Tag Archives: Azeris

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 man shouting in a corner

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

The candidates against Ahmadinejad in the upcoming Iranian elections are so far Mir-Hossein Musavi, Mehdi Karrubi and – since last week – Mohsen Reza‘i, a ‘moderate conservative’. However there is one more interesting yet overlooked candidate: Akbar A‘lami, the most outspoken critic of the power establishment to run for presidency. Yesterday, A‘lami blasted ‘the power mafia’ of Iran in an extremely harsh fashion.


A‘lami is a former MP of Tabriz. On his personal website and throughout his political life, he has always emphasizes the fact that he is an Azeri representing Tabriz. Yet A‘lami himself grew up in the poor southern part of Tehran, and as a teenager, he worked odd jobs, driving busses, painting buildings etc. In his very frank and detailed autobiography, A‘lami explains that he was not a good student and that he didn’t even pray. However at some stage, he entered an Islamic study circle, through which he finally found interest in studying and praying. This interest led him from the holy books and leaders over to role models such as Ali Shariati and Khosrow Golsorkhi, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. With this interest came political activities – a part of his life A‘lami describes as ‘from pilot academy to guerilla activities aimed at reaching utopia or nowhere?!’.

A‘lami quit training to become a pilot when he realized this line of work would prevent him from political activities, and instead he was drafted as a soldier and stationed in Kerman and Esfahan. When Khomeini issued a fatwa for resisting the shah’s regime, A‘lami fled his military base and went into hiding while the police interrogated his father. Together with a friend who had been trained in guerilla warfare in Lebanon, A‘lami created a ‘political-cultural armed cell’ that participated in the Islamic Revolution. A‘lami was wounded in battles with the Shah’s forces but was treated by a kind doctor (who, A‘lami laments, was later forced by the ignorance of radicals to flee Iran for the US).

So far, A‘lami’s biography is pretty standard stuff for Iranian politicians. But it differs in one fundamental way: A‘lami writes that while he fought for the revolution, he did not know that one day, the revolution would fall into the hands of ‘the likes of Jennati’. Ayatollah Jennati is a powerful cleric and head of the Guardians Council in Iran. He is a hardliner and an outspoken supporter of president Ahmadinejad. A‘lami writes that in the early days of the revolution, there was no such thing as ‘left and right wing’, ‘reformist and principlist’ – indeed, this was before the days of ‘baseless political godfathers of various factions’, he writes, obviously criticizing the political elites of contemporary Iran.

Despite “fraud” and despite a very meager financial basis, A‘lami won an unprecedented majority of votes in the Tabriz area, and as a reformist candidate he entered what he sarcastically calls “the institution known as the People’s House” in 1999. A‘lami continued for nine years as an MP known for stinging attacks on the conservatives, until “the lords who seek prosperity on earth” questioned his beliefs in and pledge to Islam. In other words, despite his nine years as an MP, the Guardians Council rejected A’lami’s candidacy before the 2008 parliamentary elections. Like so many other candidates, this unelected council found that A‘lami was not sufficiently loyal to Islam and the Islamic Republic.

Now, A‘lami has declared his intentions to run for president. It is far from certain that he will be accepted and allowed to run. Yet his case deserves attention since he represents those seeking change within a political system that does not accept or tolerate them – those who are more reformist than ‘the reformists’. Yesterday, A‘lami spoke in the city of Orumiye in Western Iran, and his views were presented.

He began his speech with congratulating the audience with Teachers Week and International Workers Day, and thus praising two segments of the Iranian society who are currently mobilizing protests and are witnessing widespread government repression. A‘lami spoke in Azeri Turkic which is still rather unusual for politicians in Iran. He then went on to criticize “the media boycott” against him, and the fact that both foreign and domestic media only reports on the activities of Ahmadinejad, Musavi, Karrubi and Rezai. He blasted the authorities for preventing him from speaking before public audiences, even in mosques. If the constitution were put into action without discrimination, argued A‘lami, it would lower discontent in the population that once voted for this same political system, which is now repressing them.

A‘lami argued that “freedom, independence and territorial integrity” are three basic elements that cannot be separated: “[No-one], not even The Leader, the President or the Parliament have the right to take away the nation’s legitimate freedoms when introducing a law or even on the excuse of protecting the country’s independence and territorial integrity”, stated A‘lami; indeed, the people should use all “civil methods” to fight for their rights against any authority that tries to take away their rights. Iran belongs to all people, no matter ethnicity and tribal loyalties, race, language, etc., argued A‘lami, and stated that people should be allowed to use “local and ethnic languages” in press, media and in teaching local literatures in public schools alongside the teaching of Persian.

The slogan behind A‘lami is in Azeri and reads something along the lines of “As long as my mother exists – my mother tongue will persevere”

The latter claim is a rather sensitive one in Iran, where Persians are only about half of the population, the other half consisting of various ethnic groups such as Azeris like A‘lami, Kurds, Lur, Arabs, Baluch, Turkmen etc. The question of language – and in particular, the right to teach the mother tongue in ethnic minority areas – has recently become a crucial topic to some ethnically aware Iranians. It is also a topic with which A‘lami, in the position of representative for an Azeri-majority area, has been occupied. A‘lami was outspoken in his defense of the protestors during the Tabriz unrest of 2006, when Azeris poured into the streets to protest a racist cartoon ridiculing Turkic-speakers in a state-run daily – and at the same time, to demand respect for their indigenous culture and language in a country dominated by Persian language. A‘lami even threatened, during an interview, to beat up a journalist who insisted that the unrest was a conspiracy against Iran guided from abroad. In parliament, conservatives blasted A‘lami for his ‘anti-Iranian’ statements.

However, the most sensitive topic of A‘lami’s speech was that of the political system and the role of The Leader. A‘lami stated that erroneous interpretations of this system would endow The Leader with powers well beyond the abilities of one person and well beyond legal prerogatives. A‘lami stated that “as long as power is in the hands of a collection of some 200-300 persons, who have shifted power around amongst themselves since the revolution, and have taken 70 million Iranians as their hostages … change is impossible and the situation is becoming worse day by day”. A‘lami called both “the reformist and conservative gangs” for “a handful of professional policy-players” who are simply hungry for power and will dress up in new clothes anytime in order to cling to this power.

They are all the same, A‘lami argued, and they have all participated in repressing the people and their freedoms. They are monopolists and totalitarians, and they see religion and notions of democracy as mere instruments with which they can gain power. “70 million Iranians are caught in the political games of this power mafia”, A‘lami proclaimed, and with its complete control of the country, it has made people believe that there are no-one more suited for the job than the mafia itself.

Indeed, A‘lami recently posed a crucial question to all candidates for this year’s presidential elections: What would you do if you were faced with a State Decree by Ayatollah Khamene‘i? Would you comply or would you resist it? This question concerns the very problem of being a president of a country which is in effect run by a Leader and a couple of unelected, clerical bodies. A‘lami represents those who still believe in the potential of the Islamic Revolution to bring about justice and freedom, but who will not accept the rules laid out before politicians by unelected political elites, who have been running Iran for the last thirty years.

A‘lami will probably never be allowed to run for president, and he will most certainly not be allowed to become one. Yet, among the candidates, he is so far the bravest and most outspoken critic of the arbitrary political system and the abuse of power so prevalent in Iran today.

New article on ethnic unrest in Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

I would like to draw to your attention my recently published article on ethnic unrest in Iran:

‘State of Mind, State of Order: Reactions to Ethnic Unrest in the Islamic Republic of Iran’ in Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, vol. 8, issue 3, December 2008. Read the abstract here.

The knives of Zanjan

by Rasmus Christian Elling

Ahmadinejad Speech in Zanjan

This speech by Ahmadinejad is interesting for several reasons:

1) It is a classic example of his rhetorical prowess. He uses emphasis and intonation to bring the audience to a frenzy at regular intervals, with girls screaming as if at a pop concert; note his superb mix of traditional politician oratory and occasional references to the audience and his local ‘friends’ in a very laid-back and colloquial fashion; and note his body language, his laughs and his smiles. I’m sorry to say it – but he’s hellova good speaker.

2) This is the first time I’ve seen Ahmadinejad speak in the tongue of a non-Persian ethnic group (he might have done this before though, I’m not sure). Even though we all know he’s an unscrupulous crowd-pleaser, I was still surprised by this: the osulgarâ or neo-conservative faction has always been opposed to the ‘abuse of ethnic sentiments’ for political goals. Indeed, Ahmadinejad and his people have been very critical of what was seen as currying favor with ethnic groups during the Khatami period. Yet here we see Ahmadinejad trying his best Azeri: to one of the men in the crowd he suddenly says “hey Mr. Ghoraqi, what’s that gentleman over there saying?” (this is his usual approach: he asks ‘the people’ directly what they want and what they wish for); and, to the great delight of the audience, he announces that “Hand in hand, we must develop Iran together” – syllable by syllable in Azeri Turkish (albeit with an awful accent).

3) After he talked about how to build and develop Iran, he defended his economic policy of subsidy distribution against those who have called this policy gedâ-parvari [something like ‘pro-beggar’ or ‘beggar-supporting’]. This is actually a specific counterattack on Rafsanjani, who had called Ahmadinejad’s policies exactly that; but it is also a general attack on the elites or ‘those of you with full pockets and stomachs’.

4) He then talks of how one of his ‘friends’, a university professor, had told him about a doctoral student who had given the professor one of the famous Zanjan knives as a present. Ahmadinejad concludes that the Zanjan knife is “at the service of the people: you peel fruit with it, you make food with it, you work in the fields with it – that is, you serve with it. However! The ill-wishers must know this: if they threaten Iran’s rights, the Iranian nation will cut off their feet and hands with the knives of Zanjan!”.