It has probably started from one email. One day, someone has noticed that in the recent issue of National Geographic's Atlas of the world, Arabian Gulf has been used in addition to Persian Gulf, in a parenthesis. He wrote an email to his friends. Since then, the email has travelled hundreds of kilometers around the globe. Recently, a group of Iranian intellectuals also reacted to the issue and signed a petition. The Iranian government banned National Geographic reporters and sales of the magazine until Atlas changes.
A year ago, I was involved in a similar case against one of the local newspapers in Toronto. Initially I thought that my Iranian friends would be very reluctant to do anything. Unlike my expectation, there was a large number of phone calls, emails and letters to the paper. They finally had to beg us to ask our friends not to call them anymore after ensuring us that they will never repeat their mistake!
My initial expectation of weak reaction from Iranians to this issue has come from comparison with other similar cases. We are never good in doing any collective action in order to defend our rights or protest for them. It is also hard to see Iranians united on anything. In addition to that, recently, we are all very busy with our individualistic life and care much less about what is going around us. So, what has really happened that everyone now is very concerned about the gulf story?
It is definitely the right thing to protest against the use of Arabian Gulf instead of Persian Gulf. However, in my opinion, Iranians’ reaction to this issue is disproportionate and with a high opportunity cost. It is totally reasonable if an Atlas mentions another name of Persian Gulf in a parenthesis since it is now -right or wrong- used by many countries. I would like to argue that what has happened, mostly reflects our Anti-Arab racism other than anything else. We tend to be very racist toward Arab people and think that we are superior to barbaric Arabs. How many times have you stressed to your friends that you are not Arab? This racist subconscious has played its role here. We cannot tolerate others calling what is Persian, Arab! It is sad to see that Iranians don’t do much for other things when they should, take a simple example of defending the women's right to go to stadiums in Iran. The only thing that we are sensitive and may react to is when our so-called national pride is hurt meaning that others think that Iranians are Arabs! It is no doubt that the reason Arabs are using the Arab gulf reflects their racism toward us, as well. Having said that, this war on names seems to be a mini-racial war, and I would like to question its benefit.
Another interesting aspect of this story for me is looking at the type of the protest. So far, it has all been email forwarding and petition signing, the kinds of things that generally take less than ten seconds to do. We are all again good at doing these things! However, when it comes to persistence and patience and devoting a bit more time, it is hard to find anybody!
It is worth to mention the similar story which took place a few months ago. It was said in the news that Iran has asked to get a observer seat in the Arab League, something very normal in international politics. Turkey had filed the same request. However, at the time, there was a widespread protest even among some Iranian scholars saying that we are losing our national identity! Something that wouldn’t have happened if Iran was seeking to join a union with some countries with white people, if possible, EU. I'd like to refer you to the article that Pedram wrote about it at the time.
In such a difficult time in history, Iranians and Arabs should all put aside their racist minds and look for more cooperation. In many aspects, we have a lot of things in common with Arab countries, especially the fact that we are all rich in oil. Our countries are located in the same strategic region and we are all facing some level of dictatorship. We have similar problems and opportunities. It is only through our friendship with Arabs that would guarantee the correct naming of the Persian gulf.