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Last updated: May 6, 2013
Barzoo Eliassi: Kurds in the shadow of Iranian citizenship

"The Islamic regime of Iran neither gives the Kurds their citizenship rights nor provides them with a democratic public space"

On August 22, the two leading Kurdish parties in Iran, Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and Komala (Revolutionary Society of Iranian Kurdistan’s Toilers) under the leadership of Mustafa Hejri and Abdullah Mohtadi, made a strategic agreement in which they accentuated that unless the Islamic regime of Iran is not removed, there will be no democratic space for political recognition and representation of the Kurds within a federal Iran.

Federalism is required by these two parties to be based on a national-geographic definition in order to undo the national oppression of the Kurds. Among other things, they ask for separation between religion and the state, gender equality, and the solving of all issues through peace, dialogue and social justice.

These two parties also evoked the right to self-determination within a democratic framework. Mustafa Hejri, the secretary general of PDKI, asserted that signing this joint strategic agreement between the two parties is a preparation for the collapse of the Islamic regime of Iran, given that Iran’s main ally Syria is facing fierce resistance from the Syrian opposition. However, this strategic agreement was sternly condemned in an announcement on September 8, 2012 by numerous exiled Iranian political activists – including Abol Hassan Bani Sadr, Babak Amir Khosravi, Muhammed Amini – and writers for being allegedly “separatist” as well as paving the ground for undermining the “territorial indivisibility and integrity” of Iran.

Persevering the political sovereignty and territorial unity of Iran was asserted in this announcement to be “the point of departure for any political initiative”. Furthermore, it points out that Kurds have not been subordinated by a Persian identity and that the political situation of the Kurds does not resemble a colonial situation that is permeated by unequal relationships between colonizer and colonized. The announcement of Iranian elites against the two Kurdish political parties’ claim for self-determination triggered a prompt reaction from 117 Kurdish intellectuals, artists, political and civil activists in Kurdistan and abroad who in a statement argued that due to the fact that Kurds are exposed to threats from both the Islamic Republic of Iran and its opposition, “the maintenance of life within the framework of Iranian borders has become impossible for the Kurdish nation.” The solution to the plagues of the Kurdish nation according to this statement is a referendum in Kurdistan under the supervision of the international institutions in order to determine Iranian Kurdistan’s future political administration.

Following the condemnation of PDKI and Komala’s joint agreement, Ibrahim Farshi, an Iranian columnist pointed out that the main problem of Iranian elites is their obsession with the territorial integrity of Iran instead of focusing on dialogue, democracy and listening to the collective pain and struggle of the Kurds in the Middle East. Shadi Sadr who is a famous Iranian human rights activist pointed out in an article that Kurdish demands for national self-determination is a central human rights issue, a statement that triggered massive sexist and denigrating comments for example on Facebook groups accusing her of “betraying her nation” to the “Kurdish separatists”. The main problem with the Iranian citizenship is the invisibilization and naturalization of Persian dominance in stipulating and constituting the practical outcomes of Iranian citizenship.

Although Iran is a multiethnic society, the Persian identity has constituted itself as the master identity of Iran and excluded non-Persians (Azeri, Kurds, Baluches, Lurs, Arabs, Turkmens) from political powers through deploying racist notions of Persian superiority against non-Persian ethnic groups in Iran. In this respect, the Iranian state has used orientalist and civilizing missions in non-Persian regions in order to Persianize them and bring them into modernity through eradicating their ethnic and linguistic differences, viewed as markers of “backwardness” and “irrationality”. If the Pahlavi dynasty was about celebrating the Persian identity/empire and suppressing differences of non-Persian identities in Iran, the rise of the Islamic regime in Iran paved the way for consolidating the oppression of non-Persians/non-Shiites in terms of their ethnic backgrounds and religious belongings.

Whenever the dominance of Persians has been questioned, Iranian/Persian elites tend to quickly tell us that Iran has not historically been ruled by Persians but by non-Persian leaders like Nadir Afshar (Turkmen), Karim Khan Zand (Lur), and Aqa Muhammad Khan (Turkic) or the current Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei (Azeri). But they forget to tell us whether these leaders have endorsed ethnic diversity or reinforced the dominance of Persian identity in every aspect of social, political, and cultural life in Iran.

Of course, one can say that the Azeris benefit from the current Iranian system since their Shiite affiliation converges with the dominant identity of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This applies also to those Kurds who are Shiites. Economically the Azeri region is also more prosperous than for instance the Kurdish, Baluchi or Arabic regions despite the fact that these regions stand for major natural resources like oil, gas, and agriculture. What Azeris share with Kurds, Baluches, Lurs and Turkmens is that their language is suppressed and stigmatized in public spaces and forbidden in the Iranian educational system, despite the fact that the Iranian constitution explicitly points out in article 15 that “the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, as well as for teaching of their literature in schools, is allowed in addition to Persian”. Oddly enough, non-Persian languages are described as “regional and tribal languages” which avoids pointing to the ethnic and national dimension of languages. The Islamic regime had discursively constructed claims on ethnic identification as foreign plots that aim to undermine the unity and brotherhood among Iranians.

If nationalism or pan-nationalism stands and works for provincialized, narrow-minded and divisive identities and politics, so does a political Shiite Islam in Iran that continue to stigmatize and subordinate Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, and Baluches who do not adhere to Shiitism and the state ideology imbued with ideas of Persian superiority. Relating back to the joint agreement of the two Kurdish parties, the importance and the interpretative framework of ethnicity among Kurds and Kurdish political parties in Iran do not float in the air but are related to collective experiences of material inequality, cultural stigmatization and humiliation, linguistic suppression, political invisibility, institutional and structural discrimination.

These lived experiences make ethnicity a meaningful prism through which Kurds interpret their unequal citizenship and instigate resistance to the Iranian state and Persian dominance. Many Kurds in Iran are so instilled with cultural shame and a complex of inferiority vis-à-vis the Persian identity that they avoid speaking Kurdish to their children or giving them Kurdish names. This oppression can mainly be understood in relation to internalized racism that subject minoritized groups to look at themselves, their identities, their languages, their clothes, their histories through the interpretative prism of the dominant Persian group. Despite these inequalities, the guardians of Persian identity are asserting that there are “no Persians in Iran” or in the best case, they tend to talk about “Persian speaking people”. This approach is represented by the Iranian scholar Parviz Towfighi (From Persian Empire to Islamic Iran, 2009) who argues that in Iran we cannot find a people called Persians since they have dissolved through mixture with other groups in Iran.

Yet, this defensive claim that denies the existence of Persian dominance does not take into consideration the fact that when Kurdish students go to school, they learn that the prevailing dominant identity stands for Persian language, Persian art, Persian Gulf, Persian literature, Persian poetry, Persian history, Persian cats, Persian music, Persian carpets etc. The power does not explain for Kurdish children why they cannot study their mother tongue or literature and history in their homeland. Or if they indeed are full citizens of the Iranian state, why they are denied the right to become the president of Iran or even govern in their own regions and provinces. If they apply for employment, they are aware that their ethnic and religious backgrounds along with their gender suffer from structural stigmatization and thereby diminishing their life-chances in all societal arenas. This illustrates how the cultural subordination of the Kurds goes hand in hand with their economic deprivation. Despite all these inequalities, Kurds are urged to keep silent and comply with the dominant narrative of the state since their voices are often interpreted as subversive noises or as a Trojan horse of foreign plots.

As the Iranian scholar Pirouz Mojtahedzadeh put it in a program in 2012 hosted by BBC Persian on federalism in Iran: “There have been no articulated claims in Kurdistan about political rights but noises”, neglecting the fact that Kurds for several decades have asked for “Democracy for Iran, autonomy for Kurdistan”. It is no coincidence that Kurds are regarded as the bête noire of the Middle East since they are accused of attempting to establish “a second Israel”. The dominant group’s main vision is to end the politics of the subaltern and depoliticize its claims as not originated in everyday inequalities that Kurds experience in Iran but somewhere else, be it Israel or Western powers. Because of Western orientalists and Persian nationalists, the Persian identity has through an effective politics of representation exteriorized its particularized knowledge into a universal objectivity. The interests of the dominant Persian identity are presented as everyone’s interest in Iran, and making the dominated groups to accept the Persian identity as their own. While in fact it is all about a provincialized Persian identity that claims a false and an imposed universality.

Claims for Kurdish independence and self-rule are gaining more support among the Kurds in Iran since they are not only exposed to state-sponsored discrimination in employment, education and housing, but also denied the right to education in Kurdish. The Islamic regime of Iran neither gives the Kurds their citizenship rights nor provides them with a democratic public space where they can effectively express political dissent about their deprived rights as citizens of Iran since their political activism is often categorized as “anti-Iranian” and “anti-Islamic” and also as a threat to national security. Defining political dissent among Kurds as a national security issue has become an effective strategy for the Iranian state to circumvent the law and put the Kurds in a state of exception. The religious, legal and social obstacles that Kurds face in Iran has assigned the Kurds a status of non-citizens without right to have political, economic, religious and cultural rights.

We live in a world permeated by an international system that has created a global apartheid that has divided the world into two categories: “stateful nations” and “stateless nations”, where the former stands for a privileged position in a world of unequal citizenships, while the latter (the stateless) stands for a superfluous identity. The stateless position of the Kurds, Palestinians and Tamils illustrate the political and existential vulnerability of these groups and the political violence that they have experienced across different states, although in different ways.

Kurdish nationalism can rightly be understood as a reaction to the political homelessness of the Kurds in the Middle East since they as a result of their statelessness have been nobodies and politically superfluous and sacrificed by assimilationist and violent state structures in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The role of political parties and movements is to provide the Kurds with a political home in which they can live and fulfill their citizenship rights. Furthermore, Kurdish political actors need to frame a political language that does not reproduce the exclusionary processes of the Persian identity that has denied its particular constituency and asserted its nationalized and generalized ethnicity through gaining ideological dominance. Yet, Kurds should also remember that Kurdistan is not a political space solely inhabited by Kurds but by a variety of groups that should be recognized and assigned an equal position within all societal arenas.

In brief, the major source of ethnopolitical conflicts in the Middle East is the virulent nationalisms that do not accept recognition and representation of differences within their centralized polities. Dominant Persian nationalism cannot continue ruling and blaming the Kurds for perpetuation of conflicts since they have excluded the narratives of the Kurds through structural deprivation and stigmatization. To put it plainly, there are two options for Iran, Turkey, Syria and even Iraq: either they give the Kurds full citizenship rights (de facto) or the Kurds will continue their political struggle in search of a political home where they are not harassed for living their Kurdishness culturally, socially and politically in all its multiplicity.

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