Iran, Ethnic Minorities NOW!

For decades discussing religion as the main challenge to modernization/  democratization has been the main focus of intellectuals and political scientists in Iran. In this article, I am trying to argue that religion/ Islam is not the main challenge in Iranian political scene anymore, but the country’s main challenge to democratization is to develop a more theoretical-pragmatic framework toward the ethnic minorities in the country. I will argue that it should become the main focus of public forum discussion for democracy making in Iran.


Modernization has been the core of intellecto-political discussions in Iran from the end of nineteenth century until present time. Iranian were asleep when the train of Modernity departed the station in Europe; as the loud noise of the locomotive woke them up, an important question was raised in their mind ‘what happened that others are on the train and we are not?’ This was the question intellectuals at the time came up with. Religion was one of the key answers.[1] According to them religion had played an important role to keep Iranians, generally Muslims, out of progress.[2] At the same time, religious leaders faced with some challenges: if the country should be modernized or not; to what extent and in which aspects this modernization should be allowed and followed; how should the process be controlled.[3] The Constitutional Revolution of 1905 was the most important move toward modernization in which public people, intellectuals, and also some of the high-ranked clergies participated. Before and after the revolution religion was the main subject of intellectual discussions and also practically played an important role in the 1905 Constitutional Revolution.

After Reza Shah’s take over in 1925, and also years after his abdication which led to crowning his son, Mohammad Reza, religion played a very invisible and minor role in Iranian political scene.[4] From 1964, Ayatollah Khomeini as a religious figure entered the political scene of Iran. Khomeini and his followers played the role of political activists/ theorist; they started discussing the political role Shia Islam can play. It is by the end of sixties, however, that Religion appeared as an Ideology. It was Ali Shariati’s writings and touching speeches that presented Shia Islam as an Ideology which is able and has to participate in politics; some other clergies of Khomeini’s followers were doing the same at this time. It is from this time that religious leaders started thinking of and somehow presenting Islam as an alternative to the Shah and his Western values. In this period of time, as religion was not participating in the political power in the country, the intellectual discussions were more to do with a positive role religion could play in politics.[5] As the communist ideology and its claims in terms of philosophy, economy, and social sciences was the hot focuses of discussions, religious ideas about economy and social justice were the main topics for intellectual debates. Interestingly, Human Rights and its relation with Islam was not the matter of intellectuals and clergies, as it was not for Marxists. These debates were the second wave of discussions about the role of religion in public space after the fist one at the time of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905.

Khomeini and his followers were able to take the control of the country after Islamic Revolution of 1979; they formed the first theocracy in the Iranian history.[6] The main stream of clergies imposed the idea that as an ideology Islam is the only righteous way to run a country. Due to the heavy bombardment of this idea, a majority of people got to believe it. It has been more than three decades that the religious government is in practice. Intellectually, it has been a great experience to see how such a system in modern time works. As time went by, little by little the Islamic government faced with serious shortcomings; some people lost their faith in possibility of a successful religious state and some others started thinking how they can reform the system for better. This second group called themselves religious intellectuals.

The practice of religious government revealed the difficulties of a theocracy in the modern time. Muslim intellectuals are products of these difficulties; they intended to solve some difficulties in Islam to adjust it with the modern form of human life; the form with which the religious government presented by traditional was of understanding religion was not able to put up. They started to investigate the role of religion in public space, subjects like religion and politics, religion and secularism, religion and human rights, religion and women rights, religion and science, religion and modern human sciences. The main project was to adjust religion with these products of modernism; to demonstrate the possibility of presenting an understanding of Islam which is not in clash with any of these ideas. This group of Muslim educated thinkers by far has been the most influential Iranian intellectuals in the post-revolution time. The most important figure of this group is Dr. Abdolkrim Soroush.[7] Due to his enormous influence, I call this period of time Soroush Era starting 1987 continues to the present time.[8] There were different reactions to the project of Muslim intellectuals, being highly appreciated by some secular intellectuals, and being considered a project destined to be a failure from the beginning by some other ones. It was harshly criticized by the clergies and state.

The project Muslim intellectuals developed were more of a theoretical forum in which they tried to present a different method to interpret Islamic texts. However, it was socio-political consequences of this forum that made it controversial in the intellectual circles and for the state. In last three decades, in dialogue with religious intellectuals all discussions have been around religion/ Islam and its role in public space. In spite of the point that the dialogue between Muslim intellectuals and secular ones is still ongoing, there has been fundamental agreement among them; the agreement that religion presence in power and law making is disastrous for both religion and politics; therefore separation between church and state is a necessity for the current political situation in Iran, and necessary for democratization in the country.  Even though there are many controversies in some details, the agreement is considerable. More important than, public opinion in Iran is in agreement with the voice of political scientists and intellectuals in their agreement with secularization of the state.[9]

Considering the current situation and the general agreement among intellectuals and political scientists in Iran, I believe that the Soroush era has ended. The necessity of the Soroush era for democracy building in Iran is gone, not because it has lost its importance but due to the mentioned agreement achieved in recent years. There are more important concerns, more practical and less theoretical, for democracy building in Iran ignored by intellectuals and political scientists at the present time. I do believe that the most important issue is the variety Iranian society enjoys in terms of its ethnicities.

Referring to the main Persian websites/ magazines in which the main concerns of political scientists and intellectuals are being discussed, we can see that they are still in Soroush era;[10] However, when one refers to the websites and social networks in which everyone is allowed to express his concerns, other issues stand out; the most visible one is the controversies related to ethnicities. What we are witnessing here, I do believe, is a difference between public understanding in terms of its priority for democracy building and the elite. Without monitoring the public opinion, the elite still is in the Soroush era.

There is a real tension in the level of public opinion in Iran; people from the so-called minor ethnicities believe there has been discrimination against them just because of their difference. It is not of big importance if the picture of the situation the minority groups draw is right or not; what matters the most is the public perception of the situation among them; if they believe there is a discrimination against them, this belief is going to be effective in the socio-political situation of the country. These so-called ethnic minorities together are forming a group as big as the majority in the country; therefore it is a real threat to the security and territorial integrity of Iran.[11] Therefore, it is the high time to listen to their concerns; to go on a dialogue with the public and elite of these groups. And certainly it is not the time to dismiss the problem or reduce it to the Islamic Republic false policies.

I believe putting this matter in the focus of political scientists and intellectuals can have several results: [12] first of all, the minority groups can feel that there is a sympathy with them in terms of their painful problems; secondly, there will be an environment in which the problems of ethnic minorities will be more and more clarified, the political positions of each political/social group will be known by others; also we will move toward drawing a more concrete picture of a more-democratic Iran in future; hopefully, this focus will also put the Islamic Republic under more pressure to start some reforms in its policies toward ethnic minorities all around the country.

[1] There were other answers, like Qanoon (law), which was absent in Iranian society and political system, or the despotism of kings of Qajar. First Iranian intellectuals suggested different answers…..

[2] We can find extensive discussion about religion and its role in the works of late nineteenth century Iranian forces of modernization; from an approach of reform in religion to rejecting it as a very primitive way of thought, as superstitious, Malkam khan, ….

[3] We can see the controversies between Akhoonde khorasani and Naini in one side and Fazlolahe Noori and Kazem Yazdi in another side.

[4] Even though in 1951-3, Ayatoallah Kashani was a strong presence in Iranian politics, we cannot consider it a very important character and his religious side strong.

[5] Al-e-Ahmad and Shariati are the best examples of this approach toward religion. Marxist intellectuals, however, were against thinking of any positive role religion can play in politics. At this time, Human Rights concerns are to a very large extent absent from intellectual discussions.

[6] Like other countries, religion has been a main source of power in Iran next to the crown; Shia clergies began to be one of the main sources of power in socio-political structure of Iran from Safavid Kingdom; it was during Qajar Dynasty that their power was even more than before, to the extent that they were able to impose their will on the crown.

[7] Beyond a shadow of doubt, Soroush is the most creative and influential thinker in post revolution Iran; I want to go further and call him the most creative thinker in Modern Iran.

[8] In 1987, first controversial articles in which Abdo al-Karim Soroush began criticizing the traditional method of interpreting Muslim sacred texts appeared on Kayhan Farhangi; in response to his ideas, so many books and articles were published in newly appeared magazines by conservatives in Iran.

[9] I am completely aware of ongoing discussions and controversies but I do believe that the agreement among secular and Muslim intellectuals is much more than their disagreements. In the concept of secularization of the state, they all in agreement but there are disagreement which is existent in all around the world and it is not easy to solve the disagreement in that level.

[10] The most famous websites and newspapers are: Gooya News, Jaras, Zamaneh, Pargar in BBC Persian, Shargh news paper, Mehrnameh and Shahrvand Magazines,………..

[11] Iranian Ethnic Groups according to CIA Factbook: Persian 51%, Azeri 24%, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8%, Kurd 7%, Arab 3%, Lur 2%, Baluch 2%, Turkmen 2%, other 1%

[12] Definitely there are ongoing discussions, but there are two points; first, discussions are not at an academic level; secondly the matter is approached more subjectively instead of trying to be objective. This important matter has been discussed mostly by extremists from both sides who generally are less qualified for an important matter like this problem in Iran. Scholarship in this field is rare.