Wednesday, 21 April 2010


Azeri identity and Iranian nationalism: Azeri activists and intellectuals address the Green Movement

  • Wednesday, 21 April 2010
  • Fouad GM
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  • Iranian nationalism, since its inception, always hit against the hard rock of ethnic identities within the borders of both imperial and modern Iran. Azeri, Turkish and Turkic identities in Iran are perhaps the biggest debate in Iran vis-à-vis Iranian nationalism - perhaps owing to the mere number of Azeris, Turks and Turkomen in modern Iran. However, numbers and demography aren't the only challenge. The existence of social networks and transnational ethnic narratives, worldviews and mythologies in neighbouring Turkey and post-Soviet Azerbaijan challenge Iranian nationalism within the Azeri and Turkish communities in Iran. Iranian nationalism is often accused of being an exclusive nationalist project which only develops in contrast and against other identities and nationalisms - be it Arab, Turkish or Sunni.

    Interestingly, this ever-lasting debate over Iranian nationalism and transnational ethnic and religious identities finds fertile ground in almost every political, social or even cultural opportunity. The outbreak of the so-called "Green Revolution" and the emergence of a vocal "Green Movement" is no exception. Although both Moussavi, the figurehead of the Green Movement, and the supreme leader of the Iranian revolution, Ali Khamenaei are both ethnic Azeris, the question of ethnic identities vis-à-vis exclusive Iranian nationalism has once again risen.

    The Tehran Bureau published a translation of a message directed to the Green Movement by a group of Azeri activists and intellectuals. In their message, they claim that "although this new, rising [Green] movement has been able to take advantage of means such as the Internet and satellites to introduce itself to the world at large, it has not been able to establish itself as a nationwide movement inside Iran. Thus, so far, the burden of this movement has fallen on the backs of the urban middle class in central Iran."

    Amongst their grievances, Azeri activists and intellectuals pointed out the shortcomings of the Green Movement in its call for freedom of expression and the free flow of information while remaining silent about "the freedom to speak one's language" - in reference to the enforcement of Farsi as the one and only official language of all educational, media and administrative language in Iran disregarding its sizeable Turkish population.

    Another interesting point to which Azeri activists and intellectuals draw attention is "the use of a literature promoting ancient [Persia] and totalitarianism, a literature rooted in tendencies opposed to human rights and democracy" (I can already see the angry comments about this very point coming from tens of totalitarian, isolationist and "half-brained" people who will express outrage at this arguing that it was ancient Persia's Darius who introduced the notion of human rights to humanity!)

    The statement concludes expressing its welcoming stance towards the Green Movement while expressing disdain and disappointment in its failure to address the question of minorities' rights. For them, the recognition of the existence of a non-Persian cultural component in Iran and its constitutionalisation is instrumental in any reform process in Iran.

    Also noteworthy, the statement calls for the "safeguarding [of] the participation of Iranian nationalities in the central government, commensurate with their population size." Are Iranian Azeri activists and intellectuals calling for a Lebanonisation of the Iranian regime? Are they finding Azeri national interest in a quota system in which the state, the military and civil service are divided into quotas divided amongst the various ethnic communities?

    Has the Islamic regime failed to include non-Persian nationalities as its predecessors had done? Has the resurgence of Iranian nationalism in its post-1979 religious garb failed to curb exclusive and chauvinist tendencies in imperial Pahlavi Iranian-ness?

    Readers' comments on the Tehran bureau translation of the statement can perhaps indicate what many Internet-using Iranians in Iran and in the Iranian diaspora think about some of these questions.

    The statement originally appeared in Farsi.

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