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Lack Of Language Day Protest Doesn't Mean All Is Fine In Iran

  • Abbas Djavadi

An Iranian Azeri shopkeeper reads a newspaper in Tabriz. (file photo)

An Iranian Azeri shopkeeper reads a newspaper in Tabriz. (file photo)

After Tehran's massive state show of power on the anniversary of the Islamic revolution and the harsh crackdown on all protests since the disputed presidential election in June, it would require extraordinary courage to stage even a small demonstration in Iran.

But a week ago, ethnic Azeri activists in Iran issued statements both in print and on the Internet calling for a demonstration on February 21, the UN's International Mother Language Day. The statements called for education in Azeri Turkish, the mother language of around one-quarter of Iran's population of around 70 million people. Azeri Turkish is banned in Iran's schools, and it is not even taught in Iranian universities. Azeri Turkish, the state language in the Republic of Azerbaijan, is close to the Turkish of Turkey but quite distinct from Persian, Iran's state language.

Every year on this day, thousands of Azeris staged demonstrations in the cities of Iranian Azerbaijan to call for language rights.

This year's protest was planned for Shahnaz Square in Tabriz, the capital of the province Eastern Azerbaijan.

But nothing happened.

A history student who identified himself only as Babak pointed to the "militarized security situation" in the country. "From early afternoon, hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of Basiji and plainclothes militia gathered on and around the square, which is a crowded and central place of Tabriz," he said. Mobile-phone connections from and to this location were blocked, according to Babak.

"People came for the meeting, but each 10 steps, there was at least one plainclothes militia man ready to attack," he said. Another source claimed he saw three people being detained, but that report could not be verified.

Repression and fear seem to be the main factors in preventing this year's International Mother Language Day demonstration. But Iran's Azeris have also been generally unreceptive to the tumultuous politics of the last few months in Iran. They have been notably cautious in supporting either side in the standoff.

During the election campaign, when President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's main rival Mir Hossein Musavi (an ethnic Azeri), visited Tabriz, thousands of people gathered to hear him speak. Some among the supporters held signs calling for "Schools in everybody's mother language" and urging Musavi to support the Azeris' language rights. But those calls went unheard by the opposition leader.

Since the election, there have been no major demonstrations supporting the opposition Green Movement in Iranian Azerbaijan. On the other hand, last week's government-organized anniversary of the Islamic Revolution was marked with a surprisingly low turnout in Tabriz and other Iranian Azeri cities.

Yashar Hakkakpur, a human rights defender, believes this is due to the unwillingness of both the government and the opposition to address Azeris' basic demands, such as the right of education in their mother language. "All leaders of the Islamic Revolution, including the prominent leaders of the Green Movement, have opposed our ethnic rights," he said. "As a result, people don't trust much any political party or leader in Tehran."

Hakkakpur fled Iran before being sentenced last January to one year in prison and 50 lashes for "spreading lies and rumors against the Islamic Republic and organizing political poetry meetings" in Azeri Turkish.

Nobody knows how much support ethnic demands enjoy among Iranian Azeris. Many, like Mahmud, a retired teacher of mathematics, didn't know anything about the planned protest on February 21. Mahmud said he supports the idea of Azeri Turkish instruction in schools but "first comes freedom for the whole Iran." "Raising this kind of [ethnic] issues is distracting," he said.

"But this is not a place where public opinion counts anyway," Mahmud added. "Since the brutality intensified after the [presidential] election, people fear for their jobs, lives, and families. Forget about the West. Let us have just half of the freedoms they enjoy in Turkey, and we will find out what people really think."

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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