Persia and the Present War

By Youel B. Mirza

[The Nation; February 3, 1916]

To The Editor of The Nation:

Sir: With rare exceptions the only extant Persian books and articles are those written by European authors, few of whom have ever visited the people, and fewer still have had the means of acquiring a complete mastery of the languages which are spoken in Persia. Because of this, injustice is often done to the writer and to his subject. The history of criticism is a melancholy one. Our aim is to state facts, not to offer criticisms, and we believe in being truthful rather than being patriotic.

The situation of Persia in the present war is perhaps just as complicated as that of any of her sister nations. The majority of the Persians are wondering why great battles should be fought on their soil. They say to themselves, "We have not declared war! Why should our towns and villages be burned?" The Christians ponder in their sadness how they will ever be able to obtain redress for the injustice which has been inflicted upon them by the Kurds and Turks. These are a few of the questions that many are asking of their government, as they hear the cannons thundering at Urumiah, Tabriz, and other points in the province of Azerbijan. In fact, the poor shepherds and industrious peasants are not a whit better informed of the reasons for the strange struggle going on within their borders than were the poor peasants of Belgium when first their neutrality was violated. They have no idea of the causes of the war.

A closer study of the situation shows that the military activities of Russia and England in Persia are by no means selfish. In 1907 an Anglo-Russian agreement was signed, which was misunderstood and termed a "Strangling of Persia." But, in fact, the law-abiding citizens in Persia were greatly indebted to Mr. Shuster, whose service in behalf of the Persian people made the Russians more anxious to interfere and give protection to the Christians and security to European commerce and industries. The spirit of the agreement was badly misconstrued by the natives at that time. "Not only do they not seek a pretext for intervention, but their aim in these friendly negotiations is not to permit one another to intervene in Persia on the pretext of safeguarding their own interests. The two Powers...mentioned hope that in the future Persia will be forever delivered from the fear of foreign intervention, and will enjoy complete freedom to manage her own affairs in her own way, whereby advantage will accrue both to herself and to the world." (Communication from the British Minister, dated September 5, 1907.) Certainly Russia and England could in no conceivable way have enriched themselves by simply destroying the independence of Persia; neither could they have gained a laudable victory by destroying the Persian nationality. It was simply a chance to prevent Germany from including Persia in her grand scheme of Germanizing the Orient.

The occupation of Persia by Russia was the greatest blessing ever rendered to mankind by any government. Persia was bankrupt financially and physically. One of the oldest of the Old World empires, with an area of 638,000 square miles, an area equal to twice that of the German Empire, with a population estimated at from seven to ten millions, had only twenty-five miles of railways. Besides, no country has ever had the reputation of governing her people in a more unbusinesslike manner than Persia. Her army is poorly paid, badly, indeed shamefully, disorganized. Her people are taxed nearly 50 per cent of their property. The Government gave the people no public schools, no hospitals, nothing but corrupt laws and political jokers.

It is interesting to take up now the Russian rule in Northwest Persia in regard to the welfare of the people. First, it made it possible to live and travel without fear of murder. Previous to the Russian possession of Northern Persia, every man was his own policeman. In the city of Urumiah men could be seen walking in the streets with daggers and guns. Secondly, Russia not only stopped all this savagery, but opened up trade routes, thus encouraging commercial activity and economic stability, unknown previously. Some months before the war, the writer met an associate in New York City who had just come from Persia. He asked anxiously: "When are you going back?" I replied: "Why should I go to Persia? I am not anxious to be decapitated." He laughed heartily and assured me that Russia had changed the old practices considerably, and no one is ever seen carrying firearms of any kind. No one is punished without Sherate rules—similar to the due process of law.

This gives us a clear insight of how the people feel about the war. They prefer the Russian rule; therefore they are decidedly pro-Russian; certainly not pro-German, for if the Central Powers win, the Turks will be paramount in Persia, and her governmental machinery will be as rusty and inefficient as it was before. The great reason, then, why the Persians are not, and cannot be, pro-German is because Germany is an ally of Turkey. There is a bitter hatred, between the Persians and the Turks. The animosity is chiefly sustained by religious orders who anathematize each other with all the bitterness of fanatical zeal, the Persians being the Shies, while the Turks belong to the Sect called Sunnies. The original and fundamental differences between the Sunnies and the Shies relates to the right of the Caliphate. The former hold it to be elective, the latter hereditary; the former admit the three Caliphs who preceded Ali as lawful successors of the Prophet, the latter reject them. Such, in fine, are the differences which distinguish the two great sects of the Mohammedans, politically and religiously. Hence the implacable hostility with which they regard each other. Persians generally look upon a journey in Turkey with dread; I have never met a Turk in Persia who did not feel himself a stranger. The difference between the two sects, which has been described, proves that the Persians would not under any circumstances sympathize with the Central Powers. But we may be assured that if once the Persian clearly comprehends the principles involved in this war, his prayers will be decidedly for the Allies.

Johns Hopkins University, January 10.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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