Religious Identity and Ethnic Switching among the Iranian Diaspora

Note: This post is part of a series prepared for an April 2019 workshop on “Religion, Reverence and Tolerance” organized by the Baker Institute Center for the Middle East and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, both at Rice University.


By Mohsen Mostafavi Mobasher, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Houston-Downtown


Since the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution in Iran, it is estimated that between 3.5 and 5 million Iranian nationals, including religious minorities (Jewish, Armenians, Baha’is and Zoroastrians) have left the country and settled largely in North America and Europe. After the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and the ensuing diplomatic breakup between Iran and the United States, there was a radical shift in the perception of American leaders and citizens about the new post-revolutionary Islamic government in Iran and Iranian people. In Carter’s words, Iran was described as an “extremist,” “terrorist” and “fanatical” country dominated by a “crazy group” of mullahs (Gerges 1997). The reaction of Americans to post-revolutionary Iran, as described by Edward Said (1997), was rooted in the “longstanding” “Orientalist” attitude of the West toward “Islam, the Arabs, and the Orient” that linked Islam to war, murder, and conflict and portrayed Muslims as anti-American and uncivilized.  The ongoing unprecedented xenophobic anti-Iran/Iranian, anti-Islam/Muslim reaction with new images of Iran, Iranians, Islam and Muslim immigrants as barbaric, uncivilized and terrorists since the hostage crisis have had major social and psychological consequences for millions of Iranian immigrants in exile.  Since the hostage crisis and the horrific September 11, 2001, attack, Iranian immigrants in the United States have been subject to various forms of discrimination and prejudice, hate crimes, employer and government profiling, and violations of civil rights by both public and private actors.  Given that Iran is a predominantly Muslim country, most Americans either assume that all Iranians are Muslim or are oblivious to the “internal ethnicity”— the existence of distinctive ethnic and religious subgroups with same national origin — in Iran and the Iranian immigrant community in diaspora (Bozorgmehr 1992).  Therefore, non-Muslim Iranians have been as much victims of discrimination and prejudice as Muslim Iranians.

This post examines the impact of host hostility against Iranian nationals on ethnic switching and the rise of religious identity among Iranian religious minorities in the United States.  It explains how the negative stereotype of Iranians and Muslims since the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis as well as unfamiliarity of many Americans with some of the Iranian religious subgroups, such as Baha’is and Assyrians, has encouraged many members of Iranian religious minorities to curtail their Iranian national identity and give prominence to their religious identity.

The internal ethnicity in the Iranian immigrant community in diaspora has provided collective challenges and unique opportunities for Iranian religious subgroups. For example, the anti-Iranian backlash and the U.S. government initiatives for retaliation against the Iranian government in the last four decades — including President Carter’s crackdown on Iranians after the hostage crisis, the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS) after 9/11, and the most recent Muslim Ban in 2017 — predominantly targeted Muslim Iranian nationals, though non-Muslim Iranian religious minorities were also victims of these state policies.   Moreover, because of their national origin, Iranian religious minorities were subject to the same level of Iranophobia, prejudice, discrimination and social isolation as Muslim Iranians. Given their origin, their national identity was as demonized, devalued, and stigmatized as any other Iranian immigrant.  Consequently, despite their legal status as naturalized citizens and long residence in the United States, much like many Muslim Iranians, they not only feel marginalized and detached from American society, but also far from being assimilated to the American culture (Mobasher 2012).   

Despite these challenges — unlike Muslim Iranians — because of their membership in a non-Muslim ethno-religious group, Iranian religious minorities had an option to switch their national/ethnic identity from an Iranian to an Armenian, Baha’i, or a Jewish identity.  Constructing a new less stigmatized and a more socially accepted ethnic or national identity, and  a more religiously tolerated identity has been a common coping mechanism for combating the prevailing anti-Iranian, anti-Muslim hostility and negative stereotypes of Iranians by Muslim and non-Muslim Iranians equally.  However, whereas some Muslim Iranians either lie or veil their Iranian national identity and construct a new, less threatening  and more esteemed identity such as Persians or Persian-American, despite their strong cultural attachment to the Iranian cultural values, many Iranian religious minorities present themselves to non-Iranians in terms of their subnational and subreligious heritage such as Armenian, Jewish, or Baha’i.  Masking national identity by Iranian religious minorities as a coping mechanism for dealing with the devalued and spoiled Iranian identity was best captured by Flora Keshishian, an Iranian professor of media studies at Queens College of the City University of New York during the hostage crisis: “When asked about my nationality, I often told people I was Armenian.  I did not lie to them because I am Armenian by ethnicity.  But, sadly, I did leave out the Iranian part of my identity, even though Iran is the country where I was born and grew up.  I found it too isolating to associate myself with the image I knew people would have as soon as they heard the world Iran.” (Sullivan, 2001:101)

Capitalizing on the ethno-religious identity and masking national identity as a coping mechanism against prejudice and discrimination has also been reported by Baha’i Iranian immigrants in the United States (Morlock 2015). Dropping or masking Iranian as a source of ethnic identity among Iranian religious minorities in the United States is not limited to individuals. Iranian sub-religious associations and organizations have also used the same technique to avert discrimination and prejudice. For instance, the name of the Iranian Armenian Society was changed to the more general Armenian Society of Los Angeles during the hostage crisis.

Although Iranian religious minorities, particularly the Armenian Iranians, have been relatively segregated in Iran, their religious values and practices have to some extent been shaped in the Iranian cultural context.  As such, the familiarity with and the strong sense of belonging to the Iranian culture has prevented Jewish Iranians, for example, to become part of the well-established Jewish community in Los Angeles.  Therefore, Jewish, Armenian, Zoroastrian, Assyrian and Baha’i Iranians not only have a double religious-cultural loyalty and a hyphenated religious-national (Jewish-Iranian or Armenian-Iranian) identity, but also feel as connected to their religious faith as their Iranian cultural heritage and national origin.

Unfortunately, the intersection of religion and nationality for Iranian religious subgroups has been overlooked and religious minorities from Iran who have been planning to move to the United States or apply for political asylum have been victims of  the current immigration policies that are aimed at curbing immigration from Muslim countries.  For example, in 2018, despite U.S. legal protection for religious minorities, known as the Lautenberg Amendment, as many as 100 Iranian Christians, along with other non-Muslims, were denied political asylum in Vienna for more than a year, waiting for final approval to resettle in the United States.

For most of its history, United States has been an immigrant receiving society with a predominantly Christian religious orientation.  Since the 1960s, however, with entry of millions of immigrants from diverse religious backgrounds such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, the religious landscape of the United States has been changing. Some of these immigrants come to the United State to escape religious and political persecution, and seek religious freedom.  Others come for better economic opportunities and higher standards of living. Regardless of the reasons for migration, with arrival of new ethno-religious groups, much like prejudice against Catholics and Jews in the past, prejudice against new immigrants with a different faith remains visible in American society.  With reconfiguration of the religious demography of the United States, not only do issues such as religious tolerance, appreciation for religious diversity, interfaith dialogue, and social integration become urgent, but they also pose critical questions for members of the host society and the immigrant community.  Will the new ethno-religious groups be able to blend with members of the host society and be part of the American “melting pot” or will they be excluded, discriminated against, segregated, and marginalized? Will they be recognized and accepted as full members in American society or will they be demonized and treated unequally as second class citizens for their religious and cultural distinctions?  What are the roles of religious leaders, political leaders, public officials, journalists, scholars, media, and corporate leaders in helping the new non-Christian immigrants to become Americans; and in promoting interfaith dialogue, religious harmony, and religious tolerance?

The case of Iranian Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups in the United States can help us to answer some of these questions and to understand the link between immigration, religious tolerance (or lack thereof), and (re)construction and rise of religious identity.  This link is particularly more noticeable for Muslims and politicized immigrant groups from a “pariah” country such as Iranians who are caught between international political tensions between sending and receiving countries.

Of all the new religious groups who have been immigrating to the United States in recent years, Muslim immigrants and their American born children have confronted the most challenging political, legal, social and cultural tensions in this country. Muslim immigrants have been target of the most discriminatory immigration policies and restrictions since the1979 Iranian revolution and the horrific events of September 11. More recently, Trump’s executive order, which barred admission to the United States of all individuals from six predominantly Muslim majority countries, increased hate crimes against Muslims and accelerated exclusion, expulsion, detention and deportation of Muslim immigrants. The case of Iranian immigrants presented in this commentary demonstrates the political nature of migration and the challenges that many immigrants from Islamic countries face in America. It also reveals the inadequacy of the dominant assimilationist model of immigration in the social sciences. Unlike the assumption of the assimilationist model that foresees the decline of ethnicity and the inevitable integration of immigrants into mainstream American society, the case of Iranian religious minorities highlights the political nature of assimilation for stigmatized immigrant groups, even for immigrant groups that share the same religious faith as the host society or are religiously tolerated.


Work Cited

Bozorgmehr, Mehdi.  1992 “Internal Ethnicity:  Armenian, Baha’i, Jewish, and Muslim Iranians in Los Angeles.” Ph.D. dissertation.  Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International Dissertation Services

Gerges, Fawaz. 1997. “Islam and Muslims in the Mind of America:  Influences on the Making of U.S. Policy.” Journal of Palestine Studies 26(2):68-80

Kelly, Ron.  1993.  “Ethnic and Religious Communities from Iran in Los Angeles.”  In IranGeles:  Iranians in Los Angeles.  Edited by Ron Kelly and Jonathan Friedlander. 81-15.  Los Angeles, University of California Press.

Mobasher, Mohsen M. 2012.  Iranians in Texas:  Migration, Politics, and Ethnic Identity.  Austin, University of Texas Press, Austin.

Morlock, Nagmeh N.  2015.  “Trauma, Exile, and Identity:  a Study of Iranian Baha’i Refugee Experience in the United States.”  University of Colorado, Boulder.  Sociology Graduate Thesis & Dissertation.

Said, Edward. 1997.  Covering Islam:  How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World.  New York:  Vintage   Sullivan, Zohren.  2001(page 101).  Exiled Memories:  Stories of Iranian Diaspora.  Philadelphia:  Temple University Press.   “Trump Administration Turns Away Iranian Christians.”  Foreign Policy, February 21, 2018.