Over the next few months, Ajam Media Collective will host a series that focuses on and describes various elements of the cultural, ethnic and linguistic mosaic that we refer to collectively as Iran. This is Part 1 in that series.
I am often confronted by the question “Are you Iranian or Persian, and what’s the difference?” and it has become something of a bonding ritual among Iranians I know to discuss the various ways in which we answer that question. For many years, I answered that there existed little difference between the two besides a political connotation, “Persian” being the adjective of choice for those who avoided any connection to the Islamic Republic. Noted Iranian comedian Maz Jobrani, similarly, points to the historically alluring and exotic sound of “Persian,” as well as its connection to [Persian] cats and rugs, in order to explain why many people prefer to use this word instead of “Iranian.”
This worked pretty well for me until the day I met a young Iranian-American of mixed Azeri-Bakhtiari Iranian heritage. While flippantly describing us jointly as “Persian,” I was pointedly informed that besides the language she spoke and a mainstream Iranian culture we shared, there was not much “Persian” about her. I had been describing myself and other Iranian-Americans I knew as Persian not merely because it was convenient, but in fact because we were Iranians of Persian ethnicity. And this was the day I found out that Iran is not, in fact, a wholly “Persian” country, contrary to popular belief and the continued insistence of many Iranians.
In fact, Persians- here defined as those whose mother tongue is Persian and identify themselves as such- make up about 49% of Iran’s population, the rest being composed of Azeris, Arabs, Balochis, Kurds, Gilanis, Mazanderanis, Loris, Qashqais, Bakhtiaris, Armenians and a whole host of other ethnic groups who collectively identify as Iranians and speak the Persian language but but whose ethnic identity is other than Persian. In addition to these ethnic and linguistic minorities, there exists a host of religious minorities- Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews, Bahais, Zoroastrians, etc- who also fit across the ethnic mosaic described above, some identifying as Persians and others not.
On some level, I had always known Iran was not a “Persian” country. I grew up hearing jokes about “Turks”- meaning Iranians of Azeri extraction, sometimes called “Azeri Turks” because of their cultural and linguistic affinities to Turkey- and noticed that I could not always understand languages I heard spoken on Tehran streets. And yet, despite this, every journalist and every Iranian I knew insisted Iranians were Persians, in the process denying the existence of 51% of Iran’s population.
The injustice and absurdity of this denial finds its roots not just in ignorance but in the prevalent and virulent brand Persian racism rooted in mid-20th century Iranian nationalism that sought to wipe out our country’s ethnic diversity.The development of nation states around the world over the last two centuries has been accompanied by violent attempts to overlook or erase national diversity within the boundaries of the state. The natural diversity of human culture has been manipulated and condemned by state leaders and by politicians seeking re-election, narrowing the limits of belonging and attempting to draw lines to distinguish those who are a part of “us” and those who are “not.”
In countries like France this process has involved the development of a school system that brutally forced children with linguistic and cultural backgrounds other than proper [Parisian] French to assimilate and forget their languages or dialects; often, this was achieved by beating students who spoke their mother tongue at school and teaching them that it was worthless (history of French linguistic nationalism here). In places like Germany, meanwhile, territorial expansion into areas inhabited by German-speakers combined with physical extermination was used to rid the nation of religious minorities (like Jews and Catholics) and cultural minorities (like the Roma and Sinti) who seemed impossible to assimilate while uniting geographically disparate ethnic German communities (overview of those policies here).
The creation of nation states outside of Europe, a process facilitated through both colonialism as well as resistance to it, spread the development of exclusivist national projects globally. Iran has been no stranger to this process; indeed, the development of an Iranian national identity, under both the Pahlavi regime and the Islamic Republic, has involved controlling and marginalizing those who do not fit correctly within the normative construction of what it is to be “Iranian.”
The Pahlavi regime’s definition of Iranianness finds its roots in the construction of an exclusivist Iranian identity in the 1920’s and 30’s. The increasingly centralized and authoritarian state of Reza Shah Pahlavi sought to eliminate linguistic and cultural diversity by crafting a narrative of Persian Iranian history that went back nearly 2500 years that was united by the determination of the Persian people. This was of course an artificial history, just as nationalisms always are- both the Qajar and Safavid dynasties preceding the Pahlavi were Azeri Turkish, for example, and historically it was not ethnicity but ethnically neutral imperialism and the use of Persian language as a lingua franca that had brought together the incredibly diverse peoples populating the lands under control of the “Persian Empire.”
Reza Shah took his cue from the nationalist ideological currents sweeping Europe and Turkey, where colonial scholarship had long equated language with ethnicity as part of the efforts to understand the success of certain nation-states as compared to others. Aryanism was one of the most influential of these ideologies, and it identified the Indo-European language tree (which includes Sanskrit, Persian, and most European languages) as proof of a migration of an imagined Aryan nation out of India, through Persia, and into Europe. Aryanism was highly convenient for Europeans because it made sense of the Indian and Persian civilizations they were encountering through their colonial enterprises.
According to this theory, Europe represented the pinnacle of the racial hierarchy while Indian and Persian civilizations were mere steps on the way to contemporary greatness. Additionally, it distanced Europeans from the Semitic languages of the Jews and Arabs, offering a pseudo-scientific rationale for both racialist anti-Semitism and Orientalism.
Pleased to be offered a position just below his European masters on the ladder of civilizations, Reza Shah declared Iran a nation of “Aryans.” He subsequently banned the use of languages other than Persian in schools and written media more broadly. We all became Persian, and other languages became mere dialects not suitable for official use (especially non-Indo European tongues like Azeri Turkish and Semitic Arabic, but also Indo-European Kurdish).
On one hand, this form of nationalism allowed religious minorities that consider themselves Persians- like most Jews, Bahais, and atheists- to be a part of normative Iranianness, because being Iranian was defined by how Persian you are and thus offered a secular national identity for those 10% of Iranians who were not Shia to be a part of. On the other hand, however, this came at the expense of the 49% of Iranians who now had to either lose their heritage or exist silently at the margins.
Although his co-option of ancient Persian and Zoroastrian symbols in order to describe his rule was anachronistic and repulsive to some Iranians- many of whom scoffed at his references to Cyrus the Great and divine rule by using terms like, “universal ruler,” Shahanshah (“King of Kings”), and Aryamehr, (“light of the Aryans”) to describe himself- most Iranians eventually bought these racialist myths of Iranian-ness and the narrative became naturalized.
Even today it’s not uncommon to hear Iranians describe themselves as Aryans, usually when emphasizing their non-Arabness to white people and linking themselves to Europe (“Really, we are Aryans, our language is more similar to German than Arabic!”). Of course, these attempts are often received with awkward horror, the term “Aryan” having fallen out of usage following Adolf Hitler’s unfortunate decision to wholeheartedly adopt the Aryan theory as a rationale for genocide.
The Islamic Revolution of 1979 dramatically shifted these meanings of Iranianness. Secular Persianness was replaced with religious Shianess; in the course of just a few years, the official way to be Iranian was by being an observant Shia Muslim and thus lost a great deal of its association with ethnic Persianness.
In contrast to Pahlavi Iranianness which excluded non-Persians, under the Islamic Republic all Shia Muslims regardless of ethnicity could be normative Iranian citizens, meaning that 90% of Iranians could potentially fit the new Iranian national identity.
However, religious minorities- including those who considered themselves Persian, like most Jews and Bahais- were no longer part of mainstream Iranianness, and secular or non-observant people of Shia Muslim background found themselves marginalized as well.
The Islamic Republic dealt with these in different ways: while seculars were to be forcibly assimilated as much as possible, Jews (and other non-Persian religious minorities, like Christians and Sunni Muslims) were to be respected as citizens with equal rights but slightly different status.
President Ahmedinejad speaking Azeri to a crowd of Azeri Iranian supporters
Languages other than Persian rapidly entered the public sphere and print use of other languages was legalized. Despite this, the ethno-supremacist version of Persian-Iranian nationalism did not disappear overnight; even as ethnic minorities like Mir Hossein Mousavi (Azeri), Mehdi Karroubi (Lori), and Ayatollah Khamenei (Azeri) reached top political and religious posts, the war against (mostly Arab) Iraq ensured the longevity of Persian nationalism in the face of a virulently anti-Persian foe.
Persian ethnocentrism has remained an influential part of public discourse within Iran, and many Iranians outside of Iran as well cling to notions of Aryanism and Persianism deeply antithetical to an inclusive, egalitarian democratic future. In popular discourse these representations are rife, as the youtube videos above provide evidence of. Alireza Asgharzadeh’s book, “Iran and the Challenge of Diversity: Islamic Fundamentalism, Aryanist Racism, and Democratic Struggles,” tackles this discourse in depth, albeit with numerous methodological flaws (a shorter interview of his can be found here, while an extensive rebuttal to a number of his arguments and sources can be found here).
The 2006 riots in Iranian Azerbaijan highlighted the persistence of this racist discourse- and its linguistic roots- in public discourse. In May of that year a satirical cartoon was published depicted a boy speaking to a cockroach in Persian as the cockroach responded “What?” in Azeri.
An accompanying article pointed to the inability of cockroaches to understand reason and to the incomprehensibility and silliness of their own language, a provocation that led to riots across the majority-Azeri areas of Iran and left four dead. The cartoonist, an ethnic Azeri himself, was subsequently arrested and the newspaper shut down, but it can be surmised from the timing that the state’s reaction was to prevent more rioting, not tackle the prejudice at the heart of the issue.
In our struggle as Iranians both in Iran and the diaspora to develop a national identity that is religiously inclusive, we must not simultaneously build one that is ethnically and linguistically exclusive. Crafting an inclusive national identity by recognizing the historical marginalization and silencing of Iran’s minority languages must be a crucial part of our national struggle for freedom and equality.
Indeed, in a world full of exclusivist nation states and ethnic cleansings with the goal of “purifying” and homogenizing populations, Iran’s diversity stands out. We are a nation united not by ethnicity nor religion but by history and a shared, rich, diverse national culture.