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Sanaz Raji: Bobak Ferdowsi! But What’s in a Name?

Sanaz Raji discusses the construction of identity in the Iranian diaspora that has led to an internalized Islamophobia amongst some who fled the Iranian Islamic revolution.

Bobak Ferdowsi! But What’s in a Name?

by Sanaz Raji (Frontline PBS)

It is not every day that an Iranian makes it into the Western mainstream media and pop culture with a positive story that leads to near-universal admiration among Iranians and non-Iranians alike. Bobak Ferdowsi, aka “NASA Mohawk Guy,” flight director of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity mission, became an Internet sensation as a result of his unconventional hairdo, launching hundreds of memesmarriage proposals, and even a mention from President Barack Obama. Iranians in the diaspora are used to seeing less than flattering images of Iran and Iranians in the media. It was thus a welcome surprise, especially in these tense days with the threat of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities looming, to find stories of Ferdowsi’s aerospace accomplishments — and his handsome face — all over the Internet.

Kate Miltner has written a superb piece for the Guardian that explores why “NASA Mohawk Guy” memes took off on social media. I would like to build on her examination by unpacking a theme regarding Ferdowsi that I found circulated by friends in the Iranian diaspora on Facebook. These two comments are indicative:

“Babak Ferdowsi [sic] is the flight captain who landed the most high-tech robot on Mars this week. Can a name and look be more Persian than his? Go Babak [sic]; we are so proud of you.”


“:))) and he could not have a more iranian name!”

What I found troubling was how Ferdowsi was praised by some in the Iranian diaspora for having a traditional Persian, rather than Muslim, first and last name. It got me thinking: Would his accomplishment have been seen as lesser if he had a Muslim name such as Mohammed Ali Fathi, Hamid Najafi, Seyyed Mir Hosseini, or Reza Sharifi? Why are Iranians abroad obsessed with the notion of an Iran devoid of its Islamic heritage? Perhaps this obsession is related to how we have constructed our historical vision in the years since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

For a long time now, some members of the Iranian diaspora have edited Iranian history and culture by disproportionately exalting pre-Islamic Persian dynastic history, art, and literature to counter what they view as the “bastardized” Islamic heritage forced upon Iranians by the Arab invasions in the seventh century (Naficy 1993, Spellman 2004, Sullivan 2001). At the same time, some have looked down on and shamefully sought to hide the Islamic element within the diaspora. As indicated by Kelly (1993) and Mostofi (2003), the majority of Iranians who emigrated after 1979 left their homeland with pro-Western ideals, including the virtue of secularization and modernization, along with anti-Islamic ones.

The anti-Islamic ideals prevalent in the Iranian diaspora, what I call an internalized Islamophobia, have their roots in the large-scale Westernization project that started in 19th-century Iran and continued until the end of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979. The Pahlavi shahs’ brute Westernization, which reached an apex with the outlawing of hejab and forced unveiling of women in 1935, produced a class of Iranians who looked with disdain at those who were religious and eschewed the modernization push. Today, internalized Islamophobia is used by Iranians abroad as a means of controlling the diaspora’s public image by enforcing a demarcation between those who are deemed to be civilized, progressive, and therefore “authentic” Iranians versus those deemed religiously devout and thus cultural embarrassments.

It is understandable that many in the diaspora have a complicated relationship with Islam. After all, we’ve seen the Islamic Republic employ a very narrow interpretation of the faith to further many questionable social and political ideologies that affect our compatriots both in Iran and abroad. Nevertheless, the Iranian diaspora’s fraught relationship with the Islamic Republic and its version of Islam should not deter us from recognizing the contribution that Islam has made to Iranian culture and, likewise, the contribution that Iranians have made to Islam. There are many Iranians abroad who privately practice Islam that are neither agents of the Islamic Republic nor fundamentalists. Rather they are sincere believers, many of whom do not agree with how Islam has been hijacked by the Islamic Republic. We should embrace the diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds within our Iranian culture without continuing to rehash controversies over what is more “truly” Persian, hence, more authentic.

Ultimately, it should not matter what sort of name an Iranian in the diaspora has. An important question we need to address as a diasporic community is, Are we truly inclusive to all Iranians, or to just a select few whom we deem to embody a very restricted notion of Iranianness?

See “>video: “Arab, Go Home.”


Works cited:

Kelley, Ron (1993). “Ethnic and Religious Communities From Iran In Los Angeles,” in Irangeles: Iranians in Los Angeles, ed. Ron Kelley, Jonathan Friedlander, and Anita Colby. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mostofi, Nilou (2003). “Who We Are: The Perplexity of Iranian-American Identity,” The Sociological Quarterly. 44:4, 681-703.

Naficy, Hamid. (1993). The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Spellman, Kathryn. (2004). Religion and Nation: Iranian Local and Transnational Networks in Britain. New York: Berghahn Books.

Sullivan, Zohreh T. (2001). Exiled Memories: Stories of Iranian Diaspora. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

Sanaz Raji is a Ph.D. scholar at the Institute of Communication Studies, University of Leeds, and associate lecturer of postcolonial media culture at Sheffield Hallam University. She recently coauthored an essay, “‘Israelis and Iranians, Get a Room!’: Love, Hate and Transnational Politics from the ‘Israel loves Iran’ and ‘Iran loves Israel’ Facebook Campaigns,” for the fall issue of the Journal of Middle Eastern Women’s Studies. Opinions expressed are her own.

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  • Chameleon_X

    So your claim that the Tehran Bureau is a terrorist organization and that the author of the article is also a terrorist is supported by the statement, “how how about telling Mexican folks that they are not Mexican. Only just Christian.”


    First of all, who is forcing anyone to believe that they have a different identity than they want to have, and how is LW endorsing such nonsense? Second, how is this allegation remotely connected to your claim? Here is my claim: Elvis lives. How do I know this is true? Answer: How about telling Japanese folks that they are not Japanese? Are you as convinced as I am?

  • Zakariya Ali Sher

    Some Iranian Americans hate Islam, some don’t. Some are practicing Muslims, Shi’a or Sunni. And yes, Sunni Islam is still practiced in Iran. In fact, Persia was one of the early centres of Sunni development. Abu Hanifa was of Persian ancestry.

    As for Persians aligning themselves with right wingers and white supremacists, I would chalk that up more to a weird sort of inferiority complex that many immigrant groups experience. I’m not just talking about Armenians or Assyrians or Persian Jews. I’m talking about Iranian Americans who may have been raised Muslim, even if they weren’t particularly devout or even practicing.

    Many of these people WANT to assimilate, want to be just like Euro-Americans, and they see Islam (or their perceived association with Islam) as a hurdle to that acceptance. That’s why they emphasize a secular Persian identity. Euro-Americans don’t know about Zoroastrianism and can’t convert, so it’s less threatening. They might not even speak Persian or celebrate holidays like Nowruz, but it doesn’t matter. The point is saying they aren’t Muslim, because Muslims are scary and ‘foreign.’

    I have seen Iranian Americans who will argue that the ancient Persians were ‘white’ and their culture is ‘European,’ or at least comparable. Its so sad to see people so filled with self-hate. They’ve internalized the racism that their ancestors had to bear.

    No, I don’t believe that all Iranians have to be Muslim. You can be Christian, Zoroastrian, whatever. It doesn’t matter to me, but I do think its sad to see Persians buy into that sort of bullcrap. Hell, I feel that way about ANYONE buying into it. But its especially sad when you consider the great achievements of Persia. As someone who has read the Shah-nameh, the Haft Paykar, the Hazar Afsan, the works of Rumi and Attar… it does strike me as very sad.

  • Zakariya Ali Sher

    Actually, yes, Arabs living in Iran speak Persian. There is an Arab minority in western Iran (Arabistan) as well as a small population of Arab refugees from Iraq. Sure, they might speak Arabic at home, just as some Armenians, Azeris and Turkomen speak their own languages, but they do speak Persian too. Just as Persians living abroad speak English, or French, or whatever…

    As for the whole Zoroastrian thing, you’re comparing apples and oranges at that point. Not all Persians are Zoroastrian. There were Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Manichaean, Zurvanist, pagan and even shamanistic minorities throughout Persian history. While Zoroastrianism enjoyed a status as a state religion at one point, today it survives only as an ethnic religion. You can’t convert to Zoroastrianism, you have to be born into it. They don’t accept converts, even Persian ones. There was a case a while back where an Iranian scholar tried to convert and he was denied. Likewise, Zoroastrians who marry outside their faith are excommunicated.

    Kind of makes it hard for Zoroastrianism to catch on as a world religion again.

    More to the point, though, there historically WERE some Zoroastrian Arabs, at least amongst the Persian client states, just as some of the Byzantine client states were Christian (of course, there were Christian Arabs entirely unaffiliated with the Byzantines; Coptic and Syrian missionaries had managed to spread across much of the Middle East and tribes like the Banu Kindah were Christian into the Islamic era).

  • Zakariya Ali Sher

    I try not to assume things about people. That said, sometimes its a good point of reference. If someone has a Jewish name, or a Hispanic name, or whatever, it MIGHT tell you something about their background. Not every Jew is practicing, not every Latino speaks Spanish, but at least its a start when you are talking to someone who might otherwise be a complete stranger.

    That said, Sanaz never said Bobak was Muslim. Go back and read the article before jumping to your own conclusions.

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