Restricting Iran's Second Mother Tongue
By Abbas Djavadi
February 21 was
International Mother Language Day and I thought of my own
mother language, Azeri Turkish.
Azeri language graffiti in Ardabil, Iran
Azeri Turkish is not one of the 3,500 or more endangered languages spoken by
small communities which
UNESCO calls on the public to protect.
But it's spoken in Iran by 15-20 million people (out of a 66 million population)
plus by 8 million people in Azerbaijan, where it's the state language. It's a
Turkic language, similar to Turkish, and distinct from Persian, Iran's state
In Iran, nobody forbids us from speaking Azeri Turkish at home or on the street.
Even in the mosques of Azeri-populated Iranian provinces (Eastern and Western
Azerbaijan, Ardabil, Zanjan), mullahs pray in Azeri Turkish.
But ever since the centralization of the state and education in the 1920s,
Iran's ethnic Azeris can barely read or write in Azeri Turkish because there's
no education in their own, mother tongue.
There is not one Azeri-Turkish school in the whole country, university
institute, nor even a course teaching the language. An Azeri-speaking citizen
talks in his native tongue to his family and friends, but writes letters to the
same people in Persian because he or she doesn't know how to write in standard
Azeri Turkish is gradually becoming socially irrelevant. Practically banned from
official written form, it has been infiltrated by local and societal dialects
and slang and Persian's overwhelming vocabulary and sentence structure.
It has always been this way, under the shah and now under the current regime --
and the reasons are partially understandable.
The language issue has been politically misused at least once in our history. In
1945, when Soviet troops occupied northern Iran, a pro-Soviet autonomous
government was established in Tabriz, the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan, which
ultimately led to a de facto separation of Iran's Azeri Turkish-speaking regions
from the central government in Tehran.
The main complaint -- and many say "pretext" -- raised by that government was
the discrimination against the Azeri Turkish language.
That government fell after Soviet troops were forced to leave Iran. Since then,
anyone demanding language rights for Azeri Turkish in Iran was referred to
The same concerns and restrictions still remain today, with the Iranian
authorities suspicious that "enemies" would use ethnic rights to sew animosity
Most recently, a group of prominent writers, including Ali Reza Sarrafi, has
been arrested simply for publishing and promoting works in the Azeri language.
Shahnaz Gholami, a prominent blogger and human rights activist, was imprisoned
because she has been demanding the right for education in Azeri Turkish. Both
Sarrafi and Gholami were charged with "acting against the national security of
the Islamic Republic and its territorial integrity."
The problem is that, as many have argued, restricting people's ethnic and
linguistic rights can actually weaken social unity and end up provoking
Which feelings could those "enemies" manipulate more effectively? The feeling
that you have been deprived of your mother language or the feeling that you
share the same linguistic rights as the majority?
For neighboring Turkey, it took 30 years of terror and fighting against the
Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) to even acknowledge the existence of a large
Ethnic and linguistic minorities are better off in Iran than in Turkey. But
let's hope Iran won't need Turkey's bitter experience to learn what is in its
own best interests.
Copyright (c) 2009 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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