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Wobbly mosaics
Ethnicity and crisis of identity



Majid KhosraviNik
January 16, 2007

The international frenzy and panic over Iran’s nuclear ambitions continues as the diplomatic chess game is turning increasingly twisted with Russia playing a clandestine double agent role, squeezing economic, political and strategic benefits out of Iran while keeping an eye on the thermometer of its relations with Europe and USA.

While the world is ushered fully into the hardline, fundamentalist picture of Iran- which is ironically the most socially secularized country in the region- and its populist sensational “president” AhmadiNejad, the country is at the threshold of historical moment in terms of its diverse ethnic grouping and a crisis in  what is to be called “an Iranian identity”.

Quite predictably, in recent years after a long history of mainly two authoritarian systems of Pahlavi shahs and the current Islamic theocracy and the historical processes of the society in moving from a strictly rural, uneducated population to mainly urbanised, educated one the diversity and disharmonious nature of the ‘Iranian Identity’ is becoming increasingly salient in social and political make up of the society inside and outside Iran.

Decades of one-dimensional and intrinsically suppressive grand policies imposed on the diverse groups of Iranian society and the hegemonic central government rule in promoting a unique “identity” devoid of any room for any multicultural models, has not become the main source of discontent and protest in various levels of society in Iran.

The unrest and street clashes of ‘Azaris’ or ‘Turks’ (names being highly sensational) in last July, is an example of the signs of years of unresolved tensions. Azaris who are the dominating ethnographic element in north western part of Iran decided to demonstrate a hugely disproportionate protest against what was considered to be an insulting caricature in one of the national newspapers in Iran. The unprecedented protest turned nasty when masses of angry Azari demonstrators took to the streets and openly and proudly claimed their identity followed by vandalism of public buildings and belligerently loaded anti- Persian slogans in more extremist circles.

In a more recent example -but in a more controlled and limited scale- in November the ethnic ‘Lurs’ students openly expressed their discomfort and anger about their social representation and negative stereotypes against them in public culture of Iran.

Iran is a country of diverse “groups” created not only in terms of ethnicity, but also religions and or sects. In terms of ethnicity which is the main factor, there are ‘Azaris’ in North West, ‘Lurs’ in West, ‘Kurd’s in West and north-west, Arabs in south and south west, Baluchiz, in south east, Gilakis in north and more of other smaller size ethnic minorities. While these groups have the element of “ethnicity” as their distinctive factor, at times the religious sectarianism (Shiite and Sunni) adds to the complexity of the situation as some of these groups are mainly Sunni muslims in contrast to Shiites who are the majority, i.e. Kurds, Baluchis. In the mean time occasionally language turns out to become a much greater identity element than the sect i.e. Arabs, Kurds and Azaris. Thus, ethnic groups in Iran may draw –with varying degrees- on their language, ethnicity, religious sect or a combination of all these to distinguish themselves from the hegemonic official Persian-Shiite identity in center.

Apart from the element of religious sects such as being Shiite or Sunni there are also some much smaller religious groups. Zoroastrians, Christians, Jewish, Baha’is, and Sufis are among the existing religious groups who (need to) draw on their religions as the main factor for building an identity while each one of these groups enjoys (or suffers from) different degrees of legality and practical means; Zoroastrians on one side and Bahai’s on the other side enjoy and suffer from the most and the least relative freedom in the country.

‘Persians’ the dominant ethnic group as ethnic group in majority and the “default” Iranian identity are actually very marginally ahead of the population of ‘Azaris’. However, the historical, cultural and linguistic dominance of Persians in Iran and the glorious periods of Akamaidian  Persian empire of olden time Iran has always given Persians and Farsi speakers a predominant role in social aspects of the contemporary Iran both in secular Shah’s and Islamic theocracy regimes. After revolution the Iranian as Shiite-Muslim identity was enforced as the hegemonic official/political fields and interestingly now drawing on the “Iranian as Persians” identity is revived in opposition to the Shiite-Islamic identity of the current system.

Iranian-Persian identity was re/created in the modern context of Iran about six decades ago by Reza Shah Pahlavi, the influential figure in contemporary history of Iran  who decided to “build” (or as some may like to say “revived”) a modern Iran  after he was deeply influenced by Ataturk of Turkey and his ideas. In the process of ‘nation building’ and re/creating a new powerful modern Iran and in contrast to the former Ghajar dynasty who were Azaris, Iran was given a Persian identity and grand policies were developed to facilitate such an agenda.

Implementation of these inherently authoritarian policies did not create significant apparent discomfort as the country was transforming from a traditional, rural life style to more modern (although may be considered to more on the face) urbanised life style which in effect caused a mass migration from rural areas to big cities- mainly the capital Tehran- and creation of a large middle class city dwellers and hence mixture of different ethnic groups and establishment of Farsi as the dominant language of power and consequently some time later a social association of fluent Farsi speaking with more elegant social class.

Hopping over numerous intermittent facts and historical twists, the domination of Persian identity and the hegemonic discourse and rhetorics in different levels of social, political and public arenas did not create a major conflict until many years later in the rein of the son of Reza, Mohammad Reza Shah when signs of self consciousness’ among middle class, city dwellers with different ethnic identities were seen. However, with the surge of Islamic revolutionary rhetorics and the unitary element of Islam (or Shiism) as the almighty factor, the tension between the now middle class religious peoples (of diverse ethnicities) in cities and the monarchical corrupt system of Shah caused a strong all encompassing pro- revolutionary Iranian as a Muslims identity against Shah which eventually toppled Shah in 1979 with the Islamic revolution.

Between the rather short period of the chaotic post revolutionary time and the time when Saddam Hossein launched a full fledged invasion on Iran, there were some serious stand off situations and separatist struggles in Kurdish areas of Iran which ended by a strong crack down from the revolutionary guards. In a short time when the Iraqi army was marching towards the centre with almost no organised resistance Saddam’s threat became so paramount and consequently 8 years of full fledged war brought about the atmosphere of unity and cooperation inside the country specially with overt support that that Saddam was getting as Islamic revolution in Iran was not -and did not claim to be- a favourable development for most Western Europe, Arab World and specially USA.

About 25 years after the revolution and passing through different phases of a devastating war and disputable economic and political reconstruction, the inherently diverse society of Iran now enjoying a huge population of educated middle class elements, the policies of the government about ethnic and religious groupings in Iran have been anything but lenient and flexible –with may be the exception of the first round of Khatami the reformist president in which there were a relative relaxation at least on the expressing the concerns. As the hegemonic dominant of Persian and Farsi language is now interwoven into fabrics of social life in a heavily bourgeois city lifestyle accompanied with social negative representations of “other “ethnic” groups on one hand and the growing dissatisfaction and crisis in representation of the official Persian-Shiite Muslim inside Iran and fundamentalist, political Islamist identity assigned by the international media on Iran as the Iranian identity for a hugely diverse and relatively secular body of people, gradually more and more signs of desperation from the official and international identities were re/constructed.

Persian as secular and western identity was strongly revived among Iranian outside Iran as the default reaction against domestically (officially) and internationally represented identities of Iranian as Islamist identity. Los Angeles and California of USA with a huge population of Iranian living abroad became the centre of projection of such secular and western Iranian identity followed more or less by other Iranian residents in Canada and Europe.

Inside the country, more historically established ethnic groups e.g. Azaris and Kurds started to disseminate themselves in an unprecedented pace with different agendas as Azaris identity struggle is a purely ethnic/ social one against “persianisation” of public sphere in Iran and Kurds’ dissimination has a loaded religious sect elements and the discourse of political suppression. Along with the known disputed circles in the past few years there has emerged- in the public eye- “new” disseminating discourse with strong political, social, and religious elements e.g. Arabs and Baluchis 

One determining point in the new surge of these new and old social, cultural. religious and political identity struggles in Iran is the strong reaction against the domestic or international current propagated identities and the tendency to re/define identities as different from the official ones. There seems to be a deep diversion process in dissociating identities from the official central one. This is a new historical moment in ethnic relations of Iran as consequential to two different circumstantial reasons.

The first one is that there has never been such a big middle class educated population with more or less established cultural awareness in Iran who- for different reasons- are not happy with their symbolic or practical representations in socio-political terms hence they have strong tendencies to differentiate from the central official identities. And second point is that Iran and Iranians are going through their lowest symbolic representation in the eye of international public. This second point is much more intensified when considering, the glorious historical past of Iran, the dissatisfaction and disapproval of most Iranian living outside Iran of the current Islamic theocracy (interestingly these people are the ones who are mostly affected by the internationally prescribed negative identity for Iranians) and serious (embarrassing) mismanagement of governance inside Iran has created a overwhelming crisis of identity in which Iranians are constantly struggling in promoting themselves as “different” from those identities and in doing so the Persian-secular identity seems to be the most practical and suitable choice.

Thus, outside Iran the discourse of Persian-secular Iranian is a discourse of protest against the official domestic Islamic Iranian. Inside Iran also shares the same concerns about the heavily politicalized Islamic identity while “Persian” seriously a problematic identity as a replacement. That is, both inside and outside Iran, Iranians share the dissemination from the political Islamic identity while the solution adopted by Iranian expatriates- to revive “Persian” identity- seems definitely too essentialist and painful for many groups inside.

The point that may need to be emphasized again is that,  current Iran compared to all these decades of Persian-centred discourse has never had such a powerful element to disagree with the ‘Iranian-Islamic identity’ projected by the official discourse in Iran after revolution. In other words Iranian identity crisis has its roots in undemocratic representation of local or national identities in terms of what people actually are and as the system is enforcing and imposing a political Islamist identity on all Iranians and this is the source of all cycles of cultural and political ‘diversions’ of different groups.

Unlike several examples of the move towards more conversions and unifications, e.g. East and West Germany, the creation and expansion of EU, in Iran the process of diversion and distancing from the central official discourse is gaining a major momentum which potentially may lead to linguistic, cultural or even political separatist tendencies.

This is the crucial element differentiating the present status of Iran from all the former decades as on one hand people have drastically become conscious and self aware of their potential lines of difference from the official-government-created image of Iran and on the other hand they do want to do so as they are not happy with that image.

Nearly three decades of enforcing political Islam as the main theme of Islamic revolution on one hand and the widespread negative representation of Islam in general and Islamic Iran in particular have contributed to escalating the already wobbly mosaics of groups in Iran.

In the present Iran all the historical, ethnic, religious distinctions along with several decades of wrong policies and attitudes towards ethics minorities and groups hand in  hand with strong urge of differentiating and refraining from the official assigned identities are producing sharper and sharper cultural and ethnic or even religious borders in different groups.

While there is a general mood for “differentialist” attitudes, each centre of conflict in the mosaics of Iran presents somehow a unique case. Azaris case is a heavily cultural one, they now find themselves as victims of several decades of unfair and unsubstantiated negative and prejudiced cultural representations and evaluations thus, by drawing on their cultural heritage and the contribution to the country together with the sense of assigned unfounded underdog image they are even on the position of aggression. There is an acute awareness and protectionism of language in Azari areas which un-discriminatingly projects anti-Persian or Farsi attitudes. In the same line the known cultural sites in Azerbaijan are gaining more prominence and cultural festivals i.e. Babak Khoramdin, or anniversaries of historical figures i.e. Shatarkhan have evolved to scenes of explicit or implicit protests to which the government reacts by enforcing more authority.

Kurds present a historical, political and religious case, they are the group who have had most severe standoff with the central governments and been the most outspoken and aggressive in claiming their identity.

In south and south west the case of Iranian Arabs is a case of religious (to some extent), cultural and linguistic distinction which –similar to most other groups- does not and did not fit into neither Persian-secular identity of former Shah of Iran and the Persian-Shiite Muslim identity of current system. The cultural and political sentiments in this area are also very strong.

Lurs as an ethnic distinctive group have suffered more heavily on their social negative presentation entrenched in all levels of social life in Iran. They present a case where the identity has suffered enormously in being represented as a “rural” and “primitive” in a society where urbanisation and middle class bourgeoisie is endorsed as superior. Only very recently there seem to be signs of revival and awareness of the cultural identity among Lurs.

Baluchis in South Eastern poor province of Sistan and Baluchestan of Iran present a mostly religious conflict against the centrally projected of Shiite-Muslim identity. Baluchis are mostly Sunnis.

In such a scenario there are also religious minorities who may strongly identify themselves distinctively different from the unpopular official Muslim identity however, given their size strong social and political hegemony they may not pose an explicit friction.

It is also interesting to note that Iran is surrounded by neighbours who are similar –in one way or another- to these different ethic groups and more importantly they offer a more “favourable” identity to these people at least in such a time of chaos in identity for Iranians.

On the North West, Turkey’s officially projected identity (probably in contrast to its society) of secular- modern Turk can be more attractive than the official Persian-Islamic identity in Iran. Although most Azaris (who are also called Turks) may not be willing to call for such a separatist move mostly due to inherent or perceived differences with those Turks. This makes the situation more of a cultural confusion and identity crisis.

The new Iraq is contributing to the shaky situation of ethnic groups in Iran too. Kurds in Iran are now seriously looking up to Iraqi Kurdistan and culturally associate themselves with them while the official identity in Iran is resented by many  Kurds.

In the same line Arabs see eye to eye with their counter parts in southern Iraq as Iranian Arabs (mostly Shiite) share both Arab ethnicity, language and religion while for many reasons they feel they have never been wanted in Iran in both before and after revolution.

This may help explain the heavily confrontational policies of the system in Iran against outside “enemies” e.g. USA. Such a confrontational position accompanied by perfectly suitable strong confrontational responses by USA and president Bush works in two folds for the system in Iran. First, it helps it push the cap harder on diversities and different voices inside Iran by ‘the-need-for-unity-discourses’ which has been the single predominant discourse in Iran after revolution and second it offers a cover for ongoing corruption, mismanagement, and human right issues in Iran. Cultural healthy debates are restricted and labelled as attempts to support the ‘enemies outside’ and the power stays centralised in the system. This also explains the practical suitability of long lasting  anti-imperialistic rhetorics throughout all the life of Islamic revolution while American policies and attitudes confirm and further perpetuate the usefulness and justification of such rhetorics.

The present nuclear stand off is another useful opportunity in sharpening the US/THEM discourses in Iran and probably in USA while the real victim here is the process of democracy and political reforms in Iran. Comment



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