The Forlorn Arab as Foil in the Curriculum of Postrevolutionary Iran

By Shervin Malekzadeh

As was the case for many of her neighbors, Iran’s path to salvation ran through the source of her perdition. The trauma of military defeat and the loss of large swaths of territory to the Russian and English armies during the nineteenth century spawned an indigenous reform movement, comprised of a diverse and contentious lot but whose members nonetheless shared to varying degrees the belief that self-preservation demanded emulation, that Iran must become more like its European tormenters in the areas of political organization and military technology. Constituting a “dilemma of modernization,” this small but influential group of nationalizing elites faced the difficult challenge of bringing change to Iran by importing foreign knowledge without sacrificing Iran’s cultural identity.[1]

Asura demonstration in freedom square, Tehran, during 1979 Iranian revolution, 1. Januar 1979, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Efforts to localize European modernity while remaining true to an “authentic” self corresponded with a concomitant desire to fix blame for Iran’s degradation on the Arab invasion and conquest in the century. Modern Iran would be defined by the concepts and logic imported from the west, but its national identity would be formed against the Arab. The Arab represented negation, the absence of Iran itself. Rendered a true “Other” in the public and private imaginations of many Iranians, over time chauvinism towards the Arab twisted itself into a more pernicious and seemingly permanent racism.[2]

This determination to blame the Arab for Iran’s decline quickly ran headlong into the imperative of historical continuity. The logic of modern nationalism dictated that there be an Iran that “has always been there,” an unbroken presence from time immemorial. This was incompatible with the claim that the Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century represented a rupture in that historical timeline, one that ushered in a period of darkness and loss.[3]

Planners found their way out of this intellectual thicket in part by reimagining Islam in civilizational terms, a phenomenon with origins in Arabia but unmoored to a specific place or time. “For Iranian nationalists,” Aghaie writes, “Islam was a positive historical force, one that highlighted the equality of believers, rather than the ethnic hierarchy that elevated Arabs over Iranians.”[4] With the playing field leveled, as it were, the Iranian persisted, no longer a victim but as the Islamic world’s most vital and creative component.

New System, Old Logics

The founders of the Islamic Republic readily embraced and reproduced the same historical logic following the 1979 Revolution. If the Iranian weren’t greater than the Arab, then at least he would be his equal. We see evidence of this sentiment expressed throughout the lessons of the early elementary curriculum, prepared by the new revolutionary state and presented to children during the first three decades of IRI rule.[5]

Painting commemorating the death of Imam Husayn at the Battle of Karbala, Painting: Abbas Al-Musavi, Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Such is the case in the third grade primer lesson Better than Whom, which opens with the Prophet engaged in conversation with his closest companions at a mosque when, unannounced, his friend and follower Salman al-Farsi appears. Muhammad invites al-Farsi, an ethnic Iranian, to join the group in prayer, a gesture of hospitality that is not well received by the others.

Muhammad’s companions loudly voice their objections: “Salman is a Farsi speaker and we are Arabs! He ought not sit in our group and or above us [in the assembly]. He must sit in a lower level of the room than us.”[6]

Greatly upset, the Prophet reprimands his followers. “Being a Fars or an Arab,” he exclaims, “is not a reason for thinking better or worse of a person. Neither color nor ethnicity makes one wiser. Nothing save “piety and faith” makes us better.”[7] The lesson draws a bright line across its principal thesis that Islam is a leveling force in the world: “We Muslims know each other as equals and as brothers. Accent and language do not separate us from one another. Where we live, ethnicity, or our color cannot separate us one another.”[8] That al-Farsi is to promote Islam as a religion of universal tolerance and acceptance is hardly by accident. Students learn that as Iranians they should never accept second-grade status among Muslims simply because their religion has origins elsewhere.

1978 Iranian revolution – row of protesters holding Khomeini’s photos, Public domain, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Nonetheless, authors are careful to paper over differences between Sunni Arabs and a (presumably) superior Shiite Iran. Anodyne references to Iran’s sectarian identity are redolent throughout the curriculum, but never as a message of division. The retelling of the Karbala story in Lesson in Freedom, for example, reimagines the slaughter of Husayn and his entourage as a selfless act of salvation and rebirth, not for Shiites but for all of Islam: “With his martyrdom, Imam Husayn saved the Koran from danger, so that the Koran and Islam might remain on this earth to guide and help humanity.”[9]

Layered thick with sectarian markers and symbols, but denuded of labels that might plainly or explicitly identify Iran as a Shiite countrythe lesson also leaves enough room for teachers and students to imagine themselves as both Shiites and Iranians, the one connected to the other in equal measure. But here again authors walk a fine line, presenting a number of openly nationalist (though no less religious) narratives in the curriculum, only to retreat back into the official line of universalist struggle and anti-imperialism, ostensibly drawn in the spirit of solidarity and pan-Islamism, but in which the Arab serves as a project of redemption, objects in need of rescue.

In the post-revolutionary reverie on what it meant to be “truly Iranian,” the plight of the forlorn Arab served as symbol and reminder of the indispensability of preserving Iran’s sovereignty against foreign encroachment, the dismemberment of Lebanon and Palestine less an inspiration for global struggle than they were contemporary reminders of the catastrophes of Turkmenchai and Golestan.[10]

Whereas the Pahlavi state portrayed the Arab Muslim as an abject figure incapable of redemption other than by the grace and intervention of Iranian civilization and culture, he was rendered merely pitiful by the Islamic educational system. Sympathy for the Arab by the postrevolutionary state comprised a rebuke and an affirmation: Look at what has happened to the Arabs who were not able to defend their homes and their homeland. Look at what has not happened to us.


[1] Monica Ringer, “Negotiating Modernity: Ulama and the Discourse of Modernity in Nineteenth-Century Iran,” in Iran Between Tradition and Modernity, ed. Ramin Jahanbegloo (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2004), 41.

[2] For a full-throated, if perhaps overstated, exposition of the depths and durability of Iranian racism towards Arabs, see Reza Zia-Ebrahimi, The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism: Race and the Politics of Dislocation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[3] Haggay Ram, “The Immemorial Iranian Nation? School Textbooks and Historical Memory in Post-revolutionary Iran,” Nations and Nationalism 6, no. 1 (2000): 67-90.

[4] Kamran Scot Aghaie, “Islamic-Iranian Nationalism and Its Implications for the Study of Political Islam and Religious Nationalism,” in Rethinking Iranian Nationalism and Modernity, eds. Kamran Scot Aghaie and Afshin Marashi (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2014).

[5] The following section draws upon evidence culled by the author from the archives of the Organization for Educational Research and Planning (OERP) located in Tehran.

[6] “Better than Whom?” Farsi, Third Grade 1359/1980: 83.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Lesson in Freedom,” Farsi, Third Grade 1359/1980.

[10] See Monica Ringer, Education, Religion, and the Discourse of Cultural Reform in Qajar Iran (Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, Inc., 2001). The wars with Russia (1804-1813 and 1826-1828) remain prominent in the collective psyche of Iranians, many of whom can still recite the number and names of the places lost now more than two centuries ago. The deep unpopularity of the Qajar dynasty, and in particular Fath Ali Shah Qajar, is in so small part due to these catastrophes.


Shervin Malekzadeh is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Williams College where he is completing a book manuscript on postrevolutionary schooling in Iran from the perspective of ordinary families and local officials tasked with educating “the New Islamic Citizen.” Prior to coming to Williams, he served as Visiting Professor of Comparative Politics at Swarthmore College. A former schoolteacher and a regular visitor to Iran, as well as an accidental participant in the 2009 Green Movement, his articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and Folha de São Paulo, among others. Shervin’s research and publications are available at his academic website,

Citation: Shervin Malekzadeh, The Forlorn Arab as Foil in the Curriculum of Postrevolutionary Iran, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.07.2018

Further articles in the series “The ‘1979 Moment’ in the Middle East” on TRAFO:

Amir Moosavi (2018), Looking Back at the “1979 Moment” in the Middle East

Behrooz Moazami (2018), The Making and Unmaking of the Moments: From the 1979 Revolution to the Arab Spring

Yvonne Albers (2018), Turning the Page: Reading 1979 in and through the Cultural Journal Mawaqif

Jihane Sfeir (2018), The Disenchantment of the Left: Two Memories of the Palestinian Struggle

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