Q&A with Mohsen Mobasher about the Iranian Diaspora

Written by leading scholars of the Iranian diaspora, the original essays in Mohsen Mostafavi Mobasher’s new book The Iranian Diaspora: Challenges, Negotiations, and Transformations seek to understand and describe how Iranians in diaspora (re)define and maintain their ethno-national identity and (re)construct and preserve Iranian culture. They also explore the integration challenges the Iranian immigrants experience in a very negative context of reception. 

Combining theory and case studies, as well as a variety of methodological strategies and disciplinary perspectives, the essays offer needed insights into some of the most urgent and consequential issues and problem areas of immigration studies, including national, ethnic, and racial identity construction; dual citizenship and dual nationality maintenance; familial and religious transformation; politics of citizenship; integration; ethnic and cultural maintenance in diaspora; and the link between politics and the integration of immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants.

We talked to Professor Mohsen Mobasher about the new book and how Islamophobia in the United States impacts Iranian Americans.

How does your new book, The Iranian Diaspora, expand or update the research you published in your 2012 book, Iranians in Texas?

The Iranian Diaspora goes beyond the United States to look at eight other countries with a relatively large Iranian population and examines some of the same theoretical arguments that were developed in Iranians in Texas. Much like Iranians in TexasThe Iranian Diaspora suggests that Iranian immigrants in other coutries are not only demonized, stigmatized, and politicized but also are victims of discrimination, prejudice, exclusion, social isolation, and restrictions because of the actions of their national government. The Iranian Diaspora demonstrates that Iranophobia and small- and large-scale discriminatory practices against Iranian immigrants are not limited to the United States. However, as indicated in The Iranian Diaspora, Iranians in different countries not only mobilize different resources for coping with the onging Iranophobia and Islamophobia in the West, but also find novel ways of negotiating and redefining their ethno-religious, as well as their national Iranian, identity.

What do you wish your average Anglo Texan understood about Iranian migration and identity?

First, I hope the average Anglo Texan realizes that Iranian immigrants are a diverse group religiously, politically, ethnically, and economically; and, much like most other immigrant populations, they continue leaving their country for educational, political, economic, social, and familial reasons. Second, I wish the average Anglo Texas or American to understand the devastating impact of large structural political forces and narratives on the lives of millions of Iranians who live outside of their country, and the ways in which these individuals are victims of political tensions between the Iranian government and the Western powers. I wish for an average Anglo Texas to understand that Iranian people and Iranian immigrants are not what the media depicts, and that these media stereotypes have major social and psychological consequences for Iranians and their foreign-born children, many of whom see themselves as belonging in their new host country.

How have the current debates over the Iranian nuclear deal and Trump-era Islamophobia impacted the diaspora in Texas?

The current debates over the Iran nuclear deal and the Muslim ban have had a huge negative impact on Iranians in the United States. This is particularly the case for thousands of Iranian students who receive funds from their parents in Iran to support their education, as well as Iranians who are seeking medical treatment in the United States. The current debate over the Iranian nuclear deal has made it almost impossible to obtain a non-immigrant US visa or to return home for a visit if you hold a temporary visa.

In your courses, how have students engaged with your research? What surprising perspectives have you gained from teaching your material?
Students in my upper-level world migration course have engaged with my research in many different ways in their own research projects. Some use the same framework that I employed in my book, applying it to other Middle Eastern immigrants and examining the interrelations between political discourse, media images, and ethnic relations. Others are more interested in examining the nature of ethic identity and the ways in which Muslim and Middle Eastern immigrants maintain and (re)define their ethnic, national, and religious identies in light of the ongoing Islamophobia.

The surprising perspective that I have gained from teaching my material has been how little students know about immigration dynamics in general, and Middle Eastern immigrants in the United States in particular. Given the persistence of immigration to the US throughout history and the prevailing immigration debate in the United States, it is surprising to see how ill-informed students are about the social, political, cultural, and economic aspects of immigration, and how strongly they believe in inaccurate facts and myths about immigrants.

Mohsen Mostafavi Mobasher is an associate professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of Houston–Downtown. He is the author of Iranians in Texas: Migration, Politics, and Ethnic Identity and coeditor of Migration, Globalization, and Ethnic Relations: An Interdisciplinary Approach.