South Azerbaijan: State ideology and the Turks in Iran


South Azerbaijan: State ideology and the Turks in Iran
by Savalan

This article examines the implementation of the Iranian/Persian state ideology as a tool for persuading and assimilating the Azerbaijani Turks and other ethnic and linguistic groups. Existing studies emphasize that the Turks were subjected to a systematic forced assimilation campaign by the Pahlavi dynasty. This paper stresses that the formation of Iran after the collapse of the Ghajar dynasty is the root to understanding the ideological foundation of the Persian state’s denial of the Turks, their history, language and even their existence.


Recently, I heard a Turkish teacher in Tehran saying that independence for the Turks cannot be more than a dream. Such a ‘sure’ statement provoked flashbacks in my mind regarding the concept of the state ideology in social sciences. True, belief in this sort of a ‘certain’ despair of achieving national rights must be imposed by an organized set of institutions struggled a lot to convince both the Turks and the Persians of its superiority. For me, the common belief of impossibility of the Turks’ national independence also bear in mind a successful pacification story of a strong state ideology of denial and suppression. Baraheni, Asgharzadeh, Shaffer and many authors named the Iran state’s long-lasting efforts to assimilate the Turks through using education and mass media as a process of ‘Farsiification’. For me, a great majority of the Turks faith in proclaim of the Turks’ incapability of achieving a nation-state represents the last stage of the state’s homogenization policy of various ethnic groups within Iran.

This article does not aim to say anything about whether the Turks should have a state of their own, or not. Hence it attempts to analyze implementation of the state ideology as a tool for persuading not only the Turks but also other ethnic and linguistic groups that the Turks were not a nation. ‘Azeri Persian’, as a term long used to describe the Turks both to the Persians and the Turks should have been one of the best titles for such a work. The term was first used by an Historian, Mr. Ahmad Kasravi, in the 1920s to better define Pan-Iranism ideology. Kasravi ventured to claim that, among other things, Azerbaijan was originally populated by "Pahlavi/Farsi-speaking" Aryans who had later become Turkified due to the Seljuk and Mongol invasions of Iran in the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, respectively; hence, the "invention" of an Indo-European Azari/Azeri language. The concept has been expanded by numerous institutions including universities, and soon it was equipped with historical and linguistic arguments.

For the Turks’ inconsistent life, traditions and language with the proposed goal of achieving ‘one language, one flag, one nation’ within the territories saved from the so-called Western colonialism; and the Pahlavi dynasty state’s oneness theory, for numerous writers such as Saedi, Asgharzadeh, Baraheni and Zehtabi, the Turks were subjected to a systematic forced assimilation campaign by the Pahlavi dynasty.

For me, a quick look at the formation of Iran after the collapse of the Ghajar dynasty is essential in order to better understand the ideological foundation of the Iranian state’s denial of the Turks, their history, language and even their existence.

State Ideology and the Turkish / Azerbaijani Question in Iran

Roots of the official manner of the Iranian state towards the Turks go back to the formation of the Pahlavi dynasty ideology in 1925. Whereas, the Pahlavi state had been based on the notion of ‘oneness’, in other words, the Turks’ national claims had constantly been seen as a threat to the ‘indivisible integrity’ of Persian lands. The Pahlavi dynasty denied the Turkish ethnic identity, and the new state’s policy toward the Turks was based on denial of their language, culture, history, and continued with a systematic forced assimilation campaign through prohibiting the Turkish language, use of the expressions of Turks and Turkish.

The new Persian state constructed new myths claiming that Turks were really Persians, they were a clan linked to the original Persian/Ariyan racial origins,or as it frequently declared by high officials they were the Azeri Persians.

With no doubt, the state established, supported and even used governmental and nongovernmental institutions and organizations in distributing the state ideology; operations to prove that Iran belonged only to Aryan/Persians, state officials’ self-confident statements regarding the same view also deserve attention.

Dr. Alireza Asgharzadeh links assimilation of language of an ethnic group into the dominant community’s language by a state, with the common belief of achieving a medium language for the entire country in order to sustain stability. States which are based on oneness and indivisible integrity, like Iran, are intended to eliminate dual loyalty and avoid possible internal threats to their integrities. Thereof, prohibition of a language from all public administration, education, media and publications naturally results in annihilation of the ethnic identity, culture and the language of the prohibited language’s speakers. Prohibition of the Turkish language and forced internal displacement were the two main aspects of the assimilation campaign held by the Iranian state against the Turks. By the end of 1926, one year after Pahlavi dynasty become to power, all Turkish traditional schools (madrasa) were closed; and publications with languages other than Persian were prohibited. Farsification of non-Farsi areas inside Iran started with the prohibition of languages and continued with widespread forced internal displacements. The assimilation process which was based on the official ideology in Iran, resulted in transformation of many Turks into ‘Azeri Persians.’


One should argue that the Turks’ aforementioned belief in impossibility of an independent South Azerbaijan can be characterized as a reflection of impact of the Iran state’s long-term assimilation policies. That is to say, evidently the state did not succeed in dissolving the Turkish identity in Iran, but, arguably could managed to condition the public opinion among the Turks in terms of reducing national demands for self-determination to a number of cultural and linguistic rights. In my opinion, this is a self-evident consequence of denial policies. Another sideeffect of the assimilation and devaluation campaign against the Turks, indeed, should be the Turks’ wrecked national confidence. The Turks used to discover their identity when they met real Persians. I want to give an example from a Turkish writer Riza Shabani. Shabani states that he was also one of those Turks who realized that his national identity when he moved to a Persian city. Before that time, he, too, was subjected to listen to the legends about the Turks’ origins, and tails. Shabani says: "Until I arrived in Yazd I did not know I was Turkish. We used to throw stones at those calling us Turks in Ardabil. We came to Yazd and they called us Turks. They baited us with ‘Where is your tail?’ Going to school was an ordeal. Then we understood our villagers were right, we were Turks."

In sum, the forced assimilation campaign by the state, for many aspects, did not succeed. Today, the Azerbaijanis still struggle for their ethnic and cultural rights and the state’s manner towards them reflects a more moderate behavior. Nonetheless, as it should be apparent from previous chapters of this article, long period of denial and devaluation of the Azerbaijani identity seems to discourage the Turks from struggling for their independence. In other words, as I mentioned in the first paragraph of this essay, even intellectual Turks in Tehran find the Turks incapable of establishing a nation-state. Many would locate reasons of such dispositions in the people’s realization of the particular political status of the Middle East and Iran(which for many is not ready for establishing new nation-states). Whereas, in my point of view, reasons for abandoning national sentiments and will for an independent state rest on something deeper. This reminds me of an article published by a modern philosopher, Robert Higgs, on public opinion. For Higgs, public opinion cannot be counted as the bedrock of any state, but represents a deeper feeling: fear.

Therefore, the reason for the Turks’ strong belief in impossibility of an independent South Azerbaijan, for me, is the popular fear created by the Iranian state and as well as the policies which discouraged the Turks to struggle for an independent state. It should be kept in mind that when we talk about the Turks in Iran, we talk about a nation long believed that the word ‘Turk’ was an insult to them.


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