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November 05, 2003

Ethnic Minorities in Iran
Kaveh Khodjasteh  [info|posts]

diverse.jpg Although I do not come from a visible ethnic minority in Iran but the ethnic diversity of Iranians always fascinated me.

The Iranian plateau was home and battleground to many nations in the past. Since the invasion of the Indo-European tribes until the Armenian migrations and in fact up to now, Iran has always been the land of many ethnicities. Sadly many of these old ethnicities have lost most of their characteristics (language, looks and customs) as Iran has emerged as a modern nation state.

The above statement however should be contrasted with the fact that besides Israel, Iran is the most ethnically diverse country in the middle east and possibly among the most diverse in the world [The diversity index of Iran is estimated at 0.71, where index 0.0 refers to a uniform ethnic background and 1.0 refers to an equally mixed ethnic background, this index is 0.35 for the US]. Besides the official language of Farsi (Western Persian, the mother tongue of about 20-30 million or maybe less), the current spoken languages include Arabic (different dialects in Khuzestan and the Islands of the Persian Gulf), Kurdish, Luri, Armenian, Assyrian, Azeri (or Turkish), Baloochi, Gilaki, Mazendarani, Qashqa'i and Turkmen.

The genetic pool of the Iranian population is also very diverse in terms of races which is paralleled by the religious diversity. The list includes Shi'ite Islam (official), Sunni Islam, Christian, Baha'i, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism.

As refreshing as these facts might be about Iran, a disturbing fact is that for the last 50 years, almost nothing has been done to preserve the identities of these ethnicities. [In a manner similar to almost any country] speakers of different accents and dialects have been the usual victims of verbal jokes and their language and heritage is not treated as anything more than a disturbance in the sea of the glorious Persian-Shi'ite culture. The very idea that there is a Persian identity that supersedes all ethnic minorities in Iran, was once fashionable during the Pahlavi's but is probably no more with the current explosive situation among the ethnicities in the middle east.

What is somehow frightening is the systematic incoherent stances of the Iranian foreign policy in various regional ethnic conflicts: they prefer Turks to Kurds in Turkey and prefer Kurds to Arabs in Iraq; in Chechnya they prefer Russians to Muslim Chechens; they like Armenians against Azerbaijanis; in Afghanistan where they displayed a complete state of "don't know who they are" when the Pashtun Taliban came to power.

However difficult the thread of foreign policy of the Middle East might be to follow, the ethnic minorities in Iran still have a right to preserve their language and cultural heritage. The fact that the Persian language survived the invasion of Arabs 1400 years ago has much to do with the fact that Persian was transliterated into Arabic characters (the language of Qur’an and thus considered sacred at the time) and was saved because it could formally be taught.

An equal place for the ethnic minorities will be one of the bases of the Iranian civil society in future. In a way, ethnic and religious minorities, women, children and other traditionally repressed social categories should all find their place in such a civil society in which culture, freedom and self-rule of people shall flourish.

[Such a romantic and glorious conclusion... ]

Senior Grad at November 5, 2003 12:25 PM [permalink]:

My quick $.02:

I agree that the awareness about different ethnic minorties in Iran should be promoted (I'm not an expert really, but I presume there is ample room for research about each ethnic group's folklore, including their languages) and such diversity has got to be celebrated (why, let me wonder here, the exotic dialects of different Iranian cities are used *only* for humorous purposes? Why should there be a "standard" accent, and those who don't speak with that accent are considered inferior?! I loved "Majid's Stories" series shown on IRIB because the characters unabashedly spoke with their Isfahani accent), but I guess the reason Iranian governments have feared such diversity is obvious: escalation of ethnocentric conflicts (We're better than you because we're this and you're that!) which may lead to disintegration of Iran as a nation state.

summer at November 5, 2003 01:40 PM [permalink]:

Senior Grad,
Every country with diverse accents in my opinion should (and most of them do) have a standard dialect for obvious reasons, and this is the language that almost all educated people talk in. That's actually one of the glues that keep the nation together as a whole. There is really nothing wrong with that.

Ali Zuashkiani at November 5, 2003 01:58 PM [permalink]:

Iran stances on regional ethnic conflicts not only seem coherent but also seem to be more rational than many other countries. Iran has supported the integrity of her neighbors most of the times. This is true about Chechen where Islamic groups are trying to gain independence, Turkey where Kurds are doing the same, Afghanistan where the Taliban tried to over throw the legitimate government of country, Bosnia, Tajikistan and etc. There are two exceptions here which are Hezboallah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.

WhoMan at November 5, 2003 02:20 PM [permalink]:

It is funny that I am coming from another discussion where I used "Iranian plateau" (an expression I'd never heard for quite a while) to the same expression.

In Iran we don't have visible minorities as minorities do not visibly look very different except for some exceptions ;)

Kaveh Kh. at November 5, 2003 03:06 PM [permalink]:

exceptio exceptii exceptia!
[Exception of exceptions is exceptional, broken Latin, I know]

Ordak D. Coward at November 5, 2003 04:19 PM [permalink]:

There is nothing wrong with having a preferred dialect that most people in the country understand. The problem is when one dialect or language or usage of words is FORCED. Another issue to understand is that dialects do not exist by themselves, and they are the result of a evolutionary process of refining the language and the dialects. Based on this view, standard dialects are merely a fabrication, and can never exist without circumventing the natural evolution of a language. In fact, if you try to observe the spread of dialects, only the media has the power to naturally spread a dialect among people.

IMHO, any glue that binds a country as a nation-state shall make each citizen of the country proud of being a member of the nation-state. Discredting people based on discrimination is not going to make them proud. Any kind of discrimniatio is going to alienate some people, while strengthening others. It is wiser not to alienate many of your countrymen.

In the end, I want to mention that the process of aggregating dialects is more powerful than eradication of them. That is, by encourgaing people of a country to speak their own dialect and promoting all the dialects at the same time, it is possible to reach a point that a new single dialect emerges from all these other dialects.

The Bass Voice at November 5, 2003 07:25 PM [permalink]:

I would like to bring the attention of those commenting on the language aspect of Kaveh's post that, there are indeed many languages in Iran, as Kaveh correctly states, not just dialects or (at the lowest level) accents. So, while it is understandable to some extent to have some kind of official dialect, the actual enforcement/coercion comes when one language from among so many is picked as the only official language of the country.

Mismatch Error at November 5, 2003 09:18 PM [permalink]:
Sorry, unfortunately this was not a well-researched article. Kaveh, there are mistakes and also bad comparisons in your article: t. Since the invasion of the Indo-European tribes until the Armenian migrations...Based on all researched historic materials, the so-called Indo-European tribed did not invade Iran, they had a very slow migration process which took many centuries. Different clans (Parthians, Persians, Medians, Kurds, Sakas, etc) slowly settled in different locations in Iran, mixed with locals (actually outnumbered them in most cases), and adapted themselves to the new homeland. It took them many centuries to establish real governments and take over the whole Iranian plateau. Moreover, immigration of Armenians by command of Shah Abbas I was not the last big immigration to Iran, the recent wave of immigration of Afghani people (in the past 20 years) is much bigger in scale. The diversity index of Iran is estimated at 0.71, ... this index is 0.35 for the US...As you said, this index shows the uniform ethnic distribution, but ehtnic groups living in Iran - despite their differences and traditions - are much closer to each other than different ethnic groups in the USA. Kurds and Persians are much closer to each other than Chinese and Arabs who both live side by side in America. speakers of different accents and dialects have been the usual victims of verbal jokes and their language and heritage is not treated as anything more than a disturbance in the sea of the glorious Persian-Shi'ite culture...These are two different issues. People all around the world joke about their neighbours and/or other ehtnic groups. Religion however is a different matter, you can't really mix them and use the Persian-Shia term. The very idea that there is a Persian identity that supersedes all ethnic minorities in Iran, was once fashionable during the Pahlavi's but is probably no more with the current explosive situation among the ethnicities in the middle east...What do you mean by "current explosive situation among ethnicities in the middle-east"? What is the relationship between Persian identity and upper-nile Egyptian identity? Please explain more. Also, as far as I see, there is no recent or rising dangerous clash between different Iranian ethnic groups. Moreover, "Persian" identity - when used in an International level - means "Iranian"; it does not refer to people who live in prvince of Fars. systematic incoherent stances of the Iranian foreign policy in various regional ethnic conflicts...Iranian foreign policy - like every other country - is 'supposed' to persue and provide national security and support national interests. For example, Iran supports Armenia because state of Azerbaijan tried to push the Pan-Turkism idea into the other side of the border (Iranian province of Azarbaijan) and promoted (still does) the separation of that province from Iran; that's why they devided East-Azarbaijan into 2 separate provinces; now state of Azerbaijan has common borders with province of Ardebil, not the Iranian Azarbaijan. The fact that the Persian language survived the invasion of Arabs 1400 years ago has much to do with the fact that Persian was transliterated into Arabic characters...Wrong! Persian survived many invasions because it has been a written and recorded language in different forms with known grammar at least since the time of Zoroastra (Zartosht), which is long before the Arabic invasion. Don't forget that Koran was initially memorised by A ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
Mismatch Error at November 5, 2003 10:52 PM [permalink]:

Just a quick post-script for my previous comment: Armenians did not volunteerly immigrate to Iran. They were forced to move from their homeland when Shah Abbas I lost Armenia to the Ottomans. He burnt all the villages and farms during his retreat, and forced around 350,000 Armenians to move to Iran.

Kaveh Kh. at November 6, 2003 08:24 AM [permalink]:

Thanks for pointing out my mistake, for that matter, the posts we put on freethoughts are not really well researched materials, and like most human (and sub-human) activities are prone to errors. I thank you for your illuminating comments and I just have a few remarks to add:

(1) I would still call the Indo-European settlements in Iran, an invasion, although a non-violent one. About Afghans and also about the nature of the Armenian migration [which did not really end, on a global scale, at the point you mentioned; the big one came later after the Armenian genocide by the Turkish government, just before Ataturk]

(2) Turkmen and the Khorasani Turks are closer to the Chinese genetically. So I think the comparison of the Chinese and Arabs in the US with Kurds and Persians is one sided. Actually the diversity index does not refer to "pure blood" people, it also refers to mixed racial backgrounds in a single person.

(3) I think I've heard enough jokes about Sunnis when I was in Iran. In fact shi'ism has been a part of the "dominant" [a term that is disgusting at best] Persian identity since the Safavids.

(4) Let me bring your attention to the first line of my 7th paragraph in which I confess that foreign policy is a complicated thing, that is, I know that there is a mentality behind the Iranian foreign policy but from the outside it looks incoherent and is never constructive for ethnic minorities.

(5) I think what I meant by the superceding Persian identity is to be contrasted with the identity of Kurds, Arabs and the Turkish speaking people.

(6) I would like to agree with you on the reason of survival of the Persian language, since apparently you seem to be firmly believing in your argument, with dismissing mine as pure "wrong". I still think that the fact that the Persians could write and teach their language was a big help in preserving it. The Arabs where not the masters of their own language, but they were not really in favour of any other language either.

(7) Persian was indeed still taught in Iran otherwise it wouldn't have stayed for so long. It was taught by dehgan-ha and the remaining Mubad-haa. This was actually a progressive education campaign because during the Sasanids education was limited to nobility and the priesthood, while in this new era literature is produced by a wider range of the population. A close but also different example is Italy, which is actually one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Europe and as of the language one observes that the people of South Italy cannot easily communicate with those of the North. If it wasn't for Mussolini’s incorporation of THE "Italian language" [a variant of the Florentine dialect, immortalized by likes of Dante and Machiavelli] in the Italian education system, there would be no single Italian language to speak of. A similar case happened in Ireland with Gaelic and to some extent will be happening in Quebec with English!

I have to thank you again for the giving me the opportunity of rethinking my writing.

Kaveh Kh. at November 6, 2003 08:27 AM [permalink]:

After each comment I remember McLuhan "media is the message". In fact there is apparently no one who is going to challenge the last paragraph of mine!

Senior Grad at November 6, 2003 11:56 AM [permalink]:

Some non-well-researched additional piece of "info" about Shah Abbas: I read somewhere that his mother was Armenian, or at least Christian. Or what it another Safavid king, like Shah Esma'il, the founder of the dynasty? (My historical knowledge sucks, so please correct my faults.)

Also, it was Shah Abbas (or some other Safavid king) who declared that he would draw the blood of every Muslim in Persian who wouldn't convert to the twelver sect of Shi'ism. And that's the Iranian plateau ;-) is populated with Shi'ites today. Funny thing is, something similar happened to Armenia: the king converted to Christianity and ordered the nation to convert as well. I'm not sure if he threatened his people like Shah Abbas did though.

Senior Google at November 6, 2003 12:09 PM [permalink]:

Here's some info

"The Ottoman sultan, Bayezid II, congratulated Isma'il on his victories and advised him to stop destroying the graves and mosques of Sunni Muslims. Convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the evil of the Sunni branch of Islam, the Safavids ignored the request."


"Claiming to be the Representative of the Hidden Imam, Isma'il, a young Safavid master, expanded Safavid control over much of Iran, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Azerbaijan, and the Caucusus south of Russia by 1506 AD. He had assumed control of the Safavids in 1494 AD / 900 AH (at the age of seven!), and appears to have gained a fanatical following by not only calling himself the representative of the Hidden Imam, but by claiming to be the Hidden Imam himself (later he would claim divinity)."


"The Safavids forced Iran to convert to Shi'ism, because their founder, Shah Isma'il venerated Ali and thought himself to be his spiritual return."


I couldn't verify (i.e., find a site that confirms) the claim that Shah Esma'il's mother was Armenian, or Christian.

Senior Grad at November 6, 2003 12:51 PM [permalink]:

This is not all that irrelevant either:

"A notable expression of retrogressive role of tribal chiefs in Kurdestan is the rebellion of the Shakkak Tribe, led by Ismaiil Agha Simku, with the massacre of Assyrians and Armenians in Khoi and Salmas in North-Western Azerbaijan. Of the "banner of Kurdestan Liberation" which Ismaiil Agha had presumably raised, Ahmad Kasravi, the prominent historian of the Constitutional Movement writes:"

A Reader at November 6, 2003 02:48 PM [permalink]:

I haven't ever heard a joke about sunis.

YaghoobYazideh Nasi Abadi at November 6, 2003 03:18 PM [permalink]:

Kaveh jaan:

"After each comment I remember McLuhan "media is the message". In fact there is apparently no one who is going to challenge the last paragraph of mine!"

Come on daash! You are intelligently dodging the very important question by just finishing off through a very short paragraph! What you wrote is an opening to another post perhaps, and then challenging the readers to respond to it?

Ey vollah ba-bam!

You have not dared venturing into how we can envision a multi-cultural Iran and its political realization without succumbing into the paranoia of secessionism.

Even modern European countries who aspire to realize a plural EU are still resisting loosening their grip over uniform cultural issues when it comes to certain types of cultural and visible minorities, their right to, at least cultural self-rule, if not community/local home rule. They are still very slow in responding, the increasing multicultural reality of their societies, and yet they have achieved a relative degree of "civil society". I am not saying you are drawing a causal relationship, I am not saying it is not an important issue, I am just saying this issue is far more challenging than what it appears to be, even for societies with embedded democratic institutions and "Civil Society".

One solution can be community autonomy. But where are the examples?

I think we should look at Western centralist states. After all, they represent democratic and plural states and Iran is a centralist and not a federal one.

France stands out in this respect. Just look at their vehement resistance to the Bask and the Corsican home-rule movements, not to mention their fierce suppression of the secessionists.

Is France an exception? Well, look at how slow Sweden and Norway are yielding to the demands of recognition by the Sámi people by creating virtually power-less Sámi Parliaments, i.e. tribal/municipal councils. Greenland gained its Home rule from Denmark after a great deal of national and international pressure.

Is there a link, correlation or causal, between the treatment of the minorities and foreign policy of the IR?

Is it really nationalist? Is it really Islamist? Is it both? Is it opportunist?

So have someone now addressed your concern Daash?

I think I have now responded to your challenge as I have quoted it earlier,

Sorry for my long comment!
"Damet garm" for your post though, and "Ezat Zeeiaad"! (an invisible minority from Nasi Abaad, with some Khiaaboon Molavi background)

Senior Grad at November 6, 2003 04:20 PM [permalink]:

I apologize for my impulsive over-use of Google. Here's some questions, rather than comments. Is the (hi)story of when Persians started using the Arabic script well-researched, well-documented, and well-understood? To me it's just a foggy era of our history, but then again, I don't know much about history. It is amazing how far the Arabic script has gone. There are people in China who still write in Arabic script. (See )

While Old Persian has its own writing system, the Turkic languages don't seem to have ever had a script of themselves! Armenians, on the other hand, (according to stories, only one person, single-handedly) invented a script some time after their mass convertion to Christianity...

Ghazal at November 6, 2003 09:33 PM [permalink]:

Senior Grad,
Keep in mind lots of these historical references are very ambiguous and one needs to be very careful when he/she quotes a theory in history like all other sciences and even more. But since people are throwing out different historical theories I am tempted to do it as well.
The interesting thing to me is that both conversions of Iranian people to shi’ism and conversion of Armenian people to Christianity are initiated in political struggles against some invasion or to unite people and give them a national identity.
Christian conversion happened in a very political circumstance. When Sassanid dynasties are ruling Iran and both Armenian King Tirdat III who declared Christianity as the state religion of Armenia in 301 AD and Gregory the Illuminator as the first head (Catholicos) of the Armenian Apostolic Church, had ties to Arshakunian dynasty, the previous dynasty in Iran and it was a political move to resist Sasanid dynasty who was very theocratic.
The major conversion of Iranians to shi’ism also happens when Iran is a mess, each city is ruled by a different Sultan, Ottomans are threatening to invade Iran, and Arabic language is overtaking the Persian language; by then people could hardly remember what Iran even was. It is in these circumstances that Shah Ismael pushes the idea of the big united Iran and encourages it (by making benefits like tax cuts or awards for new converts) or forces people to convert to shi’ism and advocates the Iranian nationalism by advertising Shahname’s stories.

hajir at November 7, 2003 08:29 PM [permalink]:

I don't think Shah Ismael was worried about the fate of Iranian people and Iranian culture otherwise he wouldn't kill thousands of Iranians (to save them!) He was seeking power through mass murder and force conversion.
Iranians would be much better off by staying with other muslims; Ottoman kings were very fond of Iranian culture, persian poetry and music. If muslims of that time had stayed united, our situation was in today's world was much better; though I am not saying that losing Iran to Shi'ism was the main reason for the fall of Islamic Civilization a century later.

Linda at November 8, 2003 11:22 PM [permalink]:

Now you guys may wanna hear from a member of one of those ethnic minorities!!
I have got both genes of an ethnic minority and practically grew up amongst them (Qashqai's)who contrary to the writer's suggestion, don't speak Qashaghai, but their own version of Turkish!!
Let me tell you something, if it wasn't for the cruel policy of Reza Shah to settle down us nomads and stripped the fuedals of these minorities from their power, Iran would have been another Afghanistan. And you guys instead of getting your P.H.Ds from Ivy leagues were shooting at each other, Sad but true.Our country would have been caught up in a civil war, between ethnic groups. Everybody loves power, I assure you on that.
Kaveh's suggestion sounds like an American solution do it the fastest and cheapest way, hey let's preserve the culture and language. With all due respect to the American ingenuity, I don't think this country is a good living example for " Ethnic minorities" and diversity( hey I am a proud American taxpayer myself and love this country to death).
We don't have the so called "Ethnic Minorities" in Iran the way they have in U.S. We have "ethnic groups," who are now assimilated into IRAN. how many times in an application in Iran anybody had to write down their RACE?? I do it everyday in U.S and damn it the closet thing to my race on those apps is the word WHITE.
There is nothing that a governement can do to keep the langugage and culture of a certain ethnic group alive, it is up to the group, it is their choice. Government just need to recognize their rights as the normal citizens and give them the freedoms that they deserve.

Kaveh Kh. at November 9, 2003 06:25 PM [permalink]:

(1) Of course the Ghashghai language is a turkish variant. The modern linguists prefer to use language in places where one would use dialect before.

(2) A provincial and federal system of government being can in principle flourish in Iran under a benevolent central givernment. Is that also an American artifact? Look at the European Union or Canada or even Afghanistan's new constitution.

(3) There are some progressive means of dealing with the ancient problem of ethnicity.

(4) Even in Islamic republic there are divisions in the givernment, nameley the provinces. If you look closely at the more ethnically troublesome areas you wou'd notice that the divisions occur more often [How many Azeri or Kurdi speaking provinces do we have?], while the traditionally Persian provinces are vast.

(5) I like your last sentence which is in fact the basic block of a civil society. We are dealing with human beings different in racial, lingual and religious orientation, they deserve to be treated as they like and if the country as a unit has to remain, it is essential that equality [which is interpreted by its subjects as they wish] in terms of opportunity is provided. This equality not only benefits ethnic groups [thanks for correcting my "minority cliche"] but should also be provided to children and women in a liberal framework.

My apologies for my long and incoherent comments.

Senior Grad at November 10, 2003 12:48 PM [permalink]:

Okay, something totally unrelated: ;-)

In the US many highschool students choose Spanish as their second language. Mexico is one of the two countries sharing a border with the US, and therefore there is a sizeable Spanish-speaking population in the US. Once I was in San Jose (it was a sunny day) and we had a hard time finding someone who could speak English. Anyway, I am not going to suggest here that highschool students in Iran should be able to choose to learn Kurdish or Turkish instead of Arabic or English. I think English (or at least French or German) must be mandatory, but what is wrong with promoting the learning of Turkish or Kurdish? I think it'd be wonderful. First, some new jobs will be produced. Second, some new trends and fashions among the well-to-do layers of society will be generated.
Third, ...

Babak S at November 11, 2003 03:36 PM [permalink]:

Regarding the status of other languages than Persian in Iran, according to the link in Kaveh's post, Turkish is spoken by a larger population than any other language, including Persian. Just by that, I think it is an injustice not to have at least Turkish as an official language. Perhaps the reason is fear of separationist sentiments getting momentum. Yet it's an injustice nevertheless. Not to mention I didn't even know that Kurdish, Gilaki, etc. were actually languages in their own right most of my life in Iran. They were all generally called "guyeš" (dialect--of Persian I suppose) as if they could exist only in their relation with Persian. Even Turkish is called so a lot of the times.

Senior Grad at November 11, 2003 05:03 PM [permalink]:

Turkish sounds like a good language to invest on for popularizing. When you come to think of it, it's only logical for Tehranis to learn Turkish. Anyway, I found other advantages of making it "fashionable" (there must be mechanisms for doing that) to and "chic" to learn Turkish. Just imagine, how interesting it would be to see an Iranian who is not raised in a Turkish-speaking environment speak Turkish. (Speaking of fashions, an example comes to mind: In recent years, there was a trend among well-to-do Iranians, mostly living in the capital, to pay a fortune to learn playing a traditional music instrument. It was simply considered modish and something to brag about.) Anyway, it seems to me (and I'd like to hear others' opinions about it) that encouraging Persians to learn Turkish (I can already imagine titles like: Turkish in 7 days, I mean "TORKI DAR HAFT ROOZ!" Well, there may be such titles, but I guess they're not well-publicized) counteracts the separationist sentiments through enhancing the social cohesion. I'm sure if speaking Turkish is treated as "cool" among our beloved Iranians who don't know what to do with their extra time and money, then we will see a lot of guys who are proud to be able to speak with to owner of their neighborhood's grocery in *his* mother tongue...

Aside from its entertaining and commercial value, Turkish (or a close variant of it) is needed for the very many Iranians who go to Turkey. I used to be amazed to see American grab a booklet that claims to teach enough French to you so you can get by in Paris and equipped with this weapon go straight to France to enjoy their short holidays.

Mohammad Jahan-Parvar at January 21, 2004 11:21 AM [permalink]:

Dear readers,

Just a couple of comments:

1. while there is nothing wrong with expressing ethnic identity, I think government should keep out of it. Citizens should recieve equal treatment before law and government regardless of personal charachteristics (ethnicity, religion, sex, ...)
2. Keeping an official language is a means for good governance. You need a medium of communication. Even in Canada, while all documents are published in both French and English due to terms of settlement between British crown and French colonies back in 18th century, the language of the government is English.
3. I have heard this claim that native Persian speakers are a minority in Iran, and apart from ethnologue website, I have not found any other reference for this claim. This website and its statistics are not reliable due to their faulty projection methods. How do you substantiate this claim?