Non-Persian Mother Languages Treated as “National Security Threat” in Iran
As the world marked International Mother Language Day in 2021, non-Persian native languages remained under attack in Iran, where non-Persian-speaking ethnic minorities are subject to state and institutional discrimination and the official teaching of mother languages is restricted and monitored by the Iranian government.
“For years, the state has gone to great lengths to equate peaceful activities in support of teaching and preserving mother tongues with secessionist operations,” said Shahin Helali, a senior director of the Association for the Human Rights of the Azerbaijani People in Iran (AHRAZ), in a February 2021 interview with the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“In fact, the state is treating these civil activities as a national security issue and constantly fans this flame,” Helali added.
In November 1999, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) deemed February 21 as International Mother Language Day “to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.”
Previously, the UN General Assembly had proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of Languages and to mark the occasion, UNESCO invited “governments, United Nations organizations, civil society organizations, educational institutions, professional associations and all other stakeholders to increase their own activities to foster respect for, and the promotion and protection of all languages, particularly endangered languages, in all individual and collective contexts.”
Iran is a signatory to a number of international pacts, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which require the Islamic Republic to recognize and protect mother tongues.
However, the government only allows mother languages to be taught in restricted circumstances and routinely intimidates and imprisons mother language activists.
Article 15 of the Iranian Constitution states, “The official language and script of Iran, the lingua franca of its people, is Persian. Official documents, correspondence, and texts, as well as textbooks, must be in this language and script. However, the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, as well as for the teaching of their literature in schools, is allowed in addition to Persian.”
Mother Tongues Painted as a National Security Threat
During Iran’s 2013 presidential race, then-presidential-candidate Hassan Rouhani pledged to “officially allow the teaching of Iranian mother tongues [Kurdish, Azeri, and Arabic] in schools and universities in full compliance with Article 15 of the Constitution.”
Then, three years later in August 2016, university classes in Kurdish and the Azeri-Turkish languages were offered for the first time.
In June 2016, Intelligence Minister Ali Younesi had announced that “The government has ordered Kurdish and Azeri to be taught in schools in regions where they are the primary languages of the local people. This project has been implemented in Kurdistan Province and will expand to other regions of the country when the infrastructures are set up.”
Yet according to Helali, who documents cases brought against mother language activists, the Iranian intelligence establishment has long been surveilling non-Persian ethnic groups, which hail from underdeveloped provinces and are subject to systematic discrimination, to prevent alleged separatist activities and domestic unrest.
Advocacy campaigns promoting Iranians’ right to teach the Azeri-Turkish mother tongue began appearing in universities and non-Persian-majority provinces in the 1990s.
“When [President Mohammad Khatami’s] reformist government came to power [in 1997], some universities, in Ardabil for example, began offering independent language studies of Azeri-Turkish, but the instructors were under so much pressure from the security agencies that classes were often canceled,” said Helali. “Security agents would attend the classes to spy on the students and fabricate cases against them.”
According to Helali, in the 1990s Iran had about 70 student publications printed in local native languages in universities but over time, the vast majority were banned and many of their staff were arrested.
“Court rulings against these activities never mention their demands to teach mother tongues, instead they are accused of colluding against national security,” Helali explained.
He told CHRI that allowing restricting teaching of the Azeri and Kurdish languages in some academic settings is the government’s way of exhibiting a surface-level image of inclusivism while in reality it does little to preserve mother tongues.
A prime example of the intelligence establishment bearing its power on the judiciary to diminish the acceptance and tolerance of mother languages in Iran was the arrest of Azeri civil rights activists Behnam Sheikhi, Akbar Azad, Alireza Farshi, and Hamid Manafi in February 2014 during a peaceful event marking International Mother Language Day.
According to Helali, In February 2017, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced Farshi to 15 years in prison and two years in exile while Azad, Sheikhi, and Manafi were each sentenced to 10 years in prison and two years in exile on the charge of “forming an organization with the intention of disturbing national security.”
In January 2020, the Appeals Court reduced each of their sentences to two years in prison and two years in exile.
Fabricating “Security” Cases Against Activists
In 2021, International Mother Language Day was marked by activists in Iran with stickers, graffiti, and murals appearing in public spaces and on walls in many cities in East Azerbaijan where the majority speak Azeri-Turkish.
In the capital of Tabriz and the city of Kaleybar, the murals included slogans such as “Mother language education is a basic right of every human being,” “Happy Mother Language Day” and “Where is my mother language?”
Deutsche Welle reported that activists handed out books on the Azeri-Turkish language in the cities of Orumiyeh, Ardabil, and Meshginshahr, all in northwestern Iran, where the tongue is dominant.
“Activities in support of teaching mother languages include the distribution of children’s books in the Azeri language in villages and small cities as well as engaging in dialogue with families about the importance of preserving our language, in addition to painting murals which are more visible,” Helali told CHRI.
“But the security agencies present these activities as evidence for their prosecution,” he added.
Days before this year’s International Mother Language Day, the imprisoned activist Alireza Farshi revealed he is facing new charges.
In a series of tweets on February 20, 2021, former political prisoner Ahmadreza Haeri said Farshi had contacted him from the Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary, where Farshi has been serving his two-year prison sentence since September 2020, to say the Intelligence Ministry is fabricating a new case against him that, according to the prosecutor is “14 volumes thick!”
“Apparently the interrogator printed out everything Farshi posted on his Instagram page and stuck them in a file as evidence,” Haeri added.
He continued, “Farshi believes these fabrications are attempts by some in the security establishment to discourage mother tongue advocates in trying to gain their rights within the framework of the Islamic Republic and push them towards separatist paths.”
Amir Amini and Kianoush Aslani were arrested in Tehran on February 20, 2019, at street demonstrations aimed at raising awareness about International Mother Language Day.
In January 2021, an Appeals Court upheld prison sentences of 7.5 years and five years against Amini and Aslani respectively on the charge of “assembly and collusion against national security.” They are both currently in Evin Prison.
According to AHRAZ, close to 200 ethnic Azeri activists have been detained in Iran since March 2020, “but only a few get mentioned in [Iranian state] media because families are under pressure from the security forces to not speak publicly,” Helali told CHRI.
“We hear about detentions in small cities and villages several months after the fact and when we make inquiries, we learn that activists have been threatened with more serious charges if they inform the public about their arrest,” he told CHRI.
During this year’s International Mother Language Day, on February 20, 2021, a group of activists gathered in front of the Justice Department in Sanandaj, the capital of Iran’s Kurdistan Province, to condemn a five-year prison sentence issued against Kurdish language teacher Zahra Mohammadi.
Mohammadi, who is currently free on bail, was present at the rally.
She was initially sentenced to 10 years in prison on the charge of “forming an organization with the intention of disturbing national security” but on February 13, 2021, her sentence was reduced by half on appeal.
A member of the board of directors at Nojin, a licensed language institute in Sanandaj, Mohammadi was arrested by Intelligence Ministry agents in May 2019.
In February 2021, many Iranians shared on social media networks a 2018 video of a lecture by prominent Persian language Professor and Linguist Mohammad Reza Shafiei-Kadkani stressing the importance of native languages.
“We should not have any prejudice in favor of the Persian language,” he said. “I believe prejudice is an act of treason.”
In Iran’s impoverished southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan, schools struggle to teach Persian to elementary students, many of whom are raised speaking their native tongue of Baluchi.
“The children in this region are not familiar with Persian until they enter school because they don’t speak it at home and they rarely watch national television,” Pouran Esmaili, a charity worker in the province, said in an interview in December 2019. “It becomes a big problem when you have to teach them Persian from scratch in first grade.”
“Under these circumstances, the students here don’t learn Persian very well and as a result are not able to progress very far academically,” she added, noting that they are required to read and write Persian to enter university.
“Learning a second language is so hard for them that they eventually lose interest in school,” she added.
Read this article in Persian.