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Iran's Ethnic Azeris And The Language Question

  • Abbas Djavadi

A man holds a placard that reads in Azeri, "Everyone must have school in [their] mother tongue," as Iranian Azeris attend a rally for International Mother Language Day. (file photo)

A man holds a placard that reads in Azeri, "Everyone must have school in [their] mother tongue," as Iranian Azeris attend a rally for International Mother Language Day. (file photo)

Call it discrimination or even chauvinism: Millions of Iran's ethnic Azeris have no right of education in their mother tongue. But, surprisingly, it appears the majority of them don't care much about this inequality.

Over the last two months, I have interviewed more than 80 people, mostly from Tabriz, Ardabil, Khoy, and Tehran. The people I spoke to worked in bazaars or as nurses, as government employees and housewives, computer traders, lawyers, students, medical doctors, and laborers. But I found only five who said they were very interested in seeing education in Azeri Turkish in Iranian Azeri schools.

Most of the others were uninterested and didn't view it as a priority. Some supported the idea in principle but said that it could lead to elevated social tensions. Some suggested Azeri Turkish could be offered as an optional course of two or so hours per week, although they suspected most parents wouldn't send their kids to those courses for fear it would weaken their acquisition of Persian. A smaller group even opposed the idea outright.

Whenever the subject of "Iranian Azeris" -- those who speak Azeri Turkish as their native language -- comes up, there are disputes about how many people we are talking about. Iranian censuses don't include data about native languages, so no one can say for certain how many Azeris live in the country. Officially, the population of the four Azeri-inhabited provinces (Eastern and Western Azerbaijan, Ardabil, and Zanjan) is about 10 million. A few million more ethnic Azeris live in Gilan and Khorasan provinces, as well as in Tehran and other urban centers. The total is probably about 15 million.

No Schooling In Azeri Turkish

At home and in their communities, these people speak Azeri Turkish. But the spoken language is strongly influenced by Persian in terms of lexicon, pronunciation, and even sentence structure. This is especially true of the language spoken among the more highly educated portion of the population. The basic language is "more Turkish" ("Turki" or "Torki," as we say in Iran), while the more you want to talk about complex or contemporary topics, the stronger Persian's influence becomes.

Iran's Azeris have played and continue to play an active role in the country's development, politics, economy, and culture -- on a par with their Persian-speaking compatriots. The only difference they feel is language.
Written communication is carried out almost exclusively in Persian. Only a tiny minority tends to write in Azeri Turkish -- and most of them do so with a conscious ethnic awareness or political motivation. But their written language is heavily influenced by either the official Azeri of the South Caucasus country of Azerbaijan or by the Turkish spoken in Turkey. There is no standardization of the written language used by Iranian Azeris, and the result is that using the written language often produces alienation from the majority of their fellow Azeri Turks.

There is one major reason for this situation: There has been no schooling or other education in Azeri Turkish in Iran for the last 90 years (with the exception of 1945-46, when the Soviet imposed Pishavari government allowed it). This situation remained unchanged after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran's current constitution says the country's "official and educational language is Persian, but the languages of other ethnic groups may also be used." This article, however, has never been applied.

Prior to the 1920s, there was no centralized government in Iran. There was no central army, no clear borders, no state educations system, and, of course, no "official language." Students in traditional religious schools learned in Persian and Arabic for the most part, but there was no ban on education in Azeri Turkish. During the centuries of the ethnic Azeri dynasties in Iran -- from the Safavids in the 16th century through the Qajars from 1794 until 1925 -- Persian was promoted as the language of government and literature, Arabic was used for religious culture, and Azeri Turkish was spoken privately in the court of the shah and among all Iranian Azeris.

'National Culture'

The establishment of a central and modernizing government by Reza Shah Pahlavi beginning in 1925 also brought the promotion of a "national culture" based on an official state language -- Persian. All other languages were banned from official use and from the educational sphere (Arabic remained in the "unofficial" sphere of the clergy, who had been deprived of their legal status and political authority).

Modernization also saw a surge of migration of ethnic Azeris to Tehran and other major cities. There, communication in Persian was a key to social progress, contributing to the assimilation of Iranian Azeris into the larger national culture based on Persian. It also led to the deepening of the influence of Persian on spoken Azeri Turkish.

Iran's Azeris have never felt like aliens in the country they have lived in for thousands of years. They are as proud of Iran's achievements and as distressed by its shortcomings as any other Iranians are. They have played and continue to play an active role in the country's development, politics, economy, and culture -- on a par with their Persian-speaking compatriots. The only difference they feel is language.

Despite the discrimination against their language, Iranian Azeris have compelling reasons for feeling fully Iranian. For one thing, Iranian-Azeri dynasties ruled the country for centuries and did much to uphold the nation's existence and unity. Having been in Iran for thousands of years, Iran's Azeris have never felt like a minority or newly arrived people.

Mir Hossein Musavi is an ethnic Azeri.
In the 16th century, the ethnic-Azeri Safavid dynasty restored Iran's unity after the destruction and chaos of the Mongol invasion. They introduced Shi'ite Islam as the country's state religion, a key part of the country's emerging national identity.

In the first part of the 20th century, ethnic Azeris led the Constitutional Revolution against the despotism of the (ethnic Azeri) Qajar regime and the imperialism of Russia and Great Britain.

Religion also plays a key factor in uniting ethnic Azeris with other Iranians. Sharing the Shi'ite confession of Islam with their Persian compatriots means that Iranian Azeris have felt closer to them than to Sunni Turks or other peoples beyond Iran's borders. The Iranian Azeri opposition to Islamic republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was led by Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari from Tabriz and was not based on ethnicity but on his insistence of the need to separate religion and the state.

Unfavorable Starting Point

Some scholars have argued that since the 1920s, Iran has built a sort of meritocracy that allows social progress for any citizen who accepts the national language and culture of a united Iran without regard to ethnicity. This is true, but only partially. Sunni Muslims and some recognized non-Muslim communities hold a few seats in Iran's parliament. These communities can generally live in peace as long as they abide by some politically and religiously discriminatory restrictions. For instance, no Suni Kurd or Armenian Christian could become a minister.

As Shi'a, Iran's Azeris do not face such restrictions. Both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi are ethnic Azeris. However, it cannot be denied that because Persian is not their native language, Iranian Azeris begin from an unfavorable starting point with regard to education and social mobility.

Nonetheless, as my interviews with Iranian Azeris show, they have largely adapted to this injustice and are not much exercised by the language question. But this could change if demands for liberalization and increased individual liberties continue to mount in Iranian society.

As Touraj Atabaki of the University of Amsterdam argues: "The fate of Iran's ethnic compositions and territorial integrity may depend, more than any other factor, on the introduction of reforms in the country's political structure to secure individual as well as collective rights in a nondiscriminatory inclusion and access to economic opportunities, political participation or cultural status, including language recognition, either on an individual basis or through some pattern of group proportionality. Or else, nothing is eternal."

Abbas Djavadi is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary -- which is based on a speech presented at a conference in Istanbul organized by the German Orient-Institut and Turkey's Bilkent University on June 5-6, 2010 -- are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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