Tag Archives: Kurds

A step in the right direction for Iran’s forgotten languages

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

On May 27, the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution – a powerful institution in Iranian cultural politics – took a very interesting step. Resolution 2950-88 declares that relevant universities are to be allowed to create two academic units worth of non-obligatory courses in the languages and literatures of ‘native tongues and dialects’. In other words, Iran is going to allow native non-Persian languages to be taught on a regular university level in several provinces. In particular, officials have mentioned Azeri, Kurdish, Turkmen and Baluchi as relevant to the resolution. As far as I can see from the sparse media coverage of the issue, the resolution is not necessarily limited to these languages.

The resolution is interesting for several reasons. First of all, language is at the center of the growing movement for ethnic rights among Iran’s many minorities. The resolution is clearly a concession to this movement and a high level recognition of the demand among minority proponents for the government to implement Article 15 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution. This article stipulates that while Persian is to be the national language of Iran, local languages can be used in education and media. However, there have in effect always been limitations on and discrimination against the public use of ethnic minority languages in Iran.

Secondly, the resolution is important since it is exactly that: a resolution, and not just a proposal. Even though critics were quick to point out that it seemed very much like propaganda in the last days before the elections, the resolution is nonetheless passed and have been publicized. Even if we can expect major delays in its implementation, it will be hard for the ruling elites of the Islamic Republic to back down on this promise. The resolution was passed in the name of ‘strengthening and securing national unity’. The state is clearly aware that minority rights are an explosive issue. They want to preempt a full-fledged ethnic crisis.

Thirdly, we could maybe even call the resolution historic. Under the Pahlavi regime, ethnic minority languages were presented in official state discourse as despised remnants of foreign barbarism and medieval ignorance to be rapidly replaced with the pure Persian tongue of the ‘Aryans’. Tribal populations were subdued, Persian language strictly enforced and kids caught talking in their mother tongues in public schools were punished. The avant-garde of the 1978-9 Islamic Revolution promised freedom for all, language rights and multi-ethnic harmony, which never materialized. Minority media have only been able to work sporadically and under severe pressure, intimidation and repression; intellectuals and poets expressing themselves in non-Persian indigenous languages have been monitored and censored; and until recently, there was no institutionalized academic study of any of these languages in Iranian universities.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that there has already been much skepticism about the resolution. Detractors argue that the resolution falls short of the demands of the ethnic movement: they want public education in the mother tongues from elementary school and up. They argue that in minority regions, children never learn Persian properly because they are analphabets in their own languages. They are supported by studies that clearly show the importance of mother language education for bi-lingual children.

Many remain skeptic if the resolution should even be seen as a sincere move. It is suspicious that it was passed on the eve of the elections and with the attendance of Ahmadinejad himself. Indeed, all opposition candidates talked openly about the ethnic issue and Musavi even promised a similar resolution. This may be no more than Ahmadinejad’s symbolic gesture towards voters amongst the discontented minorities.

Maybe the resolution will just end up somewhere in the vast bureaucracy or turn out in just a couple of showcase examples. Furthermore, it certainly does not look good that it is the Cultural Academy for Persian Language and Literature that is going to decide what languages are suitable and then design courses (even though they are to make these decisions in cooperation with another committee). It would also have been a good idea to set up an open process of cooperation with scholars and intellectuals, and to do some research into resources and perspectives, before announcing the resolution. It does not seem that the Council have done any of this.

It is going to be difficult to live up to the promises inherent in the resolution in a short period. Difficult, but not impossible: there are quite a lot of unofficial teaching materials in Azeri and Kurdish. However, the Islamic Republic will have to be willing to invest in updating and developing new materials, standardizing grammars, training teachers and cooperating with institutions in the Republic of Azerbaijan and maybe Iraq – and with scholars outside the region.

It is, for example, going to interesting to see if Iran is willing to teach with materials such as that of Baku, which is written not in the Iranian Turkic-Arabic alphabet but in the Latin (Azərbaycan əlifbası) alphabet. This would also create some interesting complications regarding the differences between what can be called Northern and Southern Azeri (and maybe even the future emergence of a Standard Azeri?). Furthermore, will there be two sets of teaching materials for the Kurds – one in Kurmanji and one in Sorani?

It will be even more interesting to see what the state will do with Baluchi and Turkmen: languages that have barely been studied and taught in Iran before, and languages that still need much academic attention and research. Iran will be able to learn something from their Turkmen neighbors in Ashgabat – but again, there is the Latin / Arabic divide. As far as I know, Baluchi is not taught in universities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iranian Turkmen and Baluchi have only recently become literary languages. A whole new branch of academic studies will have to be created. The list of interesting, inter-related questions continues…

But most interesting is that it would put the Iranian state in a precarious position of involuntarily supporting the trend towards increased communication and exchange over the borders that separates these ethnic groups. The alternative is that the Iranian state will develop a half-baked, amateurish set of teaching materials – maybe even of the heavily Persianized kind that made Iranian Azeris protest over the early state radio and TV programming in their mother tongue. That would surely be the recipe for disaster and one must expect the Cultural Academy to be more foresighted than that.

One can only hope that the Iranian state will live up to this new promise. Even though it is far from what proponents of the ethnic movement desire, it is a step in the right direction that will help strengthen national unity.

I’m intrigued. If anyone receives any new information from Iranian universities when the new semester begins, please let me know. I, for one, would love to see a brand new, standardized, government-approved Iranian set of teaching materials in Baluchi and Turkmen!

Lack of coordination in Turkish foreign policy?

Lack of coordination in Turkish foreign policy, or the revival of a familiar division of labor?

by Daniella Kuzmanovic.

Friday the 27th of March brought to the fore two contrasting answers to the question of the Turkish stance on the issue of whether Danish Prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is to become general secretary of NATO.

First, President Abdullah Gül used his visit to Brussels to express that Turkey had no particular objections to any of the persons mentioned in relation to the NATO post, and that Mr. Rasmussen had served well as prime minister of Denmark. President Gül, hence, gave the impression that the reluctances, previously expressed by both anonymous Turkish officials and by senior AKP official Suat Kiniklioglu, were no longer standing in the way of Mr. Rasmussen taking up the NATO post. In other words Gül gave the clear impression that Turkey was now ready to fall in line with all other NATO allies, and support Mr. Rasmussen.

Later in the evening, however, prime minister Erdoğan came out on Turkish news channel NTV and claimed that he would have great difficulties telling his fellow countrymen how come Mr. Rasmussen would be such a good candidate, given his lack of diplomacy during the cartoon crises and given the inability of the Danish authorities to deal with ROJ TV, which Turkey accuses of supporting PKK terror. Erdoğan, thus, gave the impression that the Turkish government is still considering a veto against Mr. Rasmussen, is he to announce his candidature, and that the party in office has not at all decided whether they will fall in line.

What are we to make of these two contradicting statements? Does it simply reveal a complete lack of foreign political coordination between the office of the prime minister and that of the president? Or could there perhaps be some sort of explanation for these various statements? Even though Abdullah Gül is now president of the republic, and hence no longer officially part of the AKP, one must assume there to be some sort of communication between the president and the prime minister. Not least given that these two persons have been key figures and worked closely together with regard to the establishment of the AKP, and with regard to shaping AKP policies.

From 2002, when AKP took office, until 2007, Gül was foreign minister for AKP and thus the face of the party in office on the international stage. During those years an interesting division of labor could be observed on several occasions. Erdoğan would primarily concentrate on what he does best, namely domestic policies and voter mobilization in Turkey, whereas Gül would concentrate on what he is good at, namely international diplomacy. The two men each has his characteristic political personality and qualities. Erdoğan is the populist able to rally support in large sections of Turkish society, Gül is rather the diplomat able to cater and communicate to Western audiences.

An example of this division of labor could be seen during the Turkish attempt to achieve access negotiations with the EU in the period 2002-2004. Erdoğan was the one telling international diplomacy how the EU clearly had double-standards with regard to Turkey, and was the one up on the barricades when too much was demanded of Turkey from the EU. Gül was the one who then smoothed things over, when Erdoğan had stirred things up and upset the European countries.

This kind of double signaling was also an attempt to cater to various political audiences. At home AKP could not be seen as simply putting their heels together and accepting whatever demand the EU made. This would upset a number of skeptical voters and the opposition, who would accuse the AKP of not being able to look out for national interest and of looking weak vis-a-vis the European countries. As AKP was simultaneously attempting to develop ties with a number of Muslim countries in order to play a role as a moderator between the West and the Muslim world, display of weakness and a too-eager-to-please stance could also make Turkey look too Western and much too less Muslim. At the same time, however, Turkey still needed to remain on good foot with both the European countries and the US. They also needed to show to the various European publics that Turkey belonged in the European realm by mastering the art of diplomacy and compromising. In such a context the Erdoğan-Gül combination of hard talk and diplomatic soothing had some effect.

With this in mind, one could ask if Erdoğan and Gül are attempting to do something similar in relation to the issue of who is to be general secretary of NATO. At least, one could claim, Turkey is facing equally many and diverse political audiences with stakes in this issue. At home simply falling in line and not looking out for national interest is never popular. Moreover, a majority of Turks were indeed insulted by what they believe to be Mr. Rasmussen’s lack of diplomatic skills when it came to handling the Cartoon crisis.

Turkey, it must be said, is heading towards local elections (to be held on 29th of March). The campaign, though, has been much more related to issues pertaining to the national political agenda rather than concerned with local questions, and Erdoğan has moreover put himself centre stage in the campaign in order to duplicate the success of the national elections in 2007, where AKP received 47 percent of the votes. In order to repeat the 2007 success he has to keep his voters mobilized. A critical stance towards Mr. Rasmussen in the current situation helps in this regard.

At the same time a critical stance towards Mr. Rasmussen, as I have written in an earlier article on this blog, is crucial in order for the AKP to maintain a good reputation in the Muslim world, where Mr. Rasmussen is not particularly popular. At the same time, however, Turkey still has to remain on good terms with their Western allies including the US, particularly if they envision an entrusted role for themselves as moderator and facilitator between the West and the Muslim world. They therefore must at the same time display willingness to be part of international diplomacy and the culture of compromises.

In other words, one could ask whether a familiar division of labor between Erdoğan and Gül is being revived in order to cater to the many political audiences listening in on the ongoing debates over who is to be the next general secretary of NATO.

US: PJAK are terrorists – Obama Iran overture?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Yesterday, the US Treasury branded the Kurdish guerilla group PJAK a terrorist group. PJAK has been a menace to the Islamic Republic for years. Is this a sign of the Obama administration’s overture to the Iranians?

Even though it has tried to present itself as an independent organization and as a pro-democratic grassroots movement, the PJAK is clearly an integrated part of the militant Kurdish organization PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state for 25 years. PJAK is seen as the ‘Iranian version’ of PKK. For years, it has waged a war of skirmishes and ambushes against Iran, killing scores of Revolutionary Guards and border patrols. In 2005, PJAK killed more than a hundred Iranian soldiers; and on April 3, 2006, alone, it killed 24 members of the Islamic Republic’s security forces in retaliation for the killing of Kurdish demonstrators. The declared aim – at least until recently – has been to fight for the rights of Iran’s Kurds, who make up some 7% of the population.

Now, the US– after years of Iranian accusations of US support for anti-Iranian groups such as the PJAK – has branded the organization as terrorist. The US Treasury stated yesterday that it had

“… designated the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), a Kurdish group operating in the border region between Iraq and Iran, under Executive Order 13224 for being controlled by the terrorist group Kongra-Gel (KGK, aka the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK)

The KGK leadership authorized certain Iranian-Kurdish KGK members to create a KGK splinter group that would portray itself as independent from but allied with KGK. PJAK was created to appeal to Iranian Kurds. KGK formally institutionalized PJAK in 2004 and selected five KGK members to serve as PJAK leaders, including Hajji Ahmadi, a KGK affiliate who became PJAK’s General Secretary. KGK leaders also selected the members of PJAK’s 40-person central committee. Although certain PJAK members objected to the KGK selecting their leaders, the KGK advised that PJAK had no choice.

As of April 2008, KGK leadership controlled PJAK and allocated personnel to the group. Separately, PJAK members have carried out their activities in accordance with orders received from KGK senior leaders. In one instance, PJAK’s armed wing, the East Kurdistan Defense Forces, had been acting independently in Iran. KGK senior leaders immediately intervened, however, and recalled the responsible PJAK officials to northern Iraq.”

According to this statement, the US will freeze the group’s assets and prohibit American citizens from doing business with it.

Seen as a common threat, ‘Axis of Evil’ member Iran and NATO-member Turkey have actually been cooperating in the fight against PKK/PJAK. Since 2006, this has led to Iranian and Turkish air and land raid across the border and well into Iraq, where the Kurds are enjoying near-autonomy. The PJAK base at Qandil Mountain in northern Iraq has been the main target for these attacks – but there have also been signs that Ankara and Tehran have cooperated in the border between Turkey and Iran. Experts have feared that Iranian incursions into Iraq could escalate into an open confrontation between US/Iraqi/Kurdish forces on one side, and the Iranian forces on the other. Iranian media even reported last year that the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan had appealed to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i to stop shelling Kurdish villages in Iraq.

It is furthermore interesting (but maybe not that surprising) that this US Treasury declaration has been framed within the context of US-Turkish relations, not US-Iran relations. While it is true that a broad segment of the Turkish population harbors increasingly hostile sentiments towards the US – in particular over the question of US support for the Kurds in Iraq – and while it is true that PJAK is a part of the PKK and therefore an enemy of the Turkish state, it is important to remember that the PJAK’s declared goal has been to fight Iran: it is Iran’s citizens (or military forces), not Turkey’s, that are (or were) PJAK’s targets. Therefore, the decision to brand PJAK a terrorist group can be interpreted more as a present to the Iranians than to the Turks.

However, the US decision also raises many questions. It is, for example, very odd how it is stated in the press release that “in one instance”, the PJAK had acted independently in Iran. What did the Treasury mean by “in one instance”, “independently” and “as of April 2008”? It seems to suggest that PJAK foot soldiers have tried to separate itself from PKK command.

Nonetheless, the (PKK?) decision to withdraw PJAK from Iran has been surfaced before. Since fall 2008, there have been reports of a decline in PJAK activities. On January 13, 2009, Iranian Entekhâb News quoted a report in the Turkish Aksam daily that Iran had “destroyed” the PJAK and that therefore, the group had declared an end to its “separatist activities”. Indeed, Entekhâb claimed that PJAK would not aim at the secession of Kurds from the states of Iran, Turkey, Iraq or Syria any longer.

Iranian state media has of course picked up the story. The state-run news agency added to its report that

“The PJAK party is, after the Hypocrite Group [that is, Mojahedin-e Khalq], the second anti-Iranian terrorist group to be placed on US lists over terrorist groups”

Under the heading “The US government’s belated confession to the terrorist nature of PJAK”, Rafsanjani-affiliated Shahâb News wrote that

“While news are published about CIA’s financial and military aid to groups such as PJAK and Abdolmalek Rigi’s [that is, Jondollah, described later in the article as “the Iranian division of Al-Qaeda”], the US government has placed the PJAK group on terror lists”

In the article, the Shahâb writer claims that the US decision to call PJAK a terrorist group is due to the fact that the group had suffered severe defeats at the hands of Iranian forces recently, making it unable to function.

With the Iranian media already buzzing with rumors of secret talks between Washington and Tehran, it is not hard to imagine that Iranians will see this decision as a positive sign. So, could the decision be seen as part of the Obama administration’s attempt to reach out to the Iranians and maybe prepare the ground for a grand bargain? Some Kurdish proponents certainly think so – and they are and will most certainly be opposed to “appeasing” the “Mullahs”.

What do you think? Please comment!

Clampdown on alternative voices

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

The Iranian singer / rapper Tataloo has apparently been arrested.

The Hip Hop scene has been growing in Iran over the last seven years with rappers such as Hichkas and Pishro rising to fame amongst Iranian youth from the urban middle class, but also – as I have suggested in my earlier research – from other parts of society. As Internet access keeps spreading throughout Iran and into the geographical periphery and the ghetto suburbia of Tehran, kids have picked up the microphone and brought Hip Hop into the homes of millions and on to the forefront of a growing underground music scene.

Although Persian rap generally is not overtly political, themes have, as one could and should expect from Hip Hop, tended to be provocative. In exceptionally blunt language heavy with slang and occasional swearing, rappers have described the lives of young people in a world of restlessness, anomy and apathy, about the pressures of economic realities, social restrictions and political repression and about illegal parties, drugs, drinking and dating. The days when the small-minded, humdrum pop of LA’s exile-Iranian scene posed the greatest musical challenge to the Islamic Republic are long gone.

This is the reason why Tataloo was arrested. The conservative website Tâbnâk reported three days ago that ‘a famous and morally corrupt rap singer’ had ‘recently’ been arrested. “With the increasing numbers of rappers and the lack of respect of these individuals for moral and cultural issues, we have witnessed a spread in the use of foul and obscene language to rhythms”, the Tâbnâk article stated. Apparently, Tataloo had performed abroad and was arrested when he returned to Iran.

Tâbnâk suggested what appears to be two kinds of rap in Iran: “Apart from rappers who use foul and obscene language and tries to attract fans by destroying the culture of society, there are also a number of rap groups and singers who uses this new format within the cultural boundaries of our country to express their opinion about issues in society – such as sympathy with the victims of the Bam [earthquake in 2003. H]owever, on the other hand, some people – by choosing wrong Western role models and by disrespecting the principles and foundations of the nation – are promoting a kind of vulgarity and socio-cultural depravity…”.

Finally, Tâbnâk stated that in the near future, “large-scale measures for the arrest of morally corrupt rappers” will be taken. The same threat was allegedly issued a couple of years ago when it was believed Hichkas, Pishro and other rappers had been taken into custody and intimidated by authorities. In online Persian rap forums it is rumored that Tataloo has received a 3-year jail sentence.

It is, by the way, not just fancy performers from the capital who are hit by the authorities’ clampdown on dissident voices in music.

On Monday, Shâr News (a local bureau from the predominantly Kurdish city of Saqqez in Western Iran) reported that two local Kurdish singers are to be sentenced for “propaganda against the [political] Order”. Apparently, Seyyed ‘Ali Hosseini and Mohammad Zarifiyan paid tribute to “a singer associated with a group opposed to the Islamic Republic” at a commemoration in September, during the Ramadan. They can expect to be sentenced between three months and one year in prison.