A Dog’s Life…and the Shiite Iranian Culture of Hate
Commenting on the factional protests in Iran, anthropologist Roxanne Varzi, who is touted in a NY Times report today (6/22/09)as having analyzed the methods by which Iran’s Islamic government spreads its ideology, notes how these demonstrations have “remained within religion,” i.e., Iran’s heritage of Shiite Islam. Varzi concludes that the opposition and erstwhile “reformist” movement also expounds “the whole Islamic discourse,” because “[I]t is not meant to be something anti-Islamic.”
But how can a “reformist” movement that shares the same oppressive core ideology—rooted in a half millennium old incarnation of Shiite Islam—overcome what amounts to nothing less than a culture of hate?
The profundity of this Shiite Islam-inspired culture of hate—which even 50 plus years of secular Pahlavi reforms (from 1925-1979) targeting the mullahs, specifically, could not undo—is no where better illustrated than in the plight of Iran’s indigenous Zoroastrian community.
Mary Boyce, Emeritus Professor of Iranian Studies at the University of London, has written comprehensive assessments of those Zoroastrian communities which survived the devastating jihad conquests of the mid 7th through early 8th centuries. The Zoroastrians experienced an ongoing, inexorable decline over the next millennium due to constant sociopolitical and economic pressures exerted by their Muslim rulers, and neighbors. This gradual, but continuous process was interspersed with periods of accelerated decline resulting from paroxysms of Muslim fanaticism- pogroms, forced conversions, and expropriations- through the latter half of the 19th century. During a lecture series given at Oxford in 1975, Boyce also noted how the Iranian ancestors of the Zoroastrians had a devoted working relationship (i.e., herding livestock) with dogs when they lived a nomadic existence on the Asian steppes. This sustained contact evolved over generations such that dogs became “a part in (Zoroastrian) religious beliefs and practices…which in due course became a part of the heritage of Zoroastrianism.” Boyce then provided an historical overview of the deliberate, wanton cruelty of Muslims and their children towards dogs in Iran, including a personal eyewitness account. Boyce describes these complementary phenomena based on an historical analysis, and her personal observations living in the (central Iranian) Yezd area during the 1960s. She spent a 12-month sabbatical in 1963-64 living in the Zoroastrian community of Iran (mostly in Sharifabad, on the northern Yazdi plain).
Below are extracts of her analysis of these phenomena which highlight the overwhelming obstacles to permanent, meaningful change of societal mores still posed today by the culture of hate Iranian Shiite Islamic supremacism has engendered:
“…in the mid nineteenth century disaster overtook Turkabad, in the shape of what was perhaps the last massed forcible conversion in Iran. It no longer seems possible to learn anything about the background of this event; but it happened, so it is said, one autumn day when dye-madder – then one of the chief local crops – was being lifted. All the able-bodied men were at work in teams in the fields when a body of Moslems swooped on the village and seized them. They were threatened, not only with death for themselves, but also with the horrors that would befall their women and children, who were being terrorized at the same time in their homes; and by the end of the day of violence most of the village had accepted Islam. To recant after a verbal acknowledgement of Allah and his prophet meant death in those days, and so Turkabad was lost to the old religion. Its fire-temple was razed to the ground, and only a rough, empty enclosure remained where once it had stood.
A similar fate must have overtaken many Iranian villages in the past, among those which did not willingly embrace Islam; and the question seems less why it happened to Turkabad than why it did not overwhelm all other Zoroastrian settlements. The evidence, scanty though it is, shows, however, that the harassment of the Zoroastrians of Yazd tended to be erratic and capricious, being at times less harsh, or bridled by strong governors; and in general the advance of Islam across the plain, through relentless, seems to have been more by slow erosion than by furious force. The process was still going on in the 1960s, and one could see, therefore, how it took effect. Either a few Moslems settled on the outskirts of a Zoroastrian village, or one or two Zoroastrian families adopted Islam. Once the dominant faith had made a breach, it pressed in remorselessly, like a rising tide. More Moslems came, and soon a small mosque was built, which attracted yet others. As long as Zoroastrians remained in the majority, their lives were tolerable; but once the Moslems became the more numerous, a petty but pervasive harassment was apt to develop. This was partly verbal, with taunts about fire-worship, and comments on how few Zoroastrians there were in the world, and how many Moslems, who must therefore posses the truth; and also on how many material advantages lay with Islam. The harassment was often also physical; boys fought, and gangs of youth waylaid and bullied individual Zoroastrians. They also diverted themselves by climbing into the local tower of silence and desecrating it, and they might even break into the fire-temple and seek to pollute or extinguish the sacred flame. Those with criminal leanings found too that a religious minority provided tempting opportunities for theft, pilfering from the open fields, and sometimes rape and arson. Those Zoroastrians who resisted all these pressures often preferred therefore in the end to sell out and move to some other place where their co-religionists were still relatively numerous, and they could live at peace; and so another village was lot to the old faith. Several of the leading families in Sharifabad and forebears who were driven away by intense Moslem pressure from Abshahi, once a very devout and orthodox village on the southern outskirts of Yazd; and a shorter migration had been made by the family of the centenarian ‘Hajji’ Khodabakhsh, who had himself been born in the 1850s and was still alert and vigorous in 1964. His family, who were very pious, had left their home in Ahmedabad (just to the north of Turkabad) when he was a small boy, and had come to settle in Sharifabad to escape persecution and the threats to their orthodox way of life. Other Zoroastrians held out there for a few decades longer, but by the end of the century Ahmedabad was wholly Moslem, as Abshahi become in 1961. [The last Zoroastrian family left Abshahi in 1961, after the rape and subsequent suicide of one of their daughters.] It was noticeable that the villages which were left to the Zoroastrians were in the main those with poor supplies of water, where farming conditions were hard.”
“In Sharifabad the dogs distinguished clearly between Moslem and Zoroastrian, and were prepared to go…full of hope, into a crowded Zoroastrian assembly, or to fall asleep trustfully in a Zoroastrian lane, but would flee as before Satan from a group of Moslem boys…The evidence points…to Moslem hostility to these animals having been deliberately fostered in the first place in Iran, as a point of opposition to the old (pre-Islamic jihad conquest) faith (i.e., Zoroastrianism) there. Certainly in the Yazdi area…Moslems found a double satisfaction in tormenting dogs, since they were thereby both afflicting an unclean creature and causing distress to the infidel who cherished him. There are grim…stories from the time (i.e., into the latter half of the 19th century) when the annual poll-tax (jizya) was exacted, of the tax gatherer tying a Zoroastrian and a dog together, and flogging both alternately until the money was somehow forthcoming, or death released them. I myself was spared any worse sight than that of a young Moslem girl…standing over a litter of two-week old puppies, and suddenly kicking one as hard as she could with her shod foot. The puppy screamed with pain, but at my angry intervention she merely said blankly, ‘But it’s unclean.’ In Sharifabad I was told by distressed Zoroastrian children of worse things: a litter of puppies cut to pieces with a spade-edge, and a dog’s head laid open with the same implement; and occasionally the air was made hideous with the cries of some tormented animal. Such wanton cruelties on the Moslems’ part added not a little to the tension between the communities.”