The Struggle for Equality in Iranian Azerbaijan

Habib Azarsina

As Western media has focused on Iran's nuclear program, Iran's authoritarian government has continued its policy of cracking down on any form of dissent. Civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion, continue to be severely restricted.

All Iranians suffer from such restrictions by the central government of the Islamic Republic. However, Iran's non-Persian ethnic groups are subject to even more restrictions and discrimination. Azerbaijani Iranians, which are the second largest ethnic group, are no exception. A new wave of arrests has hit the Iranian Azerbaijan activists. Scores of students, journalists, and women's rights activists have been arrested under false accusations and trumped up charges. Plain-clothes officers often seize activists without warning and hold them incommunicado in detention centers for several days before permitting them to contact family members.
The human rights monitoring organizations such as Amnesty International have issued several appeals for the release of the Azerbaijani Human Rights activists. In interviews with Voice of America (VOA), and other mass media organizations, Fakhteh Zamani, director of the Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran (ADAPP), has talked about the plight of Azerbaijani activists. According to Ms. Zamani, all Azerbaijani activists are demanding their constitutional rights for education in their mother tongue, the Azerbaijani-Turkish. ADAPP and ASMEK, two organizations defending rights of Azerbaijani political prisoners in Iran, have reported that in February and March of 2009, security forces belonging to the secret service (Ettelaat) of the Islamic republic have intensified their activities in cities of Ardebil, Tabriz, Maragheh, and Zanjan in Iranian Azerbaijan.

Restrictions on Activities of Women’s Rights Defenders in Tabriz

Azerbaijani women face the same issues that all women in Iran face in their daily lives. They are denied equal rights in marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. However, in provinces outside of Tehran, the Iranian authorities place even more restrictions on activities of defenders of women's rights. One of the feminist activists in the Azerbaijan area who has been arrested and imprisoned on several occasions is Shahnaz Gholami. Ms. Gholami is a prominent blogger and a member of the Women Journalists Organization (RZA). Before her release in March she was on a hunger strike protesting mistreatment of political prisoners in Iran. Ms. Gholami had been sentenced to six months imprisonment by Branch 1 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in the city of Tabriz. She had been charged with propaganda against the Islamic State by publishing anti-government articles. In the court session Ms. Gholami had defended herself and rejected the charges. Previously she was imprisoned for five years for her political activities from 1989 to 1994. Also, in August 2007, Ms. Gholami was detained for about one month for her participation in the ceremonies marking the anniversary of the massive protests of May 2006 when hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis protested publication of a cartoon in a government newspaper depicting Azerbaijanis as cockroaches.

Another prominent Azerbaijani Women's Rights Activist, Faranak Farid, was summoned to Tabriz intelligence office in November 2008. Ms. Farid wasn’t allowed to participate in the women’s rights conference in Turkey. She was invited to speak at a three day conference on women rights issues in Iran, Turkey, and Azerbaijan, which was scheduled to start on November 28, 2008.

Plight of religious minorities among the Azerbaijanis

Azerbaijanis are mostly Shi’a Muslims. However, in Iranian Azerbaijan there are people whose mother tongue is Azerbaijani-Turkish, but they have a different religion or belong to a different sect of Islam. Baha’is, and followers of the Bab, fall into this category and discriminations against them have been well documented and discussed in Western media. However, there are other smaller religious minorities in Western Azerbaijan province who have been discriminated against for decades and currently face persecution. Two such religious minorities are Kurasunni and Ahli-Haqq, or Alevites (called Goran by Shi’a Azerbaijanis). The Kurasunni are Azerbaijanis who are Sunni and speak Azerbaijani with a slightly different accent. They live in and around Urmia, Salmas and other cities in Western Azerbaijan province. They have been subject to discrimination by Azerbaijanis on the basis of religion (being Sunni rather than Shi’a) and by non-Azerbaijanis on the basis of their mother tongue. The most recent major confrontation of the Kurasunni with security forces happened in January of 2009 in the village of Qizil Kheneye (meaning “Red Mansion” in Azerbaijani). The conflict started over water rights and the construction of new water canals which would reduce the flow of irrigation water to the village. According to news reports from the area, about 400 residents of the village clashed with security forces. The fighting lasted for hours and the major highway between Urmia and Salmas was closed. The unusual traffic jam caused by the fighting brought the issues of the villagers to center of attention. Many villagers were wounded, many more were arrested. The issues have not yet been resolved.

Another religious minority among Azerbaijanis are the Goran, who are also known as Ahli-Haqq or Alevites. They live in villages near Miyandoab, Urmia, and other cities in Western Azerbaijan province. The men of Ahli-Haqq are known for keeping long moustaches and are distinguished by these moustaches. Shaving their moustache is considered an insult to their religious beliefs. They attach great importance to Imam Ali and hence are called Alevites. They are accused by Shiites of worshiping Imam Ali and elevating him to the status of God. Alevites have lived for centuries in their own communities, however, after the Islamic Revolution their confrontations with the government have increased. Immediately following the Revolution, the Revolutionary Guards cut the moustaches off of several Alevite men and started new tensions between them and the majority Shiites. Later, tensions eased and for years there were no confrontations. However, four years ago, when a new conscript from the Alevites was drafted for compulsory military service, authorities attempted to cut his moustache off and when the new draftee refused to cooperate, a new confrontation started. The village of Uch Tepe (meaning “Three Hills” in Azerbaijani) near Miandoab, became a battleground between government forces and Alevite residents. The battle continued for two days and twelve people, six from each side, were killed. Dozens of residents of Uch Tepe were arrested and prosecuted. Six of them were sentenced to death. Later an appeal court reduced the sentence for four of them to life imprisonment and sent them to a prison in city of Yazd. One of the reaming two, Mehdi Qasimzadeh (Ghasemzadeh) was executed in Urmia on February 28, 2009. He was 27. The authorities of the Islamic republic remained indifferent to various calls for clemency by international organizations. The sixth man from Uch Tepe Alevites, Yunis Aghayan, is on death row in Urmia prison.

Banning the use of Azerbaijani names
The policy of Persian supremacy adopted by the Pahlavi dynasty during the second and third quarters of the 20th century has been continued by the government of the Islamic Republic after a short break during the Islamic revolution in 1979. The government agencies even resorted to changing the names of geographical areas, mountains, rivers, and neighborhoods. For example the original Azerbaijani name of a mountain in Eastern Azerbaijan province has been changed from "Boz Qush" (Grey Bird) to the Persian name of "Boz Kosh" (Goat Killer). Another example is changing the original Azerbaijani name of the historic neighborhood of "Devechi" (Camel Herders) to Persian word of "Shotorban" with the same name. These changes appear on maps, signs, and official documentation; however, the locals keep using the original names when they refer to such places. A few years ago, government authorities attempted to change the Azerbaijani names for the islands of Lake Urmia and sent an order to schools of the region to start using the new Persian names. However, the order leaked to the public and was posted to opposition websites. This caused a backlash and massive protests and the local authorities announced that the names of the islands have not changed and the original names are still official.

Birth registration offices go through a list of approved names and, if the name given by the parents is not on the list, the official refused to issue a birth certificate with that name and would suggest a different name; in most cases a Persian name. Eventually the parents are left with no choice but to accept the proposed name or risk not having a birth certificate for their child. Names of shops and places of business are also being scrutinized. Giving popular Azerbaijani names to shops is good for business. It instantly draws attention and brings more customers. However, it also gets the attention of the local government officials who force the owner to change the name and adapt a name which will get the approval of the higher authorities. In fall of 2008, owners of three businesses in Tabriz were forced to change the names of their stores from Azerbaijani names to Persian names. Two years ago an outspoken Tabrizi member of parliament, Dr. Aalami, protested the government's actions on this issue. However, this policy still continues and the central and local authorities discourage local business owners from giving Azerbaijani names to their businesses. Recently there have been more cases of well publicized name changing in cities of Tabriz, Bonab, and Ardebil. Abbas Lisani, a prominent Azerbaijani activist is facing the same issue now. He has been given a deadline to change the Azerbaijani name of his store in Ardebil to a Persian name or face the closure of his store.

Azerbaijani music has thrived under pressure of Islamic Government

Despite restrictions by Islamic state authorities on music, Azerbaijani music has survived and thrived in Iran. Numerous groups of musicians, singers, and dancers have been created in Tabriz, Urmia, Ardebil, Zanjan, and other cities in the Azerbaijani region. They perform at weddings and other social events. Satellite TV programs from the Republic of Azerbaijan and Turkey have had a big impact on the growth and popularity of Azerbaijani music. This obviously cannot be ignored by central authorities who order the local authorities in provinces with large Azerbaijani population to place restrictions on playing Azerbaijani music in public places. In March 2009 local authorities in Tabriz closed down the Azerbaijan Music School. This school has been managed by prominent musician Hasan Demirchi and does have an official license to teach Azerbaijani music. At the time that it was ordered to be shut down it had 12 music teachers and 180 students. The school, and Mr. Damirchi himself, have trained many talented singers and musicians who have had concerts throughout Iran and have won prizes, even from Iranian State organizations. Over the years the Azerbaijan Music School has become a symbol of national pride for Iranian Azerbaijanis. The school was operating for years but had been closed and reopened several times in the past. This time around the wave of restrictions hit them hard and they might not be able to reopen.

A tragic event which made Azerbaijani activists more determined

A tragedy in October of 2008 caused another spike in mistrust between local and central authorities and Azerbaijani activists. A former political prisoner and veteran activist in the area of cultural rights for ethnic groups, died in a mysterious car accident. Gholamreza Amani, who was a hero to many Azerbaijani activists, was returning from a funeral in the city of Ahar in Eastern Azerbaijan province when his car was struck by a truck. Mr. Amani was driving his personal car and two of his brothers were also in the car when the accident happened. His brothers died on the scene and he died hours later in a hospital in Tabriz. His death angered many Azerbaijani activists. Hundreds of people participated in his funeral and chanted slogans demanding justice and cultural rights for Azerbaijanis in Iran. According to eyewitnesses police and revolutionary gourds watched the event with tolerance and did not intervene. Gholamreza Amani spent 5 years in prison for advocating linguistic and cultural rights of Azerbaijanis. He was considered one of the leaders of Azerbaijani cultural rights activists.

Iran could have an Azerbaijani president this summer

Iran will have presidential elections in June. President Ahmadinejad is facing a tough reelection battle. One of his major opponents is Mir Hussein Mousavi, the former Prime Minister who was in office during the Iran-Iraq war. Mr. Mousavi, who is an Azerbaijani from Tabriz, is very popular among most Iranians and has a good shot at the presidency. What does Mr. Mousavi think about Azerbaijanis' cultural rights? If answering for him, one can say that, at a minimum, he does not tolerate any insults against Azerbaijanis and he gives speeches in Azerbaijani when he is in an Azerbaijan region. Another serious candidate is Ayatollah Karrubi who has openly advocated granting cultural rights for all ethnic groups and implementing articles 15 and 19 of the constitution of the Islamic Republic, which guarantees such rights. Elections at the national level in Iran have brought the issues of Human Rights in general, and cultural rights of the ethnic minorities in particular, to the center of attention of the electorate and the candidates. Ayatollah Karrubi has started the debate in his pre-election campaign and other candidates will have to declare their position on an issue which is very important for at least half of the voters.

The struggle for Equal Rights continues

It is true that Azerbaijanis are well integrated into Iranian society and are the second ruling ethnic group after the Persians. However, when it comes to cultural matters they suffer from the same issues that most other non-Persian ethnic groups do. And just like the Kurds, the Arabs, the Balouchi, and the Turkmans, they have been struggling for equal rights for decades and their struggle continues to this very day. One distinction in the struggle of the Azerbaijanis for their rights is their use of peaceful means. Azerbaijani activists avoid any violence and stage lawful demonstrations and campaigns allowed by the constitution of the Islamic Republic. Most Azerbaijani activists advocate cultural rights, and for them the use of Azerbaijani Turkish in schools and government offices has high priority.