Dr. Barzoo Eliassi
Growing up, Persian or Persian-speaking children will gradually realize that their Persian identity is represented by and shape all social institutions in Iranian society. From the day these children take their first steps into Iranian schools, they will learn that the language of instruction is Persian, history belongs to Persians, the art is Persian, literature is written and read in Persian, the songs are Persian, the anthems are Persian and geographical names are either Persian or Persianized. In other words, Persian children learn that their life-worlds at home and in public spheres are consistent and convergent.
If we consider non-Persian children like Azeris, Arabs, Turkmens, Baluchs and Kurds, they will on the contrary realize that their identity is not represented by these social institutions but are urged to internalize the values and language of the dominant Persian group since the very goal of social institutions such as schools in Iran has been about Persianizing the Iranian society. This is why Persian language/identity is often interpreted as the true marker of “Iranianness” while Kurdish and Baluchi languages have been regarded as “corrupted” dialects of the Persian language, Azeri, Turkmen and Arab languages are regarded as “foreign”.
In the case of the Kurds, they are sometimes described by Persian power and elites as the most “authentic” Iranians. Paradoxically, while authenticity has been used within the discourse of identity politics to claim more rights, in the case of the Kurds it has entailed reduction of rights. Some Persianized and co-opted Kurds/Azeris/Arabs/Baluchs/Turkmens play a central role in solidifying the cultural, political and economic power of Persians through allying themselves with the Iranian regimes but also through accusing non-Persian movements as “separatists” and “anti-Islamic.”
The Iranian opposition including both leftist and royalist groups in diaspora has also attacked these non-Persian political movements when they have demanded their national rights, although within a federal Iran. While the exiled Iranian opposition aspires to oust the Islamic regime of Iran, it has not nevertheless indicated that it wants to challenge and alter the established order of Persian dominance. This is why there is a difference between the diaspora nationalism or long-distance nationalism of dominant groups and dominated groups. While the latter want to challenge and redefine the political and linguistic order of the Iranian state, the former tends to reinforce the ruling social institutions that reproduce the exclusivity of Persian identity and language.
So how can we explain this political disparity between Persians and other ethnic groups that continue to be culturally stigmatized and subjected to Persian cultural imperialism? The notion of privilege is a key concept in understanding how this inequality is politically arranged. Privilege is simply the other side of oppression and discrimination. In this context, Alison Bailey defines privilege as “systematically conferred advantages individuals enjoy by virtue of their membership in dominant groups with access to resources and institutional power that are beyond the common advantage of marginalized citizens”.
Privileged individuals and groups use a variety of strategies to maintain their privileged position. These strategies involve making their privilege invisible, naturalizing and normalizing their privileged position as well as underlining a sense of entitlement to this privileged position. It is not uncommon for privileged individuals and groups to take a defensive position and feel distressed when dominated groups refer to them as privileged and question their status. In the light of the discussion above, it is important to note that privilege does not only sanction political, economic and cultural inequality but also ignorance.
The notion of privilege can explain why a large part of the Persians lack knowledge about Arab, Kurds, Azeri, Turkmen and Baluch in regard to their literature, music, history and language. This ignorance can easily be grasped through a simple survey asking for instance Arabs/Azeris/Kurds/Baluchs/Turkmens about Persian literature and asking Persians about the literature of non-Persian groups in Iran. It goes without saying that non-Persians will demonstrate more knowledge about their dominant other, the Persians. This form of sanctioned ignorance benefits the power of the dominant group and sustains its privileged position.
For non-Persian political movements that struggle for a true democratic and pluralistic Iran, they need to provincialize the Persian identity and making it into a local identity in Iran that has gained its universality throughout Iran via assimilation and cultural hegemony. As long as the Persian identity is assumed as the master identity in Iran that sets the rule for the game in an uneven playing field, non-Persians cannot expect equality but will remain in an ascribed minority position waiting for charity, paternalism and benevolence from the Iranian state. Thus, creating an egalitarian state in Iran entails relinquishment of unearned privileges of the Persians that can enable children of non-Persian groups to come into this world where their identities, names, histories, religions, cultures, songs, and languages are not stigmatized and forbidden but have a normative presence within all social institutions in Iran.
Neither the Islamic Republic of Iran nor its exile opposition have shown any interest in endorsing ethnic equality in Iran but continue to marginalize this democratic claim and stigmatize it for being foreign plots that intend to undermine Iran’s territorial and political unity. For non-Persians, if they want to succeed, there is a need to build effective cross-ethnic alliances that make the questions of cultural and religious recognition, political representation and distributive justice as the gist of their political grievances.
By Barzoo Eliassi, who is a research fellow at the Centre for Middle-Eastern Studies at Lund University.