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Explainer: The Politics Of Norouz

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban Aliyeva attend Norouz festivities in Baku on March 20.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban Aliyeva attend Norouz festivities in Baku on March 20.
In what has become a Norouz tradition, Azerbaijan's president participated in an egg-breaking competition with two popular characters associated with the spring holiday. And this year, as in previous years, Ilham Aliyev got the best of Kosa (Beardless) and Kechal (Bald-Headed).

In Azerbaijan, a former part of the Persian Empire where Norouz has deep roots, the president has for years used the Persian New Year as an occasion to highlight his public image by visiting Baku's old town and lighting a traditional Norouz fire.

It could be written off as fun and games, but in many areas of the world where Norouz is celebrated, the politics of the holiday can be serious business.

There are cases where regimes, whether religious or not, have regarded Norouz as a threat to their dominance and banned the holiday altogether. There are others where minority groups have identified themselves with the holiday and turned it into an unofficial national symbol. And there are those instances where even the date of the holiday has been subjected to the will of local strongmen.

But in no place is the politics of Norouz more evident than in Iran.

Pre-Islamic Iran is the cradle of Norouz, where it is believed to have been a holiday of the ancient Zoroastrian religion. It is so deeply rooted in the Iranian tradition and has such a powerful influence that even the Islamic Revolution of 1979 could not ban it. An official six-day holiday in Iran -- and 14-day vacation for schools -- Norouz has nevertheless been under constant fire from Muslim clerics, who call it un-Islamic.

Ironically, the rejection of Norouz has united fundamentalist Shi'ite Muslims in Iran and Sunnis in Afghanistan in their disdain of national traditions.

Iran's official attitude, however, is more ambiguous toward Norouz. While the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued repeated fatwas, or religious edicts, saying that Norouz "has no religious basis and will create a lot of damage and [moral] corruption," he is also the first to officially mark the beginning of Norouz with a national address.

Iran's conservative president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, has exploited Khamenei's mixed message. Seeing that ordinary Iranians have always considered Norouz a powerful national symbol that transcends religion and goes back into Persia's millennia-long history, he has used Norouz to present himself as a nationalist and gain more public sympathy in his power struggle with the supreme leader.

The Iranian president has also seized the day as a tool of regional influence. He has invited neighboring Armenia's president to visit Tehran to attend Norouz celebrations, for example. And this year he was joining Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Tajikistan to participate in Norouz festivities.

PHOTO GALLERY: Norouz celebrations in Afghanistan

For the more than 30 million Kurds scattered across several countries including Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, Norouz has long been a symbol of their struggle for national identity and unity.

In Turkey, both the legal representatives of the Kurdish minority, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) called for large demonstrations for Newroz, as they spell the holiday, on March 21.

The celebration of Norouz was only legalized in Turkey in 2000 under pressure from the European Union. Turkish authorities also use a different spelling -- Nevruz -- and reclaimed it as a Turkish holiday.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government has also given some cultural rights to Kurds -- who form at least 20 percent of the population and will celebrate the holiday according to their own traditions.

The tensions surrounding the holiday in Turkey descended into violence on March 20 when Kurdish protesters clashed with police trying to prevent Norouz festivities in two southeastern towns. At least nine people were hurt when people in the Turkish capital, Istanbul, and another city tried to mark the holiday.

But many Kurds will be looking toward the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, where President Massoud Barzani will be making his annual Nowruz address on March 21.

Iraqi Kurds suffered decades of murderous repression under Saddam Hussein, but even the Iraqi dictator stopped short of banning Norouz. He instead declared an official "Day of the Tree" on March 21.

The Norouz protests in Kurdistan and southeastern Turkey come amid a year-old uprising in neighboring Syria, which also has a strong Kurdish minority.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's embattled regime has promised that it would allow Kurds to celebrate Norouz. The holiday, which the Syrian regime associates with Kurdish separatism, has been banned since 1963, when Assad's father came to power.

Assad's family is part of the Shi'ite Alawite sect, which also celebrates Norouz.

In Afghanistan, Norouz was reinstated as an official holiday after the fall of Taliban in 2001. Even during Taliban rule, the spirit of Norouz was so strong among Afghans that they kept celebrating it discreetly at home despite an official ban.

Taliban insurgents have issued periodic warnings against the observance of the holiday, and authorities have been constantly on the watch against possible bomb attacks during massive Norouz gatherings in Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

In Central Asia's former Soviet republics, Norouz has been a recognized official holiday. But even times of celebration can take on an authoritarian hue, as in Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov has declared that he alone can decide when the holiday should start.

RFE/RL's Farda, Iraqi, Afghan and Azerbajani services contributed to this report

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