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Truncated a version of Persia

Nationalism and culture

August 19, 2002
The Iranian

The quest for a pure culture, under any condition, but especially in an area subject to tremendous population movement over time, is a foolish quest if not a dangerous one. To want to conjure one up, by sheer force of will, if implemented, becomes an act of aggression with international consequences. Through the horror of holocausts, pogroms, and ethnic cleansings, history has taught us that lesson. This is what "one people in one state" often has come to mean.

There is, however, a reverse to this coin. It is the notion advanced in 1919 by none other than Woodrow Wilson, who argued that dominant cultures, i.e., empires, were the cause of the ills witnessed in Europe. He held in order to combat the ills of dominant cultures that engulf and stifle smaller cultures and peoples, one must introduce the notion of self-determination and national sovereignty. Thus began "part two" of the story of the twentieth century, a story all too familiar.

In a recent piece entitled "Who are Azeris?", Aylinah Jurabchi makes a passionate case, on cultural and ethnic grounds, for the cause of a united Azerbaijan on both sides of the river Aras, that takes the form of: "One Azeri culture, one country." Her argument is with those she terms "pan-Iranists" who, in her words, "claim that Azerbaijanis are of the same stock as the Persians ... and that [Azerbaijanis] have been 'Turkified' linguistically and not ethnically." However, she continues, when "we observe the language, culture and roots of the people of Azerbaijan ... we come to the conclusion that they are in fact peoples separate by race and language from the Persians ..."

Jurabchi's argument is reminiscent of the arguments advanced by many separatists before her. The phrase "legitimate aspirations of a people to self-determination" has had a powerful hold over our imaginations for a long time. It has simultaneously called us to unequaled heights and driven us to hellish nightmares. There is no argument here that there is tremendous emotional appeal to such a call, but emotion aside, what kind of fact is this appeal across borders based upon?

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, an opportunity was created, not unlike that at the end of WW II, for the constituent elements of the former empire to go their separate ways. Some could do so more easily than others could. They had neatly been delineated during their absorption in the behemoth and had few sticky problems of the sort, say, the Kurds have in Iraq and Turkey today. Thus came about the many "stans" most foreign observers still find impossible to pronounce and even more impossible to locate, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, etc.... Thus also came about Georgia and Azerbaijan, but also Nagorno-Karabagh and Chechnya!

Boundaries on maps are often artificial. Even when they correspond to geographical realities such as rivers and mountain ranges, they can still be artificial. People of the same stock, culture and background, have settled wherever luck and circumstances have allowed them to. Rivers and mountains, let alone lines drawn on maps by officials, have not been real barriers to a people's need to live. Things that are supposed to look tidy, often, in reality, are not. Add to that the dimension of time and the political dimensions of wars, revolutions, retaliations, annexations, secessions, and one ends up with great untidiness.

Cultures and civilizations grow over time. That is the very notion implied in the root of the word "culture." A people's ways are changed and they adapt to circumstances they find themselves in, retaining something of their original ways, adding something new and making it their own. A people's distinctness remains through its physical characteristics, its peculiar language, its traditions, but often, unless that people is able to remain in isolation over long periods of time, each one of these attributes is changed by contact with other peoples.

Ultimately, proximity and intercultural exchange makes originally different peoples less distinguishable, and, even if they still could be distinguished strictly, the long association with each other has created bonds, the rending of which can only be achieved at the cost of great violence, physical and spiritual. The twentieth century provides us with so many examples of such instances, that an actual listing of them is not even necessary anymore.

When we think of our region, the Middle East, and think back beyond the twentieth and nineteenth centuries, we come to a place where a great number of peoples lived under large empires, but often were ruled at the local level by rulers from their own immediate background. Imperial boundaries were fluidic, and peoples across boundaries formed their own subcultures and maintained them, independent of the vagaries of where the Sultan or the Shah declared the boundary to be.

Overlapping with these imperial boundaries were cultural ones that stretched far beyond the administrative and political reach of the empires. The cultural boundaries were the real ones created by the peoples in their movements across frontiers. Lands were gained or lost, but cultures remained, and a people could think itself intact despite the fact that frontiers had shifted.

Some cultures and civilizations were dominant in the Middle East over time: the Persian, the Arab, the Ottoman. Others were not. Many factors contributed to this: size, military strength, innovativeness, "depth." Their influence remained long after the empires that created them weakened or disappeared. The strength of Ottoman culture in the Middle East remains to this day, though the Ottoman Empire has vanished. That of Persian culture persists well beyond the boundaries of present day Iran, though the Persian Empire is no more. Arab culture dominates much of the heart of the Middle East, though the empire that created it disappeared over 700 years ago. Clearly, a people is the carrier of culture. Political systems and arbitrary boundaries are not.

A peculiar phenomenon arrived on the scene at the beginning of the last century, influenced greatly by developments in Europe: nationalism. When it took hold in the Middle East, a vast area that had never thought of itself in such terms began to convulse, and the results of these convulsions were the many artificial entities we have come to endow with such importance and immutability: the thirty or so countries that have come to make up the modern Middle East. Artificial though these new boundaries are, efforts at rectification in the name of peoples with aspirations, have always cost a great deal more than continued adherence to them. Witness the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Witness the Kurdish problem in Iraq and Turkey. Witness Nagorno-Karabagh. Witness the question of "Province 19!"

And yet, despite all these examples, the quest for self-determination and national sovereignty remains an enticing one, and its advocates genuinely believe that by creating newer and newer entities with sharper and sharper delineations of "us" versus "them," they will be able to achieve the age-old dream of perpetual peace and happiness for their people, and presumably, by extension, for all others as well. Woodrow Wilson already had worked out the details of this, but life's inconvenient untidiness intervened, and further disruption, not perpetual peace, was the result.

The author of "Who are Azeris?" speaks not only of the current situation of Azeri people, she speaks of the history of that people, and tries to use that history to justify her thesis of a united Azerbaijan, carved out of the territory of several countries, including Iran, Armenia, and perhaps even Georgia. Interestingly, what she has to say about the history and origin of the Azeri Turks is corroborated by the most current scholarship on the topic, and there is really no argument with her thesis of the origins of these Turkic peoples. The argument arises from the conclusion she arrives at.

Understandable as her conclusion may be from the point of view of the self-determination thesis, it is fraught with danger and has little historical basis, though there is some precedent for it in the twentieth century history of Iran, in the declaration of an "independent" Azerbaijani Republic by Pishevari on Iranian soil in 1941. This example aside, Turkic influence in Iran originating from the Turkic peoples of the Caucasus region, had never displayed Turkic nationalist overtones, and claims of separate Azeri identities did not translate into legitimate arguments for independence. Jurabchi, further, mentions the Safavids and the Qajars as examples supporting her thesis. Let us look at the examples for a moment.

Today, when we think of things Persian, of "Persian-ness" so to say, the points of reference that come to mind are dress, art, architecture, painting, song, poetry, and with the exception of the great poets and philosophers of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries C.E., we think immediately of the Safavid and the Qajar periods as most representative in our contemporary minds of what that "Persian-ness" means. Political invective and pseudo-nationalist rhetoric aside, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to agree that a substantial part of our images of what constitutes genuine Iranian-ness today relate to these two periods immediately, and then, of course to the period of the flowering of the Persian soul, the time of Ferdowsi and Hafez and Sa'di and Rumi, and beyond.

Neither the Safavids nor the Qajars were Persian ethnically. They were Turkic peoples, precisely the kind Jurabchi is talking about. Yet, neither the Safavids nor the Qajars considered themselves ever anything but Persian. In fact, given the turmoil that preceded the ascendance of both these dynasties to the throne of Persia, they respectively invented and re-invented what "Persia" and "Persian" meant. The Safavid Empire is the Persia of our consciousness. The Persia of the Qajars is the political Iran we associate with today.

The Qajars came to power trying to recreate what the Safavids had created, and, though failing to do so, managed to maintain integrity over what we call Iran today. Neither ever thought or spoke of themselves as anything other than Iranian and Persian. The thought of speaking of themselves and of the land they ruled as anything other than Persia and Iran was completely foreign to them, despite the fact that they were eminently aware of who they were ethnically and originally.

Jurabchi decries those she refers to as "pan-Iranists' and characterizes their stance as one that would include Iran's Azeris as part of greater Iran and its Persian culture and civilization. In actuality, this was the stance of the Safavids and Qajars, Iran's Turkic dynasties. This is not the stance of the "pan-Iranists" I am familiar with. If anything their position is opposite that of Jurabchi's description, and in a strange twist, the very mirror image of what she is espousing. For these latter day "Iranian supremacists," the only acceptable Iranian is an Aryan Iranian (however that is defined and whatever these terms actually refer to). To them Qajars -- their favorite targets of spite -- were lesser humans because they were non-Iranian.

To emphasize this point, these Iranian supremacists perpetrated the falsehood that Qajars were really of Mongol origin (presumably the worst that can be said of anyone, except calling them descendants of dogs!), and, Persia was saved from its dark night of Turkic "mongrelization" with the arrival of a latter-day Kaveh in the form of Reza Shah Pahlavi of the pure Aryan Race of Persians! Witness the following statement by Jalil Mohammadgholizadeh in an editorial in the journal "Molla Nassredin" in 1926 regarding precisely this point:

"We have not removed Ahmad Shah from the throne because of our dislike of monarchy, no. We have removed him because Qajars are of Turkish origin ... Our aim in the removal of Ahmad Shah was not the institution of a republican regime ... Our aim was to replace the Qajar ruffians ("gholdor-sefat") with the noble ("najib") and pure ("paak") Persian ("faars") dynasty of the Pahlavis ..." ["Maghsad cheh bood?" ("What was the aim?") Molla Nassredin, Vol. 1, Baku, 1926]

Nationalist talk of this kind, from any quarter, is always racist and fascist talk in the end. It may start out innocently enough, as I am sure Jurabchi intends, but it ends up supremacist ultimately. Culture has always been greater than nation defined narrowly along ethnic lines. It has been more fluidic, more encompassing, more tolerant. Persian culture can rightly claim the Mughal civilization of India, the Ottoman civilization of Anatolia, the Timurid civilization of Bukhara and Samarkand, and the Abbasid civilization of Baghdad as its kin and offspring.

The language of poetry and art, and the official language of the court in these civilizations was Persian, and thus its patterns of thinking were Persian too, as language is the framework of thought. The narrow version of "Persian," referring solely to an ethnic group, died out with the Sassanians, and perhaps existed really only with the Achemenids. To insist on it today would be as truncated a version of Persia, as Jurabchi's is a strange and anachronistic version of Turkic civilization and influence, if we can call it that.


Manoutchehr M. Eskandari-Qajar, is professor of Political Science and Middle Eastern History and Politics and chair of the department of Political Science and Economics at Santa Barbara City College. Features in | University web page

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