Minorities and the State in Iran: a tense relationship

Analysis, posted 05.14.2011, from Iran, in:

Viewed from a historical perspective, Iran has been a multi-ethnic nation with a huge variety of languages since the time of the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC). For most of the intervening period, Persian has been the official language. This was even the case at the court of the Turkish-speaking rulers who governed Iran for some 800 years.

Both attempts by Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-41) and Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1941-79) to force the Persian language on all ethnic and linguistic minorities and other forms of discrimination pushed the ethnic question further into the foreground.

This even resulted in the formation of two independent governments in two provinces in 1945: the People's Republic of Kurdistan Mahabad and the Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan, both of which were dismantled within a year.

"Iranian nationalism" vs "Islamic umma"

The spiritual leaders who assumed political offices in the Islamic Republic regarded "Iranian nationalism" as un-Islamic and replaced the idea with the religious concept of the "Islamic umma", the community of all believers.

However, they were forced to allow a revival of "Iranian nationalism" when Iran came under attack from Iraq. Over the past two decades they have further fuelled Iranian nationalism to garner public support for their nuclear programme. By continually emphasising the concept of an "Islamic Iran", they are attempting to rob this nationalism of its ethnic complexion.

The ideology of the Islamic Republic is built upon two contradictory concepts: that of the "people" (mellat) and that of the "umma". The non-religious concept of the "people" is rooted in the collective Iranian memory by nationalism and racist claims of superiority and associated with the notion of "Aryan origin".

The religious concept of "umma" is based on the dissolution of differences of ethnicity, origin and language and regards all Muslims as citizens of an Islamic state. The nation dissolves into the united "umma".

The concept of the Islamic "umma" is, in the definition of the spiritual rulers of Iran, restricted to Shia Muslims, who form the majority there and increasingly discriminate against other religious communities, such as the Sunnis, who are in the minority in Iran.

Manifold forms of discrimination

Most ethnic and linguistic minorities, with the exception of the Turkish-speaking population, are Sunnis. This is why religious discrimination is linked to ethnic and linguistic discrimination...

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Faraj Sarkohi

Faraj Sarkohi founded the arts magazine Adineh (Friday) in 1985, and served as its editor-in-chief for 11 years. He was arrested in 1996 as one of the spokesmen of the writers' initiative ("Declaration of 134 Iranian writers") against censorship. A year later, he was sentenced to death at a secret trial. The judgement was however later revised following international protests. Two years later, he left Iran for Frankfurt, where he now lives. In 1998, Sarkuhi received the Kurt Tucholsky Prize for politically persecuted writers, and is honorary member of the PEN Centre in Germany.

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de