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Ahwazis: An Oppressed People Standing With Their Peers for Freedom in Palestine, Syria and Globally


Typically, people whose own freedom and civic and human rights are violated or denied by their rulers can often be seen advocating for other marginalised colonised people experiencing comparable levels of suppression, extrajudicial killings, poverty, and state-driven marginalisation within their respective countries. However, it is crucial to examine the accuracy of this generalisation, which I set out to do here.

I come from the predominantly Arab oil-rich region of Ahwaz in south and southwest Iran; despite this vast resource wealth, however, the eight million indigenous Ahwazi Arab people have long been subjected to brutal oppression by the Iranian rulers who colonised the region almost a century ago in 1925. Ahwazis face systemic injustice, marginalisation and racist anti-Arab abuse, with successive Iranian regimes normalising policies of persecution, discrimination, and land confiscation and outlawing any resistance; dissidents or anyone voicing objection to regime policy are routinely tried on fabricated charges and executed.

All this has left Ahwazis in a state of powerless, disenfranchised despair and rage. Security forces often justify their heinous crimes by depicting Ahwazi civilians as posing a threat, brutalising them for the smallest infraction, such as failing to stop at regime checkpoints. While Western readers are familiar with such descriptions in reference to the occupied and colonised Palestinians, very few are aware of the same murderous persecution also being inflicted on the Ahwazi people, whose identity, culture, and language are criminalised solely for their Arab ethnicity.

 Despite nearly a century of ethnic oppression inflicted on Ahwazis by consecutive regimes in Iran, their ongoing struggle for freedom, justice, and recognition of their social, economic, cultural, political, and ethnic rights remains largely unknown and unrecognised both within the Arab world and globally. 

Iran’s brutal repression of the Ahwazi people, who are fighting for their freedom and the right to preserve their identity and ownership of their own land, is part of a relentless policy aimed at driving them away and promoting a demographic shift by settling ethnically Persian citizens in Ahwaz.

This unjust and illegal policy has led to Ahwazis learning about the inspiring struggles faced by other colonised and occupied populations in the region and worldwide, bringing an increasingly strong sense of solidarity. As a result, the majority of Ahwazis have developed a profound connection to the Palestinian cause, as it resonates with their own experiences and evokes deep emotions within them. Sadly, however, there’s still a significant disparity between the international recognition, support, and media attention given to the struggles of Palestinians and Ahwazis. 

The plight of Palestinians is widely acknowledged and supported not only within the Arab world but also globally. In contrast, the Ahwazi case remains largely overlooked, with the narrative of Ahwazis not being brought to light or addressed even at a basic regional or international level.

The Ahwazi people face deep distress, not because of the absence of support from media, institutions, and human rights groups that tirelessly advocate for the rightful cause of our Palestinian brethren, whose suffering under colonisation and occupation remains unparalleled in history. Rather, it is these very groups’ limited comprehension of the true situation in Iran that greatly troubles us.

 It can be argued that in recent years, many Palestinians and other Arab people have realised that the Iranian regime is using the Palestinian cause to enhance its influence in the Arab region and the Muslim world as a whole. This awareness has spread among Arabs since Iran’s regime began supporting Bashar Al-Assad in suppressing the Syrian revolution. As a result, over 12 million Syrians, including Palestinians residing in the Yarmouk and other camps have been displaced, with at least 130,000 others being forcibly disappeared in Syrian Assad prisons. However, prior to that, Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq committed mass killings of Palestinians between 2006 and 2009, forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in the country to flee for their lives to Jordan or Iraqi Sunni areas bordering Syria, seeking refuge with the UNHCR to eventually be relocated to the USA in most cases. Many did not manage to escape, with their bodies often left unrecognisable due to burning and torture.

These were the same Shia militias who have recently been calling for opening the borders to enable them to enter the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel to ‘defend’ Gaza. 

 During a period when Iraqis, Syrians, and Palestinians were being subjected to numerous atrocities, the Iranian regime took advantage by promoting an ethnonationalist narrative among the dominant Persian society. According to this narrative, Iran had regained control over four Arab states, and the revival of the Persian empire, long-awaited by ethno-supremacist Persian nationalists, was imminent. To propagate this false narrative, the regime launched an extensive propaganda campaign through state-controlled media, portraying Iraqis and Syrians as unattractive, uncivilised, barbarian saboteurs bent on destroying Shia communities. Moreover, these groups were accused of planning to infiltrate Iran solely to target Iranians based on sectarian motives.

The demised terrorist General Qassem Soleimani, responsible for multiple crimes against humanity, was depicted as a heroic Persian champion leading the fight on behalf of Persian Iranians, protecting Shia communities, fortifying Iran’s borders, and preventing terrorism and instability in Iranian territories.

In order to portray Syrian people negatively within Iranian Persian society, Iranian regime media frequently depicted Syrian protesters as puppets and stooges of what they called the Wahabi Al-Saud family, aiming to further discredit the Saudi leadership’s image.

Remarkably, the regime not only managed to gain support from within Persian society, where a general anti-Arab racist mentality is pervasive, but also succeeded in swaying opposition factions like the Pan Iranist and Pahlavi royalist groups with its chauvinistic nationalist and sectarian rhetoric. These groups supported the regime’s brutal actions in Syria and Iraq under the pretext that these protected Iran’s national interests.

Shockingly, even amidst the brutal carnage unleashed against the Syrian people by Iran’s forces, there was no significant Iranian opposition solidarity with Syrian revolutionaries, either within Iran or among Iranian exiles, denouncing these acts of Iranian terrorism.

 Between 2012 and 2017, the regime took advantage of the prevailing situation, both domestically and regionally, and launched a widespread campaign of mass arrests against Ahwazis who were actively involved in cultural, civic, and even environmental activism. Many of these individuals were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, with at least 20 Ahwazi political prisoners, including two of my high school teachers, Hashem Shabbani (an Arabic teacher) and Hadi Rashedi (a chemistry teacher), being executed in January 2014. 

Their families were even denied the meagre consolation of being able to bury their loved ones or even visit their graves to mourn them, with these victims’ bodies, like countless others, never being returned to their families and instead being buried in undisclosed locations, which are not disclosed to anyone. The ‘crime’ for which they were executed was the establishment of a cultural institute for teaching Arabic, organising Arabic poetry events, and promoting Ahwazi history among the younger generation. 

As is customary with the regime, they faced the standard range of fabricated charges, such as ‘enmity to God’, harbouring separatist motives and acting as agents of regional states to undermine Iran’s national security. Like other dissidents, Ahwazi political prisoners are frequently filmed making clearly scripted ‘confessions’ of guilt, obtained through subjecting them to unimaginably horrific torture, with these grotesque ‘confession videos’ aired on state TV channels, including English Press TV.

Despite being fully aware of the regime’s behaviour and repression, Persian opposition groups and their affiliated media outlets consistently echo the regime’s accusations against Ahwazi prisoners, despite these originating from the regime they purportedly oppose, and even go to the extent of censoring news related to the Ahwazi prisoners since it might show them in a sympathetic light.

For many years, Ahwazis have reached out to the Arab world, particularly those Arab nations directly affected by the Iranian regime, to complain at the ‘resistance’ regime’s systemic anti-Arab racism and double standards. Ahwazis have notified the other peoples of the region that both Persian society and the so-called Iranian opposition groups share the same viewpoints regarding Arab nations and peoples and the Syrian revolution. 

The joint campaign by Iran, Russia, and Bashar Assad, which resulted in mass killings on a vast scale, met with indifference and no real reaction from Persian society or these opposition groups. While it can be understood that Persian society may be unable to protest regime crimes in Syria due to facing domestic persecution for any dissent, Persian opposition groups in exile don’t have this excuse for their chilling indifference to Syrians’ suffering.

After demonstrating a disturbing lack of empathy towards the suffering of Syrians, Iranians have once again extended the same callous indifference to the ongoing Israeli aggression in Gaza, where tens of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians, including children, women, and the elderly, have been mercilessly killed in the space of a few brief weeks. Shockingly, Iranian anti-regime social media users and certain media figures, along with Persian opponents of the regime, have openly supported these heinous crimes against humanity, with some calling for erasing the entire population of Gaza. This callous brutality is motivated solely by a desire to curry favour with Western institutions that unconditionally support Israel, regardless of its actions, even when these amount to genocide.

Despite being in a weak position and lacking effective platforms, the Ahwazi people and Ahwazi political, civic, and human rights groups both inside and outside have rejected this monstrous callousness, expressing solidarity with victims and issuing balanced statements. These statements condemn the violations and crimes committed by both Hamas and Israel, calling for an urgent ceasefire and peaceful resolution. They advocate for an end to colonisation, the recognition of self-determination, and the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state alongside a progressive Israeli state, where both peoples can coexist and live in peace.

Oppressors’ claims to fight for justice and freedom elsewhere are empty and hypocritical cant while they have their boots on the necks of their victims at home

Critically, Ahwazis, who know the Iranian regime’s bone-deep anti-Arab racism at first-hand, note that Iran’s ‘resistance’ regime has no genuine interest in or concern for Palestinians’ freedom and human rights but is instead cynically exploiting the issue as leverage to win support from Arabs and others internationally, while going to great lengths to conceal its own vicious colonial racism and crimes against the Ahwazi people, who continue to suffer silently even after almost a century of brutal occupation. 

It is vital to acknowledge that oppressors’ claims to fight for justice and freedom elsewhere are empty and hypocritical cant while they have their boots on the necks of their victims at home. The Ahwazis, meanwhile, continue to demonstrate their commitment to maintaining a belief in justice for all and upholding consistent moral values by advocating for the liberty and justice of other peoples while also striving for their own.

A Heartfelt Connection to Human Palestinian Cause 

According to Zahra, a civic activist on social media from Ahwaz, “The story of Palestine holds great significance for the Ahwazi people. They deeply empathise with the pain endured by Palestinians as it mirrors their own struggles. The experience of land confiscation, exclusion from public life, the denial of their history and existence on their own land through the promotion of a non-historical and mythological narrative, the gradual erasure of their presence, followed by poverty, discrimination, and deprivation imposed upon them, alongside the absence of their lived experiences in the media and international platforms – all resonate with Ahwazis.”

Zahra further emphasises that “the Ahwazi perspective on Palestine differs from that of the Iranian government. While the regime utilises the Palestinian cause for its ideological aims and strategic interests, Ahwazis perceive the issue as an opportunity to recognise and empathise with their own struggles. When they speak about Palestine, it is a reflection of their own personal experiences. This sentiment is not shared by Iranian Persians.”

Highlighting this point, an Ahwazi Arab female user expressed on her Instagram, “In Israel, all city and village names have been changed. Isn’t this a familiar tale for Ahwazis?”

This may explain the popularity of Palestinian poetry and novels among young Ahwazis, with the works of Mahmoud Darwish being particularly cherished. However, it is not limited to Darwish alone, as Ghassan Kanafani’s novels also hold a special place in the hearts of Ahwazis.

Waleed, another young Ahwazi man we spoke with, discusses the fear and panic that has arisen due to the devastating killings of Palestinians in Gaza. He expresses how the harsh reality on the ground demonstrates the world’s cruelty. Many Ahwazis sympathise with the Palestinians and question the consequences of demanding their own legal rights, such as the right to life, in a world of biased politics.

Waleed states that Palestine has always served as a source of inspiration for Ahwazis, but recent events have turned into a lesson rather than inspiration. He is fearful that a government can completely destroy an oppressed and colonised people, and the world simply watches, cheering and justifying these horrendous acts.

Zahra also raises an important point, highlighting the growing divide between Ahwazi Arabs and other Iranian Persians due to the ongoing war. While they were aware of the Persian dislike for Arabs, they never expected this hatred and racism to extend to the extent of supporting genocide, simply because the victims are Arabs. This leaves them questioning what the Persians will do to them as Ahwazis if they protest and demand their rights in the future.

Zahra’s concerns echo those of Waleed. She states that she, as an Ahwazi Arab, has long felt alienated from the Iranian identity, but the war has solidified this feeling. She expresses her conversations and tensions with Persian friends, emphasising the issue.

Ahmad, another Ahwazi young man we interviewed, also highlights the continuous discussions about Palestine, with two opposing sides: the Arabs who support Palestine and the Persians who side with Israel. Many Ahwazi Arabs view this as a sign of racism and anti-Arab prejudice.

Zahra explicitly states that Iranian Persians stand against the Palestinian people because of their issue with Arabs. 

She believes that if Iranians support the genocide of Palestinians, they will likely support the genocide of Ahwazis in the future. The silence or association of many Persians with the Israeli right-wing government is interpreted as evidence of this by many Ahwazi people. 

When the Palestinian-Israeli conflict aligns with the Arab-Persian divide, the mental impact is even greater. 

The cooperation between Iran’s right-wing opposition and Israel convinces Ahwazis that there is no hope for fundamental change, and it is shocking to see these groups advocating for women, life, and freedom while also wishing for the death and destruction of Syrians and now Palestinians. Ahwazis, who have suffered oppression for a long time, question which direction should be embraced and whom they should fear when even the opponents of the Islamic Republic applaud genocide in Palestine.

 I reflect on the pain that Zahra is experiencing and acknowledge that a significant portion of this pain stems from the prejudiced remarks, one-sided writings, and statements she comes across on social media. These offensive expressions primarily originate from Persian media personalities and anti-regime groups in exile, targeting Palestinians and Arabs.

By Rahim Hamid

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi freelance journalist at the Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.


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