Living with a torn identity: Being an immigrant in Trump's America

Living with a torn identity: Being an immigrant in Trump's America
Comment: Anti-immigrant sentiment is now mainstream in Trump's America, write Behnam Gharagozli, Jon Roozenbeek and Adrià Salvador Palau.
5 min read
The number of racially motivated hate crimes in the US since 9/11 has soared [Getty]
Since 1979, living in the United States as a Middle Easterner in general and an Iranian in particular has never been easy.

There was no shortage of stories of anti-Iranian bigotry in the United States after the Iranian revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis in which Iranian students held American hostages for more than a year.   

There were fears of deportation and beatings, among other forms of abuse. Many Iranian-Americans were afraid to even leave their homes at the time. However, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and quickly fell out of favour with the West, it was Iraq, rather than Iran, that became America's Middle Eastern boogeyman, and Iranian-Americans lived in relative peace throughout the 1990s.

But things changed after 9/11.

Even though the hijackers were not Iranian, anti-Iranian sentiment in the United States drastically intensified after the horrific terrorist attacks that day.

Arabs and Iranians were lumped into one - in fact, attacks on Indian-Americans and Mexican-Americans also increased after the 9/11 attacks as these groups were mistaken for Arabs.  

While this was a dark period in American history, there were some limits: Then-President George W Bush clearly stated that the country was fighting terrorism; not Middle Easterners or Islam. He even visited a mosque shortly after the 9/11 attacks to drive home his point. But Bush's inclusion of Iran in his famous axis of evil in 2002 brought Iranians back to the centre of attention.
Iranians (and anyone even appearing to be Middle Eastern) have been forced to learn to be very alert and attentive to their surroundings
While thankfully, there has not since 9/11 been a terrorist attack on American soil of the same magnitude, anti-Iranian bigotry in the United States is worse than ever today.  

Iranian-Americans are reporting more instances of discrimination and believe that Trump's rhetoric is making things worse. By legitimising racism, Donald Trump has made the United States even more dangerous for Iranian-Americans.

Read more: John Bolton's ties to Iran's MEK make him more lobbyist than statesman

The president's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal at a time when the Iranian regime is showing signs of moderation has only further vilified Iranians living in the United States, despite the fact that the majority of Iranian-Americans don't support the current clerical regime in Iran.

Propaganda spread by far-right media outlets exacerbates the issue, and fake news is capable of seducing opinion in all sectors of society. Today, it's not uncommon to hear otherwise well-informed people make comments such as "Obama gave Iran nuclear weapons".

It is also worth noting that census data on self-identified hate crimes against Iranian-Americans is not very reliable, as many Iranian-Americans simply identify as "White" or "Other", which makes hate crimes in this category difficult to measure.

What's truly ironic about this spike in bigotry is that Iran - with all of its faults - has actually greatly assisted the United States in the "War on Terror".  

Iran provided instrumental help in both Afghanistan and Iraq during the American efforts there. More recently, Iranian support was crucial in defeating IS in Iraq.

On top of that, there has never been a major terrorist attack proven to be executed by Iran or another Shia group in the United States.

Nevertheless, in the United States, the finger persistently points at Iran as a major sponsor of terrorism.

Instead, the overwhelming majority of organisations designated as a terrorist groups by the United States are Wahhabi-inspired and Saudi-funded groups. And yet, the special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia continues.
By legitimising racism, Donald Trump has made the United States even more dangerous for Iranian-Americans
Depiction of Iranians in Hollywood, despite the successes of the Iranian-American community, have generally been extremely negative.

Films such as 300, Alexander and Not Without My Daughter, not only incorrectly portray historical facts, but also cater to stereotypes where Iranians are depicted as violent monsters incapable of logical thinking.  

Even in the hit series Sons of Anarchy the only depiction of Iranian-Americans was that of an Iranian-American gang that made violent revenge porn. In reality, Iranian-Americans are the most educated minority in the United States, and among the most successful. 

It's worth noting that such bigotry differs depending on location in the US.   

Not surprisingly, for a person living in an Iranian enclave in Los Angeles, Orange County or even the Bay Area, anti-Iranian sentiment is relatively uncommon, or at least restrained.  

Outside of these areas, however, Iranians - and anyone even appearing to be Middle Eastern - have generally been forced to learn to be very alert and attentive to their surroundings.

Despite the accomplishments of the Iranian-American community, there are some factions in the United States who will never welcome Iranians as part of American society. Such forces have found a friend in Donald J Trump's brand of alt-right politics.

Behnam (Ben) Gharagozli received his BA with Highest Distinction in Political Science from UC Berkeley and his JD cum laude from UC Hastings College of the Law. While at UC Hastings, he served as Development Editor of the Hastings International and Comparative Law Review.

Follow him on Twitter: @BenGharagozli

Jon Roozenbeek is a PhD candidate at the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. He studies Ukraine's media after 2014. Before coming to Cambridge, he worked as a freelance writer, editor and journalist.

Adrià Salvador Palau Is a PhD candidate in the Distributed Information and Automation Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. He has written several journalistic articles about politics and international relations. He is interested in how data science can be used to better understand political dynamics.

Follow him on Twitter: @adriasalvador

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.