IAAB Conference Panel 4: Immigrant Networks: Negotiating Cultural Complexity…

Immigrant Networks: Negotiating Cultural Complexity within Modern Nation States

This panel was moderated by Shamila Dilmaghani.

Kathryn Spellman, London Middle East Institute at SOAS, University of London
Iranian Cultural Scenes in London
There are some 40K Iranians in England and Wales, not including Iranian children born in England and Wales. Generally speaking, Iranians didn’t plan to live there permanently.

Iranian businesses are proliferate. Iranian publications in London have begun to ask questions about their dislocation.

Though religion was not a focus of this research, it came up in interviews; many Iranians articulated that their religion and culture was hijacked both by the Iranian government and Muslim leaders in London, who are mainly Pakistani and Indian.

The focus in Spelman’s book is on the development of very specific Iranian religions, and she attended many meetings of both Muslim and born-again Christian Iranians. These were places to rebuild traditions and customs that existed in Iran.

In the past five years, Spelman has fallen into intermediary role between British entities and Iranian groups, leading to a patchy growth of networks. For instance, Iranian arts have been successfully carving pathways into the British mainstream.

This interaction ebbs and flows, and it’s not a straightforward task. Spelman attempted to introduce key people from the Manchester International Festival to create UK-Iranian transnational collaboration in art and sports. The collaboration was great until Ahmadinejad came into power and the ambassador from Iran to the UK changed.

Many Iranians are invisible and without a voice in the UK. Despite organizations, like those that deal with asylum seekers, it’s difficult for press and researchers to approach Iranians in order to understand the community.

There’s a need for Iranian organizations to see themselves as not only helping Iranians but also as a bridge to the British public. There should also be more civic participation.

Groups that are living in and between cultures are being seen as valuable networks throughout Europe.

There’s a widening gap between new refugees and the long-standing diaspora.

Banafsheh Akhlaghi, National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement
Iranian-Americans and the Impact of Post-9/11 Policies
I’m sitting along my brethren, and this is a high honor. This is something historic. I’m one of those immigrants, one of those hyphenated Iranians. I arrived with my family prior to the revolution. Being an Iranian in the United States has never been comfortable.

During the course of the special registration process in the U.S. after 9/11, I had an opportunity to become part of a conversation, a unified and not divisive conversation. I thought, as my family had said, that we’re going back to Iran one day. As a family, we were literally driving through life looking backward. It was a temporary existence up until special registration, for me. Temporary results in creating a separation, confusion, a lack of identity. You don’t have a level connectedness to the country you’re residing in.

Sixteen of my clients were placed on a plane and were missing for 72 hours in the U.S.; and they were found in a detention center in Arizona. They were our community. To see the fear in their faces and to see the disappointment in themselves, and to see that regardless of where we reside, if we don’t make our location of residence our home – not to say that we’ve turned our back to our homeland – if we don’t embrace who we are, what else could possible occur?

From representing these individuals through deportation… and seeing that there is no understanding of who we are – there is a totality to take into consideration of who we are – that drew me to look at how other immigrant groups have done it. Where did history cross paths with their ethnicity and their religion, when they had to make a decision and how to move forward? So I looked at all the different stories of immigrants. And I understood, there’s a book called “civil rights” in this country, and this is our chapter. We can either write our own chapter, or we can be victims, and our people are not victims. And so I’ve picked up a pen and and it’s just one voice, but I’m scribbling it. Last weekend, part of this chapter started to fill in like this – a U.S. citizen who’d worked for 16 years in a nuclear facility decided to go home to Iran after 30 years, where his mother was ailing. He met a woman and was married, and his expecting wife came to the U.S. He followed earlier this month and was detained at LAX, where he was placed in interrogations. He was held for 30 hours. The FBI questioned him about accessing a file on his laptop. The questions continued, leading to those about religion and war and ideology. He was taken into detention. He has been in detention since. I saw him on Sunday, and as I sat with this 49-year-old, intellectual, family man, he started to cry. He said, “If my mother knew I was here… I don’t even know how to look at my wife anymore. What have I done wrong?” We found out this Wednesday that he’s done nothing wrong, although he’s been charged under export laws. We researched and found out that because of the type of software that was accessed, he hasn’t actually committed a crime. But unfortunately, the government decided to detain until proven innocent, yet again, which has been the case so many times.

We can either sit and wonder why one of panelists was not granted a visa from Japan; why our students are being pulled out of Stanford and Berkeley; why Iranian students are not allowed to study certain fields here; why our professionals are being shunned by organizations; or we can have a dialogue. We can talk about who we’re going to be here, and how we’re going to stand together to say that this treatment is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable under the law of the United States, and it doesn’t match our dignity as human beings.

Kazem Vafadari Mehrizi, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University
The Rise of the Iranian Diaspora in Japan
Kazem Vafadari Mehrizi was not able to attend the conference because of visa issues.

Meenoo Chahbazi, Iranian-American Bar Association
Iranian Racial Identity, Racial Classifications & Civil Rights
For many here yesterday, we heard Shabnam Rezaei mention that everyone in America is searching for identity. Although race is very controversial in the Iranian community, inevitably it arises for those growing up in America. I’ll also be talking about civil rights and discrimination and the ways in which different Iranians respond to it.

After the 1979 revolution, there was quite a lot of discrimination against Iranians. Some universities expelled all their Iranian students, some restaurants wouldn’t serve them, there were hate crimes. Post-9/11, there was discrimination at airports; Iranian-American children have been beaten and faced discrimination at schools; Iranians have experienced employment discrimination; hundreds of Iranians were detained in unsanitary conditions under the special registration system.

Discrimination against Iranians has perhaps transcended national origin in the past two decades. This is perhaps because Middle Easterners have been lumped together. Discrimination now is multidimensional: religious, color, national origin, race/ethnic origin.

I think it’s important to discuss race because it comes up all the time and it arises because of the history of racial slavery, followed by many years of racial prejudice. In the American legal tradition, there’s no discrimination more outrageous than that based on race. And lawmakers have risen to combat it.

Iranian-Americans are very divided on the question of race. Here are some viewpoints:
-Some believe they are the original Aryans or Caucasians and therefore they must be white.
-Other Iranians believe they are not white.
-Some Iranians believe they are racially mixed because of mass migrations to Iran and mixing.
-Some Iranians believe they should be recognized as a race minority group like Asians or Latinos.

Some Iranian Americans believe they should minimize their differences with European Americans because they don’t want to be marginalized. Others believe they should be recognized as a minority group for protection from discrimination.

Federal Classification of Race:
Race in the U.S. is established by the Office of Management and Budget, acknowledged by them that racial classifications are “socio-political constructs.” Middle Easterners and North Africans are primarily considered white; but in the mid-90s, the OMB recognized that Middle Easterners are racially mixed. The OMB considered adding a Middle Eastern category, but declined adding it because “given the small size and geographic concentration of this population… the analytical power gained… would be minimal compared to the costs.” It would also have required more space on forms. But Middle Easterners disagree on this issue, some because it would provide advantages and others because they don’t want to be singled out.

Some underlying points are that federal race classifications are not fixed or finalized. They’re subject to change based on public comment.

What are core categorizations of Middle Eastern race?
Though Middle Eastern isn’t a recognized race, there is a statute that allows people from the ME to claim discrimination. Many courts are confused regarding the Arab ethnicity and Iranian nationals.

I have a question about Persian New Year. In many communities, people have established a presence, but is there any way to get it legally recognized as a holiday?
Akhlaghi: It’s a procedural question, which would require constituent support. Some cities are recognizing it. States have not, and we don’t yet federally. It would ultimately mean your activism. I know, for example, there’s an Iranian mayor in Beverly Hills, and they are absolutely, 100% in celebration of the Persian New Year.

Since for most of the discrimination cases, the common denominator is religion, Islam, are you active with the Muslim organization that helps also?
Akhlaghi: I’m really glad you asked that question. None of our cases are religion-based. They’re just national origin-based. The pretext is religion, but we have Bahai, Zoroastrian, Jewish clients, not to mention the agnostics and atheists. They’re looking to see “Where were you born?” Tamoom shod, that’s it. This applies even if you’re now a citizen of another nation. With respect to various councils, no, we don’t really work in tandem with organizations that are religious-based. But we work some with an Arab organization, because there are 24 nations that we represent. So we represent all of those individuals on the special registration list. We’re a human-rights, civil-rights, American organization – that’s the root of our word. I take the foundation and premise of the legal foundation of the U.S., and cases don’t match it, we hold the court accountable and responsible. If there’s a religion question involved, then we do seek knowledge and expertise on it. But our work is solely based on the governance of this country.

Was there more discrimination in areas with lots of Persians vs. few or urban vs. suburban?
Chahbazi: That’s a very good question. I would imagine that it’s suburban, but I don’t have research.
Akhlaghi: The discrimination calls we get are not really geographically specific; they’re national. In early 2005, when our office began the Know Your Rights campaign, we went to various cities to bring the knowledge of the rights to individuals in various cities. We haven’t gone to smaller areas or rural areas. We haven’t gone to Oklahoma, for instance. We haven’t gone into those smaller pockets to hear what Iranian-Americans are facing. But from what we’re hearing in the places we’ve been, it’s got to be quite horrendous because they don’t have an infrastructure and a large community to latch on to.

NIAC is working with a coalition of organizations to get one line added to the Census that asks about ancestry. We’re having a lot of trouble. The economy of space is the main problem we face. The question I wanted to ask is how relevant is that information to your work in the civil rights arena? Would it help you in your cases? And also, have you had similar experiences in England with census questions, are you familiar with that?
Chahbazi: The more information we can have about Iranian ancestry would be better. In section 1981 cases, it would help.
Spellman: Yes, the same questions come up in the UK. Iranians are in the “Other-Other” group. When I started my research, I saw that there was nothing done at all in the UK, not a single thing published. I asked for statistics, and the majority of councils had nothing. It was really patchy. There’s a great increase of Iranians trying to remain in the UK and the UK is just shutting the doors to Iranians.

Dr. Spelman, do older Iranians have any leadership roles in creating communities in the UK?
Spelman: I’ve spent so much time with Iranian elderly women, particularly in their homes. They’ve been very informally active. There are invisible but very important networks in keeping an Iranian presence in their children’s households. I wanted to talk about how many elderly Iranians do want to go to Iran; perhaps it’s the proximity. Also, Dubai: Dubai is a very important place for Iranians. It is the modern-day port. That’s where Iranians are passing through, and a lot of Iranians are retiring there.

What kind of a role do Iranian media play in discrimination cases right now?
Akhlaghi: Media is a crucial part of this. It’s not a one-base approach, in my opinion. You have the case, the human being that has been impacted. What do you do with the person? How do you start finding solutions? One way is via the legal channel. But the law and the court systems are more often than not, not in our favor. We often don’t have a judge who can maneuver and move cases as they should. So what do you do? The other aspect is policy. That’s where the census and the numbers come in. We don’t exist; without numbers you won’t have voter turnout in your direction, etc. The numbers are crucial in identifying the community. Media takes that and magnifies it. Media takes that one story and brings it to the entire globe, and that’s power. The impact of that is extraordinary. “Where is the Iranian media?” is a different question. Not only do I take cases to American media, but when it goes to Iranian media, I personally have to start teasing out whether the media is propaganda-driven, monarchist, Islamic, and so forth. Which of these would be the best source that we can go to and use as a platform? What is media for? In this context, it’s public education. We want to create a sourcing. We need people who can be unbiased and bring information solidly without their own interest in the community.

Can you talk about special registration? We’re prone to defining ourselves as what we’re not as Iranians; Iranian but not Arab, etc. Can you talk about solidarity?
Chahbazi: I think that’s a wonderful point, and part of the American experience is finding common ground and groups. Part of the American obligation is to engage in community, and part of that process is looking at other ethnic minorities in America and looking at their experiences and seeing their approach to countering discrimination. People are not as willing to listen to us when we’re discriminated against if we don’t listen to them.
Akhlaghi: Perfect question. When the first registrations occurred, there were five countries on the list, and the individuals were housed and shackled and chained together. Without that base of coming together, because our numbers are large but they’re not at the point where we can effect change, so we need to come together. The coming together of 24 nations – a third of the world – rendered in the U.S. as suspect, brings together financial resources, a voting block… the Lebanese community is an integral part of this community. They have members in Congress. How have others done it? There’s a formula and all we have to do is plug things in. We have to incorporate other hyphenate experiences into our learnings. I don’t think I have been more impacted as a human being than witnessing what I witnessed. I’m getting a little emotional… because what do you say to a 16-year-old in shackles, waiting for his father to pull $10,000 together to get him out on bond, when he asks “Is my only crime the place that I was born?” So what you can say to that is bonding together and standing together.

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