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October 22, 2013

Iranian American Identity and Cyrus the Great: Looking to the Past and Moving into the Future

Cyrus & Identify Panel

Washington, DC – The figure of Cyrus the Great looms large over Iran’s history, but his role in defining the identity the Iranian diaspora is less explored. At the 2013 NIAC Leadership Conference, an expert panel discussed the issue the leadership model of Cyrus and its impact on Iranian identity for the past, present and future.

Reza Zarghamee, author of Discovering Cyrus: The Persian Conqueror Astride the Ancient World, outlined the historical significance of Cyrus’ rule.  Although Cyrus lived before the tradition of written history, it is believed that he ruled from around 559 BC to 530 BC. Zarghamee explained how Cyrus was “born the heir to two kingdoms,” which later facilitated him becoming the King of the traditionally conflicting communities of the Medes and the Persians. Unifying these communities under his rule, Cyrus became the founder of the Persian Empire.

Exemplifying the uniqueness of Cyrus’ regime, Zarghamee noted how the regime had “this respect for different cultures, and this willingness to communicate with people on their terms, not to just strictly dictate the dialogue.”  Cyrus’ approach to power and rule was, and to this day continues to be, very rare, Zarghamee said, because he did not rule through the traditional means of force and might.

Rabbi Marc Gopin, Director of the Center for World Religions, explained how Cyrus is similarly “unique in Jewish literature” and how he is “the only king in biblical history that receives only praise, honor, and a messiah quality.” According to Gopin, Cyrus “reversed all of the expectations of the world outside, which was a world of oppression, a world where you expected ethnic cleansing.” Contrary to the norm, Rabbi Golpin said, Cyrus ruled by “winning people’s hearts and doing business with them.”

Gopin argued that Cyrus’ example of cultural acceptance and mutual respect can serve as a model for our globalizing world that often struggles to implement multicultural ideals. Cyrus, he explained, can play as an important symbolic figure and unifying factory for diverse communities of Iranians and Iranian Americans.

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Agreeing with Gopin, moderator Nadereh Chamlou, former Senior Advisor to the Chief Economist for the Middle East and North Africa Region of the World Bank, stated that “today, Cyrus has become the connecting point between the Iranian diaspora everywhere in the world…and of course the Iranians inside Iran.” Chamlou further explained that unlike other kings, Cyrus is unique in the fact that he is a point of pride for all Iranian communities.  

Given this identification with Cyrus, Chamlou questioned why he is minimally reflected upon in Persian literature, even compared to other kings and rulers in Iran, and unlike other historical figures, such as Julius Caesar in Western literature. Dr. Karimi-Hakkak, Chair of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Maryland, attributed this to what he said was the tradition among Muslim Iranians to “somehow connect back, when they want to revive their past, more to the legendary and mythical past, than to the historic past.” He explained how this connection to a mythical or legendary past is a reason why many “modern Iranians rediscover him [Cyrus] through Jewish traditions, Greek traditions, and now modern European scholarship,” and not through genuine native narratives.

Furthering the discussion on Iranian identity and narratives, Iran analyst Dr. Bijan Khajehpour articulated what he sadi are three major components that compromise Iranian identity: an Islamic identity, a pre-Islamic identity, and a modern identity. Dr. Khajehpour explained that, for the past century, “one of these components have tried to impose itself on the other component, and has not succeeded.” He explained how, currently, the Islamic identity is forcefully being imposed in the political arena in Iran and thus many youth have developed a heightened modern identity in their personal lives. This modern identity, Khajehpour said, is primarily classified through technology and western fashion. Thus, Iranians and Iranian Americans, have a dynamic and fluctuating relationship to all three of these identities that must be further examined.

Agreeing with Dr. Khajehpour’s analysis, Dr. Karimi-Hakkak claimed that “all too often we make binaries of these as if they have always been in opposition of each other, they have not, and the process of give and take is the logic of change and civilization development.” Khajehpour and Karimi-Hakkak agreed that, although Cyrus is an exemplary model of true and benevolent leadership, there must be more reflection on building other figures and moments that Iranians can be proud of. 

In his concluding remarks, Dr. Karimi-Hakkak stated that Iranians must “face their past, the good, the bad, and the ugly…This is prideful nation, this is a very important nation, it is not an innocent nation… they need to face and recreate their past, that past happens to also be a more truthful past, and definitely a more balanced past, a past that will really wake us all up, it may not wake up Cyrus the Great, but it will definitely resuscitate his memory, the memory of his benevolence.” Whether it is the successes of Cyrus the Great or the complexities of the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s long and complicated past remains deeply ingrained in the mind of its people. The question remains what the future of Iran and its people holds. An honest and integrated view of Iran’s past accomplishments and failures may be the necessary method to help pave a way to a brighter future.

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