Religio-ethnic Minorities and Iranian Nationalism

Iran is a highly diverse society, which is comprised of ethnic and religious minorities. While it is overwhelmingly Muslim (around 97 percent), only about fifty percent of the population are native speakers of Persian; ethnic and religious minorities include Azeris, Turkemans, Armenians, Baha’is, Jews, Sunni Muslims, Assyrians, Zoroastrians, etc. Especially since the emergence of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925, the state tried to incorporate the minorities and recruit them to the nation-building project. The reactions varied from separationist tendencies to active participation in shaping the new Iranian inclusive identity.

The proposed panel examines four different angles of modern Iranian identity, in the course of three different periods. Our panel first looks at the early Pahlavi period (1925-1941) through the experiences of Baluch and other minorities in the frontier of Baluchistan. Through the case of this frontier region where neither colonial India nor Iran had solid control, it examines how the development of transportation infrastructure simultaneously pulled the nation together and tore it apart as the improved movement of Baluchs and Sikhs destabilized the region.

The second paper focuses on the different identities espoused by the Kurdish population in the post-WWII era. In the midst of an internal rift, two different Iranian-Kurdish identities characterized by diverging religious proclivities took prominence in the internal discourse. This paper analyzes this discourse through reading the texts and political publications that generated this particular national identity.

The third paper focuses on the Iranian national identity among the Jewish communities throughout the M.R Pahlavi era (1941-1979). This paper examines how the Jews drew the lines between different identities that emerged in this period and two contesting national movements, that allegedly conflicted: Iranian and Zionist identities. This conflict was resolved by separating religious and cultural identities, so that in the Iranian public sphere they emphasized their being repositories of the ancient and genuine Iranian culture, and within the Jewish community they cemented the notion that Iran is the homeland and Jerusalem (Zion) is the Qiblah.

The fourth paper presents the case of Afghan migrants in Iran in the post-revolutionary era. This paper analyzes three films that deal with the struggle of the Afghan migrants in Iran, and how they portray cultural commonalities between Iranians and Afghans—thereby reframing Persian-language-based identity in a transnational scope.


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Using British archival documents as well as Persian published sources, this study examines how the borderland of Baluchistan, especially the city of Dozdab (Zahedan), experienced the impact of centralization and nation formation in the early Pahlavi period. At the beginning of the Pahlavi period, Dozdab was rapidly emerging as the railhead of the Nushki-Dozdab railway built by the British during World War One. Nearly forty percent of the inhabitants were British subjects from India, especially Sikhs, who moved to the city as truck drivers and traders. Many Baluchs in surrounding areas were formerly or currently paid by the British either as former soldiers of the Indian Army or to protect trade routes and other infrastructure. How did the centralization policy under Reza Shah affect these communities that posed threat to state control on both sides of the border? To what extent did the newly established Pahlavi regime succeed in integrating Baluchistan into the Iranian nation?

This study is significant for several reasons. First, the history of Baluchistan, particularly during the Pahlavi period, remains largely unexplored due in part to the relative lack of sources compared to other peripheries such as Khuzestan and Azarbaijan. Second, Dozdab offers an unusual case among Iran’s peripheries due to the existence of Sunni Baluchs and an exceptionally large percentage of foreign residents who lived alongside Iranian citizens (cf. segregation in Abadan). Third, it challenges the assumption that southeastern Iran remained a backwater of modernity compared to other relatively well-studied areas.

As this study will demonstrate, although state control over Baluch minorities increased during the Reza Shah period, Dozdab and Baluchistan remained a hotly contested frontier where both nomadic and settled inhabitants took advantage of the shaky control of the colonial Indian and Iranian governments. The Pahlavi state’s standard policies of militarily subjugating tribes and promoting modern education among them did not restrict the physical movements of smuggled items and people such as Baluch minorities and Indian nationalists, whose mobility had increased thanks to the development of transportation infrastructure.

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Established at the end of World War II, the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad epitomized Kurdish nationalism and over the years has received ample scholarly attention. However, this attention mostly investigates the dynamics of the Kurdish-Soviet and Kurdish-Azarbaijani relationship at the expense of the view ‘from below.’ Therefore, this paper attempts to fill a gap by delving deeper into the dynamics of the Mahabad-centered Kurdish nationalism by examining three publications by the Kurds themselves: Komalay J.K.’s Nishtiman (1943-1945), the Democratic Republic of Kurdistan’s Kurdistan, and Ismail Ardalan’s Kuhistan (1943-1946). During the Second World War years, Sunni Kurdistan in northern Iran belonged to the Soviet Union while the British controlled the Shiite Kermanshah and Ilam provinces in the south. While all Iranian Kurds certainly articulated a sense of belonging to Iran, however, there existed an undeniable divide between Shiite and Sunni Kurds. In the age of self-determination following WWII, Kurds sought to ascertain what constituted a Kurdish identity. This paper asks in turn, what role did the Iranian state propaganda and culture play in shaping the Kurds’ attempts at self-definition as reflected in the Kurdish press of the period? This paper analyzes, through the above-mentioned publications, the contestation of Kurdish identity in order to examine the development of Kurdish-ness prior to and during the Republic’s political tenure. Founded by educated youths of humble origins, Komalay JK’s Nishtiman endorsed a democratic ideology that included all people of Kurdish descent so long as they professed loyalty to Kurdish nationalism. Kurdistan, on the other hand, serving as the organ of the Republic of Mahabad and presided over by an educated Sunni notable of Mahabad, propagated a more restricted conception of the Kurds and Kurdistan. Kuhistan claimed all of Iranian Kurdistan, a stance best explained by the publication’s close contact in Tehran with the propaganda of the Iranian government against Kurdish nationalism. Ultimately, Kurds agreed upon a certain kinship with their Iranian brethren; but with political autonomy at stake, Sunni Kurds articulated their identity rather differently than Shiite Kurds. This paper fills this gap in our knowledge of the nuanced and complex relationship of Kurds to each other and to Iran during the Mahabad Republic.

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In 1948 the Jewish Agency envoy in Tehran wrote back to the Jerusalem headquarters a short letter stating that the situation in Iran is hopeless for the Zionist organization. Paradoxically, those were fascinating years for the Jewish population in Iran. During that time Jews began to climb up the social ladder, leave the Jewish quarters and integrate into Iranian society. They enjoyed religious and political freedoms that Iran had offered since Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ascended to throne in 1941. What was it, then, that caused such discomfort to the Zionist envoy in 1948?

My paper analyzes the relationship between the Zionist and the Jewish Iranian identities in Iran during the Pahlavi era, from documents of a myriad of Jewish and Zionist organizations, and Iranian writings on this topic.

Unlike the Arab Jewish communities, the Iranians did not flee en masse after the establishment of the State of Israel, and their approach to Zionism was ambivalent. While they sympathized with the Zionist cause, and celebrated the establishment of a Jewish homeland, they felt better than ever before regarding their chances to flourish and succeed in Iran, which in turn strengthened their Iranian national identity. As a result, the majority of the community stayed in their Iranian homeland. The American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee efforts to rehabilitate the community in the postwar era was at odds with Israel’s attempts to bring the community to Israel at once, thus causing a minor rift between the JDC and Israel.

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The historic events of 1979 transformed both Iranian as well as Afghan society and politics—leading to the migration of millions of Afghans to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite the significant cultural commonalities and other ties between Afghanistan and Iran, or the sizeable Afghan community in Iran, scholars have scarcely researched representations of Afghans in Iranian culture. My paper addresses representations of Afghans in Iranian cinema, with special focus on constructions (and deconstructions) of the Iranian “Self” vis-à-vis the Afghan “Other”. Specifically, my paper analyzes three contemporaneous films by different filmmakers dealing with Afghan subjects living in Iran: Djomeh (2000), Delbaran (2001), and Baran (2001). Likewise, my paper examines The Cyclist (1987), so as to provide historical and comparative perspectives on this theme. My paper discusses the films’ humanization of the Afghan subjects—as well as depictions of their dehumanization—and focuses on the rendering of the Afghan subjects’ identity and otherness. My paper argues that, regardless of differences in their portrayals of the plight of Afghans living in Iran, the films defamiliarize the otherness of Afghan subjects by highlighting cultural affinities between the Iranian Self and the Persian-speaking Afghan Other. By closely examining these films, my project increases our understanding of minorities in post-revolutionary Iranian culture, as well as of the understudied issue of transnationalism in constructs of Persianate identity more globally.