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Restricting Iran's Second Mother Tongue


Azeri language graffiti in Ardabil, Iran

Azeri language graffiti in Ardabil, Iran

February 21 was International Mother Language Day and I thought of my own mother language, Azeri Turkish.

Azeri Turkish is not one of the 3,500 or more endangered languages spoken by small communities which UNESCO calls on the public to protect.

But it's spoken in Iran by 15-20 million people (out of a 66 million population) plus by 8 million people in Azerbaijan, where it's the state language. It's a Turkic language, similar to Turkish, and distinct from Persian, Iran's state language.

In Iran, nobody forbids us from speaking Azeri Turkish at home or on the street. Even in the mosques of Azeri-populated Iranian provinces (Eastern and Western Azerbaijan, Ardabil, Zanjan), mullahs pray in Azeri Turkish.

But ever since the centralization of the state and education in the 1920s, Iran's ethnic Azeris can barely read or write in Azeri Turkish because there's no education in their own, mother tongue.

There is not one Azeri-Turkish school in the whole country, university institute, nor even a course teaching the language. An Azeri-speaking citizen talks in his native tongue to his family and friends, but writes letters to the same people in Persian because he or she doesn't know how to write in standard Azeri Turkish.

Azeri Turkish is gradually becoming socially irrelevant. Practically banned from official written form, it has been infiltrated by local and societal dialects and slang and Persian's overwhelming vocabulary and sentence structure.

It has always been this way, under the shah and now under the current regime -- and the reasons are partially understandable.

The language issue has been politically misused at least once in our history. In 1945, when Soviet troops occupied northern Iran, a pro-Soviet autonomous government was established in Tabriz, the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan, which ultimately led to a de facto separation of Iran's Azeri Turkish-speaking regions from the central government in Tehran.

The main complaint -- and many say "pretext" -- raised by that government was the discrimination against the Azeri Turkish language.

That government fell after Soviet troops were forced to leave Iran. Since then, anyone demanding language rights for Azeri Turkish in Iran was referred to Moscow.

The same concerns and restrictions still remain today, with the Iranian authorities suspicious that "enemies" would use ethnic rights to sew animosity and division.

Most recently, a group of prominent writers, including Ali Reza Sarrafi, has been arrested simply for publishing and promoting works in the Azeri language.

Shahnaz Gholami, a prominent blogger and human rights activist, was imprisoned because she has been demanding the right for education in Azeri Turkish. Both Sarrafi and Gholami were charged with "acting against the national security of the Islamic Republic and its territorial integrity."

The problem is that, as many have argued, restricting people's ethnic and linguistic rights can actually weaken social unity and end up provoking separatism.

Which feelings could those "enemies" manipulate more effectively? The feeling that you have been deprived of your mother language or the feeling that you share the same linguistic rights as the majority?

For neighboring Turkey, it took 30 years of terror and fighting against the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) to even acknowledge the existence of a large Kurdish minority.

Ethnic and linguistic minorities are better off in Iran than in Turkey. But let's hope Iran won't need Turkey's bitter experience to learn what is in its own best interests.

-- Abbas Djavadi

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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