A Divided Immigrant Community: Iranians in the U.S. Facing the Muslim Ban

I asked Shabnam to contribute her unique and intimate perspective on how the Muslim ban was affecting the Iranian U.S. community. Shabnam and I met each other at the University of Florida as incoming masters students, and we've continued to support one another well into our doctoral studies. Her work on Persian diaspora and subversive music is important and timely, and I owe a lot to her--not only for expanding my worldview, but also my palette with delicious Persian food!

Shabnam Goli

In the aftermath of the Islamic revolution of 1979 and following the hostage crisis, the community of Iranian immigrants in the U.S., which I study and belong to today, experienced some of the harshest forms of discrimination and resentment from the American society and state. Some Iranians who resided in the States at the time have stories about their children getting beaten and bullied at school, their businesses getting burned down, and their houses getting vandalized.

The hardships of those days were reminded in the community after the President of the United States signed an executive order banning nationals of seven major Muslim countries, including Iran, to enter the U.S. The news was a major shock to all of us. Although it did not affect all Iranians equally, it had tremendous consequences for many including my own family who was expecting to get partially reunited in the States after 6 years.

Over the course of a few days, many Iranians, bewildered and scared of uncertain future, began to voice their concerns. As discussions got overheated on social media, the community began to display its internal socio-political and ethno-religious stratification. While majority of Iranian graduate students united to fight the ban, many Iranian-Americans, people of religious minorities, and the exiles of the 1970s showed their lack of sympathy for other Iranians affected by the ban. My Facebook page was filled with poignant debates on who is welcome in the U.S. and who is not. Much to my surprise, nationality was replaced by other aspects of identity including religion and citizenship. The community fractured from the within as some California-based, wealthy Iranians, who had supported the president during the election, backed the ban. This was an eye-opening turn of events that attracted my attention to complex power struggles within the highly diverse immigrant community that is facing discrimination based on nationality. A diasporic community that is not held together by the concept of nationality is now facing further internal conflicts.

As I continue researching the community and its power relations, I question the significance and relevance of the fundamental aspect of a diaspora, “nationality,” in the modern context of American host society. If ties to a shared point of origin does not bring people together, what then distinguishes a diasporic community from other transnational communities? I don’t have answers to this question yet, but I am certain it is time to reject the existence of monolithic immigrant communities including the Iranian diaspora.

Jeremy Frusco

What strikes me in this discussion is a sense of rootedness. How do diasporic communities, or more specifically the immigrants that constitute them, take root? It seems clear that reasons vary widely, and what keeps some steadfast might dislocate others. In reading your post, a passage from Cesare Pavese’s postwar Italian novel La luna e I falò (The Moon and the Bonfires, 1950) came to mind:

Chi può dire di che carne sono fatto? Ho girato abbastanza il mondo da sapere che tutte le carni sono buone e si equivalgono, ma è per questo che uno si stanca e cerca di mettere radici, di farsi terra e paese, perché la sua carne valga e duri qualcosa di piú che un comune giro di stagione.

 [Who can say what the body is made of? I have been all over the world enough to understand that all people are good and equal, but it is for this that one can become tired in the search for their origins–to make for themselves a land and country that they can equate to their body as something lasting and more than just one era or specific time period.]

Some of the pulsing themes in this novel are change, nostalgia, and belonging. Prior to outbreak of the Second World War, the protagonist leaves his small Italian town for the United States. Shortly after the war, he returns to find his hometown familiar, but foreign—indelibly marred by the traumatic violence it endured. It is deeply unsettling to feel detached from your roots, and the protagonist struggles to reconceive of his sense of belonging. Part of this reflection comes through an expanding worldview. As a child, the protagonist believed his town was the entire world. This is surely not the case, and it is only in his travels as an adult that he comes to know a world made up of many such towns. As a global individual, he faces an additional challenge of never taking root. He reconciles this through a sense of belonging to a group, a family, a culture. It is not the actual soil of place where one takes their root. Instead, it is an embrace of social, cultural, and familial bonds that nourishes growth.

And so I think of the Iranian diaspora and what feels like a struggle to root oneself in the soil of a common origin. And maybe that works. But we’re seeing that it doesn’t always. That stratification that you observed seems to point to a new kind of rootedness that has been, or is now, taking hold. Ironic that, at least for Pavese’s protagonist, travel is the very thing that unlocks this quest for rootedness that goes beyond sharing physical space. I think that travel is considered revelatory and transformative. It is necessary for the maturation of the protagonist. It unlocks truths. And truth is hard to come by these days.