A Population on the Move and a Weary Host | M.A Dissertation Excerpt

September 23, 2012

Surrender of Kandahar to Said Khan, c.1640

“Frequently, then, the truly powerless, rather than the truly evil, are demonized and stigmatized in the popular media.”
(Greer & Jawkee, 2005, p.29)


Introduction 4
Methodology 5
Chapter 1. Past, yesterday, today: The Persian language and the tale of Afghans in foreign lands 7
Chapter 2. Media matters: Afghan identity in the hands of hegemonic discourses and representations 15
Chapter 3. The dangers of Afghans and hazards of BBC Persian TV 28
Conclusion 35
Bibliography 39

The history and relationship between Afghanistan and Iran is long, intertwined, and precarious –as is the case for most neighboring countries in the Middle East. However, the linguistic ties between the two nations, the racial distinctions, cultural dependencies, and the 2.5 million Afghan refugees currently residing in Iran (legally and illegally), give this relationship an intimacy that renders it more problematic. Dealing with such a large émigré population is not a simple task for any country. In the past three decades, there have been many reports on the various socioeconomic and political issues facing this large displaced Afghan population. And the tectonic shifts in the geopolitical makeup of the region during this time, have influenced these issues as they relate to Iran: the post-Soviet civil wars that ravaged Afghanistan, the birth of the Islamic Republic, the incessant pull and pushes of the Taliban and NATO forces in Afghanistan— and the news keeps coming.
By briefly reviewing the shared historical and cultural context between Afghan and Iranian nations, and describing the social and political realities surrounding Afghan refugees, I will focus on the mediated representation of this minority group in Persian-speaking media. I will interrogate and look at the implications of the lack of recognition and the negative or stereotypical depiction of Afghans in Iran’s state media and more specifically television. The paper argues the evolution of a new, more inclusionary media landscape, as marked by the emergence of BBC Persian Television and online networks. As a case study, I will use the coverage of events surrounding the 2012 Persian New Year celebrations in Isfahan, where a senior official announced a no-Afghan policy in one of the city’s major parks. The ban prompted a grassroots movement and protests in Isfahan as well as on social media sites, where Iranians held placards and posted photos reading “We are all Afghans,” in condemnation of racist and classist tropes against Afghan migrants.
As such, amid increasing efforts by the Iranian regime to deport Afghan people residing in Iran, there seems to be a growing awareness of the lack of human rights and respect for this population. Effectively, representing Afghans in lights other than manual labour workers, criminals, or romanticized characters in auteur cinema, and viewing them in positions of power – such as anchors on BBC Persian, as well as artists, professionals and experts, would perhaps elevate their sense of identity and give them agency. Importantly, while the Iranian regime emphasizes a pan-Islamic ideology, these issues highlight a larger and more historical trend of Persian chauvinism that may be challenged by counter-hegemonic discourses of the subaltern groups.

The status and issue of Afghan refugees in Iran has been looked at from a series of angles before – but not particularly in terms of media and communication. Consequently, I have used a range of methods in gathering the resources I analyze in this paper. Other than conventional research techniques, I have personally monitored programmes and news coverage on Iran’s state television, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), asked Iranians in various online groups (such as “Campaign for Apologizing to Our Afghan Friends”) about their perceptions, and interviewed Najieh Gholami who is a main presenter for BBC Persian Television’s (BBCPTV) news hour. Gholami is originally from Afghanistan, was raised in Iran, and now lives in London. I have used her personal accounts of living in Iran as an Afghan as a source. Moreover, her views about the depiction of Afghans in Iranian media and the alternative platform she seeks by being on BBCPTV are exemplary to my hypothesis.
The case study used in this paper has allowed me to focus on a recent, particular event, though one that is not an isolated incident. As a part of my discourse analysis, I have gone through relevant news articles and broadcast reports in establishing the discrepancy between how the incident was covered in Iran (which wasn’t at all), and how it was reflected in other media, from print to online, and more relevantly, on BBCPTV. I have limited the paper to Iranian state television and BBC Persian, and will not discuss the very broad and rich category of other Persian transnational networks in depth. Many of my sources, including the interview and the broadcast material, I have personally translated from Persian. Through-out the paper, and especially in chapter 2, I explain and correlate a number of interdisciplinary theories that veer not far from central issues of hegemony, language and communication, representation, ‘difference’, racism, and identity. The key question to bear in mind here is how media discourse, comprising of language, culture, and representation, are means of producing meaning, knowledge, and identities, and how dominant groups can maintain their hegemony. All these terminologies will be defined within the realm of the paper, and tied by the historical and contemporary episodes that construct my premise.