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

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.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Anja Pistor-Hatam
Kiel University


Room 23
Thu, 2016-08-04 10:30 - 12:00


by Josef Wiesehoefer / Kiel University

There were many more Greeks living in the Persian Empire than there were subjects of the Great King who had come or fled to Greece. Most of the Greeks worked for the Achaemenid kings as mercenaries, artists, doctors or the like, others had been deported in the course of military engagements. But there were others who had been exiled from their Greek mother cities by their own countrymen, the most prominent of those people being the families of the former Spartan king Demaratus or the Athenian victor of Salamis, Themistocles. The aim of the pper is to describe their partly precarious situation and status in the empire and at home but also their scope of action and their special relationship to the Great King.

by Houchang Chehabi / Boston University

The official discourse of the Islamic Republic Republic of Iran insists that the country's policies are anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic. In light of this assertion, it is interesting to analyze what official biographies of Shiite clerics published since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 have to say about Iranian Jews and their interaction with the rest of Iranian society. This will be complemented with what Iranian rabbis have written in their memoirs about their encounters with Shiite clerics. Through a close reading of these passages I hope to arrive at a conceptualization of how official circles in the Islamic Republic view Jews and, by extension, other non-Muslims citizens.

by Arash Guitoo / Kiel University

The IRI is a hybrid entity, as the name already suggests. On the one hand it claims to be committed to 'Islam' and on the other hand it considers itself as a national state, a political actor in the modern sense. This commitment to both the Islamic and modern traditions not rarely leads to the representatives of the system ending up in a quagmire, as the values of these traditions do not always dovetail. Both discourses construct their own reality and regulate the behavior of their subjects through defining their field of 'sayables' and 'thinkables'. In other words, each discourse controls the violation of its boundaries through implicit and explicit taboos, internalizations and regulation of consciousness of the subjects.
In this paper, I shall address the conflicts arising through the commitment of the IRI to both ‚Islamic‘ and ‚modern‘ discourses with respect to the Bahá’i faith and homosexuality. On the one hand, the systematic prosecution of citizens due to their mere belonging to a ‚minority‘-group is considered to be a severe violation of the rules, which an actor is expected to comply with at the international level. On the other hand, both groups mentioned are substantially irreconcilable with the IRI’s understanding of Islam. Accepting Baha’is as a religious group implies at the same time the recognition that prophecy might exist after Muhammad, an assumption which is generally rejected in Islam. In the same manner the recognition of homosexuality as a lifestyle - not as a mere sexual act - is contradictory with the ‚islamic‘ heteronormative understanding of sexual order.
Considering language as a practice producing and regulating power, I shall study the rhetoric of the functionaries of the IRI regarding these groups. Thereby I hope to show which strategies of denial of the collective character of these groups are used by representatives of the IRI in order to legitimize the potential prosecution of the citizens concerned as the consequence of an individual breach of law, i.e. as something that is generally accepted as a less reprehensible act than the systemati c prosecution of minorities. This strategy enables the state at the same time to forego the prosecution of these citizens, if necessary, without undermining its claim to being true to Islamic tradition, as these undesirable acts are made invisible and therefore could be spared from prosecution.

by Ali Ansari / University of St. Andrews

This paper will look at the way in which Iranian nationalists at the beginning of the 20th century sought to manage the transition of Iran from and imperial state of diverse minorities into a national state, substituting loyalty to a dynasty to that of a unifying national idea. Fundamental to this project was the means by which the large Turkic minority, one that had been integral to the integrity of the imperial state, could be integrated into an new inclusive national idea; a problem made all the more acute by the rise of Turkish nationalism in the newly founded Turkish Republic. The solution it will be argued, was not to be found in the centralising experience of the French state but by the more pluralistic model offered by the British state and which by extension drew on the intellectual legacy of the British-American Enlightenment experience.