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Why do Ahwazis cheer on Arab football teams playing against Iran?

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Iran is a country comprised of distinctive nations, each with its own unique cultural and ethnic identity. Under both the previous and current regime, however, the Persian ruling elite promotes only the Persian language, culture, and identity, seeking to suppress and erase those of other ethnic minorities. This and the imposed national identity of Iran and Iranians have led to longstanding ethnic tensions, and hostility between Persians and other ethnic groups. Marginalised ethnic minorities, such as Ahwazi Arabs, South Azerbaijani Turks, Kurds, and Balochis, resent and reject the Iranian identity imposed on them and prefer to identify themselves based on their own ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

 

 One way in which these marginalised groups express their rejection of the imposition of Iranian identity on them is through sports. For example, the Ahwazi people and Azerbaijani Turks often support any football team that plays against the Iranian national team, both regionally and internationally. Recently, during a match between Iran and Qatar in the Asia Cup, Ahwazis, Kurds, and Azerbaijani Turks celebrated Qatar’s victory over Iran, with Ahwazi people taking to the streets to express their joy.

 

Iranian regime officials, media, and the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI), the regime’s governing body for football in Iran, all promote the Iranian football team as representing Persian identity, referring to the players as ‘Persian lions’, ‘princes of Persia’, and ‘champions of the Persian nation’. This ethno-supremacist exclusion of the non-PersianI populations who collectively make up most of Iran’s population has generated frustration among these peoples, such as the Ahwazis, Turks, Kurds, and Balochis, already systemically marginalised and disregarded in a country that solely prioritises Persian representation.

 

Many observers view this hostility as a natural response to the Iranian regime’s toxic mix of authoritarianism and racism. While all peoples in Iran are subject to oppression, ethnic minorities face double suppression due to the regime’s racist policies. These minorities’ support for opposing football teams stems from their rejection of an Iranian national identity based on and equated with a supremacist glorification of Persian identity.

 

The cultures, identities, and rights of these ethnic minorities are marginalised, prohibited, and subject to constant racist vilification, ridicule, and discrimination by both the Iranian regime itself and the elite in Persian society. This issue can be linked with the ideology of nationalism, specifically the concept of ethnonationalism. Ethnonationalism can be summarised as the belief that a country should be defined by one shared ethnic identity, that of the dominant group, often leading to the exclusion or suppression of minority groups within the country. In the case of Iran, the Persian ruling elite’s promotion of the Persian language and culture and suppression of the languages and culture of other ethnic minorities can be seen as a quite virulent form of ethnonationalism. The marginalised ethnic groups, in turn, reject the imposed national identity of Iran and seek to assert their own suppressed ethnic identities. Their support for opposing football teams can be seen as a form of resistance against the dominant Persian identity and as a way to express their own cultural and ethnic affiliations.

 

As observers have noted, the Ahwazi Arabs’ support for Arab—and non-Arab—teams in various championships has a profound political significance. 

 

Firstly, Ahwazis’ reaction is a response to the Iranian regime’s deliberate destruction of the sports sector in the Arab region. Iranian authorities have demolished numerous football grounds and torn up pitches, particularly in neighbourhoods like Erfish (known as Lashkar Abad in Persian) and Kut Abdollah, repurposing the land for construction projects. Similarly, Ahwazi kickboxers and other athletes face obstacles stemming from systematic regime policies that restrict their access to basic support and hinder their participation in international competitions.

 

At a local level, Ahwazi Arabs and South Azerbaijanis used their hometown football teams, such as Foolad Ahwaz Football Club and Tractor Sazi Football Club, as a tool for counter-ethnic hegemonic struggle. By showcasing elements symbolising their linguistic, cultural, and ethnic identity, they aimed to challenge their marginalisation within Iran’s diverse society. By chanting Arabic and Turkish slogans and advocating for national and ethnic rights, fans of these teams found a channel for expressing themselves where democratic opportunities were lacking. This allowed them to celebrate symbolic victories and voice frustration over their social, economic, and political circumstances. While they couldn’t engage in political campaigning for their national identity, the Ahwazi and Azerbaijani youth fans viewed their teams as embodiments of cultural resistance and representation. Regarded as symbols of oppressed identity and ethnicity, Ahwazi Arab and Azerbaijani youth fans used football as a means to display their suppressed national identities.

 

 Babek Chelebi, a South Azerbaijan political rights activist based in Washington, DC, sheds light on the nationalistic bias in Iranian Persian media when it comes to reporting victories and defeats. “The media tends to highlight the Persian aspect in victories while attributing defeats to the entire country, disregarding the contributions of the subordinated non-Persian ethnic minorities. This skewed perspective has fueled dissatisfaction among these minority groups, as it undermines their presence in national accomplishments, spanning across political, economic, cultural, and sporting domains.”

 

“The phenomenon of Ahwazis and Azerbaijani Turks finding joy in the success of regional Arab football teams over Iranian ones is rooted in the suppression and marginalisation of non-Persian ethnic groups by the Iranian state policies. These historically oppressed minorities see such victories as a statement of their desire for greater representation and acknowledgement within the national narrative, reinforcing their belief that they are not truly part of the Iranian national identity as long as their rights are stifled. Football matches serve as a platform for the non-Persian ethnic minorities to express their broader struggles and aspirations, with triumphs symbolising reclaiming their cultural and ethnic identities.”

 

“Moreover, these events offer opportunities for solidarity and a shared sense of identity with the wider Arab world, reflecting deep-seated historical and socio-political dynamics. It is paramount to approach this subject with sensitivity and understanding of the diverse emotions and perspectives within these communities. Recognising and unraveling this intricate relationship between sports, ethnic identity, and politics is crucial for comprehending the complexities present in ethnically diverse regions like Iran.”

 

The Ahwazi people continue to face desperate circumstances, emblematic of their ongoing marginalisation under successive Iranian regimes for the past century. Despite being from and in a region which boasts over 95 per cent of the oil and gas resources claimed by the government, Ahwazis enjoy none of the benefits or income, instead being subject to systemic discrimination and denied fundamental rights; this abuse is due to their Arab ethnicity, which, in the eyes of Persians, relegates them to a status akin to fifth-class citizens. Consequently, many, if not most, Ahwazis endure abject, shocking medieval levels of poverty as a direct result of successive regimes’ imposition of what effectively amounts to an apartheid system.

 

Unsurprisingly, given the Iranian state’s and society’s hostile and dismissive view of non-Persian ethnic groups in Iran, these ethnic minorities don’t feel any sense of citizenship or loyalty to this country that spurns them. There is no collective sense of belonging to the Iranian state and Iran as a country among Ahwazis, Kurds, Balochis, Turkmen and other groups, who instead reserve their loyalties and energies for the struggle to defend and sustain their own regions, peoples and cultures.  

 

Iran, as a concept, represents only a sense of marginalisation and minoritisation of Ahwazis, Turks, Kurds, and Balochis. As a state, it is nothing more than a pure Persian nation-state that is promoting a Persian hegemonic identity while enforcing brutal assimilation policies to eradicate their ethnic identities. The regime oppresses, marginalises, and denies these ethnic and cultural rights, exploits their resources, targets their sportsmen, and unleashes as many racist and discriminatory policies as possible against them.

 

Instances of such cruel abuse of non-Persian athletes and sportspeople abound.

In a harrowing revelation that spread fast through social media channels and Iranian news outlets alike, a celebrated Ahwazi martial arts champion was forced to contemplate an unimaginably harrowing decision in the face of poverty and joblessness: selling one of his kidneys.

 

Adnan Amiri, a prominent figure in domestic and international kickboxing, shared his heartbreaking plight, revealing that dire circumstances had left him with no choice but to entertain such drastic measures. With the pressing need to support his family and cover essential medical expenses for his ailing mother, Amiri reluctantly confessed, “I have made the decision to sell my kidney,” conveying the stark reality of his predicament.

 

Despite his remarkable sporting success, including clinching Iran’s inaugural international kickboxing championship title at a tournament in Turkey, Amiri’s story underscores the enduring struggles faced by Ahwazi athletes; he took the courageous and desperate step of distributing flyers containing his blood type and contact details, strategically placing them around hospitals and kidney transplant centres in his hometown of Falahiyeh, as well as in other Ahwazi cities.

 

As Amiri’s case shows, the exclusion of Ahwazis from the sports arena has nothing to do with lack of merit, but is solely based on their ethnicity, which leaves them very deliberately mired in poverty, a racist, discriminatory, and deliberate process in which all the state’s apparatuses are heavily involved.

 

The screams of the Ahwazi Arab fans appear to be directed against the injustice, discrimination and racism they are facing at home. They have lost their sense of belonging to the state that oppresses them, and seek to support teams belonging to an Arab identity they share with them.

The Iranian regime’s promotion of ethnonationalism helps to explain the dynamics of ethnic disparity and disconnection in Iran, as well as the resistance to and rejection of the Iranian national identity by marginalised ethnic minorities. Ahwazi Arabs daily encounter anti-Arab racism in their workplaces, schools, and across media, including Iran’s newspapers, official TV channels, and social media platforms, where they’re slandered with abusive, derogatory, racist terms such as “Arab lizard eaters,” “Arab desert camel’s-piss-drinkers,” and “uncivilised Arabs.” This racism is further exacerbated by decades of discriminatory policies that restrict Ahwazi people from obtaining jobs and result in criminalisation-by-ethnicity, meaning ordinary people and activists alike constantly face the very real danger of arrest, imprisonment, and execution simply for preserving their Arab identity, culture, heritage, and language. Speaking Arabic, wearing traditional Arab clothing at work, and promoting Ahwazi culture are all prohibited, with violators facing dismissal, detention, and accusations of posing a ‘separatist threat’, sometimes culminating in imprisonment or execution.

 

Sports serve as one of the few avenues through which Ahwazis can relatively safely protest against racial discrimination and ethnic oppression. They rally behind regional or international football teams competing against Iran’s domestic teams or national squad to underline their rejection of Iran’s abuse and the longstanding toxic anti-Arab prejudice aimed at erasing Ahwazi cultural roots. This discrimination is rooted in Iran’s colonial history in Ahwaz, which seeks to suppress the Ahwazi people’s identity, with state policy defining a “good” Ahwazi Arab as being a submissive one who surrenders their cultural identity in favour of embracing the Persian language and customs, further marginalising and oppressing the Ahwazi people.

 

As for me as the author(Rahim hamid), when I was a child, my greatest passion, like boys worldwide, was playing and watching football. I always saw my parents and older relatives getting excited during matches between the Iranian national team and Arab teams, especially the Saudi, Iraqi, and Bahraini teams. My parents, uncles, and older cousins would cheer for the Arab teams and celebrate loudly when they scored against the Iranian team. I would question their joy in supporting the opposition, but they would always tell me that I would understand when I grew up.

 

As I grew older and learned Persian, I began experiencing the daily racism and anti-Arab sentiment from Iranians that’s an inescapable part of everyday life for every Ahwazi in Iran, starting from my teachers and extending to TV channels and newspapers. This discrimination against Ahwazis, Kurds, Balochis and Turkmen is so unexceptional as to be the norm. Sports commentators and anchors would routinely refer to Iranian teams’ defeats of Arab teams as conquests by the Persian Empire over Arab lands, portraying Arab countries as inferior to the mighty Persians.

 

This ongoing discrimination and racist hatred towards Ahwazi Arabs and Arabs generally is deeply embedded in every aspect of Iranian society, with Kurds, Balochis and Turkmen suffering similar abusive racist vilification and dehumanisation. In the end, this ethno-supremacism, which is so deeply ingrained in Iranian society that most Persians don’t even recognise its presence, has led to such a deep chasm between Persians and ethnic minorities in Iran that the latter simply divorce themselves from anything related to Iran and Iranian identity.

By Rahim Hamid and Nouri AL Hamzeh 

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

Nouri AL Hamzeh is an Ahwazi freelance journalist. 

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