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Alleged Assault On Iranian Teens Stokes Anti-Arab Sentiment

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (right on billboard) recently launched a barrage of insulting remarks against Riyadh.

A wave of public fury and anti-Arab sentiment has engulfed Iran after the alleged sexual assault of two teenage Iranian pilgrims traveling through Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah airport last month.

The two boys were on their way back to Iran after performing the Umrah Islamic pilgrimage when they were allegedly assaulted by Saudi officers during a security search. The details of the incident have not been publicly disclosed, and some Iranian officials have downplayed the case, saying the pilgrims were not abused.

Although what actually happened remains unclear, reports of the incident have unleashed an outpouring of public anger that has been colored by some Iranians' deeply ingrained prejudices about Arabs.

President Hassan Rohani has ordered an investigation, and Iran's foreign ministry summoned a Saudi diplomat for an explanation.

Iran suspended flights to Saudi Arabia for the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina on April 13. Meanwhile, thousands of Iranians have staged anti-Saudi protests across the country in the past several days. Demonstrators have called on Saudi authorities to execute the officers and demanded Iranian authorities close the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.

Amid the public outcry, Iranians have directed their fury at Saudi Arabia, but also Arabs in general. Stereotypes of Arabs have reared their ugly head on social media following reports of the Jeddah incident as Iranians -- inside and outside of Iran -- have taken to Twitter and Facebook to air their rage.

Some of the milder insults have included “lizard eaters,” “locust eaters,” and “camel milk drinkers.” Others have labeled Arabs as “greedy,” “untrustworthy,” “backward,” and “radical.”

Iranian stereotypes portray Arabs as an uncivilized, desert people who have appropriated Persian culture. They draw on the antipathy felt by some to the Arab conquest of Persia in the seventh century, which brought Islam to the region but led to the decline of the ancient Persian civilization.

“There is this stereotype of a people who are not politically responsible and are being led by governments that have no legitimacy,” says Scott Lucas, an Iran specialist at Birmingham University in Britain and editor of the EA World View website.

“Iran will always say, ‘we have the only legitimate elections in the region.’ There are some stereotypes of Arabs of being economically greedy and there is always this question of cultural superiority.”

As Scott notes, even Iran’s leaders have tapped into those centuries-old prejudices about Arabs.

On April 9, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei launched a barrage of insulting remarks against Riyadh.

The supreme leader called Saudi Arabia’s leaders “inexperienced youngsters” and described the country as “underdeveloped.” He also accused Riyadh of “barbarism,” rhetoric that mirrored that used by Iranian leaders during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

The Jeddah incident comes amid soaring diplomatic tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, long-time rivals in the region. Riyadh and Tehran have been at odds over the conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition carrying out air strikes against Shi’ite rebels who are backed by Iran.

There is a long history of tensions between Saudi Arabia, which promotes a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam, and Iran, which boasts the world’s largest population of Shi'ite Muslims. Wahhabis consider Shi’a as infidels, and the rivals’ tensions have on several occasions spilled over to the Islamic pilgrimage.

Scott says Iranian leaders will be wary of making overly anti-Arab remarks, instead directing their anger at Saudi Arabia specifically. Iran has a sizeable Arab minority and has close Arab allies in the region, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanese militia group Hizballah.

“The Iranians can’t be completely anti-Arab because of course they’re invested in certain countries like Syria where they have Arab alliances,” says Scott.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is acting editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.