Identity Politics and electing Iranian Americans

Last week, NIAC sent out a report on its mailing list about an Iranian-American candidate for US Congress. Darius Shahinfar declared his candidacy from New York’s 21st district and faces a competitive primary to be the Democratic nominee in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. In response to the article, I received several emails from our members and other Iranian Americans asking some very legitimate questions –

Should our community automatically support an Iranian American candidate? Does he even have a chance with four primary opponents? Can Iranian Americans impact this race in upstate New York?

I want to spark a conversation on these topics and tackle them one by one. First, follow me behind the link to talk about identity politics…

First of all, I have to point out very clearly that NIAC does not endorse any candidates. We do not and (legally) can not endorse Shahinfar or any of his opponents.

However, the questions that were raised via email are very legitimate ones – in this post, I want to discuss whether it is a good idea to donate money and vote for IA’s simply due to their ethnic background?

In my opinion, there is no right answer. This is a question each citizen and voter has to answer for themselves. Identity politics is certainly a very real phenomenon as we see in the Presidential race. Is there a reason that 90% of African-American Democrats are voting for Barack Obama and 60%+ Democratic women are voting for Hillary Clinton? It is obvious that identity politics always plays a role in elections. It’s debatable if it’s a constructive role, but it indisputable that it exists.

But so far, in our community, indications don’t seem to be conclusive. Partially because Iranian Americans seem to be pretty evenly split between the two main political parties, party identification seems to play a more important role then the candidate’s background. Another serious issue is that we simply don’t have solid data.

One thing is for sure – Shahinfar is not the first IA to run for office. Many of you will remember Goli Ameri who was nominated as the Republican candidate for Oregon’s 1st district back in 2004. We do know that she received a lot of early money from Iranian Americans from around the country. But anecdotally, (there is no solid data) it seems that Iranian American Democrats in Oregon’s 1st district were not swayed and still voted for Rep. Wu, her Democratic opponent.

In Beverly Hills on-the-other-hand, Mayor Delshad, a Democrat, seems to have received the overwhelming support of IA Democrats AND Republicans in the city.

There have been a few other IA candidates in Texas and California and even in a Maryland Senate race, but none of them won their party’s nomination. In each of these cases, our community has had lively discussions about supporting or opposing the candidates. I want to hear what you all think. Should identity politics play a role in a voter’s decision? Would it make a difference in your vote?

Posted By Babak Talebi

    10 Responses to “Identity Politics and electing Iranian Americans”

  1. Babak Talebi says:

    Just to let you all know, there are five or six Arab Americans currently elected to congress, and as of this month, two Muslim Americans. For our community, it seems religion plays a very minor role but does ethnicity?

    One other interesting point – None of the Iranian American candidates who have run have been from the heavily IA populated Congressional districts. If Shahinfar wins, and thats a big if, he would be elected from a district with less then 500 IAs (according to the 2000 census). odd no?

  2. […] Babak Talebi releases another great post on Identity Politics and electing Iranian Americans Check it out: […]

  3. Daniel Robinson says:

    Babak

    I think you make a lot of great points about identity politics and electing Iranian Americans. Ethnicity is an important factor for voters because of a sense of shared commonality (i.e. culture, historical struggles, etc.) but it shouldn’t be the most important. Many factors determine the choices voters make, regardless of the ethnic identity. There are too many examples to gloss over in this space about identity politics and its role in campaigns.

    However, I’ll only bring up one. In 1998, Senator Bill Nelson faced a very tough reelection in the congressional midterms. In a race that he was leading at one point by double digits, Nelson nearly lost.

    A popular black state senator named Willie Logan ran as an independent. Logan was hugely popular among African Americans, and he also enjoyed the opportunity created by a crisis in the state party concerning the ouster of a high ranking black politician in the Florida State Senate.

    The rift was so damaging that many elite black democrats in the party defected to support Jeb Bush’s election as governor (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F05E1D91630F931A25756C0A96E958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all).

    In the end, Nelson was able to hang on despite Logan’s entry in the race. Logan only garnered 4% of the African American vote as opposed to Nelson’s 88% share. The entry of a popular black candidate wasn’t enough to oust Nelson despite major defections from black Democrats to Bush as well.

    This point proves that race alone is not enough to determine the choices voters make in the ballot box. This race could be characterized as a marker of how other factors like personality in the case of Jeb Bush and policy positions can tip the balance despite supposed solidarity with a candidate based on race.

    Iranian Americans and all voters will make their choices based on the candidates who offer the best solutions and demonstrate how well they can serve their constituents in high office.

  4. Babak,

    As a European-American I cannot address the identity politics question for the Iranian-American commmunity. You rightly point out that it is a very real factor in American politics.

    My personal opinion is that people’s political beliefs and stands on the issues should be the defining factors but in a country with as diverse an ethnic and religious population as the United States identity politics does and should be a factor. Our diverse population is one of our great strengths as a nation. A diversity of voices, cultures, beliefs, experiences, histories, and outlooks make us stronger. That is of course, if we are all able to sit down and have a reasonable conversation with each other in which mutual respect rules the day and these diverse voices are listened to openly, honestly, respectfully. I believe our Congress ought to reflect this as well and can only be strengthened as a result.

    I am working on behalf of Darius Shahinfar for Congress because I like him, respect him, and believe he is the best candidate for the job. The fact that he would add an Iranian-American point of view to Congress is a very nice bonus for me. I would expect it to take a higher place for other Iranian-Americans but believe it should only be one factor in the decision making process.

    As to the other question of whether Darius Shahinfar has a realistic chance to get elected… to that I can answer an emphatic YES! This is a very wide open campaign and Darius has a very real chance of getting elected. None of the other candidates has such an advantage as to make his campaign just a wishful dream.

    We expect to win. And we are working hard to make that happen.

    So… short answers to your three questions…

    People should not automatically support anyone. People should support candidates that reflect their views and beliefs.

    Yes! Darius Shahinfar has a very real chance of getting elected in NY-21.

    I don’t know whether Iranian-Americans can have a big impact on this race but I sure would like to see it happen!

    Peace,

    Andrew

    Andrew C. White
    Darius for Congress Campaign Chair
    andrew@dariusforcongress.com
    http://dariusforcongress.com/

  5. Babak Talebi says:

    Andrew,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond and join the conversation. Over the next few days, I hope to post a few more items on this race, and we would appreciate your input as well.

    In fact, over the past few days, I have gotten a few questions about Mr. Shahinfar’s positions on the issues. Now, I know its a bit early in the campaign, but this community is particularly intrested in Darius’ positions vis-a-vis US-Iran policy.

    thanks again for dropping by.

  6. Michael Mahyar Hojjatie says:

    This is very exciting news! Hopefully more opportunities like this will arise for us in the future. Any step toward having our community contribute more to American society is fantastic. Regardless of his outcome, it still shows iniative, and that alone is worth gold. Thank you Mr. White for enlightening us with more information and Mr. Shahinfar’s website.

  7. Babak Mozaffari says:

    Babak,

    Let me try to put my comments in somewhat of a context by noting that I am not an active member of the Persian community, either online or offline. I found this article while looking up Darius, whom I heard about on the Daily Kos.

    I would call myself a political activist and a candidate’s ideology and beliefs is unquestionably first on my mind. That being said, I see immense value in having the first African American president or the first woman president. I also see value in increased minority representation at all levels of the government. While diversity in itself is valuable, I think the solidarity among blacks or women when they’re voting for “one of their own” can be expected to be on a different level than that of Iranian Americans voting for another Iranian American. The history of these two groups is much deeper with the discrimination against them and limits imposed upon them being much older and more notable than that of minorities in general. Most liberal friends of mine are confused and shocked to learn that minorities don’t just support minorities of other groups and unfortunately, I think the reasons behind this lack of support are not pretty.

    You ask why “None of the Iranian American candidates who have run have been from the heavily IA populated Congressional districts.”. Could it not be simply because Iranian Americans living in heavily IA areas are too immersed in their communities to be serious and viable political candidates in the view of the general public? Have you seen any speeches by Mayor Delshad (in English) and do you think he could have won a seat in congress? Let me put his victory in perspective by noting that based on my understanding, he won reelection to the BH city council and was chosen mayor as a consequence, which might be slightly easier than simply running and being elected as mayor.

    Finally let me note that out of selfish interest, were I not outside the US (and unaware of Ms. Ameri’s run) at the time, I would have invested any amount of time and money to prevent her election in an attempt to avoid the risk that I would one day be stereotyped as an Iranian American in the mold of politicians like Ms. Ameri.

    Regards, another Babak!

  8. Susanne Pari says:

    Babak,

    Because Iran has been so maligned in the West, I think it is natural for Iranian-Americans to perk up when someone of our ilk runs for public office. It is a matter of cultural pride, and also a strong hope that our image will receive a boost. However, the inclination to automatically lend our full support to an ethnic identical should be resisted. The American system can only work properly, and for the good of all people, if our ethnic identity comes second to our political identity (and I don’t necessarily mean party affiliation) when making our choices of whom to support for public office. As you mention, when Golia Ameri was running for governor of Oregon, many IAs, including myself, rushed to pledge our support and only gradually realized that we respectfully disagreed with her platform. It is entirely possible to be loyal to one’s community — and to one’s friends and colleagues — while at the same time disagreeing with their political positions. But it is not possible to honorably do the opposite. I think identity politics is a subject that should be discussed more often when IAs gather and I’m glad it’s being discussed here.

  9. hazhir says:

    I think the importance of ethnicity factor varies with individual background, education level, and political involvement. I think more educated and more politically active IAs identify themselves with issues first, and ethnicity second. The reverse is probably true for IAs who are not largely involved in politics. If these hypotheses are true, then IAs in MA or Oregan would be less likely to support an IA candidate for her ethnicity, where as LA IAs may be more likely.

  10. […] Darius follows in the footsteps of other Iranian American candidates such as Goli Ameri, Ross Mir-Karimi, and others who have entered the political arena and embracing their Iranian American identity. […]

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Sign the Petition

 

7,349 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.

Sincerely,

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