News and social media have been swirling with speculation about war with Iran after a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3 in Iraq
killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani and a retaliatory strike from Iran hit a base hosting American troops in Iraq four days later. The increase in tension between the U.S., Iran, and Iraq had social media alight with fear of an increase in Islamophobia and xenophobia, similar to the climate after 9/11. However, for many Americans with Iraqi or Iranian heritage, dealing with insensitive or hateful discourse and worrying about family overseas has been par for the course for decades.
Iranian Americans have dealt with suspicion and prejudice for as long as Iran and the United States have had a tense relationship, actor
Tala Ashe, who is Iranian American, tells Bustle. Since a CIA-backed coup overthrew Iran's prime minister in 1953, tensions between the two counties have been periodically inflamed; the United States' treatment of Iran's Shah, who was exiled following the 1979 revolution, the hostage crisis of 1979-1980, and the 1988 U.S. downing of an Iranian passenger plane are just a few moments where this friction has come to a head.
While tension between the United States and Iran has built over decades, Iraq has often been caught in the middle. Iraq's own
fraught relationship with the U.S. has left a mark domestically. After 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims (and people mistaken for Muslims, like Sikhs) in the United States spiked. In his 2002 State of the Union speech, George W. Bush referred to Iraq and Iran as being part of the “Axis of Evil.” The United States invaded Iraq the following year, and started what many call an “ endless war” in the region.
Iraq’s near-constant state of conflict means that many Iraqi Americans have to worry about the safety of loved ones abroad, in addition to
rising Islamophobia in the United States and even the threat of deportation. Those fears have grown since 2017, when Trump initiated a travel ban that targeted travel between the U.S. and certain Muslim-majority countries. The ban went through multiple iterations, and currently restricts travel for people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, even if they have visas or family in the United States.
Iranian and Iraqi Americans tell Bustle that, despite the latest news cycle and speculation about another war, the emotions they’re experiencing following the latest wave of tension aren’t new to them. Speaking about their personal experiences growing up or living in the United States during ongoing conflict with the Middle East, these women also share how they’ve been able to maintain a positive outlook, support their communities, and raise awareness about prejudice and hate.
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“Even before the 1980s and the Iranian hostage crisis, there has been this narrative that Iranians specifically are evil or bad or threatening in some way,” Ashe says. “That's what's so scary about what's happening right now.”
Ashe plays America’s first
live-action Muslim superhero, Zari Tomaz, on the CW series Legends of Tomorrow. Despite the progress she feels media and society have made in moving away from harmful stereotypes about people of Middle Eastern descent, she says that the rhetoric about Iranians from the government and on social media doesn’t surprise her.
“I've seen my community grapple with it for so long,” she says. “I cannot say enough how upsetting it is to think about [the U.S.] engaging in another war with the Middle East.”
Ashe, who was born in Iran and immigrated to the United States with her family as a child, says that the threat of increased conflict has always been in the back of the Iranian American community’s mind. U.S. sanctions on Iran
stopped people from getting essential medicine and Trump’s so-called “Muslim Ban” already put Iranian Americans in a difficult spot, but this new development has Ashe worried about what might happen next. “It may not be war exactly, but this kind of strife and heartbreak, I've felt it as long as I've been conscious and connected to the Iranian American community,” she says.
Rosa Rad, an Iranian American living in D.C., says that it took her years to start embracing her heritage and identity after living through the increase in fear and Islamophobia after 9/11. “I was just overcome with so much embarrassment about my background, the fact that I did speak a different language,” she says, “even the food that we ate or having curly hair.”
Rad eventually overcame the effects of post-9/11 xenophobia when she became involved with a youth nonprofit called the
Iranian Alliances Across Borders, which works to connect the Iranian community in diaspora. However, the recent increase in Islamophobia and conflict with Iran didn’t surprise Rad.
“The election of Donald Trump has really helped me to understand that maybe we haven't made that much progress in society,” she says, “and maybe what really has happened is that people were sort of hiding their true racist and xenophobic thoughts and now are feeling empowered and emboldened by having a sexist [and] racist man in office.”
Rad says the
“World War 3” memes and jokes that have coincided with news on Iran are an extension of how separate Americans feel from these sorts of conflicts. “I think it's the true embodiment of privilege,” she says. “Hiding behind jokes is so easy when it doesn't affect your family or your cultural sites that Trump is threatening to strike.” (Trump walked back his tweeted threat to attack Iranian cultural sites after after apparently learning the action would constitute a war crime. “If that's what the law is — I like to obey the law,” Trump said on Jan. 7, according to CNN.)
Rasha Al Aqeedi is the
editor-in-charge at Irfaa Sawtak in Washington D.C., an Arabic-language outlet that focuses on raising the voices of young people in the Middle East. As an Iraqi who grew up in Mosul during both the U.S. invasion and the rise of the Islamic State, Al Aqeedi says, in her experience, humor has been part of how people in her community have coped with trauma since she was a senior in high school.
“Our last week of school was basically saying goodbye, and we were just making light of [the invasion of Iraq],” Al Aqeedi says. “It was probably a coping mechanism because we were scared.”
When Bush announced the invasion in 2003, Al Aqeedi says, she momentarily lost her inhibitions. “I walked up to a guy I had a massive crush on and just told him,” she says. “I was like, I’m gonna die anyway!”
Al Aqeedi says that the tweets she saw from young people in Iraq leading up to the Iran strikes reminded her of the jokes she and her classmates made when the Iraq War started. She says the dark humor and “we're going to die anyway” attitude is a symbol of Iraqis’ thick skin and an illustration of decades of conflict they’ve lived through.
“There was a tweet from this young woman in Baghdad when the news first hit,” she says, “saying, ‘Well, things look really messed up so I think it’s best that I just go and confess to this guy that I love him.’”
Seeing tweets like this and other jokes that show young Iraqis making the best of their situation makes Al Aqeedi proud, but she says it doesn’t make the situation any less emotional. “It's hard not to get emotional when you see the misinformation,” she says, “when you see that there's a campaign to distort facts, when you see that a lot of the suffering of these countries being ignored.”
Trump addressed rising tensions in a conference on Jan. 8, saying there aren’t any plans for further military action, but that the United States will seek to impose more sanctions on Iran. For members of Iranian diaspora like Ashe and Rad, ensuring that the conflict, no matter what stage it’s at, doesn’t lead to more prejudice and marginalization of certain groups is paramount.
“Just practicing empathy can go such a long way,” Rad says.
“This has happened in our country before — and it still continues — where groups are marginalized and demonized,” Ashe says, “If I had a message to give it would be for a greater sense of empathy.”