"Arab Lizard and Grasshopper Eaters:" Incitement and Expressions of Racism on Iranian Social Media

Raz Zimmt examines racism and incitement against Arabs on Iranian social media.

Hit the Arab Iranian online game
Hit the Arab Iranian online game


On April 12, 2015, the Iranian daily Etemaad published an article by reformist intellectual and journalist Abas Abdi entitled, “We Forbid Nationalist and Racist Insults.” In the article, Abdi warned about the growing racial incitement against Arabs on Iranian social networking sites (SNS) that could, he said, jeopardize the security and stability of Iran. Abdi wrote that the disagreements between Iran and its Arab neighbors created fertile ground for the dissemination of racist insults on unofficial media like Viber[1] and online blogs. These insults contravene Islamic and human values, he stressed, especially given that many of Iran’s citizens are Arabs. He added that Iran has always been a heterogeneous society, that maintaining mutual respect among its citizens is of utmost importance, and that government regulations do prohibit racial incitement, but the prohibition is not anchored in law, thereby creating a need for legislation that explicitly bans racist invective.[2]

Abdi’s words did not emerge from a vacuum. In April 2015, reports about the sexual harassment of two young Iranian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia provoked a storm of outrage and expressions of anti-Arab racism on Iranian SNS. The teenage boys, ages 14 and 15, were returning to Iran after a pilgrimage to the holy sites in Saudi Arabia. By their own account, they were detained at Jeddah International Airport, separated from their families and taken to a separate room where two Saudi police officers molested them while conducting a body search. After the incident was reported on SNS, the angry responses from Iranian citizens were accompanied by racist expressions directed towards Arabs. Alongside criticism of the Saudi authorities and demands that the two policemen be punished severely, responses included offensive, racist statements against Arabs as a whole. Some of the derogatory epithets used were: “unclean dogs,” “lizard- and grasshopper-eaters,” “dirty Arabs” and “barbarians.” Some users claimed that the incident at the airport was a clear reflection of the Arabs’ character and mentality.[3]

Incitement and racism on the part of Iranians towards Arabs are not only the result of differences of political opinion between Iran and its neighbors; they are also motivated by a sense of ethnic and cultural superiority. Throughout history, Iran has preserved its cultural and ethnic uniqueness. After being conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century, Iranians maintained their language, although Persian has, over the years, been influenced by Arabic. Today, the question of Iranian identity, the tension between the focal points of national and religious identification , as well as the historic animosity between Persians/Iranians and Arabs, is clearly reflected in the discourse on SNS, especially surrounding issues on which Arabs and Iranians are on opposing sides.

The sexual molestation of these two young Iranians was not the only affair in recent years to provoke incitement and racism against Arabs on Iranian SNS. Similar responses have been recorded in the wake of statements by senior officials in the Arab world who challenge the territorial integrity of Iran or its national-cultural identity. A good example is the irate reaction of Iranians to a video distributed on YouTube in November 2010 that showed excerpts of a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah about Iran’s Islamic identity, claiming that it has Arab, rather than Persian, roots.[4] At the time, one blogger responded that Nasrallah’s words reflect a reality in which the Iranian nation, and the culture, civilization and resources of Iran, are held prisoner by foreign forces.[5] Facebook was also flooded with the furious responses of Iranian users and comments disparaging both Nasrallah in particular and Arabs in general. Their comments were peppered with derogatory monikers, including “freeloaders” and “lizard-eaters.”[6] The September 2015[7] deaths of 464 Iranian pilgrims in a disaster in Mena, Saudi Arabia, also triggered expressions of hate and incitement against Arabs on SNS, including, inter alia, the distribution of racist online games encouraging players to attack Arabs.[8]

Incitement against Arabs presents the Iranian authorities with two major problems: First, it undermines efforts to improve ties with the Arab world; second, it could potentially strengthen any separatist tendencies among Iran’s Arab minority, who make up approximately 2% of the population. Therefore, against the background of increasing expressions of racism on SNS, several Iranian media outlets have, in recent months, called for a fight against the phenomenon. The conservative website Alef warned against the spread of anti-Arab views. It stressed that Iranians must remember that they are destined to live alongside Arabs, and should therefore foster good relationships with all of its neighbors, avoiding stigmas and prejudices as opposed to considering all Arabs foolish, lazy, skirt-chasers and extremists.[9] The leader of Friday prayers in Isfahan, Hujjat al-Islam Mohammad Taqi Rehbar, also condemned the expressions of hatred against Arabs, declaring that “harming our Arab brothers is contrary to morality, religious law and Islam.”[10]

However, the influence of these attempts to restrain expressions of hatred and racism against Arabs on SNS is highly debatable. Old resentments and the deep cultural gap between Arabs and Persians, combined with the ideological and political disputes between the two sides, guarantee that SNS will continue to serve as a convenient and accessible locus for Iranian incitement against Arabs, especially in periods of tension between Iran and the Arab states.




[1] A social network that can be used, inter alia, for instant messaging and group chats.

[2] Abbas Abdi, “‎We forbid nationalist and racist insults.”‎ Etemaad, April 12, 2015 (in Persian).

[4] “Controversial speech of Hezbollah CEO about Iranian civilization .” BBC in Persian, November 8, 2010.

[7] Regarding the tragedy and responses to it on SNS, see Nahum Shiloh, “Hajj Tragedy in Mina – Saudi SNS in the Service of the ‘Great Game’ against Iran,” Beehive. Vol 3, no. 8-9 (Sept.-Oct. 2015), pp. 6-8.

[8] “Distribution of a racist online games target Arabs on several Iranian sites.” Nazar News, September 4, 2015.

[9] “Criticism of the common hatred of Arabs.” Alef, October 15, 2015.

[10] “Friday preacher in Isfahan: My words were misquoted, harming our Arab brothers contravenes morality and Islam.” Asr Iran, April 15, 2015.