The Anatomy of Iranian Racism:
Reflections on the Root Causes of South Azerbaijan’s Resistance Movement
Dr Alireza Asgharzadeh
In recent days many Azeri towns and cities in Iran have, once again, become the revolutionary scene of anti-racist and anti-colonial struggle against Iran’s racist and colonial order. The current movement of South Azerbaijan must be situated right at the heart of issues of racial/ethnic oppression and internal colonialism in an Iranian context. By avoiding any mention of the terms ‘racism’ and ‘internal colonialism,’ the dominant Persian discourse has provided a completely upside-down picture of social and ethnic inequality in the country, masterfully managing to deceive the international media and progressive anti-racist forces throughout the world. The fact of the matter is that without taking note of ‘racism’ and ‘colonialism’ as important social facts that do exist in Iranian society, it would be impossible to provide a comprehensive analysis regarding the current Azeri movement, along with other similar movements in Kurdistan, Khuzistan, Baluchistan, Turkman-Sahra, and other regions of the country.
Ethnic pluralism, difference and diversity have always been a defining characteristic of what is today called ‘Iran.’ Peoples of various ethnic origins, such as the ancestors of contemporary Azeri-Turks, Kurds, Baluchs, Turkomans, Arabs, Lurs, Gilaks, Mazandaranis and others have lived in Iran for centuries. The history of civilization in what is known today as Iran goes back over six-thousand years. The available archaeological/linguistic record indicates that from the very beginning the region was characterized with extreme ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity. No single ethnic group has ever constituted a definite numerical majority in the country, although the Azeri-Turks now have a relatively slight majority with a population of over 30 million.
Up until 1925, the country had been run in accordance with what one may call a traditional confederative system within which all ethnic groups enjoyed the freedom to use and develop their languages, customs, cultures, and identities. With the beginning of the Pahlavi regime in 1925, the natural trend of ethnic and linguistic plurality was abruptly stopped, and a process of monoculturalism and monolingualism started, which continues to date. The aim of this chauvinistic process has been to present the language, history, culture, and identity of the Persian minority as the only authentic language, history, culture, and identity of all Iranians.
For over 80 years, the role of the central government in Iran has been one of denying and dismissing ethnic and linguistic diversity in the country. Just as the Pahlavi regime focused on annihilation of cultural, linguistic, and ethnic differences in the country, so too the current Islamic Republic has continued with the politics of assimilation, exclusion, and racism. Under the current establishment, gender-based and religion-based oppressions have also been added to a host of exclusionary and racist practices left over from the previous regime. The racist politics of the governing apparatuses have always been accompanied by ideological and discursive support of the majority of Persian writers, intellectuals and thinkers who, due to their belonging to the dominant group, have enjoyed the privileges of monolingualism, monoculturalism, and racism in the country. To this group must be added the assimilated segment of non-Persian writers and intellectuals whose passionate support for Persian racism has even surprised the Persians themselves. In fact, such individuals of Turkic origin as Mahmood Afshar, Iraj Afshar, Ahmad Kasravi and others have been among the founding fathers of this ugly racist system.
The governing apparatuses, the dominant elite, and the farstoxicated intelligentsia have come together and sustained the structural bases of one of the most racist systems in the contemporary world. This naked racism which feeds on outdated and discredited Arayanist paradigms and racist theories of the 18-20th centuries Europe has outlived the Jim Crow segregationist system in America; it has survived Nazism, European fascism, and the Apartheid regime in South Africa. In effect, compared to its kind in Germany, Europe, the US, and South Africa, the Persian racism in Iran represents an amazing success story in terms of its durability, normalcy, and assimilatory capacity. Below are some salient characteristics of this dominant racist discourse and praxis:
- The Belief in the Superiority of ‘Aryan’ Race
Persian racism in Iran advocates a racist and racialized view of the world where the so-called ‘Aryan’ race is seen as a superior race. Using the racist ideas of 18-20th centuries Europe as its theoretical/ideological bases, the dominant group exploits the country’s resources to promote lavishly funded research and exploration regarding the history and existence of this ‘superior Aryan race’ in Iran. On the other hand, serious works challenging the supremacy of Aryanist historiography not only do not receive any assistance but are not even allowed publication in Iran. A glaring case in point is the historian Naser Poorpirar whose recent work on the history of Sasanid dynasty was not permitted to be published in Iran. According to his personal website (http://naria.persianblog.com/), the author self-published the book in Singapore and shipped it back to Iran for distribution. Ordinarily one would expect that a study critically examining the Orientalist construction of pre-Islamic history of Iran would not encounter any kind of government censorship in the Islamic Republic. Not so. Works like Poorpirar’s are not allowed publication simply because they interrogate the Aryan/Fars-centric history of Iran, powerfully exposing its fictional, disingenuous, and dishonest character.
- The Belief that Iran Is the Land of Aryans
Persian racism openly defines Iran as the land of these so-called Aryans who are in turn identified with the dominant Persian group, its language, culture, and identity. Through this racist process, Farsi becomes the only national/official language and the Persian culture gets identified as the national culture of all Iranians; just as Iran’s history gets appropriated to the advantage of this so-called ‘Aryan’ race by excluding, distorting, and erasing the histories, stories, and narratives of other ethnic groups. This exclusion takes place in government-sponsored research projects, schoolbooks, university texts, curriculum, allocation of research funding, etc. In short, under the racist order in Iran, to be Iranian becomes equated with being Persian. This kind of racist identification serves to foreignize and otherize those communities who are not Persian and who do not speak Farsi as their natural mother tongue.
- The Belief in the Purification of Aryan Race of Iran through Language
Drawing on discredited European racist views, the dominant discourse in Iran equates language with race and tries to fabricate Indo-European language ties for non-Farsi speaking peoples such as the Azeri-Turks in an attempt to show that over a thousand years ago they spoke an Indo-European language and are therefore Aryan. As such, they should cleanse themselves of their inferior linguistic/ethnic/cultural identity and become one with ‘the superior Aryan race’ by speaking the language of this race: Farsi. This kind of racist reconstruction of prehistoric (imaginary) languages essentializes race-based and language-based identities and prioritizes them based on a fabricated history of origins, arrivals, etc., giving rise to the absurd idea about who has come earlier than whom, who has come first, who has come second, who has come last, whose language was spoken earlier than the others; and who, as a result, should have mastery over others. These kinds of non-sensical absurdities serve to create unnecessary competitions among various ethnic/national groups which lead to animosity, mistrust and lack of cooperation among them, while leaving them vulnerable to be colonized and assimilated by the dominant racist order.
The Iranian racist order openly proscribes non-Farsi languages in the country, banning them from becoming languages of education, instruction, learning, correspondence, and governance. By banning non-Farsi languages, the dominant group violates minoritized communities’ identities; subjugates their minds, and brutalizes their spirits. It supplants the indigenous names of geographical landmarks, cities, towns, villages, and streets; appropriates ancient heroes, historical figures, literary figures, scientists, movie stars, popular singers, dancers, and artists belonging to the marginalized communities. It prevents non-Farsi speaking communities from naming their children as they wish, using their own indigenous languages, cultures, names, words, signs, and symbols, forcing them instead to use names and symbols approved by the dominant discourse and praxis.
- The Practice of Anachronism in Interpreting Works of History, Religion, and Literature
Using an anachronistic method of analysis, the hegemonic discourse in Iran offers purely racist and racialized interpretations of history, historical events, and classical texts such as the Avesta and the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. It interprets these ancient texts in accordance with modern racist theories and notions which were not in existence at the time these texts were written. The anachronistic reading of these texts becomes central to the maintenance of racist order in Iran in that such a reading legitimates the ownership of the country by a single race, just as it privileges a single language, history, culture, and identity. Anachronism gives a historical justification for contemporary oppressions, exclusions, and annihilations in Iran.
- The Belief in Essentialism and an Essentialist notion of Iranian-ness
The dominant order in Iran promotes an essentialist notion of identity based on race and language. Instead of viewing identities as shifting, non-fixed and fluid categories, the Iranian racist order assigns fixed identities to individuals and communities based on their degree of ‘Iranian-ness’ (Iraniyyat). Under this essentialist and essentializing mentality, those speaking an Indo-European language are considered to be in possession of authentic Iranic identity and hence ‘more Iranian’ than those speaking a Semite or Turkic language.
The dominant order plays the race card to create hostilities among marginalized communities, seeking to prevent the formation of any semblance of solidarity among them. By identifying some of them as ‘true Iranians,’ ‘real Aryans,’ and ‘the authentic owners of Iran,’ it engenders a policy of divide and conquer, while sowing the seeds of mistrust and animosity among different ethnic groups. At the same time, it prevents a sensible census from taking place based on ethnicity and language, fearing that an ethnic-based and language-based census would reveal the true size and number of both Persian and non-Persian communities in the country. Just as such racist notions as ‘the true owners of Iran,’ ‘the real Aryans,’ and similar mumbo-jumbo are emphasized to an inflated and inflammatory degree; so too the real issues and concerns such as the need for ‘conducting of an ethnicity/language based national census,’ ‘opening of ethnic studies departments in the universities,’ and ‘researching ethnic groups and ethnic relations in the country’ are de-emphasized, degraded, and dismissed.
- The Belief in the Systematic Practice of Racism
The Iranian racist order uses the coercive force of governing organs to marginalize, criminalize, and punish the activists advocating the cause of minoritized communities, labeling them as traitors, secessionists, agents of foreign governments, etc. During the cold war period, it was customary to label anti-racist activists as communists and KGB agents. Nowadays such activists are labeled as agents of CIA, Israel, Zionism, Turkey, and even the Republic of Azerbaijan. Through such practices, the dominant order refuses the legitimate demands of minoritized communities for equal treatment, justice, and fairness. It brutally suppresses any ethnic-based and language-based activity, forcefully denying and condemning the right for self-determination of various nationalities. On the economic front, the government channels the country’s resources to building infrastructure, factories, and development projects in Persian populated cities such as Isfahan, Shirza, Yazd, and Kerman, while the non-Persian regions of Kurdistan, Baluchistan, Azerbaijan, and other areas more and more plunge in poverty and deprivation.
Resistance to the Racist Order
Thus, it is in this anti-racist, anti-colonial context that the current South Azerbaijani movement and the movement of other minoritized communities must be approached. It is under a racist and colonial condition that sites such as history, historiography, language, literature, and the education system have become main arenas where the battle for domination and subjugation of the marginalized Other is waged. The dominant group uses these privileged sites to maintain its oppressive power base; to legitimate its dominance and privileged status, and to justify its oppression. Simultaneously, the marginalized uses these very sites to question, challenge, combat, and eventually subvert the oppressive dominant order. For instance, in the linguistic battleground, the dominant bans the minoritized languages and uses its language to supplant them. The marginalized, on the other hand, seeks to reclaim and revitalize her/his excluded indigenous language so that s/he is empowered to self-express, self-identify, and self-determine. Just as the dominant uses history to deny a historical legitimacy to the marginalized Other, so too the marginalized uses her/his own version of history to reject and repudiate the history which is constructed for her/him by the dominant. The dominant uses the education system to enforce its assimilatory and racist policies. The marginalized redefines the purpose of education and schooling to bring about inclusivity, equity, equality and fairness for all.
While the marginalized uses all in its power to fight racism and oppression, it is important to realize that her/his battle is an uphill struggle in which s/he has very little access to strategic sites such as history, literature, language, and the education system. These are the sites that have detrimental impacts on the outcome of the battle between the colonizer and the colonized. And these sites are controlled for the most part by the dominant. If the dominant is left to its devices, there is little chance that the marginalized will eventually eliminate the bases of colonialism, oppression, and racism. As such, it is imperative that progressive forces everywhere take note of these anti-colonial, antiracist struggles and support them in any way they can.