Iran's Ethnic Azeris And The Language Question
Call it discrimination or even chauvinism: Millions
of Iran's ethnic Azeris have no right of education in their mother tongue. But,
surprisingly, it appears the majority of them don't care much about this
A man holds a placard that reads in Azeri, "Everyone must have school in [their]
mother tongue," as Iranian Azeris attend a rally for International Mother
Language Day. (file photo)
Over the last two months, I have interviewed more than 80 people, mostly from
Tabriz, Ardabil, Khoy, and Tehran. The people I spoke to worked in bazaars or as
nurses, as government employees and housewives, computer traders, lawyers,
students, medical doctors, and laborers. But I found only five who said they
were very interested in seeing education in Azeri Turkish in Iranian Azeri
Most of the others were uninterested and didn't view it as a priority. Some
supported the idea in principle but said that it could lead to elevated social
tensions. Some suggested Azeri Turkish could be offered as an optional course of
two or so hours per week, although they suspected most parents wouldn't send
their kids to those courses for fear it would weaken their acquisition of
Persian. A smaller group even opposed the idea outright.
Whenever the subject of "Iranian Azeris" -- those who speak Azeri Turkish as
their native language -- comes up, there are disputes about how many people we
are talking about. Iranian censuses don't include data about native languages,
so no one can say for certain how many Azeris live in the country. Officially,
the population of the four Azeri-inhabited provinces (Eastern and Western
Azerbaijan, Ardabil, and Zanjan) is about 10 million. A few million more ethnic
Azeris live in Gilan and Khorasan provinces, as well as in Tehran and other
urban centers. The total is probably about 15 million.
Azeri-inhabited region of Iran
No Schooling In Azeri Turkish
At home and in their communities, these people speak Azeri Turkish. But the
spoken language is strongly influenced by Persian in terms of lexicon,
pronunciation, and even sentence structure. This is especially true of the
language spoken among the more highly educated portion of the population. The
basic language is "more Turkish" ("Turki" or "Torki," as we say in Iran), while
the more you want to talk about complex or contemporary topics, the stronger
Persian's influence becomes.
Written communication is carried out almost
exclusively in Persian. Only a tiny minority tends to write in Azeri Turkish --
and most of them do so with a conscious ethnic awareness or political
motivation. But their written language is heavily influenced by either the
official Azeri of the South Caucasus country of Azerbaijan or by the Turkish
spoken in Turkey. There is no standardization of the written language used by
Iranian Azeris, and the result is that using the written language often produces
alienation from the majority of their fellow Azeri Turks.
Iran's Azeris have played and
continue to play an active role in the country's development, politics,
economy, and culture -- on a par with their Persian-speaking
compatriots. The only difference they feel is language.
There is one major reason for this situation: There has been no schooling or
other education in Azeri Turkish in Iran for the last 90 years (with the
exception of 1945-46, when the Soviet imposed Pishavari government allowed it).
This situation remained unchanged after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran's
current constitution says the country's "official and educational language is
Persian, but the languages of other ethnic groups may also be used." This
article, however, has never been applied.
Prior to the 1920s, there was no centralized government in Iran. There was no
central army, no clear borders, no state educations system, and, of course, no
"official language." Students in traditional religious schools learned in
Persian and Arabic for the most part, but there was no ban on education in Azeri
Turkish. During the centuries of the ethnic Azeri dynasties in Iran -- from the
Safavids in the 16th century through the Qajars from 1794 until 1925 -- Persian
was promoted as the language of government and literature, Arabic was used for
religious culture, and Azeri Turkish was spoken privately in the court of the
shah and among all Iranian Azeris.
The establishment of a central and modernizing government by Reza Shah Pahlavi
beginning in 1925 also brought the promotion of a "national culture" based on an
official state language -- Persian. All other languages were banned from
official use and from the educational sphere (Arabic remained in the
"unofficial" sphere of the clergy, who had been deprived of their legal status
and political authority).
Modernization also saw a surge of migration of ethnic Azeris to Tehran and other
major cities. There, communication in Persian was a key to social progress,
contributing to the assimilation of Iranian Azeris into the larger national
culture based on Persian. It also led to the deepening of the influence of
Persian on spoken Azeri Turkish.
Iran's Azeris have never felt like aliens in the country they have lived in for
thousands of years. They are as proud of Iran's achievements and as distressed
by its shortcomings as any other Iranians are. They have played and continue to
play an active role in the country's development, politics, economy, and culture
-- on a par with their Persian-speaking compatriots. The only difference they
feel is language.
Despite the discrimination against their language, Iranian Azeris have
compelling reasons for feeling fully Iranian. For one thing, Iranian-Azeri
dynasties ruled the country for centuries and did much to uphold the nation's
existence and unity. Having been in Iran for thousands of years, Iran's Azeris
have never felt like a minority or newly arrived people.
In the 16th century, the ethnic-Azeri Safavid
dynasty restored Iran's unity after the destruction and chaos of the Mongol
invasion. They introduced Shi'ite Islam as the country's state religion, a key
part of the country's emerging national identity.
Iran's opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi is an ethnic Azeri
In the first part of the 20th century, ethnic Azeris led the Constitutional
Revolution against the despotism of the (ethnic Azeri) Qajar regime and the
imperialism of Russia and Great Britain.
Religion also plays a key factor in uniting ethnic Azeris with other Iranians.
Sharing the Shi'ite confession of Islam with their Persian compatriots means
that Iranian Azeris have felt closer to them than to Sunni Turks or other
peoples beyond Iran's borders. The Iranian Azeri opposition to Islamic republic
founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was led by Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari
from Tabriz and was not based on ethnicity but on his insistence of the need to
separate religion and the state.
Unfavorable Starting Point
Some scholars have argued that since the 1920s, Iran has built a sort of
meritocracy that allows social progress for any citizen who accepts the national
language and culture of a united Iran without regard to ethnicity. This is true,
but only partially. Sunni Muslims and some recognized non-Muslim communities
hold a few seats in Iran's parliament. These communities can generally live in
peace as long as they abide by some politically and religiously discriminatory
restrictions. For instance, no Suni Kurd or Armenian Christian could become a
As Shi'a, Iran's Azeris do not face such restrictions. Both Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi are ethnic
Azeris. However, it cannot be denied that because Persian is not their native
language, Iranian Azeris begin from an unfavorable starting point with regard to
education and social mobility.
Nonetheless, as my interviews with Iranian Azeris show, they have largely
adapted to this injustice and are not much exercised by the language question.
But this could change if demands for liberalization and increased individual
liberties continue to mount in Iranian society.
As Touraj Atabaki of the University of Amsterdam argues: "The fate of Iran's
ethnic compositions and territorial integrity may depend, more than any other
factor, on the introduction of reforms in the country's political structure to
secure individual as well as collective rights in a nondiscriminatory inclusion
and access to economic opportunities, political participation or cultural
status, including language recognition, either on an individual basis or through
some pattern of group proportionality. Or else, nothing is eternal."
Abbas Djavadi is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views
expressed in this commentary -- which is based on a speech presented at a
conference in Istanbul organized by the German Orient-Institut and Turkey's
Bilkent University on June 5-6, 2010 -- are the author's own and do not
necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Copyright (c) 2010 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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