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Iran’s Ethnic Minorities Demand an Equal Democratic Voice. But Who’s Listening?


  I want a world where my children and those of all Iran’s ethnic minorities have the same rights as Persians, including the right to celebrate our culture and heritage, rather than being treated as inferior, expendable fifth class citizens to be subjugated and crushed”.

As protests continue to sweep across Iran and the death toll from the regime’s brutal and unforgiving reprisals continues to rise, particularly and disproportionately among the country’s ethnic minorities, human rights activists from those ethnic minorities find the offensive and misleading comments and claims from prominent Iranian opposition figures like Akbar Ganji, seen in the video below, hurtful but predictable.

Ganji and others who claim to support democracy and human rights on principle have resorted to the usual slanderous allegations about the country’s minorities, who collectively make up more than 70% of the country’s population.  Ganji, who’s regularly cited by media in and outside the country as a pro-democracy figure formerly imprisoned by the regime for his dissent, is using the same narrative as the regime to downplay the participation of Kurdish, Balochi, Ahwazi Arab,  Azerbaijan Turks, Turkmen and other ethnic minorities, who he dismisses as “troublemaking separatists”; this was, ironically, one of the same racist smears used by supporters of the autocratic monarchy that preceded the current, equally undemocratic, theocratic leadership.

There’s a great irony in a figure like Ganji, whose own voice was silenced and suppressed, who faced imprisonment and torture for his opposition to the Khomeinist regime, employing the same lazy smears as his oppressors. If anyone should be more conscious of the pervasive evil of systemic injustice, it’s someone who’s endured the terror and torture of totalitarianism first-hand; despite this, however, Ganji and, sadly, most of the Iranian opposition groups still cling to the myth of ‘us’ and ‘them’ on which Iran’s regime, like its predecessor and like all totalitarian states, relies.  In this case, ‘us’ refers to the Persian people who, in Ganji’s view, are the sole legitimate voices in the Iranian nation-state, in which only Persian ethnicity, language, culture and history are recognised and innately superior, while ‘them’ indicates the ‘inferior’ ethnic minorities – Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, Azeris, Balochis, Turkmen, and others.

As an Ahwazi activist imprisoned and tortured almost to death by Iran’s regime in my early 20s for the ‘crime’ of student activism and writing articles in support of Ahwazi freedom, before I managed to escape and flee into exile, I know the Iranian regime’s vicious injustice all too well.  Unlike Ganji, however, I want a future wholly different to the past with the same universal human rights for all; I want a world where my children and those of all Iran’s ethnic minorities have the same rights as Persians, including the right to celebrate our culture and heritage, rather than being treated as inferior, expendable fifth class citizens to be subjugated and crushed.

For Ahwazis, as for Kurds and other ethnic minorities in Iran, the casual torture and killing of young people, including children, by regime forces which has caused shock around the world during the current protests is not a shocking novelty, but a terrible everyday reality.  Cases like that of 20-year-old Ali Bani Assad or 31-year-old Emad Haidari, two of the young Ahwazi activists killed under torture in regime custody in the regional capital, Ahwaz city, in recent days are not unusual; this is ‘normal life’.  Emad Haidari’s parents were told that they wouldn’t be allowed to see their son’s body before burial, with only an uncle permitted to visit the hospital for a quick glimpse of his bruised and tortured body for ‘identification’ purposes. When this uncle eventually managed, at some risk to himself, to get hold of a doctor who’d performed the autopsy, the doctor told him, strictly off the record, that Emad’s kidneys had been pulverised from his being beaten so severely; when the torturers run the nation, there is no right of appeal, this is “just how things are”.

When racism and injustice are systemic and unremarkable, with ‘No Arabs’ signs widespread among letting agents, dentists, doctors’ surgeries and other businesses in Iran,  and young regime troops killing Ahwazi youths at checkpoints regularly with no fear of any repercussions,  the ayatollahs’ pious speeches about resisting oppression are met with a weary shake of the head and rolled eyes, as are the claims by some Iranian opposition figures to support freedom and human rights.

Despite ethnic minorities’ scepticism at the sincerity of the support from many Persian-Iranian activists (especially those in exile) for real democratic change in Iran, however, the death of Mahsa Amini – a young Kurdish woman – at the hands of the regime’s so-called ‘morality police’ has galvanised protest among the country’s minorities as among Persians, with the regime reacting with its predictable viciousness and disproportionate brutality against these ethnic minorities.

This subject, of the multi-faceted nature of the regime’s oppression, particularly of its deep-rooted racism towards ethnic minorities, has not been widely acknowledged or addressed, even – or perhaps especially – by the Persian-Iranian opposition.

The regime is well aware, however, of the crucial role played by the country’s non-Persian ethnic minorities now, as in the 1970s when the anger of indigenous minorities long brutalised and denied our fundamental rights on the basis of our non-Persian ethnicity helped drive the Shah from power; unfortunately, the promises of those who quickly seized power, crushing all democratic opposition after the Shah was deposed, turned out to be false, and these ‘revolutionaries’ no less reactionary and venomously bigoted towards the country’s minorities, who found that they’d simply swapped secular oppressors for their theocratic peers.  This has made many among the country’s ethnic minorities wary of further calls to participate in revolution, with none participating in the 2009 Green Movement, which was centred around Persian-Iranian political figures whose treatment of minorities has been no different to that of the regime itself.

This distrust between Persians and the country’s ethnic minorities has also been seen in the Iranian opposition’s antipathy towards acknowledging the strongly racist component in the regime’s indiscriminately murderous reactions to ethnic minorities’ own periodic uprisings demanding justice and freedom, such as the 2019 Ahwazi Dignity Uprising and the 2021 Thirst Uprising in which hundreds of unarmed protesters were murdered and thousands more arrested and imprisoned,  all with few if any expressions of support from Persian activists and no protests outside the ethnic minority regions.

With the current nationwide protests against Iran’s regime gaining support worldwide, as few have since 2009, many Persian-Iranian activists, including Ganji, routinely present opposition in Iran to the theocratic regime as a monolithic, Persian bloc.  From the viewpoint of both the former and current regimes, Iran’s ethnic minority populations are at best a silent undifferentiated mass, and are habitually addressed and spoken off as ‘lesser’ peoples, separatist troublemakers who supposedly need the firm hand of Persian supremacist authoritarianism to prevent the country from fracturing.

I know from my own experience as an Ahwazi activist and writer that this grotesquely racist attitude and the relentless persecution of ethnic minorities which flows from it result in justifiable resentment and distrust on Ahwazis’ and all minorities’ part, thwarting the unity required to have any real hope of successfully confronting the daunting military dictatorship which the regime relies on to maintain power.

While women and all dissidents in Iran face brutal persecution, women from ethnic and religious minorities face a double discrimination for their ethnicity as well as their gender, with all minorities subjected to additional discrimination from birth for their identity; this includes being denied our culture, language, dress and even choice of names:  Mahsa Amini, the Kurdish woman whose death sparked the current protests, was originally named Zhina, a Kurdish name, but her parents were forced to change this to a regime-approved Farsi name.

The regime’s deep-seated racism towards minorities is not a new feature in Iran; similar Persian supremacist bigotry and persecution by the preceding monarchy drove Ahwazis, Kurds, Balochis, Azeris and other minorities to support the 1979 revolution; sadly that was hijacked by the theocrats who simply put a new religious veneer on the old oppression.

Both Shah Reza Pahlavi and the current so-called Islamic Republic rely on a narrative in which Iran is a monocultural  Persian nation weakened by any admission of its multicultural make-up; instead, they believe, it must have a strong, homogenous system of governance under which minorities accept and are subservient to Persian dominance in order to ‘protect’ its Persian identity and prevent fragmentation and fracture; according to this rhetoric, any sign of genuine democracy in which minorities have equal rights and an equal say in the country’s governance, regionally or nationally, will lead to these minorities taking up arms and seceding from centralised control.

While most Persian-Iranian anti-regime activists refuse to acknowledge their own reliance on this profoundly racist logic, it remains a dominant theme, meaning that protests in the ethnic minority regions outside central Iran are treated very differently to those in Tehran and the rest of the predominantly Persian centre of the country.  In Tehran, the regime’s claims that activists are ‘insurgents’ or ‘foreign agents’ acting on behalf of enemy powers to destabilise Iran are rightly, scornfully dismissed by Persian-Iranian activists as the conspiracy theorist nonsense peddled by the regime to delegitimise any opposition.  When the same conspiracy theorist nonsense is repeated to delegitimise protesters in Balochistan, Kurdistan, Ahwaz or other ethnic minority regions, however, the near-identical, equally ludicrous and slanderous claims about protesters arrested, ‘disappeared’, murdered by the regime being ‘separatist troublemakers’, ‘extremists’, ‘foreign agents’, etc are treated by those same activists as though they were credible statements of fact.

These activists would still rather not examine their own assumptions or acknowledge these issues of ethnic and racial oppression while the current protests are underway; to their thinking, all other differences must be subsumed until the regime is ousted and democracy has been established.  What Persian-Iranian protesters and dissidents can’t or won’t understand is that they can’t gain the support necessary from ethnic minorities to build the unified opposition that can achieve that democracy without acknowledging and tackling these issues.   Without any agreement on how to eradicate this systemic, anti-democratic bigotry why should ethnic minorities everything again only to return to the status quo of racism and injustice under a different oppressor again, as in 1979?

The so-called Islamic Republic has spent decades creating a military dictatorship focused on self-preservation, on protecting itself from the masses; after coming to power through revolution, the ayatollahs have been very determined to safeguard their own absolute power as much as possible, to prevent being overthrown the same way; they will not depart voluntarily like the Shah.  When the opposition is fragmented, and the regime is united, the regime has the upper hand, as we see from Syria.  And as in Syria, the regime works very hard to maintain such fragmentation, distrust and disunity, knowing that its own power relies on the oldest political policy; divide and rule.

For Persian-Iranian activists like Akbar Ganji, who’ve never paused to examine their own prejudices, there’s also no acknowledgement that their own hoary racist allegations about Iran’s ethnic minorities are identical to those used by the regime to justify its own repression, and no questioning of how the regime benefits from promoting such hostility and division.

The idea of reconceptualising Iranian identity to reflect and embrace the multicultural reality within Iran’s borders, of abandoning the historical Persian supremacist worldview to encompass a more inclusive model based on a shared civic rather than ethnic identity is a scarily novel one for those, like Ganji, whose concept of Iran is built on that glorification of Persian heritage and imperialism past and present.   In this regressive worldview,  there is no need to address the past or present sins of colonialism, no need for uncomfortable self-analysis or any question of power-sharing and equal democratic representation for non-Persian minorities  – instead, Iran can simply shift from repressive theocratic autocracy with a democratic veneer to what looks very like equally repressive secular autocracy, again with a democratic veneer;  in both cases, Persian-Iranians are the ‘natural leaders’, while minorities are denied any voice, while no consideration is given to alternate models of democracy like democratic federalism in which each region could enjoy a degree of autonomy while still remaining a part of the whole.

For Iran’s minorities, this refusal on the part of Persian-Iranian activists to acknowledge our concerns and our central role in the creation of a solid, unified anti-regime alliance needed to confront a behemoth like Iran’s regime means that there is insufficient trust in Iran’s current opposition to enable coordination. The non-Persian ethnic Minorities are already seeing a far higher death toll among protesters than our Persian counterparts, and already face far worse penalties for dissent and rebellion in ‘normal’ times. While there’s increasing coordination between Iran’s ethnic minorities based on our shared experiences of oppression and a cautious outreach to some, more progressive-minded, younger Persian activists,  the fear remains that without a real willingness on the part of the Persian opposition to treat us as equal stakeholders in Iran’s future, any successful revolution that overthrows the current brutal regime will simply mean another change of oppressors, with Persian rule once again reverting to the standard historical-cultural narrative in which minorities’ identity, culture and history are oppressed or erased to recreate the monocultural Persian supremacist status quo; while stripped of the theocratic fundamentalism and medieval Khomeinist worldview, this would again mean rule revolving around the glorification of Persian identity to the exclusion of all others. This mistrust is no irrational fear, but the logical result of long decades of bitter experience.

At this point in history, however, Persian activists have the chance for real rapprochement at a nexus point in the country’s history.  Uniting with the country’s minority populations, refusing to engage any longer in the narratives that serve only the regime and others seeking to entrench division and oppression, abandoning this colonialist mindset to work together as equals would kill two birds with one stone; creating a  unified, solid opposition strong and capable enough to resist the regressive dictatorial theocratic regime’s continuing efforts at divide-and-rule, while enabling the creation of a genuinely progressive, secular, multicultural and democratic system in which all the peoples could celebrate our diverse histories and cultures as equals, and contribute to making a vibrant modern nation.

 By Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.

 Edited by Ruth Reigler.


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