The Anatomy of Iranian Racism: Reflections on the R oot Causes of South Azerbaijan ’s Resistance Movement

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jul 4 16:06:01 UTC 2007

Sunday, July 01, 2007 The Anatomy of Iranian Racism: Reflections on the Root
Causes of South Azerbaijan's Resistance
 by Dr Alireza Asgharzadeh

 In recent days many Azeri towns and cities in Iran have, once again, become
the revolutionary scene of anti-racist and anti-colonial struggle against
Iran's racist and colonial order. The current movement of South Azerbaijan
must be situated right at the heart of issues of racial/ethnic oppression
and internal colonialism in an Iranian context. By avoiding any mention of
the terms 'racism' and 'internal colonialism,' the dominant Persian
discourse has provided a completely upside-down picture of social and ethnic
inequality in the country, masterfully managing to deceive the international
media and progressive anti-racist forces throughout the world. The fact of
the matter is that without taking note of 'racism' and 'colonialism' as
important social facts that do exist in Iranian society, it would be
impossible to provide a comprehensive analysis regarding the current Azeri
movement, along with other similar movements in Kurdistan, Khuzistan,
Baluchistan, Turkman-Sahra, and other regions of the country. Ethnic
pluralism, difference and diversity have always been a defining
characteristic of what is today called 'Iran.' Peoples of various ethnic
origins, such as the ancestors of contemporary Azeri-Turks, Kurds, Baluchs,
Turkomans, Arabs, Lurs, Gilaks, Mazandaranis and others have lived in Iran
for centuries. The history of civilization in what is known today as Iran
goes back over six-thousand years. The available archaeological/linguistic
record indicates that from the very beginning the region was characterized
with extreme ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity. No single ethnic
group has ever constituted a definite numerical majority in the country,
although the Azeri-Turks now have a relatively slight majority with a
population of over 30 million. Up until 1925, the country had been run in
accordance with what one may call a traditional confederative system within
which all ethnic groups enjoyed the freedom to use and develop their
languages, customs, cultures, and identities. With the beginning of the
Pahlavi regime in 1925, the natural trend of ethnic and linguistic plurality
was abruptly stopped, and a process of monoculturalism and monolingualism
started, which continues to date. The aim of this chauvinistic process has
been to present the language, history, culture, and identity of the Persian
minority as the only authentic language, history, culture, and identity of
all Iranians. For over 80 years, the role of the central government in Iran
has been one of denying and dismissing ethnic and linguistic diversity in
the country. Just as the Pahlavi regime focused on annihilation of cultural,
linguistic, and ethnic differences in the country, so too the current
Islamic Republic has continued with the politics of assimilation, exclusion,
and racism. Under the current establishment, gender-based and religion-based
oppressions have also been added to a host of exclusionary and racist
practices left over from the previous regime. The racist politics of the
governing apparatuses have always been accompanied by ideological and
discursive support of the majority of Persian writers, intellectuals and
thinkers who, due to their belonging to the dominant group, have enjoyed the
privileges of monolingualism, monoculturalism, and racism in the country. To
this group must be added the assimilated segment of non-Persian writers and
intellectuals whose passionate support for Persian racism has even surprised
the Persians themselves. In fact, such individuals of Turkic origin as
Mahmood Afshar, Iraj Afshar, Ahmad Kasravi and others have been among the
founding fathers of this ugly racist system. The governing apparatuses, the
dominant elite, and the farstoxicated intelligentsia have come together and
sustained the structural bases of one of the most racist systems in the
contemporary world. This naked racism which feeds on outdated and
discredited Arayanist paradigms and racist theories of the 18-20th centuries
Europe has outlived the Jim Crow segregationist system in America; it has
survived Nazism, European fascism, and the Apartheid regime in South Africa.
In effect, compared to its kind in Germany, Europe, the US, and South
Africa, the Persian racism in Iran represents an amazing success story in
terms of its durability, normalcy, and assimilatory capacity. Below are some
salient characteristics of this dominant racist discourse and praxis:

1. The Belief in the Superiority of 'Aryan' Race Persian racism in Iran
advocates a racist and racialized view of the world where the so-called
'Aryan' race is seen as a superior race. Using the racist ideas of 18-20th
centuries Europe as its theoretical/ideological bases, the dominant group
exploits the country's resources to promote lavishly funded research and
exploration regarding the history and existence of this 'superior Aryan
race' in Iran. On the other hand, serious works challenging the supremacy of
Aryanist historiography not only do not receive any assistance but are not
even allowed publication in Iran. A glaring case in point is the historian
Naser Poorpirar whose recent work on the history of Sasanid dynasty was not
permitted to be published in Iran. According to his personal website (, the author self-published the book in
Singapore and shipped it back to Iran for distribution. Ordinarily one would
expect that a study critically examining the Orientalist construction of
pre-Islamic history of Iran would not encounter any kind of government
censorship in the Islamic Republic. Not so. Works like Poorpirar's are not
allowed publication simply because they interrogate the Aryan/Fars-centric
history of Iran, powerfully exposing its fictional, disingenuous, and
dishonest character.

2. The Belief that Iran Is the Land of Aryans Persian racism openly defines
Iran as the land of these so-called Aryans who are in turn identified with
the dominant Persian group, its language, culture, and identity. Through
this racist process, Farsi becomes the only national/official language and
the Persian culture gets identified as the national culture of all Iranians;
just as Iran's history gets appropriated to the advantage of this so-called
'Aryan' race by excluding, distorting, and erasing the histories, stories,
and narratives of other ethnic groups. This exclusion takes place in
government-sponsored research projects, schoolbooks, university texts,
curriculum, allocation of research funding, etc. In short, under the racist
order in Iran, to be Iranian becomes equated with being Persian. This kind
of racist identification serves to foreignize and otherize those communities
who are not Persian and who do not speak Farsi as their natural mother

3. The Belief in the Purification of Aryan Race of Iran through Language
Drawing on discredited European racist views, the dominant discourse in Iran
equates language with race and tries to fabricate Indo-European language
ties for non-Farsi speaking peoples such as the Azeri-Turks in an attempt to
show that over a thousand years ago they spoke an Indo-European language and
are therefore Aryan. As such, they should cleanse themselves of their
inferior linguistic/ethnic/cultural identity and become one with 'the
superior Aryan race' by speaking the language of this race: Farsi. This kind
of racist reconstruction of prehistoric (imaginary) languages essentializes
race-based and language-based identities and prioritizes them based on a
fabricated history of origins, arrivals, etc., giving rise to the absurd
idea about who has come earlier than whom, who has come first, who has come
second, who has come last, whose language was spoken earlier than the
others; and who, as a result, should have mastery over others. These kinds
of non-sensical absurdities serve to create unnecessary competitions among
various ethnic/national groups which lead to animosity, mistrust and lack of
cooperation among them, while leaving them vulnerable to be colonized and
assimilated by the dominant racist order. The Iranian racist order openly
proscribes non-Farsi languages in the country, banning them from becoming
languages of education, instruction, learning, correspondence, and
governance. By banning non-Farsi languages, the dominant group violates
minoritized communities' identities; subjugates their minds, and brutalizes
their spirits. It supplants the indigenous names of geographical landmarks,
cities, towns, villages, and streets; appropriates ancient heroes,
historical figures, literary figures, scientists, movie stars, popular
singers, dancers, and artists belonging to the marginalized communities. It
prevents non-Farsi speaking communities from naming their children as they
wish, using their own indigenous languages, cultures, names, words, signs,
and symbols, forcing them instead to use names and symbols approved by the
dominant discourse and praxis.

4. The Practice of Anachronism in Interpreting Works of History, Religion,
and Literature Using an anachronistic method of analysis, the hegemonic
discourse in Iran offers purely racist and racialized interpretations of
history, historical events, and classical texts such as the Avesta and the
Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. It interprets these ancient texts in accordance with
modern racist theories and notions which were not in existence at the time
these texts were written. The anachronistic reading of these texts becomes
central to the maintenance of racist order in Iran in that such a reading
legitimates the ownership of the country by a single race, just as it
privileges a single language, history, culture, and identity. Anachronism
gives a historical justification for contemporary oppressions, exclusions,
and annihilations in Iran.

5. The Belief in Essentialism and an Essentialist notion of Iranian-ness The
dominant order in Iran promotes an essentialist notion of identity based on
race and language. Instead of viewing identities as shifting, non-fixed and
fluid categories, the Iranian racist order assigns fixed identities to
individuals and communities based on their degree of 'Iranian-ness'
(Iraniyyat). Under this essentialist and essentializing mentality, those
speaking an Indo-European language are considered to be in possession of
authentic Iranic identity and hence 'more Iranian' than those speaking a
Semite or Turkic language. The dominant order plays the race card to create
hostilities among marginalized communities, seeking to prevent the formation
of any semblance of solidarity among them. By identifying some of them as
'true Iranians,' 'real Aryans,' and 'the authentic owners of Iran,' it
engenders a policy of divide and conquer, while sowing the seeds of mistrust
and animosity among different ethnic groups. At the same time, it prevents a
sensible census from taking place based on ethnicity and language, fearing
that an ethnic-based and language-based census would reveal the true size
and number of both Persian and non-Persian communities in the country. Just
as such racist notions as 'the true owners of Iran,' 'the real Aryans,' and
similar mumbo-jumbo are emphasized to an inflated and inflammatory degree;
so too the real issues and concerns such as the need for 'conducting of an
ethnicity/language based national census,' 'opening of ethnic studies
departments in the universities,' and 'researching ethnic groups and ethnic
relations in the country' are de-emphasized, degraded, and dismissed.

6. The Belief in the Systematic Practice of Racism The Iranian racist order
uses the coercive force of governing organs to marginalize, criminalize, and
punish the activists advocating the cause of minoritized communities,
labeling them as traitors, secessionists, agents of foreign governments,
etc. During the cold war period, it was customary to label anti-racist
activists as communists and KGB agents. Nowadays such activists are labeled
as agents of CIA, Israel, Zionism, Turkey, and even the Republic of
Azerbaijan. Through such practices, the dominant order refuses the
legitimate demands of minoritized communities for equal treatment, justice,
and fairness. It brutally suppresses any ethnic-based and language-based
activity, forcefully denying and condemning the right for self-determination
of various nationalities. On the economic front, the government channels the
country's resources to building infrastructure, factories, and development
projects in Persian populated cities such as Isfahan, Shirza, Yazd, and
Kerman, while the non-Persian regions of Kurdistan, Baluchistan, Azerbaijan,
and other areas more and more plunge in poverty and deprivation. Resistance
to the Racist Order Thus, it is in this anti-racist, anti-colonial context
that the current South Azerbaijani movement and the movement of other
minoritized communities must be approached. It is under a racist and
colonial condition that sites such as history, historiography, language,
literature, and the education system have become main arenas where the
battle for domination and subjugation of the marginalized Other is waged.
The dominant group uses these privileged sites to maintain its oppressive
power base; to legitimate its dominance and privileged status, and to
justify its oppression. Simultaneously, the marginalized uses these very
sites to question, challenge, combat, and eventually subvert the oppressive
dominant order. For instance, in the linguistic battleground, the dominant
bans the minoritized languages and uses its language to supplant them. The
marginalized, on the other hand, seeks to reclaim and revitalize her/his
excluded indigenous language so that s/he is empowered to self-express,
self-identify, and self-determine. Just as the dominant uses history to deny
a historical legitimacy to the marginalized Other, so too the marginalized
uses her/his own version of history to reject and repudiate the history
which is constructed for her/him by the dominant. The dominant uses the
education system to enforce its assimilatory and racist policies. The
marginalized redefines the purpose of education and schooling to bring about
inclusivity, equity, equality and fairness for all. While the marginalized
uses all in its power to fight racism and oppression, it is important to
realize that her/his battle is an uphill struggle in which s/he has very
little access to strategic sites such as history, literature, language, and
the education system. These are the sites that have detrimental impacts on
the outcome of the battle between the colonizer and the colonized. And these
sites are controlled for the most part by the dominant. If the dominant is
left to its devices, there is little chance that the marginalized will
eventually eliminate the bases of colonialism, oppression, and racism. As
such, it is imperative that progressive forces everywhere take note of these
anti-colonial, antiracist struggles and support them in any way they can.
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