History is objectively a subjective field of study. The experts and historians involved in academia, research, publication, education, and the like are often supporting an immeasurable weight on their shoulders. Whether they are conscious of this burden or not remains a hovering question as history is documented by those immersed in the field, often (un)intentionally marginalising alternative perspectives and creating stigmas in the process.
The term ‘aryan race’ should send a chill down the spines of those reading it. It is associated with the vile, inhumane actions of a twentieth century dictator and his fascism, who, apart from these said actions, completely manipulated the antiquity of a land now bound by his infamous legacy. For a nation which enacted systemic genocide and mass murder, racial co-optation – the intensity of taking something for one’s own use – seems to be the last thing on their mind. Now that the Holocaust has reached its seventy seventh mark, and as we live in a world where Nazism and Anti-Semitism still exists but not in its 20th century form, the spotlight can be temporarily shifted to view the dilemma in a new light.
First, it is appropriate to begin with the origins of the aryan race and to consider the term in a context separate to that of 20th century Nazi Germany. The term first arose in the 19th century and was used to describe the now extinct group of people who were native to Ancient Iran and the northern Indian subcontinent. These people established distinct cultural practices, supported by religion, literature and social values, and eventually brought them over to central India when they conquered the land. Once established, their ways of life became integral to shaping the Indian identity that is still in bloom to this day. Apart from this, scholars have also theorised that the term refers to an archaic Indo-European language, acted a precursor to philosophies of Hinduism, and was used by ancient Indo-Iranians to differentiate themselves from ‘non-aryans’.
Currently, whatever the case may be, the historical origin of the term is of no importance to me. When I think of the word ‘aryan’, only two things come to mind: Nazi Germany and the land of my people.
When a certain 20th century fascist dictator found grounding as the leader of Germany, he relied on the previous studies of Arthur de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain as the first step to stain the true meaning of the aryan race. Both Gobineau and Chamberlain claimed that the aryan race was a synonym for the ‘white race’, all of which significantly contributed to the development of humanity and only spoke European languages. The members of this aryan race were believed to be superior to those of other races, more civilised than the latter and the utmost pure. Although facing minor backlash by opposing scholars, the theory of aryanism took full swing. Nazi Germany and their leader sensationalised this version of the aryan race – the version that the world clings onto today – and centralised it globally through their horrific actions. It is imperative to note that racism has always been ripe in the world, even before the concept was formalised into a theory. White supremacy is entrenched in the rhetoric of the white-majority, European nations. But, 1930s Germany opened a new chapter in this book. One in which vile genocides and mass discrimination was not only the norm but were accompanied by racial co-optation to detrimental effect.
In my upbringing, family and greater Iranian social circles, articles, books and videos I have studied, I have more closely come to terms with my cultural background. Throughout this process, the Aryan Race has been pervasive. The term here holds a different significance altogether. It is one of pride and survival. Pride in a valiant history spanning over 2500 years. And pride in the survival of a culture that has lived on despite neo-colonialism and invasion from the West. Iran, literally meaning ‘Land of the Aryans’ is home to the Aryan Race, to a people known internationally for their remarkable hospitality and diverse scholarship. This is what the Aryan Race means to me, to us, despite its current sullied state.
I reach a crossroads here where I have explained both sides of the story. The roots of the term and its exploitation in more recent history. One would think that the transition from aryan race to Aryan Race and its acceptance would be feasible. But, to the disadvantage of my people, the venomous version of the term still exists in an unexpected way. Unsurprisingly, White supremacist groups use it liberally for ignominious reasons, but there exists a minority of Iranians who have fallen into the same trap. The sense of cultural pride that Iranians have when identifying with the Aryan Race has been corrupted. In the nation and global diaspora, there are Iranian groups who see themselves as ‘white’. They use the term and blow things out of proportion, perpetuating notions of white supremacy and a faux privilege which they do not even benefit from. This misdemeanour has not only led to international responders stripping Iranians of their ethnic identities – and, more importantly, of the discrimination they have faced – but has led to the use of whiteness as an escape from the inferiority that comes with being a Person of Colour, an ethnic, a Middle Easterner.
The Land of the Aryans bounced back from the Arab Invasion of the 7th century. It stood firmly during British and Russian interference, and even survived the horrors of the 1980 Iran-Iraq War. One day, it will wake from its momentary slumber and rid itself of the theocratic terrorists that plague its present-day existence. But will it be able to stand untouched by colonialism, Western superiority, and an international arena when some of its members associate with Nazism? Especially when it is coming from the inside? Seeping its way into distinctions between pride and nationalism, self-regard and white supremacy.After accepting my cultural background as a part of my identity and relishing the treasures it has to offer, I have fought tooth and nail to reinstate pride in being Iranian. I have attempted to reclaim what rightfully belongs to us: from the pilfered artefacts in far off museums to the stolen patterns and motifs of our designs. I have written this article in a similar attempt to reclaim the Aryan Race. But can I, will I, be successful? There are Iranians out there still chaining their people down to an intolerable moment in history. Still bringing the distaste of the past into the present day. A monumental task of reclaiming lies ahead of me, of us. But nevertheless, it is one worth running the race for.