States in the Middle East were formed in the modern era, in the ruins of collapsing empires. The new countries’ borders were created or recognized not on the basis of peoples’ self-determination, but to satisfy the economic interest of major international powers.
State Reactions to National Minorities in the Middle East: A Focus on Iran
Nasser Boladai, Balochistan Peoples Party and Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran (Western Balochistan)
What constitutes a majority and minority? A phenomenon that has always been vague in the countries in the Middle East. After the First World War, a process of creating new countries was started based on the idea of the nation state. Although those countries were either multi religious or multinational, or both multi religious and multinational, they started a systematic policy of building a nation state based on one language, one religion and one culture. For instance, most of the people in the world believe that Iran is a country with a majority Persian population since the Iranian government, the cultural elite and the Persian intellectuals project that Iran is a state with one language, one religion, one culture and a common history.
States in the Middle East were formed in the modern era, in the ruins of collapsing empires. The new countries’ borders were created or recognized not on the basis of peoples’ self-determination, but to satisfy the economic interest of major international powers. The elites that came to power because of their family influence, personal position in the Army, foreign support or coup d’état used the major international powers’ rivalry in the region to strengthen their internal power. However, more vigorously and systematically, they used any differences in the society to treat one social group with privileges in the form of connecting the state identity with their national identity and at the same time discriminating other social groups based on their religion and language. In Iran’s case, since the Islamic Republic of Iran was created, gender-based discrimination also became institutionalized.
Absolutist rulers suppress all kinds of opposition with brute force to keep the demands for religious freedom and national rights and equality in check. In effect, they provide privileges to one section of society to legitimize their rule in the eyes of that section and to deter liberal democratic reforms.
Any form of suppression, particularly based on religious and ethnic suppression of any social groups in a state in the modern era, more often led to cultural, social and economic stagnation, which, in turn, can only result in the collapse of the society in the form of civil war, popular revolutions, or state adventurism. It creates a form of ambition to extend their influence in the region through an imperialistic and hegemonic regional adventure of the ruling elite, which in turn can cause reactions in the form of international military intervention, or economic sanctions.
The Saddam Hussein rule, in Iraq, was a one party system dominated by minority Sunni elite. While Kurdish people in Iraq were also Sunni, they were not integrated in the political structure of Iraq. Kurds suffered discrimination based on their national identity. Shiite in Iraq, who make up a majority Arab population, were discriminated based on their religious differences with the ruling Sunni elite. Sunni Arabs were less than 25 per cent of the Iraqi population but the ruling Sunnis were considered the majority population, while the majority Arab Shiite population were considered a religious minority.
After Saddam’s overthrow by the foreign military intervention, the Shiite majority dominated Iraq’s politics. The Shiite majorities’ sectarian rule has alienated Sunni Arabs and secular groups. The political dominance of the Shiite Arab population of Iraq has created sectarian violence that has caused the Iraqi society, despite of all its richness both in cultural and national resources, to stagnate.
Syria, that is currently experiencing a civil war, is ruled by one party that is dominated by one family, belonging to a minority religious group, the Alawite, who make up only 12 % of the Syrian population. To legitimate its rule, as a state dominated by a minority, it gave favourable treatment to minority religious groups at the expense of the Sunni majority, and giving the minorities a false sense of security. The Kurdish ethnic group was marginalized, and is even denied basic rights like citizenship in the country. Syria today has turned into a civil war with many different players.
The minority groups in Syria are afraid that if Bashar Al Assad’s regime is changed and majority Sunnis takes over, they will impose their sectarian rule, like the Shiite in Iraq have already done, by marginalizing other minorities. The opposition groups that are being formed in Syria are dominated by the Sunni elite that has failed to earn the trust of minority religious and national groups. Their aim is to create a unified opposition against the Baathist dictatorship. National and religious minorities consider themselves vulnerable under a Sunni majority sectarian rule even with democratic elections as in Iraq.
Turkey also is a multinational country with Kurds as a large national minority. The state’s identity is based on Turkish language and history has ignored and marginalized Kurds, resulting in tensions and creating a Kurdish struggle both in the form of peaceful and armed struggle. The democratic development, which took some measures of devolution of power and recognition of the Kurdish nation has not been able to solve the Kurdish question in Turkey.
In Pakistan, the Punjabi are the largest nation and dominate the country’s politics, economy and army. There are other major nations like the Baloch, the Pashtun, the Sindhi and the Saraiki. In the last seven decades, the state in Pakistan has been trying to create a national identity based on Islam, which has been unsuccessful in creating a nation based on religious identifications, but has actually increased religious sectarian violence. Islam has become an ideological tool in the hands of the Pakistan intelligence agencies and extremist groups to destabilize neighbouring countries. Islam is also used to deter Pakistan’s development towards a stable federal and democratic society. Pakistan´s sponsored extremist groups are active in neighbouring Afghanistan and India.
Punjabi elites dominate the Pakistani establishment and its army and its discriminatory policies have created national tension, particularly in Balochistan, where years of struggle for national integration in the form of self-rule and shared sovereignty has been rejected and met with army operations, hence resulting in a national liberation struggle for independence.
Iran is not an exception to the new reality in the Middle East. As a multinational and multi religion country it has also taken a path to build a nation state based on one language, one religion, one culture, based on Persian identity. National identity of other nations like Ahwazi Arabs, the Azerbaijani Turks, the Baloch, the Fars, the Kurds, the Lor and the Turkmen were ignored suppressed and humiliated. They are considered as primitive cultures and languages that have not yet developed as nations and are in the tribal stage that should be assimilated into the state sponsored national identity, through a combineation of systematic suppression, humiliation and assimilation. This is happening all the while the Ahwazi Arabs, Azerbaijani Turks, Balochs, Kurds, Lors and Turkmen have become politically activated nationalities with their own territorially concentrated population in their historical homeland. They demand to be recognized as nations equal to the Persian one in terms of language, religion and culture.
In 1935, the previous Qajar Empire officially changed its name to Iran, under the newly formed Pahlavi dynasty. The goal of the Iranian state became to create a nation state based on Persian national identity. Pahlavi often repeated the new identity as: “Modern Iran is a continuation of the Persian empire, being Iranian means being Persian”. It started assimilation projects in the form of Persian language becoming the only medium of instruction. Persian history is thought as Iran’s history, ignoring other nationalities’ history, Persian language and Shiite religion were given an official status as the national language and religion respectively.
Hence, the state tried different projects to develop a national identity based on race, language and religion. The Aryan race featured very prominently during the Shah’s regime. In fact, the Shah had given himself the title of “Aryamehr”, meaning “Aryan Friend”. In official literature, Iran was interpreted as the “Land of Aryan”. This was despite the fact that in Iran the Arabs are of the Semitic race, and Azerbaijanis and Turkmens are of the Turkish race. Although race characteristics found some support in the Persian-speaking society, they never become universal among other nations in Iran.
Both the Shah and the Islamic Republic have used the Farsi language as one of the characteristics of Iranian national identity to assimilate non Persians into the Persian national identity. This has also failed, since Persian is the mother tongue of less than half of the population. Others speak Arabic, Balochi, Kurdish, Lori, Turkish and Turkmen and other languages.
According to Hamid Reza Haji Babai, the education minister in 2009, 70% of students starting school in Iran do not have Farsi as their mother language and do not successfully learn the language after their first year in school. He expresses concern that this creates inequality and provides for fewer opportunities in competition with Farsi speaking children.
The Shah also used the Shiite religion as a state identity factor. The Islamic republic of Iran has put more emphasis on religion. It considers national diversity as a major political and security problem. Ayatollah Khomeini’s answer to the nationalities question in Iran was that: “The Iranian nation is united through Islam; there is neither need nor space for separate national cultural identity”.
By “Islam as uniting factor”, Ayatollah Khamenei meant Shiite Islam, which in the process has led to more marginalization of national groups with majority Sunni population. The majority of the Baloch, Kurds and Turkmen are Sunni Muslims.
This act of connecting a country’s national identity to the language, religion and history of one nation, the Persians, has resulted in systematic discrimination against other nationalities that together make up the majority of population in Iran.
The experience of Middle Eastern countries’ policy in building nation states with one language and one religion in the robustly multinational, multi religion countries is in conflict with a politic of inclusionary democracy and societal peace.
These oppressive policies have created tension between states and the majority of the countries’ populations, which demand their right as nations, or their religious freedom.
In the last two decades, we have observed dramatic changes, globalization and the new world order, combined with the recent events in the Middle East. Things are changing from the old reality and giving new definitions to the state and its sovereignty.
To achieve peace, stability and prosperity, countries should embrace their national, religious and geographic pluralism instead of focusing on smaller prints, like state supported religion, language and culture. Both the governing elite and the opposition parties -and coalitions belonging to social groups that dominate the existing state – should understand that either there will be shared prosperity or no prosperity.
At the moment, the Middle East is experiencing revolt and revolution to change existing structures. This time, a timely imagination of alternatives is crucial to solve national groups’ demands for recognition as nations with equal rights within existing borders. A federal structure is the answer to manage robust multinational problem. We have the good example of India, where its leaders, like Jawaharlal Nehru appreciated its religious, national, class and cast division after independence and formulated a political structure based on democratic values and a federal structure, which has developed federal and democratic institutions to solve internal problems through dialogue. While countries in the Middle East, by ignoring their diversity, have created internal, regional and international tensions. In the new millennium, a new scenario of national governance should prevail. The attributes of the new system of governance should be harmonious partnership in a republican, liberal democratic system with a federal structure and national autonomous provincial governing mechanisms. This will appropriately address the problem and offer prospects of a pleasant new partnership of trust and coexistence in a changing Middle East, and particularly in multinational countries like Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria.
A mechanism based on the acceptance of genuine demands of the constituent nations should generate participation, share responsibilities and offer opportunities to all nations providing a foundation for stronger, civilized, prosperous and proud peoples in multinational states with a new vision and a civilized image.
This paper was presented by Nasser Boladai in the Conference, organized by Mr Tunne Kelam Member of the European Parliament, EPP Group (Estonia) together with UNPO in the European Parliament: on Exploring the Path of Federalism in the Middle East, on 2 October 2013.