Painting by Artist Osman Ahmed

Privilege, Difference and Inequality in the World of Unequal Nation-States

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Dr. Barzoo Eliassi, Associate Professor




This article engages with the questions of privilege, difference, and inequality in the context of the Iranian state and the ways differences of minoritized groups are punished and viewed as a threat to the political and territorial unity of the Iranian state. Neither equality nor inequality can be understood without apprehending how differences of different constituencies are categorized, valued, and ranked. The notion of difference is always embedded in the context of ethnopolitical and gendered hierarchies (see Phillips 2021). While some differences monopolize a universal status through political and ideological dominance, certain differences become object of problematization and are represented as an obstacle to national unity and security. The main goal of this article to denaturalize the political and cultural dominance and normativity of the Persian identity and call for a multilateral universalism in Iran, where Persian identity shall not hold a central place in the lives of minoritized groups whose differences are stigmatized and inferiorized and viewed predominantly through a lens of a national security threat. In order to set the context for this short article, let me start with a personal narrative of a young Kurdish man who was born in Iraq as a Kurdish refugee, and returned back to his home village in Kurdistan of Iran before migrating to Sweden. This young man whom I interviewed for a study about statelessness and political otherness (Eliassi 2021) did not consider himself as political but nevertheless illustrated through his story how politics is central to Kurdish life in an unequal Iran. To illustrate how Kurdish identity holds an inferiorized position within the Iranian context, the interviewee narrated his experiences of non-recognition in institutional contexts when Kurds are not allowed or discouraged from giving Kurdish names to their children. In his own words:

I am a Kurd from Eastern Kurdistan (Iran) and was born in a refugee camp in Iraq. I was given a Kurdish name by my parents. My family moved back to our village in Kurdistan. In Iran, me and two younger brothers had to change our Kurdish names and the authorities replaced them with Persian and Arabic names. In school, I was always called by my Persian name but at home and with friends, I was hailed with my Kurdish name. When I got married to a Kurdish woman in Sweden, one of the first things I did was to get back my Kurdish name on my Swedish identity cards. I visited the Iranian embassy to issue an Iranian passport for my newly born son. They asked me which name I had chosen for my son. I replied: Kardo. The embassy told me that they cannot accept this name and suggested a Persian name, Ardashir. I refused and one of the staffs at the embassy told me indignantly. “Today you ask for a Kurdish name, tomorrow you will be asking for a Kurdish state like those (Kurds) in Iraq”. They reluctantly accepted it when we had to prove that the name was not an anti-revolutionary name. Now, I have a newborn baby and I need to be careful to choose a Kurdish name that does not sound too dangerous and political if I want to issue an Iranian passport and an identity card for him.

Although this is an individual experience but it has wider and generalized value since this sense of superiority and priority of Persian identity is a central feature of the Iranian political order. The young man’s experience demonstrates how oppression and symbolic violence operates across national borders targeting stateless nations, where they are obstructed from naming their children and living their identities on an equal basis.

Growing up, Persian or Persian-speaking children will gradually realize that their Persian identity is represented by and shape all social institutions in Iranian society. From the day these children take their first steps into Iranian schools, they will learn that the language of instruction is Persian, history belongs to Persians, the art is Persian, literature is written and read in Persian, the songs are Persian, the anthems are Persian and geographical names are either Persian or Persianized. In other words, Persian children learn that their life-worlds at home and in public spheres are consistent and convergent. If we consider non-Persian children like Azeris, Arabs, Turkmens, Baluchs, and Kurds, they will on the contrary realize that their identity is not represented by these social institutions but are urged and encouraged to internalize the values and language of the dominant Persian group since the very goal of social institutions such as schools in Iran has been about Persianizing the Iranian society. This is why Persian language/identity is often interpreted as the true marker of “Iranianness” while Kurdish and Baluchi languages have been regarded as “corrupted” dialects of the Persian language, Azeri, Turkmen, and Arab languages are regarded as “foreign” languages. In the case of the Kurds, they are sometimes described by Persian power and elites as the most “authentic” Iranians. Paradoxically, while authenticity has been used within the discourse of identity politics by indigenous and colonized peoples around the world to claim more rights, in the case of the Kurds it has entailed a reduction of rights. Some Persianized and co-opted Kurds/Azeris/Arabs/Baluchs/Turkmens play a central role in solidifying the cultural, political, and economic power of Persians through allying themselves with the Iranian regimes but also through accusing non-Persian movements as “separatists” and “anti-Islamic” or “Trojan horses” of Zionist and Imperialist plots that allegedly intend to undermine Iran’s territorial and political unity.

So how can we explain this political disparity between Persians and minoritized groups that continue to be culturally stigmatized and subjected to Persian cultural imperialism?  The notion of privilege is a key concept in understanding how this inequality is politically arranged. Privilege is simply the other side of oppression and discrimination. In this context, Alison Bailey (1998) defines privilege as “systematically conferred advantages individuals enjoy by virtue of their membership in dominant groups with access to resources and institutional power that are beyond the common advantage of marginalized citizens”. Privileged individuals and groups use a variety of strategies to maintain their privileged position. These strategies involve making their privilege invisible, naturalizing and normalizing their privileged position as well as underlining a sense of entitlement to this privileged position. It is not uncommon for privileged individuals and groups to take a defensive position and feel distressed when dominated groups refer to them as privileged and question their status. In the light of the discussion above, it is important to note that privilege does not only sanction political, economic, and cultural inequality but also ignorance.

The notion of privilege can explain why a large part of the Persians lack knowledge about Arabs, Kurds, Azeri, Turkmen, and Baluch in regard to their literature, music, history, and language. This ignorance can easily be grasped through a simple survey asking for instance Arabs, Azeri Turks, Kurds, Baluchs, or Turkmens about Persian literature and asking Persians about the literature of non-Persian groups in Iran. It goes without saying that non-Persians will demonstrate more knowledge about their dominant other, the Persians. This form of sanctioned ignorance benefits the power of the dominant group and sustains its privileged position. In Sweden, where I live, I have been asked on numerous occasions by Persian migrants whether I speak Persian with my kids. This kind of questioning just indicates how Persian cultural normativity works as the universal identity of those constituencies who are expected to comply with the dominance of the Persian identity. Of course, I often confront them and respond to these Persians if they speak Kurdish with their children at home. They become very uncomfortable and can sometimes maintain that they do not need to learn Kurdish since Persian is spoken everywhere in Iran. This “everywhere” in Iran indicates how an oppressive universalism works since the Persian language is not naturally spoken by different peoples across Iran but are imposed by the state through its dominant institutions like education and mass media, and those who deviate from this order are often punished, stigmatized and excluded from the society. It is under the political arrangement and conditions of nationalist idea and violence that minoritized groups are produced and marked while the dominant group remains unmarked and naturalized (see Pandey 2006). This is nothing more than an undeserved privilege that Persians experience in a highly plural society like Iran.


The elusiveness of Iranian identity

Unlike the states of Turkey and Syria which can easily be traced to the ethnic primacy of Turks and Arabs, the name Iran might be more elusive and appear as less ethnic and more inclusive, while in reality concealing the dominance of ethnic Persians. A widespread myth surrounds the idea of Iran as a harmonious multiethnic and multireligious society. So how does this alleged universalism work in practice in Iran? Representatives for the Iranian state has on different occasion discarded the Kurdish language as an autonomous language and belittled it to a dialect. In 2014, the Iranian Consulate based in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq released an announcement and degraded the Kurdish language. The Consulate argued that the ”Kurdish dialect is not an autonomous language but belongs to the Iranian languages and is a mixture of Arabic, Turkish and Persian languages”. While borrowing words and exchange are part of the historical development of languages, it is striking that the Iranian/Persian Consulate mentions the question of “mixture” when the Persian language and its vocabulary are largely dominated by Arabic words and influences. The main aim of the Iranian Consulate was to disqualify Kurdish claims to nationhood and sovereignty in a region pervaded by Arab, Persian, and Turkish mastery. When it comes to Kurdish children and their lack of sufficient knowledge in Persian, Rezwan Hakimzadeh, the vice president of Iran’s Department of Education argued in 2019 that this lack can be equated with a biological defect. In 2019, the Iranian authorities imprisoned the Kurdish language teacher and human rights defender Zara Mohammadi, for teaching Kurdish. Mohammadi was accused of “forming a group against national security”. The minority quest for the right to education in non-Persian languages is regarded as undermining national security, social cohesion, and the territorial integrity of Iran, as for instance some members of the Academy of Persian Language and Literature have underlined. This aversion toward Kurdish quest for ethnocultural rights illustrates that the Iranian regime and its intelligentsia both denigrates and securitizes Kurdish identity and language in the name of an undemocratically imposed Iranian identity that conceals and reproduces the cultural normativity of Persian identity (see the work of Sheyholislami 2012 on the situation of the Kurdish language in Iran).

It is true that Iran is comprised of different ethnic and religious groups and popular nationalism is not always convergent with the official nationalism, and a state that claims unity in diversity, but the Iranian citizenship and national identity virtually privilege Persian-speaking people or ethnic Persians. One can also aptly say that the Iranian identity is a decoration of Persian political, cultural, and economic control over Iran (Soleimani & Mohammadpour 2019).  In this respect, I will draw upon the work of the sociologist Krishan Kumar (2000) to discuss how Iranian nationalism works at a rhetorical and practical level. The Iranian nationalism based on Persian supremacy can be labeled as an imperial or missionary nationalism, which entails that “there is the attachment of a dominant or core ethnic groups to a state entity that conceives itself as dedicated to some larger cause or purpose, religious, cultural, or political” (Kumar 2000: 580). Persian or Iranian politicians and leaders often avoid talking about Persians as the ruling identity and constituency and emphasize that Iran as a country nurtures peace, brotherhood, diversity, and Islam in the Muslim world. When minoritized groups politicize the ethnic and religious inequalities that they suffer in Iran, the Iranian regime and parts of its intelligentsia tend to describe these plights as Western and Zionist fabrication with the aim to divide Iran. Kumar argues that if a dominant group is in charge, they “do not need to beat the drum or blow the bugle too loudly. To do so in fact would be to threaten the very basis of that commanding position, by reminding other groups of their inferiority and perhaps provoking them to do something about it” (Kumar 2000:590). Though, this dominant ethno-nationalism becomes conspicuous when its ethno-symbolic power is challenged, as in the case of the ‘Persian Gulf’, when Arabs want to rename it as the ‘Arabian Gulf’. The drums of the agents of Persian nationalism become louder and the concealed dominance of Persian particularity become prominent. When Hassan Rouhani was elected as Iran’s President in 2013, the Kurds expected from Rouhani a new political language characterized by increasing political and cultural rights. But as soon as he was elected, he underlined that in Iran, there is only one ruling identity and that is an Iranian identity, and added impassively that there are ‘subcultures’ in Iran below the Iranian identity. Defining non-ethnic Persians as ‘subcultures’ can be understood as a political strategy to deprive them from claiming nationhood and self-governance but also subsuming them under the imposed universality of Iranian identity. Kurdish claims to expand the notion of the Iranian citizenship to be more inclusive have been dealt with as a national security issue that supposedly erodes the communal bond among different groups of Iran and serves imperialistic interests. Concurrently, Kurdish political parties that are struggling against the Iranian state are often viewed as lacking political subjectivity and primarily functioning as the political ‘toy’ of Israel and the United States to destabilize the allegedly harmonious Muslim world devoid of ethno-religious hierarchy.

In a world that is pervaded by a multiplicity of differences, national sameness functions as a threat against those who are not viewed as belonging. Although belonging is important for human well-being, it is equally imperative to create a polity based on equality (Butler 2012). Since many Middle Eastern states suffer from intractable ethno-religious conflicts, they can choose another political formula than the exclusionary nation-state to settle these conflicts. For instance, they can adopt a federation based on multiple nationalities so “it becomes quite literally impossible to conceive of a nation or its actions outside the context of a plural and concerted action” (Butler 2012:146). Within the framework of this federation, sovereignty cannot be based on the will of a single nation since this polity can commit itself “to a form of political life that would demand power-sharing, concerted action, the dissolution of sovereignty into plural power, and a commitment to equality across national ties” (Ibid.). Hence, such a federation can become important in order to realize a difference-friendly Middle East, where cultural, gender, and religious differences are not stigmatized and the expectation of assimilation to dominant norms is not the price for gaining equality and respect (Fraser 2003:7). Recognition of differences should not exclusively be dictated by the polity, whether it is a state or a federation, but the people themselves who are not reduced to passive recipients of recognition but also highly active in debating the terms of recognition. This political formula might create constructive communal bonds between different constituencies without the need to resort to arms and violence to assert their public presence and demand their rights. In order to achieve this, laws, values, and institutions need to work together so the very idea of ethno-national mastery can be delegitimized and the notions of reciprocity, acceptance, and respect to be embraced across differences. Yet, it remains to be seen if conviviality between different constituencies in the Middle East and the wider world can gain a chance to become a “condition of our political life” (Butler 2012: 23).

Difference and Equality

This leads us to the question of equality and difference and the idea of who can qualify as a human being and embraced by rights, recognition, and respect. Historically, many peoples have been sidelined by different ideals of universality and denied the status of a human being. When minoritized groups like Kurds declare that they are also human and worth recognition as nations among other established nations, they are asserting themselves as claimants to equality and justice and challenging those divisions and hierarchies that sustain their subordination, an issue that Phillips (2015) meticulously engages with in her book The Politics of the Human. Phillips maintains that there is a strong ethical ideal by denying the importance of contingent differences like culture, skin color, and sexual orientation and asserting our common bonds as human beings since this can function as a discursive weapon against the divisive ideologies of racism and sexism. Nevertheless, for Phillips (2015), the conception of a common human identity constitutes a danger to the idea and realities of being different. For instance, if minoritized and racialized groups are called upon to sideline or see beyond their particular grievances in the context of persisting ethno-national hierarchies, there is a danger that we privilege the already privileged and dominant group (see Young 1990). It is not a coincidence that is, but not only, marginalized groups who are predominantly concerned with their stigmatized and unrecognized differences. Telling excluded groups that they are also human without altering and democratizing power relations, “is at best an empty sentimentality, and at worst Sartre’s ‘ideology of lies’” (Phillips 2015:38). As Phillips eloquently puts it with respect to why minoritized groups insist on their differences:

If you are already more securely established in the hierarchies of power, it is much easier to set your particularities aside. They do not thereby vanish, but they require no special attention because they are already more incorporated into what is understood as the human norm (Phillips 2015:13).

This illustrates how a false universalism works that reproduces itself by asserting its hostility to marked groups who want their differences to gain institutional and public recognition, respect, and representation. What the dominant ideology requires from excluded group is undoing their particularities, in order to achieve the status of the human or the universal, that the nation-state supposedly bestows. Predictably, marked groups often press the powerful and the states to extend the scope of equality to embrace their perspectives and experiences. When stateless peoples challenge the states to reverse, transvalue and redefine their ethnonational hierarchies, they assert themselves as political by making judgments between justice and injustice (Isin 2002) and interrupt naturalized forms of domination (Rancière 1999). Certainly, statelessness as a political injury is not an accident in the lives of the Kurdish people but direct effects of colonial nationalism and exclusive nation-states (Matin 2020).  Equality beyond national sameness can be achieved if we politically and legally alter those institutions and discourses that deny, inferiorize or exclude the differences of subjugated groups who strive to gain equal public recognition and respect. It is in such a political context, that to be a human being, equal and different do not need to be seen as incompatible and opposing (Scott 1994). As long as the inequality and denial continue within the realms of the nation-states, few societies can achieve lasting peace, conviviality, and stability, since inequality and denial are fertile ground for cultivating polarized identities in a world where certain groups establish themselves as subjects of rights and privilege at the expense of racialized and stateless groups. At the end, it is mainly by altering the political normativity of the nation-states and hierarchical citizenship regimes (Vali 1998), that a new inclusionary political future can be envisioned and enacted beyond political mastery and subordination.

For non-Persian political movements that struggle for a true democratic and pluralistic Iran, they need to provincialize the Persian identity and making it into a local identity in Iran that has gained its universality throughout Iran via assimilation and cultural hegemony. As long as the Persian identity is assumed as the master identity in Iran that sets the rule for the game in an uneven playing field, non-Persians cannot expect equality but will remain in an ascribed minority position waiting for charity, paternalism, and benevolence from the Iranian state. Thus, creating an egalitarian state in Iran entails relinquishment of unearned privileges of the Persians that can enable children of non-Persian groups to come into this world where their identities, names, histories, religions, cultures, songs, and languages are not stigmatized and forbidden but have a normative presence within all social institutions in Iran. This is what constitutes the gist of unconditional equality that Kurds need to pursue if they want to escape arbitrary oppression and violence within the framework of an Iranian state. As Phillips (2021:112) articulately underlines: “Equality is something that people make happen when they refuse to accept the status of inferiors. Equality is a commitment and a claim”. Hence, equality and sameness are not the same thing and equality and differences are not oppositional. In brief, Kurds do not need to give up or sideline their differences in order to attain equality and gain the position of unconditional equals.



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