What race do the Iranians belong to?


Charlotte Wiedemann

Charlotte Wiedemann, born in 1954, is a journalist and book author. She has been in Iran for years, wrote reports and analyzes for Die Zeit, Geo, NZZ, Le Monde Diplomatique and Qantara.de, among others. "The new Iran. A society emerges from the shadows" (also available in the bpb series) appeared in 2017 and in an updated new edition in 2019.

Persia is not Iran - through the ethnic diversity of the Islamic Republic

Iran is ethnically and culturally rich - little is known in the West. The situation of the ethnic minorities is different. But what many have in common is that they experience prejudice and distrust. The journalist Charlotte Wiedemann explains the diversity of Iran.

Iran is a multi-ethnic state: around ten percent of the total population are Kurds; they are the second largest ethnic minority after the Azerbaijanis. (& copy picture-alliance, NurPhoto)

Only about every second Iranian has Persian as their mother tongue. This alone suggests that the terms Iranian and Persian are by no means identical. To put it in a nutshell: all Persians are Iranians, but not all Iranians are Persians. Because the latter are literally born in a single province: from Fars, formerly called Pars.

In fact, Iran has been a multiethnic state for three millennia; this also applies to today's Islamic Republic, whose ethnic, cultural and religious diversity is often overlooked in the West.

An estimated 30 to 35 of a total of around 80 million Iranians belong to an ethnic minority. The state does not publish any figures on this - for fear of abuse by foreign policy opponents, but also in order not to encourage demands from the minorities themselves. According to reliable calculations, Azerbaijanis make up around 20 percent of the population, Kurds ten percent, Loren six percent, Arabs and Baluchs each two percent, and Turkmens one percent. In addition, several million Afghans live permanently in Iran, many of them in the second generation.

The minorities by no means only live in those regions that bear their respective names, such as Kurdistan or Azerbaijan. Iran's ethnicity and language map resembles a brightly patterned carpet. The country's nomadic past contributed to this: with the herds, the languages ​​of their owners also traveled to new rooms. For example, a settlement line of Turkic-speaking peoples runs from the northwest to the Persian Gulf.

In addition to the official language Persian, about ten other languages ​​are spoken in Iran; for example Turkish / Azerbaijani, Arabic, Kurdish, Lorisch, Baluchi, Turkmen or Armenian. Masanderan and Gilaki, at home on the Caspian Sea, are called dialects by some and languages ​​by others. The same applies to the language of the Bakhtiari, a nomadic people who still migrate seasonally today.

The constitution of the Islamic Republic establishes Persian as the "common language and script of the Iranian people", in which all official documents as well as textbooks must be written. However, the use of other native languages ​​in the media and in schools should be free; Article 19 of the constitution even guarantees equal rights for all ethnic groups. But the reality is far from it. To this day, the minorities have been denied schooling in their mother tongue for fear of separatism.

Ethnicity, language and denomination play a role

Sanandaj is located in northwestern Iran on the border with Iraq. In the capital of the Kurdistan Province, bullet holes from the fighting after the 1979 revolution can still be seen on some houses. At that time, many Kurds hoped for an autonomous status; their critical stance towards the new Islamic government was met with violence and executions. To this day, individual groups are armed and fighting for a separate state, but without the support of the population. More significant is the strikingly large Kurdish participation in all nationwide protests, such as against a gasoline price hike in November 2019. Kurdish sources then spoke of dozens of deaths. A general feeling of oppression had increased again. Even on quiet days, the security forces show their presence in the streets.

Culturally, Sanandaj is a modern city, only older men still wear the full Kurdish outfit with harem pants and a belly band. The boys prefer jeans; Most women hardly dress any differently from fashion-conscious Tehran women. Unlike in Turkey, Kurdish costume was never banned in Iran and is therefore not a symbol of cultural resistance. Sorani, the local variant of Kurdish, can be heard everywhere on the streets; At the same time, they all speak Persian, the only school language. After all, Kurdish language and literature can now be taught as a subject at the University of Sanandaj. The contrast between the mother tongue and the official language is not as great for the Iranian Kurds as it is for the Turkish, because Persian and Kurdish have common roots; the word Kurdistan, "Land of the Kurds", is itself Persian.

In Kurdistan in northwestern Iran, on the border with Iraq, mainly Kurds live. Her mother tongue, Kurdish, has roots in common with Persian, the official language in Iran. (& copy Getty Images)

Among the Kurds there are both Sunnis and Shiites; Little fuss is made of the denomination, the identity as Kurdish and Kurdish is more important. Among the Kurdish Sunnis, Sufi currents dominate, which also allow women to engage in ecstatic practices. Despite traditional tolerance, the Islamic State has recently been able to recruit individual Iranian-Kurdish Sunnis for terrorist attacks from Iraq - an alarm signal for Tehran.

The situation of the ethnic minorities is very different

The atmosphere a few hours' drive north in Azerbaijan is very different from Kurdistan - although here too, for example on the streets of Tabriz, you hardly ever hear Persian. Everyday life takes place entirely in a Turkic language, Azerbaijani, also known as Azeri. There is no feeling of oppression here that is comparable to the situation in Kurdistan. The reason for this is not only the larger number of Azerbaijanis. Rather, they have a special status because they have always had a major influence on the history, culture and social politics of Iran. Two dynasties of Azerbaijani origin, Safavids and Qajars, ruled Iran for 400 years with a brief interruption, from the early 16th to the early 20th centuries. These rulers of Turkic origin not only adhered to Persian as the official language, but also promoted it - again a hint that when it comes to Iran, ethnic and linguistic aspects should not be equated. Many Germans consider beautiful Isfahan to be an incarnation of "Persian" culture, but the Safavid kings of Turkic origin brought it to bloom.

But there is also this: A student in Tabriz confided to me that he would rather write a love letter in Persian because it is more soulful than Azeri, his mother tongue after all ... Azeri and Turkish share eighty percent of the vocabulary, and there is hardly any Iranian media in Azeri, many Azerbaijanis watch satellite television from Turkey; This is how children learn modern vocabulary. At the universities of Tabriz, some lecturers ask at the beginning of a lecture whether everyone understands Azeri. If so, the lecture will be held in Azeri. The authorities do not allow this, but - like so much in Iran - a tolerated breach of the rules. And quasi an informal implementation of the constitution.

Azerbaijanis are Shiites and they live in many parts of Iran today. While Kurds and Arabs are still special in leading positions, especially if they belong to the Sunnis, high-ranking Azerbaijani politicians are normal. Ali Khamenei, the leader of the revolution, is one of them.

The Turkmens, in the very north-east of the country, are also Turk-speaking, but their situation is again completely different: Because they are few, only a million or so; because as Sunnis they are also a denominational minority; and because their homeland on the border with the authoritarian neighboring state of Turkmenistan is a kind of lost corner. The Turkmens therefore cultivate their culture in a cautious, isolated manner; there is something secret about even poetry readings. Turkmen can be taught as a so-called foreign language with textbooks from Turkmenistan written in Latin script. But the large number of private institutes where young Turkmens learn English, even German, testifies to a greater longing: to get away.

The regime distrusts ethnic minorities

At the other end of Iran, in southern Khuzestan, the Arab minority fought on the front line for Iran in the war against Iraq (1980-88). Iraq's ruler, Saddam Hussein, who wanted to annex Khuzestan at the time, was unsuccessful with his propaganda that he would "liberate" the Iranian Arabs. There are some dispersed separatists here today, but they did not justify the suspicion that the state has of the entirety of Arabs. The heads of the authorities always come from somewhere else.

Bakhtiari nomads, among others, live in the province of Khuzestan. Twice a year they hike through the Zagros Mountains with its 4,000 meter high passes. In the meantime, more and more Bakhtiari are deciding against nomadic life. (& copy picture-alliance, abaca)

Tehran's chronic suspicion that minorities close to the border could be instrumentalized by the enemy is exaggerated, but not entirely unfounded. The USA as well as Saudi Arabia tried several times to destabilize Iran in this way. They targeted the Baluchistan region, on the border with Pakistan: Iran's poor house; There is still an illiteracy here that the country no longer knows otherwise, and many only find a livelihood in cross-border drug trafficking. The Baluch speak their own language, they are ethnic and, as Sunnis, a denominational minority at the same time, and yet they feel Iran is their home. The Baluch on the other side of the border have been fighting the Pakistani government for a long time. The Iranian multi-ethnic state apparently has a binding effect, even if Tehran hardly trusts it. Recently, the Baluch have shown something surprising in another respect: It is precisely in this patriarchal tribal culture that many young women have been elected to local councils, even mayors. In some areas, men stopped competing - because they didn't want to lose to a woman.

Majority society cultivates its prejudices

Multi-ethnic state also means that very few Iranians know all the cultures of their country, and prejudices flourish. Baluchistan, Loristan, Kurdistan are considered dangerous, wild areas in middle-class circles of Tehran and Isfahan. The designation turki, aimed at compatriots of Turkic origin, often has a derogatory tone among the elderly. Conceit towards Arabs is widespread among many young people, including Kurds, for example, where it mixes with hatred of the Islamic political system. The idea of ​​Iran as a vast cosmopolitan area, to whose present-day appearance many peoples and cultures have contributed, is seldom conveyed in schools and universities. Instead, there is often a nationalism in intellectual discourse and in history books that goes back to the early 20th century and is associated with the term "Aryans".

Ariya was originally the self-drawing of peoples who moved from the north to India and the Iranian plateau more than four millennia ago. Because Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and Persian have common roots, science later spoke of an Indo-European language family - until, under the influence of ethnic ideologies, it became an Aryan race that migrated through Iran to Europe. Western-oriented Iranian intellectuals welcomed their supposed Aryanism like a title of nobility: So they were not despised Orientals.

From 1925 it became state and educational policy. The then Shah Reza now combined the Aryan myth with Persian ethnocentrism: All Iranians were defined as Aryan Persians; non-Persian languages ​​were banned from schools and banned from the schoolyard. Eliminating cultural diversity was a prerequisite for a modern state: homogeneous and centralized. The Nazis later did the Iranians a favor by recognizing them as "pure-blood" Aryans. As strange as it is, many Iranians still believe in something like this today.

And so the government's fear of a centrifugal effect of more civil rights for minorities meets in the most astonishing way with a nationalism that at least some of the government opponents cultivate. Out of a feeling of humiliation in the face of the state of the Islamic Republic, they nostalgically recall the proud Persian empire of bygone times, as if the future lay in the past.