Argument

Does Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Have Jewish Roots?

True or not, the rumors matter. Here's why.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

The world has been transfixed this week by speculation that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a self-proclaimed devout Shiite Muslim infamous for his frequent anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks, may be of Jewish heritage. Jews may not be eager to claim him, but his family’s religious history — or even just the rumors surrounding it — could have serious implications for Iranian foreign policy nonetheless.

Ahmadinejad has admitted that his family changed its name when he was young, but has provided few details. According to Iranian government documents and family members, his original family name was Sabourjian or "cloth-weavers." That name, although present among Muslim Iranians, often indicates a minority background. Despite the official position, another former family name alleged by Ahmadinejad watchers has been Sabaghian, or "cloth-dyers." It doesn’t matter much which name it was, given the similarity of the jobs they describe: Traditionally in Iran, both the coloring and weaving of cloth were professions left to non-Muslims as religiously unclean activities.

Generally among Iranian Muslim family names, the ending -ian or -yan signifies a relationship to a profession or location. But this can also indicate an Armenian or even an Assyrian (Nestorian-Chaldean) background and, therefore, identify Muslims with a Christian family heritage — something other observers have picked up on. However, Jewish cloth weavers and dyers were more common during the past century in the region around the family’s hometown of Aradan than were Armenian and Assyrian weavers and dyers. Ahmadinejad’s hometown of Aradan had a Jewish minority into modern times, the remnants of a community dating back to Silk Road traders during the 3rd to 6th centuries B.C. Likewise, both Sabour and Sabagh (or Sabbagh) were uncommon last names for Muslim cloth weavers and dyers.

As Ahmadinejad claims to be from a multigenerational Shiite family, the name change in the 1950s was unusual. It is true that, as Ahmadinejad’s relatives have noted, there was steady migration from villages to Tehran during the late 19th and 20th centuries. But urbanizing families did not tend to change their names so radically — not even to conceal humble backgrounds.

If Ahmadinejad is indeed of Jewish descent, his family’s story represents a classic pattern for religious converts: Adopt Islam, leave the hometown where people might know you as a Jew, move to a new location where blending into the Muslim population is easier, take up different occupations, and, just in case anyone were to question their confessional fidelity, demonstrate zeal for Islam by attacking their former religion and other minority faiths.

It’s such a classic story, in fact, that it has come up many times before. Ahmadinejad’s opponents inside Iran — including conservative Shiite clerics — have raised the issue of his religious and ethnic background ever since he ran for mayor of Tehran in 2003. Some do so because they are anti-Semitic, others because they are anti-Israel, yet others because they see weakening him as in their political best interest, and many because they regard him as a hypocrite. Ahmadinejad has not responded well to this internal challenge, even briefly imprisoning a blogger and publisher of Shiite clerical descent, Mehdi Khazali, who raised the issue last summer.

In part because of this repression, we’re unlikely to learn the absolute truth about Ahmadinejad’s family’s past, whatever it is. In Iran particularly, genealogies are recast to fall into line with sociopolitical ascendency — from Darius the Great to the Pahlavi Shahs. Written records are altered and communal memories slowly brought into line with new public images.

But in the end, the rumor is almost as powerful as the truth when it comes to shaping Ahmadinejad’s actions at home and abroad. None of the accounts suggest he had any active participation in the choices allegedly made by his parents while he was still a child. Yet even suggestions of not having been Shiite for many generations — despite his mother’s family claiming descent from Islam’s prophet Muhammad — undercuts Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy in the eyes of many conservative Iranians.

Ultimately, on the domestic front in Iran, the whole issue plays into the widening chasm between the mullahs and Ahmadinejad, some of whom have challenged his family’s Muslim lineage and piety for years. His oft-questioned background also may explain why he and the many relatives he appointed to high office are working hard to create a secular yet still autocratic state, moving away from the theocratic oversight of politics.

On the international front, the problem of Ahmadinejad’s past produces other complications. As his heritage becomes a more public question, it only makes it less likely that he can find accommodation with Israel without compromising himself in Muslim eyes. To protect and further his political career, Ahmadinejad will only be more compelled to reaffirm his Shiite identity by presenting himself as the champion of Muslim and Palestinian rights over Jewish and Israeli ones.

Consequently, Ahmadinejad’s Jewish background, if it does exist, will only make peace in the Middle East and compromise with the United States less likely on his part. And in endeavoring to deflect and vitiate complications — actual or imaginary — from his past, the Iranian president continues to sully his nation’s image and tarnish his own legacy.

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