Being Iranian in the U.S. and Germany

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A review of National Narratives and Global Politics: Immigrant and Second-Generation Iranians in the U.S. and Germany, by Sahar Sadeghi.

In her comparative study of Iranians in the United States and Germany, Sahar Sadeghi offers a multi-sited approach to the study of the Iranian diaspora that is attentive to the perceived impacts of national and global dynamics on immigrant belonging. By conducting research in two countries with large Iranian immigrant communities but divergent national narratives related to immigration, Sadeghi asks how being and belonging are experienced differently by Iranian immigrants in each country. Her theoretical framing follows Peggy Levitt and Nina Glick Schiller (“Conceptualizing Simultaneity: A Transnational Social Field Perspective on Society” International Migration Review 38:3, 2004) in asking whether these differing national narratives and continued fraught geopolitical conditions have created the possibility of “being without belonging” among Iranians, particularly in relation to processes of racialization and discrimination.

After a review in Chapter 2 of relevant sociological literature on immigrant incorporation, Iranian immigration in the United States and Europe, American and German immigration, and citizenship policies, Sadeghi presents her methodology and research design in Chapter 3. Here, Sadeghi outlines her two main research questions: “How do the national narratives of the United States and Germany influence the sense of being and belonging among immigrants in each nation, and how [do] the global politics surrounding Iran impact the lives of Iranians in the West?” (p. 49). Her first question seeks to gauge internalization of national narratives by immigrants and how they might impact Iranians’ perceptions of belonging, while the second question sets out to identify the perceived impacts of geopolitics on Iranian experiences in the United States and Germany (ibid.).

To get at these questions, Sadeghi conducted semi-structured in-depth interviews following separate interview guides for first- and second-generation Iranians (each listed in her Appendices). She conducted sixty-four interviews divided evenly by generation and gender, including thirty-two first- and second-generation Iranians in northern and southern California in the United States and thirty-two first- and second-generation Iranians in Hamburg, Germany. She then conducted inductive thematic analyses of the transcripts, the results of which are offered in her three analytical chapters.

Chapter 4 is the first data-driven chapter, in which Sadeghi presents interview material related to migration and settlement. She shows that, in support of previous scholarship among other immigrant groups, institutional support and access to state welfare are important, as are foreign policy considerations that make such support available to some groups and not others. Specifically, she found that in Germany (a state that provides all refugees with equal support and resettlement assistance), Iranians did not have to rely on family networks and other forms of support as frequently as did Iranians in the United States, which does not offer uniform support to immigrants. Iranians in both countries reported experiencing discrimination, but in Germany this appeared to come in the form of a general anti-foreigner sentiment, rather than the specifically anti-Iranian sentiments experienced by Sadeghi’s Iranian-American interviewees.

Chapter 5 is specifically concerned with the role of national narratives in Iranians’ “perceptions, definitions, expectations, and experiences of social mobility and belonging” (p. 86) in the United States and Germany. Here, Sadeghi draws on interview data to analyze whether Iranians understand or identify with the national narratives of their country of settlement, and how the presence or lack of this identification might influence being and belonging, as theorized by Levitt and Schiller (see above). She finds that her sample of Iranians in the United States demonstrated similar understandings of the national narrative as rooted in democracy and neoliberal values such as independence, individualism, hard work, and accomplishments, but that they had diverse interpretations of the relationship between these narratives and the lived realities and structural opportunities of immigrants. The Iranians she interviewed felt that belonging was possible (as the United States’ “nation of immigrants” narrative would suggest), but only once their racial and ethnic identities were left unmarked in society and therefore did not prohibit their inclusion and sense of belonging. Experiences of discrimination in the workplace, for example, marked one Muslim Iranian male respondent who, as a result, questioned the validity of the U.S. national narrative. Generation played a role as well: Sadeghi’s second-generation interviewees claimed they felt belonging more so than did first-generation immigrant Iranians. Ultimately, she argues that Iranian Americans’ notions of belonging are impacted by both their perceptions of the national narrative and their own personal experiences.

In the German context, Sadeghi’s Iranian interviewees all agreed that the national narrative places Germany as a refugee-accepting nation but that it is “not an immigrant-receiving nation” and thus is not an accepting place for foreigners (p. 107). Iranians of both the first and second generations described feeling perpetually foreign in Hamburg, where hard work, cultural accommodation, or other efforts would never provide them full belonging in Germany, a privilege described as being reserved exclusively for ethnic Germans. The closest they can come, she argues, is being marked as a “good foreigner” through appropriating cultural practices as a signal of integration into German society. Thus, Iranians in the United States and Germany both might experience discrimination and a sense of being racialized or marked, and thus both might experience “being without belonging.” The difference, according to Sadeghi, is that in the United States, this experience of being without belonging is contradictory to the national narrative, whereas it forms “an integral aspect” of the German one.

In Chapter 6, Sadeghi examines her Iranian respondents’ perceptions of the impact of global politics related to Iran on their experiences of belonging. She argues that global politics “stigmatizes and politicizes Iranians’ identities” which in turn negatively impacts their sense of belonging in diaspora. Specifically, most of her respondents felt Iran’s reputation in the U.S. and Germany was fueled largely by the media’s exclusive attention to “anti-West sentiments, religious fundamentalism, and a pursuit of nuclear weapons,” all of which lent it a reputation as a “hostile, defiant” country “associated with terrorism” (pp. 128-130). She argues that this reputation has marginalized Iranians, simply by association with Iran, resulting in negative impacts. Among Iranians in both countries, Sadeghi found common experiences among Iranians who felt the need to explain and defend their identities, a need which co-occurred with shame or discomfort, and even exclusion. But while Iranians in Germany associated their troubles with the German national narrative (not favorable to immigrants), Iranians in the United States associated their inability to acquire jobs, resources, or upward mobility with sour Iran-U.S. relations. Thus, her respondents in both countries believed that an improved international standing for Iran would also improve their lives abroad, enabling Iranians in Germany to be viewed more readily as “good immigrants” while Iranians in the U.S. would more easily attain “a neutral ethnic identity” and thus greater social mobility (p. 141). Sadeghi argues that these aims articulated by her interviewees are consistent with each nation’s narrative, demonstrating their impact on understandings of immigrant belonging.

Previous comparative studies among Iranians in diaspora are few, and Sadeghi’s analysis in National Narratives and Global Politics: Immigrant and Second-Generation Iranians in the U.S. and Germany offers an insightful examination of the relationship between being and belonging while specifically analyzing the impact of national narratives and global politics on Iranians’ experiences.  She concludes with thoughts on the implications of her findings, arguing that sociological attention to the perceptions, experiences, and understandings of immigrants reveals that both national and global dynamics can have important impacts on belonging, making them critical to future studies of immigrant integration.

Amy Malek
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Los Angeles
amymalek@ucla.edu

Primary Sources

Sixty-four in-depth interviews with immigrant and second-generation Iranians living in northern and southern California and in Hamburg, Germany.

Dissertation Information

Temple University. 2014. 188 pp. Primary Advisor: Michelle Byng.

Image: Photograph of Persian Square sign, Los Angeles, Wikimedia Commons.

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