On Unity & Fragmentation in the Iranian Diaspora
From the Series: Woman, Life, Freedom
Since its rapid growth after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Iranian diaspora has been marked by deep fragmentations along political, ethnic, religious, and generational lines (Mohabbat-Kar 2016, Khosravi 2018, Fozi 2021). Despite 43 years of repeated calls for unity—for example, in response to the Green Movement in 2009—divisions have not only persisted; new ones have emerged as new cohorts have emigrated with different experiences and views of Iranian history, politics, and culture. But the widespread protests of late 2022 that spread from dozens of cities across Iran to over 150 cities in the diaspora have highlighted the broad global support of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement.
During coordinated Global Days of Action, huge crowds of protesters in London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Toronto, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Seattle, Sydney, and beyond gathered on successive Saturdays. On October 1, over 50,000 protested in the northern suburbs of Toronto, while over 20,000 marched in downtown Los Angeles. On October 22, European Iranians gathered in Berlin, estimated at 80,000–100,000 strong. The signs and flags Iranians waved at these large events demonstrated just how many different groups—and beliefs—they represented, leading observers to marvel at the unprecedented scale, apparent inclusivity, and impressive coordination of these diasporic public protests.
The ubiquity of shared sentiments in the Twitter hashtags, YouTube videos, Instagram stories, Facebook posts, and Telegram channels that accompanied these public protests led to an excited talking point: “the diaspora is more united than ever!” However, these massive demonstrations of support were matched in intensity by the emergence of targeted harassment, public fights, anonymized threats, shame campaigns, and nasty interpersonal disputes—both online and offline. Fights and violence broke out in October protests in Toronto, London, and Paris; Canadian organizations marked a rise in acts of Islamophobia; bomb threats and demands for cancellation were called in on book talks and events in the United States and Germany; threats of sexual violence and death threats filled the inboxes and direct messages of diaspora scholars, activists, and journalists. Individuals and opposition groups took it upon themselves to allege relationships between diaspora Iranians and the Islamic Republic and guided their followers to conduct purity tests that sought to target, silence, and excommunicate anyone with whom they disagreed, labeling them as apologists or agents of the Islamic Republic for having called for reform in years past (now deemed too soft on the Islamic Republic), or for being unwilling to name the then-nascent protest movement a “revolution” or, in more extreme cases, for being unwilling to support regime change by any means necessary.
These “name and shame” campaigns led to at least one ongoing defamation lawsuit in the United States. This extremely tense situation in diaspora led scholar Nasrin Rahimieh, who was a recipient of such targeted harassment and death threats, to highlight the hypocrisy of raising opposition to harassment of Iranian citizens by the Islamic Republic’s gasht-e ershad (guidance patrol, or morality police) by creating a diaspora gasht-e enteghaam (revenge patrol) (Rahimieh 2023). As a result—and although it may seem counterintuitive—in many parts of the world, diaspora Iranians are experiencing community at its most united and most divided simultaneously.
In this milieu, doubt and mis/disinformation spread quickly. Without a reliable independent media, Iranians in Iran and its diaspora have turned to state-supported digital news outlets, whether that of the United States (Voice of America - Persian), the Islamic Republic, the United Kingdom (BBC Persian), those that describe themselves as opposition outlets with connections to Saudi Arabia (Iran International), or royalist venture capitalists (Manoto). Recognizing that these outlets are highly ideological, some Iranians put more faith in their social media networks, yet much of the messages put forward by these organizations are repeated on or in fact emerge from social media, resulting in a self-confirming tautological feedback loop that circumscribes lines of debate.
According to digital media researcher Marc Owen Jones, the sheer number of tweets that appeared in the hashtags related to the protests within the first month after the death of Mahsa Zhina Amini (270,000,000) suggested there may be reason to study the likelihood of inauthentic users. In his sample of 108,000 accounts that had tweeted with the #OpIran hashtag, for example, over 13,000 accounts had been created in just a ten-day period of September 2022, each posting 100+ tweets a day. As scholar Nahid Siamdoust has pointed out, while the diaspora in this period was certainly focused on promoting #mahsa_amini (مهسا_امینی#) and related hashtags, and thus prompted more and new authentic users to post far more than usual; sustained tweeting at this high rate marks a threshold at which it becomes fair to assume that a large contingent of these accounts were “inauthentic” (Siamdoust 2023). Given that the Islamic Republic, the United States, Israel, and an array of non-state actors (e.g., MEK [Mojahedin-e-Khalq, or the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran] and other opposition groups) are known to have engaged teams of cyber activists to sow discord, observers have suggested any number of these actors could be behind such accounts and their tweets. According to Siamdoust, because authentic users were retweeting what were very likely inauthentic messages, anonymous accounts tweeting in Persian, English, and other languages have been incredibly successful in planting doubt or suspicions and distracting diaspora activism towards infighting.
Deepened divisions emerging since September 2022 are not only rooted in long-standing diaspora disagreements, that is, but also in divisions intentionally sowed by state and non-state actors. As such, even greater mutual suspicion emerged among Iranians not only online but in our daily lives as well; suspicions and doubts were raised against acquaintances, old family friends, and others with whom political differences had not previously been a cause for concern. Political polarization of the kind deepened through social media in the west in the last decade—in concert with the rise of populism and far-right extremism—is also operating on and through the Iranian diaspora.
Many factors contribute to a lack of constructive debate in American, Canadian, and European societies writ large, and in the Iranian diaspora in these locations in particular. Distrust of leadership, doubt in expertise, concern over “fake news,” and weakened social bonds across political difference all play a part. Calls for leadership and unity to rise above these in response to events in Iran suggested possible avenues for coalition-building and dialogue in recent months. But the fragmentation of the diaspora left a vacuum of leadership and a deep lack of trust, leaving individuals to attempt coalition work without practice in conducting or making space for democratic debate, and without experience in policymaking.
The result has been short-lived coalitions that at best made empty slogans calling for unity, while pasting over or ignoring differences – and at worst encouraged their followers to “create unity” not by building consensus but by intimidating, accusing, and excluding dissenters. This, too, happened both online and offline. Some of the most active in accusations and shaming campaigns online soon became the targets themselves. And in March 2023, at events marking the new year—often re-titled (e.g., “Unity for Freedom,” “For Iran,” “Voices of Freedom”) and carefully programmed to include political speeches in addition to or in place of the usual celebratory festivities—I witnessed as audience members verbally fought one another and attempted to have each other ejected by security over their choices of which slogans to yell, indexing preferences for different members of the same coalition at the time. These and other examples of infighting have all created new fragmentations and more generally have reduced faith in the possibilities of coalition-building and hope in democracy as a pathway to greater unity for the Iranian diaspora.
Propaganda and disinformation intended to disarm potentially effective opposition groups through distraction and infighting have a storied history long before and well beyond the case of the Iranian diaspora. And indeed, diaspora politics everywhere is affected by intersecting histories, sociopolitical processes, and experiences of migration in ways perhaps unique to immigrant communities. Diasporic Iranians currently are in a paradoxical position. While most agree that some degree of unity is needed to realize shared goals of supporting Iranians in Iran and convincing the world not to ignore the trampling of their human rights, for now the aspirational claims that “we are more united than ever” are being uttered in the same breath (or tweet) as efforts to silence and exclude opponents, leading to deepened fragmentations rather than strengthened unity. The question remains open as to whether the ultimate goal—achieving a longed-for future in Iran—can be achieved without it.
Fozi, Navid. 2021. “A Fragmented and Polarized Diaspora: The Making of an Iranian Pluralist Consciousness in Malaysia.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 21, no. 2: 231–58.
Khosravi, Shahram. 2018. “A Fragmented Diaspora: Iranians in Sweden.” Nordic Journal of Migration Research 8, no. 2: 73–81.
Mohabbat-Kar, Resa, ed. 2016. Identity and Exile: The Iranian Diaspora between Solidarity and Difference. Berlin: Heinrich Böll Foundation.
Rahimieh, Nasrin. 2023. “The Idiom of the Iranian Diaspora.” Paper presented at The Iranian Diaspora in Global Perspective Conference, University of California, Los Angeles. February 16.
Siamdoust, Nahid. 2023. “The Trajectory of Iran Regime Change Discourse in the Digital Diaspora.” Paper presented at The Iranian Diaspora in Global Perspective Conference, University of California, Los Angeles, February 16.