Ya Hussein: Religion, Ethnic Identity, Ethnic Relations and Ethnicity in Iran

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Institutional Affiliation : 
Boston University
Academic Bio: 
Fereydoun Safizadeh teaches socio-cultural anthropology at Boston University. He received his bachelors, (AB 1972) and PhD (1986) in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University. He has thought anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles, San Francisco State University, Amherst College and Boston College. His areas of interest include kinship and family, peasant economy and politics, identity and ethnicity, and visual anthropology and ethnographic film. His publications include On Dilemmas of Identity in the Post-Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan (1998), Children of the Revolution: Transnational Identity among Young Iranians in Northern California (1996), and Peasant Protest and Resistance in Rural Azerbaijan, Iran (1990). He has on-going research on the dynamics of social, economic, political, and cultural relationships among landowning, commercial, bureaucratic and clerical families in late 19th and 20th century Tabriz, Iran as well as on the politics of Turkic identity and ethnicity in Iranian Azerbaijan. He co-produced the documentary The Shahsavan Nomads of Iran (1985) on the seasonal migration of the Shahsavan pastoral nomads in northwest Iran.


The objective of this paper is to examine the role of religion in ethnicity and ethnic identity in Iran. The situation on the ground in northwest Iran is that you have the Turkish-speaking population (Azerbaijanis/Azeris) which make up one fourth to one third of the 70 million population of Iran in constant interaction with the neighboring Persian-speaking population. The Turkish-speaking population's self identity is mainly based on language, food, music and locality. The contrastive linguistic-cultural identity is primarily a product of centralizing nationalistic policies of Pahlavi I (1925-1941) for creating a pure Iranian subject with one language. Before Reza Shah in the multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nature of Qajar society there was no overt ethnic consciousness or conflict. Today the centrifugal forces of language and culture that separate these communities are counteracted by a common belief in ithna-ashari Shia doctrine in Islam. What is fascinating is the working out of the centripetal forces of common religion in everyday life, particularly in the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein every year during the month of Muharram. Specifically, the objective is to access our ethnographic field data from three angles: 1) by applying anthropological theories of religion, namely the theoretical formulations of Geertz on symbolic reading of events, and Asad's recommendation for historical situating of the practices and events, and establishing their specificity by gender and ritual; 2) Bakhtin's formulation on theatricality and carnavalesque dimensions of the practices and the events; and 3) Barth's formulations on ethnic interaction and boundary maintenance. This tripartite approach to the role of religion in ethnicity and ethnic identity will allow a more nuanced understanding of the forces underlying ethnic relations in that part of the world and contribute to an enhanced linking of data with theory for stronger analytic paradigms for anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa.

Academic Discipline : 
Political Science
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