Discrimination Against South Azerbaijani Turkic People in Iran

The South Azerbaijani Turkic people are a significant ethnic group in Iran, with an estimated population of 25-30 million. They primarily reside in the northwestern region of South Azerbaijan and have a rich and ancient history dating back to the pre-Islamic period. Despite this, their native language, Azerbaijani Turkish, is not recognized as official in Iran, resulting in limited use in government and public life. This has led to various forms of discrimination against them, including cultural, linguistic, economic, political, and social bias. The struggles of the South Azerbaijani Turkic people highlight the importance of respecting and valuing diversity in all societies.

During the Pahlavi era, the government implemented Persianization policies to suppress non-Persian cultures and languages, including Azerbaijani Turkish. This resulted in denying access to education in their native language and cultural assimilation efforts. The South Azerbaijani Turkic people have faced challenges throughout history, including discrimination and marginalization by the Iranian government.

Protests and demonstrations have occurred in Azerbaijan over issues such as language rights, discrimination, and economic inequality. The Iranian government has responded with repression, including arrests and imprisonment of activists. The Azerbaijani poet Shahryar’s case exemplifies the South Azerbaijani Turkic people’s struggles in Iran, as he faced persecution and censorship due to his use of Azerbaijani Turkish in his poetry.

Cultural Discrimination

Cultural discrimination against the South Azerbaijani Turkic people in Iran is a persistent issue, as their rich cultural heritage is often marginalized and overlooked. The Iranian government has historically prioritized Persian culture and language at the expense of other cultures, including the South Azerbaijani Turkic people. This has resulted in denying the right to celebrate cultural events and preventing speaking their language in public spaces. The South Azerbaijani Turkic people have also been subjected to ethnic jokes and ridicule of their accents on radio, television, and official newspapers.

One of the ways cultural discrimination manifests itself is by destroying historical monuments and cultural sites important to the South Azerbaijani Turkic people. The Iranian government has either destroyed or neglected many of these sites, erasing the cultural identity and history of the South Azerbaijani Turkic people.

The Iranian government has engaged in further discriminatory practices aimed at erasing the cultural heritage of Azerbaijan and humiliating the South Azerbaijani Turkic people. For example, the government has falsely introduced the famous hand-woven carpets of Azerbaijan to the world under the name Persian rug, thus erasing the cultural identity and history of the South Azerbaijani Turkic people. Furthermore, textbooks often portray Turkic rulers as low and incompetent, perpetuating their cultural identity’s erasure. Additionally, the government has prohibited using Turkish names for Azerbaijani children, denying them the right to express their cultural identity from an early age.

Moreover, traditional musicians of Azerbaijan are frequently humiliated on television shows, devaluing the importance and worth of their cultural heritage. These discriminatory practices violate the fundamental human rights of the South Azerbaijani Turkic people and contribute to their feelings of alienation and exclusion.

Linguistic Discrimination

The South Azerbaijani Turkic people in Iran have long suffered from linguistic discrimination. Despite their large numbers, the Iranian government has refused to recognize Azerbaijani Turkish as an official language and has banned its use in official documents and education. Consequently, the South Azerbaijani Turkic community has reported facing punishment for speaking their native language in public spaces. Their accent has been the target of ridicule in various media outlets.

According to Amnesty International’s report, the discrimination faced by the South Azerbaijani Turks is systematic and involves a longstanding policy of linguistic assimilation. The Iranian government has even banned teaching Azerbaijani Turkish in schools and universities, preventing the language from being passed down to future generations. In addition, the government has restricted the use of non-Persian languages in the public sphere, including in the media. It has banned the use of non-Persian names for businesses and organizations.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran reports that non-Persian mother languages are treated as a “national security threat” in Iran, leading to significant discrimination against the South Azerbaijani Turkic people. The Iranian government’s bias against the South Azerbaijani Turkic people violates their fundamental human rights, denying them the opportunity to express their cultural identity and hindering their ability to access education and employment opportunities.

Economic Discrimination

The South Azerbaijani Turkic people have faced economic discrimination, including being underrepresented in high-paying jobs and denied access to economic opportunities. The Iranian government has been accused of providing less funding and resources to the northwestern region of the country, where the majority of the South Azerbaijani Turkic people reside.

According to a report by the Minority Rights Group, the South Azerbaijani Turks suffer from higher poverty rates and are underrepresented in high-paying jobs and decision-making positions. The report also notes that the Iranian government has been accused of discrimination in hiring practices, with South Azerbaijani Turks being underrepresented in government jobs and other high-paying positions.

Similarly, a report by United Nations highlights that Iran’s ethnic minorities, including the South Azerbaijani Turks, face widespread discrimination and unequal access to employment, education, and other social services. The report notes that discrimination in the economic sphere has contributed to poverty and economic disadvantage among the South Azerbaijani Turkic people.

In addition to underrepresentation in high-paying jobs, South Azerbaijani Turkic people have also been denied economic opportunities, particularly in entrepreneurship and small business ownership. According to a report by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, the Iranian government has imposed restrictions on the use of the Azerbaijani language in business and commercial activities, which has limited the ability of South Azerbaijani Turkic people to conduct business in their language. The report also notes that the government has seized property owned by community members, particularly those involved in activism or cultural activities.

Moreover, the discriminatory economic policies and practices towards the South Azerbaijani Turkic people have contributed to a widening financial gap between this community and the Persian-speaking majority. According to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, poverty rates are significantly higher among ethnic minorities in Iran, including the South Azerbaijani Turks. The report notes that economic discrimination has limited the ability of ethnic minorities to participate fully in the country’s economic life, resulting in entrenched poverty and marginalization.

Political Discrimination

South Azerbaijani Turkic people in Iran face political discrimination, including underrepresentation in government and restricted access to political opportunities. The Iranian government has been accused of suppressing political dissent among ethnic and religious minorities, including South Azerbaijani Turks. This has led to a lack of representation and participation in the political sphere, with reports of arrests and detentions of activists who advocate for their rights.

They are not allowed to form political parties; any attempt is met with harsh government repression. For instance, the New South Azerbaijan Awakening Movement Party (YeniGAMOH) tried registering with the Ministry of Interior. Still, the Iranian government’s response was to arrest all the central members of the party and sentence them to long-term prison terms, accusing them of threatening national security. These unjust convictions have resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of many Azerbaijani activists in Iran.

Political discrimination violates their right to equal representation in government and participation in the political process. It also results in a need for recognition and respect for their political and cultural heritage. Discrimination must be addressed and eradicated to create a society that values and celebrates diversity.

Social Discrimination

Social discrimination against the South Azerbaijani Turkic people is a pervasive problem in Iran. The Iranian government has been accused of promoting negative stereotypes about South Azerbaijani culture and identity and attempting to assimilate the children of South Azerbaijani Turkic people by using only the Farsi language in local networks.

According to a report by the Minority Rights Group, South Azerbaijani Turks continue to face discrimination and prejudice in society, with negative stereotypes and derogatory comments still common. South Azerbaijani Turkic people have reported being denied access to public services and amenities, facing discriminatory hiring practices, and exclusion from decision-making positions in both the public and private sectors.

Furthermore, the South Azerbaijani Turkic people have also faced discrimination and violence in the form of hate crimes. According to a report by Amnesty International, South Azerbaijani Turks have been physically attacked by individuals or groups based on their ethnicity and cultural identity. Hate crimes against South Azerbaijani Turkic people often go unpunished, leading to a lack of accountability for those responsible.

The impact of Discrimination

The discrimination faced by the South Azerbaijani Turkic people in Iran has significantly impacted their well-being and their ability to participate fully in Iranian society. The bias has led to a sense of action and exclusion, resulting in poverty and economic disadvantage among both groups. Linguistic, political, and social discrimination has also limited their access to education, political participation, and social opportunities.

The discriminatory practices against Azerbaijani people in Iran violate the fundamental principles of human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the right to equality before the law, the right to education, the right to freedom of expression and association, and the right to participate in government. Discrimination based on ethnic identity, language, and culture violates dignity and undermines the principles of democracy and pluralism.

The Iranian government must take corrective measures to address these issues. These measures should include promoting cultural and linguistic diversity, providing economic opportunities and adequate funding and resources to the country’s northwestern region, and respecting the right to freedom of expression and association. The Iranian government can create a more inclusive and just society for all its citizens by taking these measures.

The discrimination has also fueled political activism and increasing desires for independence among the youth of Azerbaijan. The Iranian government’s policies of linguistic assimilation and cultural suppression must be addressed and eradicated to create a more inclusive and equitable society. Failure to do so will only lead to further tensions and potentially violent conflict.

Most political activists and parties in Azerbaijan believe that the only way to end discrimination and gain recognition of their rights is by forming a national government for Azerbaijanis. This would allow them greater autonomy and control over their cultural expression and political participation.

It remains to be seen how the Iranian government will respond to the demands of the South Azerbaijani Turkic people and the Azerbaijani people and whether they will take action to address and end the systemic discrimination against them. While some activists and political parties in Azerbaijan may see the formation of a national government as the only solution, it is essential to note that any calls for independence would likely face significant opposition and potential conflict.

[Photo by Mardetanha, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Babek Chalabi is a South Azerbaijani activist based in Washington DC; Chalabi also is the founder of ArazNews.org. He tweets at @BabekChelebi. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect TGP’s editorial stance.

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