A step in the right direction for Iran’s forgotten languages

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

On May 27, the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution – a powerful institution in Iranian cultural politics – took a very interesting step. Resolution 2950-88 declares that relevant universities are to be allowed to create two academic units worth of non-obligatory courses in the languages and literatures of ‘native tongues and dialects’. In other words, Iran is going to allow native non-Persian languages to be taught on a regular university level in several provinces. In particular, officials have mentioned Azeri, Kurdish, Turkmen and Baluchi as relevant to the resolution. As far as I can see from the sparse media coverage of the issue, the resolution is not necessarily limited to these languages.

The resolution is interesting for several reasons. First of all, language is at the center of the growing movement for ethnic rights among Iran’s many minorities. The resolution is clearly a concession to this movement and a high level recognition of the demand among minority proponents for the government to implement Article 15 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution. This article stipulates that while Persian is to be the national language of Iran, local languages can be used in education and media. However, there have in effect always been limitations on and discrimination against the public use of ethnic minority languages in Iran.

Secondly, the resolution is important since it is exactly that: a resolution, and not just a proposal. Even though critics were quick to point out that it seemed very much like propaganda in the last days before the elections, the resolution is nonetheless passed and have been publicized. Even if we can expect major delays in its implementation, it will be hard for the ruling elites of the Islamic Republic to back down on this promise. The resolution was passed in the name of ‘strengthening and securing national unity’. The state is clearly aware that minority rights are an explosive issue. They want to preempt a full-fledged ethnic crisis.

Thirdly, we could maybe even call the resolution historic. Under the Pahlavi regime, ethnic minority languages were presented in official state discourse as despised remnants of foreign barbarism and medieval ignorance to be rapidly replaced with the pure Persian tongue of the ‘Aryans’. Tribal populations were subdued, Persian language strictly enforced and kids caught talking in their mother tongues in public schools were punished. The avant-garde of the 1978-9 Islamic Revolution promised freedom for all, language rights and multi-ethnic harmony, which never materialized. Minority media have only been able to work sporadically and under severe pressure, intimidation and repression; intellectuals and poets expressing themselves in non-Persian indigenous languages have been monitored and censored; and until recently, there was no institutionalized academic study of any of these languages in Iranian universities.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that there has already been much skepticism about the resolution. Detractors argue that the resolution falls short of the demands of the ethnic movement: they want public education in the mother tongues from elementary school and up. They argue that in minority regions, children never learn Persian properly because they are analphabets in their own languages. They are supported by studies that clearly show the importance of mother language education for bi-lingual children.

Many remain skeptic if the resolution should even be seen as a sincere move. It is suspicious that it was passed on the eve of the elections and with the attendance of Ahmadinejad himself. Indeed, all opposition candidates talked openly about the ethnic issue and Musavi even promised a similar resolution. This may be no more than Ahmadinejad’s symbolic gesture towards voters amongst the discontented minorities.

Maybe the resolution will just end up somewhere in the vast bureaucracy or turn out in just a couple of showcase examples. Furthermore, it certainly does not look good that it is the Cultural Academy for Persian Language and Literature that is going to decide what languages are suitable and then design courses (even though they are to make these decisions in cooperation with another committee). It would also have been a good idea to set up an open process of cooperation with scholars and intellectuals, and to do some research into resources and perspectives, before announcing the resolution. It does not seem that the Council have done any of this.

It is going to be difficult to live up to the promises inherent in the resolution in a short period. Difficult, but not impossible: there are quite a lot of unofficial teaching materials in Azeri and Kurdish. However, the Islamic Republic will have to be willing to invest in updating and developing new materials, standardizing grammars, training teachers and cooperating with institutions in the Republic of Azerbaijan and maybe Iraq – and with scholars outside the region.

It is, for example, going to interesting to see if Iran is willing to teach with materials such as that of Baku, which is written not in the Iranian Turkic-Arabic alphabet but in the Latin (Azərbaycan əlifbası) alphabet. This would also create some interesting complications regarding the differences between what can be called Northern and Southern Azeri (and maybe even the future emergence of a Standard Azeri?). Furthermore, will there be two sets of teaching materials for the Kurds – one in Kurmanji and one in Sorani?

It will be even more interesting to see what the state will do with Baluchi and Turkmen: languages that have barely been studied and taught in Iran before, and languages that still need much academic attention and research. Iran will be able to learn something from their Turkmen neighbors in Ashgabat – but again, there is the Latin / Arabic divide. As far as I know, Baluchi is not taught in universities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iranian Turkmen and Baluchi have only recently become literary languages. A whole new branch of academic studies will have to be created. The list of interesting, inter-related questions continues…

But most interesting is that it would put the Iranian state in a precarious position of involuntarily supporting the trend towards increased communication and exchange over the borders that separates these ethnic groups. The alternative is that the Iranian state will develop a half-baked, amateurish set of teaching materials – maybe even of the heavily Persianized kind that made Iranian Azeris protest over the early state radio and TV programming in their mother tongue. That would surely be the recipe for disaster and one must expect the Cultural Academy to be more foresighted than that.

One can only hope that the Iranian state will live up to this new promise. Even though it is far from what proponents of the ethnic movement desire, it is a step in the right direction that will help strengthen national unity.

I’m intrigued. If anyone receives any new information from Iranian universities when the new semester begins, please let me know. I, for one, would love to see a brand new, standardized, government-approved Iranian set of teaching materials in Baluchi and Turkmen!

One Response to A step in the right direction for Iran’s forgotten languages

  1. I believe in the need to protect endangered languages.

    However, although there are at least 7,000 languages throughout the World, an increasing number are endangered through the linguistic imperialism of both Mandarin Chinese and English.

    Your readers may be interested in the following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2008. http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-URL_ID=38420&URL_DO=DO_PRINTPAGE&URL_SECTION=201.html

    The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations’ Geneva HQ in September.
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=eR7vD9kChBA&feature=related or http://www.lernu.net

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