Not pan-Turkism

Comments calling me a pan-Turkist, or a secessionist, have been aplenty, even under articles which have had nothing to do with anything that might have been interpreted relevant to the accusations (subjects such as the war in Iraq, or the US presidential campaign). Some of the commentators may not be aware of the meaning of the term ‘pan-Turkist’ and some may just use words that are meant to slander or discredit some person. This is also part of freedom of expression, though in real life, where real identities can be checked and real accusations provided as proof, accusers may end up in court, in jail, or paying heavy compensations, for their defamatory accusations. However it is not the case here, in this virtual space where anonymity creates a whole new foundation, both for freedom of expression, and for freedom of baseless accusation. And it is worth it, at least for the Iranian community.

Referring to the accusations, let’s see what is pan-Turkism! It has quite a clear meaning, and that is “a political movement aiming to unite the various Turkic peoples into a modern political state, a confederation, or an economic union closely resembling that of the European Union” (according to Wikipedia). Other definitions, given by other sources (as Wikipedia is not to be taken as a source, but rather as a means of quick information, not always reliable), are bound to be on the same line. I am pretty sure no reasonable person would realistically believe that the above is on my agenda! While I am unable to find one single large Muslim country to be properly ruled, managed or organised, providing the possibilities of prosperity to its citizens, how can I be seriously wishing for the creation of a super-state for all Turkic peoples, who are by no means similar to one another? And what are we supposed to do with their local thugs, and malicious dictators in many cases?

Pan-Turkism has never been the true desire, or idea, of any serious or popular Turkic, or even Turkish, leader or ruler or even intellectual. It was mostly used by the Soviet Union in order to intimidate, and blame, their Muslim citizens against any sort of desire for self-determination, especially based on their religion, and not ethnicity or race. And the term was adopted by Iranian regimes, or some intellectuals and leaders of opinions, to do the same thing against their Azeri Turk population. And nowadays the only remaining country where this accusatory term is still (and increasingly) widely popular is Iran. The blog-sphere of the Iranian community, from inside or outside of Iran, especially those written in Persian (Farsi), is absolutely full of such slander.

The reason for the usage, just as it was the case for the Soviet Union, is the fear for desire of self-determination by Iran’s Turkic population, especially in Azerbaijan of Iran. Iranians who fear losing parts of their country (my country too), therefore using such aggressive and accusatory tones against some of their Azeri Turk fellow Iranians, do not consider some very important realities. First of all, it is not anything strange that the vast majority of the population of Iranian Azerbaijan, or Iran’s Turkic people in general, do not, and did not, have any desire to separate from Iran. Why is this the case? It is most probably related to their long historical attachment, ever since the Safavid, to the rest of Iran, and even more plausibly their common Shia faith with the rest of Iranian peoples. Secondly, in case, one day, some 20 or 25 percent of Iran’s population will truly want to have their own country, or unite with some other country, then there will be a serious problem at hand that will not be solved just by calling them pan-Turkists.

There are some things that are not okay, and addressing them with good faith is much better than calling names and throwing insults. Some of these issues are not just about the Iranian regime but are deeply rooted in the post-Pahlavi Iranian mindset. Iran’s huge diversity (half of the population being of other ethnicites rather than the majority Persian) requires the Iranian identity to be non-national, non-ethnic, and a non-centric one as well. Of course, it is up to the non-Persians to preserve and promote their own languages, customs, or their own local history, but for that to be possible the Iranian central authority needs to create the right premises.

Let me give a few simple examples! Imagine you were a Tajik (if you are a Tajik, you are pretty much similar to an ethnic Persian) born in Afghanistan and you were taught Pashtun in schools, the TV was in Pashtun, you had to do anything official in Pahstun language, and everything you read in your newspapers or history books praised Pashtun heroes and even attacked and loathed your Tajik Persian culture, history and heritage! The hypothesis is not the reality in Afghanistan. I am just making a case, close to home. Imagine then you were an Iranian Azeri Turk, you almost have Iranian-ness in your genes because of your long history, your ancestors have fought against Sunni Turks, Christian Russians and other non-Iranians for almost five centuries to defend their country called Iran.

Then you go to school and you have to learn only a foreign (unknown) language (Persian), absolutely nothing of your own language, your history books are full of what happened to Persians, what Persians did, and eventually what happened to Aryans (supposedly the race that Iranians are led to believe they belong to). Imagine it the other way, you were in the situation where you lived in your own country where your parents and their parents and grandparents made so much sacrifices to build, you are a Persian, and all you learn in school is about Turks, Azeri Turkish literature, Dede Qurqut, Kor Oghlu, Fuzuli, Nasimi, Sabir, Shahriar, and so on, and no sign of Ferdousi, Hafez, Saadi etc and Shahnameh heroes (just a hypothetical example) are actually portrayed as savages and barbarians! Would that be okay? Would that be fair? Wouldn’t that be a an insult? Wouldn’t that be a great disservice and dishonour to some extraordinary people?

And in reality official history books of Iran very easily and freely even go as far as openly attacking Turks, calling them names and reducing them to uncivilised barbarians. Although they might often refer to Turks before the Safavid era, isn’t it inappropriate to have such texts for millions of kids, and adults, who call themselves Turks too? Imagine that you turn on TV and all you hear is Persian. It is true that there are some very few and short programs in some sort of an Azeri language (or some other local languages) as well, but the Azeri they use is often better unheard (when I listened, it was so Persianised and so manipulated and messed-up it was not much different from reading the history books loathing Turks).

Imagine that almost half your relatives have moved far away, especially to areas surrounding Tehran, but also to other Persian-populated areas of Iran, to search for jobs, because consecutive governments have largely skipped your areas from their investment activities. And imagine that when you celebrate Nouruz you turn on state TV (the only Iranian channels), or radio, or you read official newspapers, and Mr Ahmadinejad (or some other leader) congratulates the new year to all “Persian-speaking peoples” of the world. Why doesn’t he congratulate the Azeri or the Kurdish people of the world too? Are they any less Iranian? If any Iranian leader wants to be a true Iranian leader, for all Iranians, isn’t it appropriate to have Iranian-ness completely separate from any individual Iranian ethnicity and not make any differences? So, you live in a country that your ancestors have fought so hard to build and preserve, and you are treated like nothing but a more or less tolerated foreigner? This is very often the impression you get when you live in a non-Persian region of Iran. Just imagine what I described above, and put yourself in the person’s shoes! That person might say that he’s not so happy with the realities, and you call him a pan-Turkist?

Let’s be clear on one thing, for the sake of the unity of Iranians, and for having the possibility for all Iranians to easily communicate with each other, it is needed to have a common language (beside local languages) to be taught at schools too, and that common language is absolutely okay to be Persian because Persian-speakers (or those whose languages are dialects of, or very close languages to, Persian) are the majority. But this logic is not supposed to be turned into a nationalistic weapon or a means of ethnic assimilation.

I have never had any timidity in expressing my view, about how I see the issues. Things would have been completely different if all of Iranian regions were indeed mostly Persian, and a relatively small Turkic population (or Kurdish population etc) also lived among them, as a small minority group. They would, mostly for the sake of practicability, prefer assimilation with the larger population and would not really expect much acknowledgement for their distinctness. Just as it is the case for various populations of minorities living within European countries, countries that are openly based on nation-state identities, as their names suggest too. Germany is the country of the Germans, France is the country of the French, and Hungary is the country of the Hungarians. Even these countries have not been without problems with minorities in areas they have been more concentrated. However the United States, not being a nation-state, but a country of all groups, making no distinction between any ethnicites or nationalities, has been able to absorb all populations and create a national union out of diversity. The United States does not even have an official language! Please check that out! The United States, as the federation, has no official language.

Iran is a country where half the population speaks a different language than Persian, regions have their own languages and customs that often differ greatly from Persian. Even regions such as Gilan and Mazandaran that are usually considered to be populated by Persians with local accents, are in fact, from a linguistic point of view, not Persian-speakers, but Iranians who speak their own separate languages. However Iran’s official identity, according to central government policies and actions, is one which pretty much goes in line with a Persian nation-state. There is only one schooling possibility for all Iranians (I think Armenians are the exception, because of their Christian faith), and there is only one language that can be used officially anywhere, and that is Persian, even if some local from a far-flung Iranian land does not understand or speak Persian. Regional governors are sent from Tehran and all investments and policies are decided in Tehran.

There are these serious problems that I have mentioned. Solving them probably needs a serious reform and eventually a democratic system. That is not the case now. And that is indeed the priority. Struggle for democracy! But one of the major movements toward democracy is just here, on the Internet, in writings and discussions. These open debates can do wonders in time. This is the fear of the Iranian regime too, and this website (or many others) is banned in Iran for that reason.

However calling people names because they express their dissatisfaction is not fair either. Expressing dissatisfaction about unfair policies toward a large part of the Iranian population does not convey a desire for secessionism, and it doesn’t even convey a desire for any speicfic political ends (it can convey more likely a social end). While our population does not often have the tolerance to discuss such issues how can we realistically think about solutions, and how can we realistically dream of proper democracy? And I do think that Iranians, as individuals first, must believe that in order to respect Iran’s diversity, it is necessary to believe in Iran’s diversity.

Persian nationalism for all of Iran will backlash by creating greater nationalistic movements in Iran’s non-Persian areas, according to their own regional realities. But Iran’s realities dictate a belief in Iran’s diversity, and the fact that all Iranians (a vast majority anyway), from all backgrounds, form the Iranian population based on their free will. Having open and transparent debates about such issues can only be useful to strengthen what is common and debate what is not. Even when I am in a gathering with friends who are ethnic Persians (Fars as they are called in Iran) we do not usually discuss such issues because they have not been un-tabooed yet. It almost feels like two Iranians talking about their sisters’ relationships. That doesn’t happen among Iranians (even those living in the West) because it is taboo.

Talks about Iran’s identity doesn’t happen because up until around 80 years ago we were only Muslims (mostly Shia Muslims) and that was the only identity we knew. And now, we are not really sure what we are. If I say I am an Iranian Turk (Azeri), then I can only be a pan-Turkist secessionist. If a Persian Iranian says that he is a Persian (instead of Iranian) then he’s believed to be an intolerant racist by the rest! What is the problem with letting the genie out and have open debates about the identity of the Iranian?

I have said what I believe, and I strongly believe that a powerful, democratic and united Iran, or an Iranian community, needs to truly accept (and respect) its diversity and even celebrate it. For this, we need to have good faith and accept our differences too. Being an Iranian will never be a unifying factor for all Iranian citizens unless it is truly believed to be not Persian, not Azeri, not Kurdish and so on, but a union of all. That is not exactly the case currently, not only according to the policies that are applied in Iran, but also according to beliefs and thoughts among various Iranians. Open discussion can only be useful in this regard.�

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