Minorities and Identity Formation in Iran: From the Achaemenids to the Islamic Republic Part I.

Minorities are no primordial categories but instead are continuously constructed through ideological assumptions, legislative as well as social and political processes in a given society. Generally speaking, a religious minority is to be characterised as a numerically smaller group in regard to the majority. Depending on the existing state or society in ancient or modern times, majorities and minorities may be created according to religious, ethnic, linguistic or other indicators. Relations between a self-defined majority in a society/state and its (imagined) minorities – however they may be defined – are often characterised by (purposeful) incomprehension and misunderstanding. Also, questions arise as to the rights members of minority groups enjoy in a given society: Are they regarded as equals, are they ascribed particular rights, or are they seen as not fully belonging to the state, the nation and the society?
Various political or religious ideologies dominant in Iran at a given time also depict taboos, themes not to be discussed, words not to be uttered and subjects not to be openly addressed. In modern times, the official discourse in Iran depends on political imperatives and quite easily adapts to changing political contexts. Likewise, counter-discourses like the anti-Aryan narrative in the 1940s, might challenge official discourses and their construction of minorities. As the papers to be presented in this panel will show, incomprehension and misunderstanding are not limited to modern times. In ancient Iran, Armenians tended to the “othering” of Persians, while Greek “minorities” in the Achaemenid Empire were divided between contesting loyalties. In modern Iran, the question of “rights” or “equality rights” in regard to Iran’s multi-confessional population was and is discussed in diverse historical contexts: When Reza Shah Pahlavi was forced to abdicate in 1941, and in the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Minorities” might be made “invisible” in the Islamic Republic or they might be made “visible” by looking through official biographies of Shiite clerics. Also, “minorities” may play an important role in foreign relations.


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In its constitution, the Islamic Republic of Iran refers directly to Qur’an and Sunna regarding the rights and duties of “protected religious minorities.” Only acknowledged “minorities,” that is Zoroastrians, Jews, and Armenian as well as Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, are free to perform their religious rights and are allowed to act according to their respective canons. As stated in Article 14 of the constitution, the government as well as all Muslims are obliged to “treat non-Muslims in conformity with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights.“ According to the constitution, their “human rights” are respected as long as they “refrain from engaging in conspiracy or activity against Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran.“ Present-day Iranian political scientists tell us that religious mi-norities enjoy “complete justice” in Iran and that their human rights are respected by the con-stitution. Obviously, the core concept of human rights does not conform to UN conventions or international law. This in itself is not surprising, since Muslim organisations and governments have often called into question the universality of human rights, accusing them of being “Western” and countering them with their own “Islamic” human rights. If the paradigm is Islamic law as it is understood in the Islamic Republic of Iran, there can be no “understand-ing” in regard to international human rights or the claim for dignity and respect by members of “minority” groups. In light of the many accusations brought forward by UN representatives and human rights activists, Iranian scholars, being part of the official discourse, react rather defensively and perhaps purposefully misunderstand and misinterpret those concepts of hu-man rights that are formulated by international institutions. In my paper, I will discuss if “religious minorities” in Iran do actually have the “right to have rights” (Hannah Arendt). I will also pursue the question of what kind of rights are conceded to them and whether they are assessed in regard to their actions and opinions. Since the Baha’is, as the most endangered “minority,” have lost all civil rights in Iran, they may not even have the “right to have rights.”

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"The Cyrus Cylinder and the Rights Question" explores the interplay between historical memory, social rights and the contested conceptions of governmentality and constitutionality in the four decades prior to the 1979 Revolution. Offering a corrective to the ideological and linear revolutionary narratives of Pahlavi Iran, this historical inquiry elucidates how a multi-confessional conception of Iran and its constitutionally sanctioned “equality rights” of citizens was conceived at “a moment of danger” during WWII when Iran was invaded by the Allied forces and Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1925-1941) was forced to abdicate. Exploring the intersection of the emerging human rights legal discourse and a multi-confessional civilizational narrative, it explains the historical specificity of how the Cyrus Cylinder emerged as a "foundational text" as the inaugural theme of a rights civilization and governmentality.

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Armenia was wholly partitioned between the ‘Great Powers’ of Rome and Sasanian Persia throughout Late Antiquity. The degree of intrusion on the part of the two imperial powers varied across time but at least in principle, every part of Armenia was under the notional rule of one or the other. Modern scholars have often been misled by the rich Christian Armenian literary tradition and have confused the construct it usually articulates with the realities of imperial rule. Late Antique Armenian literature tends to present an idealised conception of Armenia, a Christian community of believers, united around a single confession of faith, recognizing the spiritual authority of a single leader and, when required to, heroically defying an oppressive Iran. Such projections of unity have proved to be very influential over the centuries for the construction of Armenian identity, establishing and affirming the sense of a shared past, a common cultural background and an imagined ‘Armenian space’.
However we need to recognize that Armenia in Late Antiquity was always plural, contradictory and fluid, a world of rival local lordships, of different Christian confessions and practices, of multiple, contradictory historical and hagiographical traditions and of a range of engagements with and responses to Sasanian Iran. The great powers confronted one another across this fragmented political, social and cultural landscape, seeking to impose their own institutions and structures of control and administration. The surviving Armenian sources often reflect aspects of this contested, messy reality even when they are trying to project a single Christian community bravely standing up to a hostile, non-Christian, persecuting imperial power.

This paper will exploit a range of late Antique Armenian texts, notably Łazar Parpec‘i’s History, to explore how Christian Armenian authors conceptualised what it meant to be Armenian. The memory of persecution in the middle of the fifth century, and ongoing doctrinal tensions with other Christian minorities in the Iranian world, ran deep and influenced how they presented the relationship with Iran. Yet from an administrative, a legal and a cultural perspective, Armenia was integrated into the practices and norms of Sasanian Iran. In other words, Armenia may not have been as distinctive, as ‘other’, as Armenian sources assert.

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In the 19th century Iranians became more mobile and traveling, at least for the upper classes, became easier. This interest in travel was partly due to the education of some in Europe and partly by teachings of European teachers in Iran. Following the tradition of the westerners, many Iranians, from the shah on down, wrote journals of their travels. These travelogues, however, differ from those of the westerners in many ways. While the Europeans were interested in smaller communities, particularly the religious minorities, the Iranians in most cases looked at these communities from a different perspective.

This paper will review the Europeans’ descriptions of the religious minorities of Iran with the way their compatriots write about them, the nature of their contacts and how much understanding of them they demonstrate.

On the European side the journals looked at will include:
a) those of the envoys or special representatives of some countries (e.g. Sir Justin Sheil’s “Notes of a Journey from Kurdistan to Suleimaniyeh in 1836”,
b) those of private citizens, whose curiosity had taken them to new lands (e.g. Arthur Arnold’s Through Persia by Caravan),
c) those of the missionaries, who had specific agendas, (e.g. Justin Perkins’ Missionary Life in Persia).

On the Iranian side the journals studied will include:
a) those of the members of the royal family, including the shahs (e.g. سفر نامۀ ناصرالدین شاه ),
b) those of special envoys, officials, etc. (e.g. خاطرات ظهیرالدوله ),
c) those of private citizens (e.g. سفرنامۀ نایب الصدر شیرازی ).

A comparison of the accounts of Iranian religious minorities in the 19th century by the insiders, as well as outsiders, has not been done before. This paper help elucidate the confused situation of these communities and majority-minority relations of the time and how these viewpoints may have affected these communities.