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Azeris Hold Protests In Iran Over Racial Slur

  • Frud Bezhan

A slur against ethnic Azeris on an Iranian children's television program has sparked a backlash that has spilled onto the streets.

The popular children's program Fitilehha has been cancelled amid the controversy it caused when it aired an episode on November 6 depicting an ethnic Azeri brushing his teeth with a toilet brush.

But the outcry has continued to grow, with members of the country's large Azeri minority staging large street protests on November 9 in the northwestern cities of Tabriz, Urmia (Orumieh), and Zanjan.

Video footage from the protests shows large numbers of people marching through streets, chanting "stop racism against Azeris." Riot police were deployed on the streets.

Mohammad Sarafraz, the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the country’s state broadcaster, apologized for the episode, which he said was "insulting" to ethnic Azeris. He said the producers of the program would be severely punished.

"The [IRIB] apologizes for the slip-up, and it will redouble its efforts to strengthen national unity among Iranian ethnic groups," Fars news agency quoted Sarafraz as saying on November 8.

'Unintentional Offense'

Davud Nemati-Anarki, the head of IRIB's public relation's department, also apologized for the "unintentional offense" caused by the TV program.

IRNA quoted Masud Pezeshkian, a lawmaker from the mainly ethnic Azeri-populated city of Tabriz, as saying that the incident was the result of a "mistake" by the producers of the program.

Mohammad Ismail Saeedi, lawmaker from Tabriz, said an “insult against the Azeri people is an insult against all Iranian people.”

The contentious Fitilehha episode showed a man and his son, speaking Persian with Azeri accents, expressing their unhappiness with the hotel they were staying in, deeming it "smelly." The punchline was that they had mistakenly used a toilet brush to clean their teeth.

Iran's Azeri minority is about 10 million strong, and includes prominent figures such as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi.

Fitileh, a popular program aired every Friday, is not the first in the Iranian media to run into trouble for its depiction of Azeris.

In 2006, Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani landed in jail after publishing a cartoon that showed a cockroach speaking Azeri.

The cartoon, which ran in the children's section of a state newspaper, showed a cockroach asking, "What?" in Azeri. It was deemed insulting by many members of Iran's Azeri minority, who took to the streets to show their anger.

The government responded with force to the subsequent unrest. Nineteen people reportedly died in street clashes and many others were arrested.

With additional reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to