May 23, 2006
The Yellow Badge of DenialBy Andrew G. Bostom
Controversy still swirls over allegations that Iran's government plans to require non—Muslims to wear identifying clothing. The Canadian National Post has retracted its May 19, 2006 report about a putative Iranian Law requiring non—Muslim minorities—Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians—to wear color—coded strips of cloth attached to their garments, to distinguish them from Muslims. Mr. Amir Taheri, author of the article, is standing by his report.
Possible overzealous reporting by The National Post aside, the plausibility of such a law being implemented should not be dismissed based on the living legacy of Shi'ite religious persecution of non—Muslims in Iran since the founding of the Shi'ite theocracy in (then) Persia under Shah Ismail, at the very outset of the 16th century. Inchoate dress code proposals for non—Muslims apparently made in the Khatami era are consistent with the original story, and an Iranian source still maintains 'Mr. Taheri was correct in saying this measure is being discussed and considered.'
During the intervening half millennium (since 1502), the profoundly influential Shi'ite clerical elite have emphasized the notion of the ritual uncleanliness (najis) of not only Jews, but also Christians, Zoroastrians, and others, as the cornerstone of inter—confessional relationships towards Iran's non—Muslims. Non—Muslims' spiritual impurity was linked in concrete and indelible ways to their physical impurity. Professor Laurence Loeb's seminal analysis of dhimmi Jews in Shi'ite Persia/Iran ('Outcaste— Jewish Life in Southern Iran,' 1977 ), documents the social impact of najis regulations, beginning with the implementation of a
With regard to dress, specifically, the stipulations of Al—Majlisi (d. 1699)—perhaps the most influential Shi'ite cleric of the Safavid theocracy in Persia—from his late 17th century treatise on non—Muslims (revealingly entitled, 'Lightning Bolts Against the Jews'), are consistent with the requirements purportedly under discussion by the contemporary the Iranian Parliament (although, the 'color—coding' differs):
The bizarre, humiliating, and enduring nature of the dress regulations imposed upon the Zoroastrian community of central Iran (Yezd) were captured in this eyewitness account by Napier Malcolm, (Five Years in a Persian Town, New York, 1905, pp. 45—50) published in 1905:
Following a relatively brief hiatus under Pahlavi reign (marked by efforts at both secularization and Pre—Islamic revival, from 1925—1979), the Khomeini—inspired restoration of a Shi'ite theocracy in Iran has been accompanied, predictably, by a revival of najis regulations. Ayatollah Khomeini stated explicitly, 'Non—Muslims of any religion or creed are najis.' The Iranian Ayatollah Hossein—Ali Montazeri further elaborated that a non—Muslim's (kafir's) impurity was,
This 'hatred' was to assure that Muslims would not succumb to corrupt, i.e., non—Islamic, thoughts.
The dehumanizing practical impact of najis regulations were again observable at points of contact between Muslims and non—Muslims—wherever non—Muslims owned or operated businesses or manufacturing facilities whose personnel or products might 'pollute' Muslims (see here, p. 137). For example (see this), shops that sold sandwiches or bakery goods (foodstuffs associated with minorities) were forced to display signs stating 'especially for minorities.'
Eliz Sanasarian's important study of non—Muslim religious minorities during the first two decades after 1979 provides a striking illustration of the practical impact of this renewed najis consciousness:
Thus, if formal badging requirements for non—Muslims were now to be implemented, these measures would simply mark the further retrogression of Iran's non—Muslim religious minorities, completing in full their descent to a pre—1925 status.
Invoking the Nazis?
Many people have reacted to these reports with a comparison to Nazi requirements of Jews to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing. Major Jewish organizations, including both The Simon Wiesenthal Center (in an almost apoplectic statement by Rabbi Marvin Hier,
'This is reminiscent of the Holocaust...Iran is moving closer and closer to the ideology of the Nazis.'
and The American Jewish Committee,
have followed this rhetorical path.
I sent my original background essay on this sad state of affairs to ranking officials in the Wiesenthal Center, and the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Their responses were neither edifying nor reassuring. The Wiesenthal Center official acknowledged that my essay raised an 'historical and Islamic context' which 'factored in', but was (apparently) trumped by this non—sequitur observation, i.e., the '...proliferation of Iranian websites and blogs that are appearing in the last two months that specifically embrace and promote Nazism'. The official from the AJC rebuked me for even discussing '...legislation that to the best of our knowledge at this time does not exist.'
In response I posed the following five questions to the AJC official (and they certainly apply to the Wiesenthal Center as well), which remain unanswered:
While memories of the Holocaust are fresher and more widely held than memories of traditional Islamic oppression of Jews, such comparisons should be avoided. To invoke the Holocaust blinds us to the far longer and much more deeply—rooted traditions in the Islamic world which predate the rise of Nazism by well over a millennium.
In our struggle to defend our civilization and our freedoms, we must understand our enemy. Those who insist that anti—Semitism be seen exclusively through the lens of Nazism and the Holocaust divert our attention and hobble our understanding of the forces against which we defend ourselves.
It is my fervent hope that I receive serious, informed responses to the five queries posed to the AJC so as not to squander this 'teachable moment.'
Andrew Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad.