoroastrian World Congress met in Tehran, and one member of the community was placed in high position in the government" (p. 49). Under the Islamic Republic, restrictions have been imposed, but not to the extent they have on other communities. Likewise the Armenians, who number some 150,000-200,000 (down from 250,000 in the 1970s), centered chiefly in the cities of Tehran, Isfahan and Tabriz, have held their own despite governmental interference in their community life and institutions. The Assyro-Chaldeans have declined by nearly half during the past 20 years, from 30,000 to 18,000, though chiefly for economic reasons. No population figures are given by the author for the Protestant communities, but the World Christian Encyclopedia cites 2,800 members for the Anglican Episcopal Church in the mid 1980s and 3,300 "Iranian indigenous" Protestant Christians.
The Bahais, whose numbers are estimated at anywhere from 150,000-300,000, have been targeted by the current regime from the beginning. Their Persian origin and the fact that all of their members are converts or the descendants of converts from Islam made them particularly odious to the Shia religious establishment. Also during the late shah's reign, they were seen as aggressive proselytizers. According to the author, "They were the true infidels, ... to be dealt with harshly and to be destroyed" (p. 114). Despite "some minor temporary improvements" (p. 121), persecution of the Bahais has continued unabated into the late 1990s.
The future of religious minorities in Iran under the present government is not bright. "Scapegoating non-Muslim marginal groups," observes the author, "has been a historical blemish for Iran, its version of Islam, and state politics.... Failure to contemplate the situation and change behavior," she concludes, "will guarantee the mindless repetition of the patterns examined above in the not too distant future" (p. 163).
The only weakness of Sanasarian's book is the index, which is very brief and incomplete. The omission of such crucial basic entries as the six minority groups considered makes the text need-lessly inaccessible, especially to those who haven't the time to read the entire work, or who wish information on only one or two of the groups under consideration. Apart from this, Dr. Sanasarian's book is a valuable and important contribution to Iranian and Middle Eastern studies. Her approach is completely unbiased and comprehensive, and her study should be read by everyone with an interest in these fields.
In contrast, Habib Levy's massive tome is of interest only to specialists, especially those with an interest in Judaica and whose sympathies are in tune with the views of the author. Levy (1896-1984) was a leading Iranian Jewish scholar of the twentieth century. His detailed account of 2,700 years of Jewish history in Persia runs to 600 pages and even in this form is an abridgement of yet a larger work in Farsi, which represents much of his life's work. While thorough to a fault, it is written to a personal agenda. The titles of some of the chapters, e.g. "Iran, Abattoir of Monotheists," "Foreign and Domestic Factors in the Flood of Anti-Semitism," "The Miserable Plight of the Jews of Kashan," and "Iran, Circus of European Spies" clearly indicate the tenor of the text.
As Dr. Sanasarian observed in her study, the Jews in Iran have definitely endured periods of persecution and discrimination, including the present. In reading Dr. Levy, however, one wonders why Jews continued, and continue, to live there if things were as bad as they are made to appear. Curiously, little is said about Iranian-Jewish emigration to Israel and nothing about the community there. Although the book is essentially a factual account, there is speculation as well, some of it dubious, such as the Jews of Kurdistan and the Nestorian Christians being descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel (p. 31), not to mention Daghestanis in the Caucasus, the Jews of Bokhara and Samarkand, and even Afghan tribesmen (pp. 34-36). For Dr. Levy, "the ten tribes did not disappear. Nor were they lost. They were dispersed, and some made their way to Iran" (p. 39). There are also some errors of fact, beginning with the colored map on the cover of the dust jacket, which shows the Iranian Plateau in what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pronouncements of dubious accuracy also abound, such as the author's perception of Arabia. "The Arabian peninsula is a dry land -- devoid of water and plant life" (p. 157). Anyone who has visited Yemen or Oman would beg to differ.
Much of the text is highly charged with emotion. This may not be surprising, given the persecution that Jews in Iran have periodically endured, but it tends to put off the dispassionate reader. His concluding outburst on p. 551 -- "Is not this follower of Moses an example of sublime humanity? Is not the Iranian Jew a lily growing in the salt marsh of bigotry?" -- hardly convinces one that what has gone before is scholarship.
Robert Brenton Betts
Visiting professor of history, University of Balamand, Tripoli, Lebanon
COPYRIGHT 2001 Middle East Policy Council