To Iran’s regime, the country’s annual Nowruz festival is an opportunity for Persian Iranians to celebrate the rebirth of nature and enjoy an ancient part of their traditional culture – and a chance to further humiliate and demean Ahwazi Arabs and other ethnic minorities in Iran with provocative statements about their own supposed inferiority via traditional and electronic media.
The statements issued by regime officials are carefully calculated not only to malign and slander Ahwazis’ ethnicity, even more so given Iran’s regional tensions with neighbouring Arab countries, but even to deny the very existence of the millennia-old culture and traditions of the 7 million-plus Ahwazi people still living in south and southwest Iran, mainly in al-Ahwaz or Khuzestan province.
This year was no exception to this rule of demeaning treatment and abuse, with the regime’s state-run Channel 2 TV station producing a short program specifically for Nowruz, showing a scale model of Iran, with children dressed in different outfits to symbolise the country’s various ethnic and cultural groups placing traditionally dressed dolls in each area to show the country’s demographic composition – until it came (or rather didn’t) to Ahwazis. In the area known across Iran and the wider Middle East as a predominantly Arab region, the advertisement deliberately ignored the indigenous Arab people, with the child placing a doll dressed in the traditional costume of the ethnically Persian ‘Lor’ nomadic people who have been transferred to the Ahwazi region as settlers by the regime in large numbers in recent decades in a so far unsuccessful effort to replace the Ahwazis. This typical piece of very deliberate grotesque insensitivity, using what should be a joyous occasion for Persians to symbolically deny or eradicate the Ahwazi people’s existence, demonstrated the Iranian view of the indigenous Ahwazi people as an unwelcome intrusion on “Iranians’” land to be denied or ignored.
This latest inversion of reality provoked anger and astonishment, not only among Ahwazi Arabs themselves, but also amongst many of rights activists and civil society organisations who they considered the TV production to be outrageous and asserted that this omission could not be excused as a simple coincidence, given similar previous incidents and the fact that the channel in question which produced the program is operated and funded by the regime. These rights group also stated that such deliberately provocative and offensive behaviour runs contrary to all the rights of citizenship and essential human decency in Iran and worldwide
Riham, an Ahwazi female cultural and women’s rights activist in Ahwaz, says, “This ad clearly demonstrated the contradiction in the state’s disobeying its own constitution and internal declarations, especially Iranian President, Mr. Rouhani pledges before election, when asked a question, if they will truly represent and recognise the rights all of their people and groups equally. Riham adds, eventually the regime has failed to establish equal rights and justice in Iran by producing and distributing such appalling material. Riham also wonders how the regime demands UNESCO to proclaim Nowruz as world day while the Iranian regime, a UNESCO member, does not recognise its own people’s culture and the existence of seven million Ahwazi Arabs who have lived on their own lands for thousands of years.
Another Ahwazi activist, Mansoor Al-Ahwazi, from the city of Muhammarah says: “We expected the regime, even modestly, to use this Nowruz event to disseminate sentiments of tolerance and proclaim unity and admit diversity among all ethnic backgrounds in Iran by recognising diversity as part of national identity, however, we as Ahwazi were disappointed and lost faith even in the reformist government of Rouhani. “Our people refuse to celebrate this holiday because it is simply used as an occasion to reject our identity and to abolish our presence on our ancestors’ land,” Mansour continued.
The clearly anti-Arab sentiments and statements from Iranian regime officials clearly demonstrate the increasingly overtly hostile racist anti-Arab sentiments by the regime which has not only failed to abandon or limit discriminatory and oppressive practices in Iranian society but has actively encouraged their growth, once again showing that the regime’s noble rhetorics about equality and justice are in fact empty bombast intended only to placate the people.
The region of Alahwaz inhabited by Ahwazi Arabs was considered as most influential factors in completing the revolution in Iran in 1979 along with the other non-Persian peoples, which led to the fall of the Persian racial state aimed at renewing the dream of the centuries-gone Persian empire more than 1400 years ago. Arabs in al-Ahwaz region has been no better off than the rest of the ethnic minorities, such as the Kurds or the Baluchi peoples whose identity is targeted similarly to that of the Ahwazis by the Iranian regime’s chauvinist policies in attempt to eradicate their own distinctive cultural identities and forcibly assimilate them into a dominant Persian hegemony. Successive regimes have consistently sought to alter the demographic composition within Iran and enforce assimilation by various systematic policies, including changing the names of cities, towns, villages, neighbourhoods and natural landmarks to banning non-Persian citizens from wearing their own traditional garb and even outlawing traditional cultural events and rituals. Prior to the 1979 revolution, the Shah, backed by massive support from Western allies and from some prominent Persian chauvinists amongst his own entourage, dreamt of reviving the glories of the Persian Empire. He was able for a short time to inculcate a strong sense of nationalist supremacism amongst the public by imposing changes in the educational curriculum, viewing himself increasingly as the heir of those ancient dynasties, but this was abruptly ended by the popular uprising of 1979, with ordinary Iranians, tired of being treated as serfs, rising up to reclaim their own rights; unfortunately for the long-suffering valiant revolutionaries, Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow theocrats themselves quickly seized absolute power, creating the so-called ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’.
Although this dream of reviving the long-dead Empire is an impossible fantasy as reviving the dead generally is, especially in an interconnected modern globalised world, the supremacist worldview which is a core component of this mindset is all too real, with the regime disregarding the most basic of values such as fundamental human rights to justify perpetrating terrible crimes against peoples’ ethnicity and dignity, using media to normalise this abhorrent behaviour. Most bitterly of all, the Iranian regime does not criminalise or penalise any racist or sectarian abuse, no matter how vile and overt against citizens of non-Persian ethnicities.
This being the case, it is imperative that international human rights bodies and organisations working in this field unequivocally condemn the regime’s brutal supremacist behaviour; as a member state of the United Nations, Iran’s regime, which has repeatedly violated every norm of fundamental human rights, must be held to account by the UN’s own legislation and by the shamefully silent international community.
By: Yasser Assadi, a freelance journalist and human rights advocate