Local vs global
We do not live any longer in the times of vast empires, only commercial ones
June 19, 2006
Recently there have been a lot of talk about Iran's
diverse ethnic mixture. As long as provocative issues
are discussed in civilised and peaceful manners there
can never be any bad outcome. Nothing is sacred,
nothing ought to be a taboo. Everything is open to
There are many great Iranian historians that can do much better than me, so I'll try to keep it simple and concise in order not to make any big mistakes in my view and judgment.
The new post-Islam Iran was built by Ismail Shah, who was from Ardabil, a city that belonged and belongs to Azerbaijan. There are many historical proofs that the Safavid were Azerbaijani Turkish speaking people, but Ismail and his descendants never thought of their leadership as Azerbaijanis ruling the rest. There was actually no notion of nation states at that time in the Middle East. Even in Europe the notion of nation-state was not a popular one, let alone predominant. It was an age of empires and what a better way of building empires than through religion, which was much easier to teach rather than a language that is almost impossible to impose on someone else.
So the Safavid, and other ambitious rulers at those times, would have been fools to try to found an empire based on ethnicity because their followers, and eventually the fighters, would have been a lot fewer in numbers. The best way to create a vast empire with a large base to choose potential fighters from was by using a much more practical tool than ethnicity, thus religion. Converting to Islam, whether Shia or Sunni, is just a phrase away. And if you don't really accept Islam with your heart you are considered to be a Muslim as long as you don't go around denouncing it and endangering your life.
So, Ismail Shah, the founder of the Safavid empire, was a smart man who thought big and built a new version of the lost Iran based on Shia Islam. This was an opposition to the Ottoman Turks who were Sunni Muslims.
Afghans are very close relatives of the Iranians. This is a very clear truth and no-one can deny it. Any Iranian who understand Farsi can understand any Afghan speaking plain Pushtu or Tajik. But as we have all seen in our textbooks, and almost any Iranian history manual, after the Safavid when Iran was occupied by the Afghans they were considered outsiders. It is called Iran's occupation by the Afghans.
But the Safavid time has never been called Iran's occupation by Azerbaijanis. Why is that? Because the Afghans were and still are Sunni Muslims and even if they are much closer to the Persians, they have always been viewed as outsiders. Karim Khan was a Shia Persian and the treatment he has received from Iranian historians has been similar to the rest of the Iranian rulers prior to the Pahlavi, who were all Azerbaijani Turks except for Karim Khan Zand.
The Qajar who were also Azerbaijani Turks, and Shia Muslims, and terribly incompetent rulers, actually used to raise and educate their kids in Tabriz. They spoke Farsi and Azerbaijani Turkish and they actually didn't care much. Iran's history books pay almost no attention to the loss of Iran's eastern territories during the Qajar, present Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and some parts of the other republics that have sprung up the Soviet ashes. Why? Because they were Sunni. While we know about the long and bloody fights over northern Azerbaijan. Why? Because it was about losing Shia Muslim land to Christian Russia.
This changed when Ataturk came to power in Turkey and Reza Shah came to power in Iran. They introduced new European ideas of ethnicity and nationality that were quite unknown in the Middle East as basics for building countries. And the whole tragedy that would actually divide Iran from within started there.
Until Reza Shah Iranians had been living in a country of unity based on Shia religion, which was acceptable given the fact that almost 95% were Shia. Different territories had their own sets of rules and customs, such as Fars, Arabestan (today's Khuzestan), Khorasan, Azerbaijan, Tabarestan (Gilan and Mazandaran) and so on. Reza Shah decided to impose Farsi for the whole of Iran and create a centralised government that would dictate absolutely everything. The idea of an Aryan nation, borrowed from the Europeans, was also another flawed idea that was introduced.
This mistake of Persian assimilation did no good for Iran and it created division rather than unity. Even if Reza Shah thought that a new language would be learned in time in state-sponsored schools and there was no need for a religion to unite Iranians, it has proved that both imposed religion and imposed language never create long-lasting unity.
But let's not forget that imposed religion seems to work much better than imposed language. Imposed language is not only hard to come by, but even when it comes by, it does not lead to what it is meant for. Look at Ireland! Imposed English did not create patriotic English speaking people there. Even the Scottish do not like the English that much though they speak the same language. Imposed language only makes angry people angrier. And it destroys beautiful languages that might have been pleasant and enjoyable if preserved.
What to do now? My intention was to introduce probably a different way of looking at historical facts. In order to move on and do something for now and for the future any person or nation must come in to grips with the past and accept the goods and bads done for or on his or her behalf.
Nevertheless I see one thing clearly. We do not live any longer in the times of vast empires where a strong leader needed to use religion to get as large a mass of followers as possible, nor we live the time when most Christian countries were starting their nationalistic struggle for sovereign countries for every ethnicity. Nowadays big has come back in fashion, like in the old days of vast empires. But this time it's all about commerce. It's all about big trading blocks, huge markets. The EU does not go for expansion to make one ambitious ruler just a bit happier. It is just catching up with the US, and other potential new types of empires of commerce, such as China and India.
So the only way for Iran is to forget about Persian-ism, Aryan-ism, Islam-ism or Ahmadinejad's populism, and go for globalism. Probably wishful thinking tough!