The Yellow Badge of Denial

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.'

Deep Roots

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

badge of shame [as] an identifying symbol which marked someone as a najis Jew and thus to be avoided. From the reign of Abbas I [1587—1629] until the 1920s, all Jews were required to display the badge

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):

it is appropriate that the ruler of the Muslims imposed upon them clothing that would distinguish then from Muslims so that they would not resemble Muslims.  It is customary for Jews to wear yellow clothes while Christians wear black and dark blue ones.  Christians [also] wear a girdle on their waists, and Jews sew a piece of silk of a different color on the front part of their clothes. 

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:

Up to 1898 only brown, grey, and yellow were allowed for the qaba [outer coat] or arkhaluq [under coat] (body garments), but after that all colors were permitted except blue, black, bright red, or green. There was also a prohibition against white stockings, and up to about 1880 the Parsis [Zoroastrians] had to wear a special kind of peculiarly hideous shoe with a broad, turned—up toe. Up to 1885 they had to wear a torn cap. Up to 1880 they had to wear tight knickers, self—colored, instead of trousers.

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,

'a political order from Islam and must be adhered to by the followers of Islam, and the goal [was] to promote general hatred toward those who are outside Muslim circles.'

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:

In the case of the Coca—Cola plant, for example, the owner (an Armenian) fled the country, the factory was confiscated, and Armenian workers were fired. Several years later, the family members were allowed to oversee the daily operations of the plant, and Armenians were allowed to work at the clerical level; however, the production workers remained Muslim. Armenian workers were never rehired on the grounds that non—Muslims should not touch the bottles or their contents, which may be consumed by Muslims.

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,

'...the story, with its chilling echoes of the Shoah, is another heinous example of the Iranian regime's contempt for human rights'

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:

  •  Why doesn't the American Jewish Committee (AJC) discuss...what najis is, how najis (practices) have been restored under Khomeini (and continued under his successors), and thus why the initial report of 'badging' was plausible?

  •  Why didn't the AJC include this clear statement from Prof. Laurence Loeb's study of the Jews of Iran (Loeb lived there to do his anthropological field work) published in 1977, as appropriate background?

    [the] badge of shame [as] an identifying symbol which marked someone as a najis Jew and thus to be avoided. From the reign of Abbas I [1587—1629] until the 1920s, all Jews were required to display the badge

  •  What does any of this have to do with 'Nazism'?

  •  Why can't AJC and the other major Jewish organizations speak honestly based upon the real (and sadly living) history of such sanctioned Islamic doctrines—najis, the dhimmi condition, discriminatory badging, etc.—and their implementation for centuries (in Iran)?

  •  What is to be gained by such denial and obfuscation other than further isolating us (i.e., Jews—I was writing as a Jew, albeit a 'lapsed' Jew) as a tiny minority from the rest of the victims of jihad hatred (in this case the Christians and Zoroastrians also targeted by the putative dress regulations)?
  • 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.

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