Why are the European and US human rights activists silent on Iran’s oppression of Ahwazis?


A new wave of protests this time engulfed the Arab region of Ahwaz in the south west of Iran for over two weeks after sparked by anti-Arab racism and ethnic oppression.

The protests, however, garnered limited coverage by the American press (and even less so by European media outlets where several million of Ahwazi Arab population remained stranded under the oppressive yoke of the Islamic Republic’s racist policies.  These policies include cultural genocide through a ban on the study of Arabic and wearing of the ethnic garments, restrictive educational policies, deliberate depopulation, disproportionate executions, and facilitation of drugs, exploitation of natural resources, as well as hiring discrimination and disproportionate arrests and torture of peaceful protesters.

Recently, the regime announced plans for a new dam that would further divert water from the Ahwaz region, contributing to a further environmental degradation. The regime also imprisoned 20 peaceful protesters from a group of sugar cane workers, who haven’t been paid wages in over a year and cannot provide for their families – even as the regime-backed factory owners unjustly enrich themselves at the expense of the Ahwazi workers. The regime has decried allegations of racism and discriminations at its convenience, for instance, against Palestinians; however, it would never confront its own legacy and persistent practice of abuse of the non-Persian nations in its own borders. And when the Ahwazis came out to demonstrate against the latest slew of discriminatory incidents and policies, these rallies were met with a violent response and mass arrests of as many as 140 men and women.  The Iranian authorities have begun to target women activists in particular; for that reason, thousands of Ahwazi women likewise came out to protests. These incidents included the death of yet another peaceful Ahwazi activist in custody under torture.

Other attacks on Ahwazi culture included racist content on radio and television. Systematic and persistent demonization and defamation of an entire group of people are one of the factors that is often a step towards potential genocide; all that is required to take dehumanization of a group of people on the basis of ethnic or racial origin is an element of planning and intent towards a mass extermination. The regime has not yet openly articulated such intent, but de facto, all of its actions aimed at depriving of Ahwazis of livelihood and ability to have funds for survival shows a propensity towards a Holodomor-like event that is at risk of taking place if the international community, including the United States, does not intervene in the near future. As a result of the ongoing protests, the regime imposed tighter security measures, making life even more difficult for the disenfranchised and disempowered Arab population.  The regime has been weakened by persistent attacks on its legitimacy; losing control over the hearts and minds of people over time cause paranoia and panic.  The regime thus has come to disregard even the semblance of keeping with international norms, and rather has chosen to encourage or overlook racial violence against the Ahwazis.

During the course of the most recent uprising, an arson attack on an Arab Ahwazi cafe killed 11 people, including children and injuring dozens others. Finally, the continuous video coverage and detailed reports of the ongoing protests and their importance to the understanding of the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran took its toll, and the US State Department’s outreach team will follow up on the Arab Ahwazi protests. However, this important development is only the first step towards achieving justice for the millions of men, women, and children victimized and isolated by the regime’s exclusionary policies. Much more needs to be done to raise awareness of the oppressive racism and its destructive effect on the entire communities.

According to the Ahwazi human rights activist, Rahim Hamid: Ahwazi Arab regions particularly the city of Ahwaz – have experienced a wave of anti-Persian racism protests over the past week, as of April 4. The demonstrations have been in response to a children’s television show that highlighted diversity in Iran while excluding Arab people. The protesters have accused the Iranian government of discriminatory policies towards Arab citizens and Arab-majority areas. Security forces have reportedly fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. Sporadic outbreaks of violence have occurred and over 200 Ahwazi Arab protesters have been arrested. Increased security measures have been imposed in the region. Continued protests are likely in the coming days and weeks. Additionally, a fire broke out at a teahouse in Ahwaz on Tuesday, April 3, killing at least 11 people and dozens of others. An initial investigation indicated the fire was started by a former disgruntled employee using gasoline to commit arson but the incident remained suspicious since it coincided with the Ahwazi protests. Protests on Tuesday night were reportedly especially large as anti-racism demonstrators also paid tribute to those killed in the fire.

 The U.S. State Department has continued to monitor the situation and its outreach team has accused the regime of thuggery and for three days straight commented about the ongoing protests and their causes. Nevertheless, the mainstream media has been quiet, deliberately so, as the sheer extent of the human rights violations would put a strain the efforts to preserve or fix the nuclear deal before the May 12 deadline. One cannot help but wonder at the discrepancy of the West’s disinterest towards the plight of the Ahwazis and the anti-colonialist rhetoric imbuing university Middle East Studies programs around the United States and Europe. Entire courses are dedicated to Edward Said’s “Orientalism”, a critique of the Westerners’ tendency to view Middle Eastern countries as exotic and fantastical, never able to grasp the reality of these nations thanks to always being the outsiders looking in. Critical theories have permeated interdisciplinary coursework with obsessive decoupling from remnants of European identities imposed by colonialist powers. The “White Man’s Burden” of improving the life for the Third World countries is discarded in favor of the widely supported interest in rediscovering indigenous practices and folk traditions. Exploitation of natural resources and condescending, derisive, infantilizing attitudes towards the nations of the territories once conquered by European empires have rightfully been exposed and decried.

 Yet the same courtesy does not extend to the Islamic Republic’s violent hold on its Ahwazi Arab population and on other non-Persian nations. The issue here is not just the forceful annexation of land, which occurred before the current regime came to power in 1979. The ayatollah-led government’s excesses in the peripheries has overshadowed the discriminatory practices of the Shah.  Entire nations have been deprived of both their cultural identities and access to the benefits from the natural resources which once enriched their lands. None of this is being taught in textbooks around the Western world. One can hardly find mention of Al Ahwaz in whatever form even in university-level classes.

 Though there are scholars with an interest in non-Persian nations, they do not appear in conferences on human rights, nor are part of the mainstream discourse on Iran. There are no popularized books on the history and culture of Ahwaz, nor calls for sanctions and boycotts of the regime for its despicable violations of human rights of their own citizens on the basis of their ethnic identity. (I challenge the readership to identify any such resources, courses, popular texts, or calls for boycott by any major student campus or activist association). No one consulted the Ahwazi community in the United States as to the likely effect of the nuclear deal and sanctions relief on Iran on their families back home. On the contrary, these critical voices were shut down, minimized, and scoffed at.  At best, they remain unknown to most people, even those with an interest in Iran. At worst, the regime propaganda machine has labeled them as separatists, making them untouchable in the public discourse – through the right of self-determination, and certainly, at the very least, self-identification is apparently essential to many other nations around the world.

There are several possible reasons for these unfair double standards. First, Iran is not a white, European, Christian power. If the entire doctrine of anti-colonialism is based not in the condemnation of the associated practices, but in the identity politics, there will be convenient and inconvenient oppressors, just as there are convenient and inconvenient victims. A Middle Eastern power oppressing another Middle Eastern nation is not controversial, does not speak to the expected indignation, and is of limited interest to the demagogues who claim they care about human rights – only when it fits their agendas. Iran is also far away and does not promote the domestic agendas of the alleged anti-colonialists. Much of the liberation movements around the world, with the accompanying critical theories, originated in the Soviet Union’s opposition to the West, and were cultivated not to promote social equality, freedom, or justice for the oppressed, but rather as a political attack on Western interests. Russia, the Soviet Union’s descendant, which has now embraced the same methodology of infiltrating Western institutions, is solidly in Iran’s camp, and has shared both intelligence gathering methodology and torture techniques with the oppressors. It will not finance any anti-colonialist movements against its staunch ally.

Second, anti-colonialism against Iran means admitting that the Islamic Republic is not a legitimate government, which means reexamining engagement with its government. That goes against the entire foreign policy establishment that supported the nuclear deal, largely as the way of promoting the legacy of their own role in signing JCPOA, as well as in reaping the financial benefits of direct engagement with Iran. Such interest groups prefer to have the regime in power, for fear that defending the defenseless would cost them in tenders, investments, and other financial benefits of siding with Iran.

Third, acknowledging that Iran is a colonialist power and treating it as such means also confronting Iran’s aggression and warmongering all over the Middle East, as well as other places around the world. Being an anti-Colonialist in 2018 is easy, because former Colonial powers have long since released their former colonies. There are no risks to condemning past history, no battles to fight, and no difficult political and military decisions to make. Essentially, being a vocal anti-Colonialist against old dead Europeans amounts to nothing more than self-righteous and facile virtue signaling. On the other hand, standing up to an existing rising hegemon that is oppressing and torturing its own people requires principles, courage, and a willingness to confront a bully. How many people prefer to merely make empty statements about justice for all and how few are willing to write to their governments and support taking decisive action against human rights violators? The answer is self-evident, as no country in the West, at this point, has yet issued a definitive statement, nor taken action of any kind to punish Iran specifically for its exploitative colonialist practices against its non-Persian minorities. That would mean contending with uncomfortable realities that many of these groups have distinct cultural identities and yet are being forced to live in such conditions that none of these so-called human rights defenders would ever tolerate in the United States or Europe.

 Finally, many of the anti-colonialist activists may very well themselves be racist. To them, Arab blood is cheap, and Arab lives matter only when they can be paraded for the sake of some effortless political agendas, and make these activists look and feel good. However, outside some narrowly defined contexts, these individuals care nothing about Arab cultures, have no interest in the region, have a poor understanding of regional politics, and a weak grasp of the issues Ahwazis are facing and why the matter. Secretly, many of these colonialists look down on this nation and it is for that reason, which they refuse to raise their voices in their defense. Let’s not hide behind a masque of ignorance and virtue. Let’s admit that many of the anti-Colonialists have actually nothing to fight or die for; their dedication to protecting the past is merely symbolic as it requires no risks nor sacrifices, and most often they do not even like the people they are defending and for that reason choose to stick with the past.

 Western hypocrisy on colonialism lies in their failure to confront colonialism in all its forms, even when it means making enemies, going against popular trends, risking one’s reputations as foreign policy “experts”, or otherwise challenging superficial talking points and valuing Ahwazis for being human beings, not merely looking for easy and convenient victims for the sake of boosting one’s own self-esteem. However, even the US government is finally beginning to wake up to the danger Iran’s brutality presents to the nations it is oppressing, all over the Middle East. The State Department’s continuous coverage of the event is putting pressure on the regime and for the first time since the Islamic Revolution, signaling a change in the way the United States approaches the right of non-Persian nations in Iran, as well as a more serious stand against human rights violations in general.

There is a lot more to be done.  The Ahwazi movement is gratified for the unparalleled support from the Trump administration; no other Western government has commented on the situation or confronted the ayatollahs about it. The morale boost for people defending their rights through this principled stand by the US government is of immeasurable value. The next step, however, is for the State Department’s outreach to come into closer contact with the leaders of the movement and to learn in more detail about what is going on. The Ahwazis are friendly to the US; they wish to enter into a dialogue, to inform and educate others about the situation, and to help with finding a solution to Iran’s security threats to the Middle East and the West, and its oppression of various peoples.

 Just like the United States, Ahwazis wish to see free, secure, peaceful, stable, just, and prosperous the Middle East, and are ready, with gratitude to extend their hand to the US and to assist in any way. The State Department should also inform its partners and the wider public about what is going on. The mainstream media will not start covering the protests of their own accord, but if the US takes note and makes a priority to comment on these important developments, they will have no choice but to start asking questions inconvenient to the destructive and false narrative, which ignored the reality of the majority of the Iranian population. The first step is to issue an official press release in English expressing the awareness and concern about the situation and to make other official inquiries that will finally put Iran’s disgraceful oppression of Ahwazis on the map. And for the regular American citizens, this is an opportunity to exercise goodwill by standing in solidarity with the Ahwazis defending their rights, organizing rallies in support, informing themselves and writing about the issue, and giving Ahwazi activists an opportunity to speak about it on air, just as the regime apologists have had the opportunity to do so unchallenged for so many years. They should share the images and the videos of the brave people refusing to stay silent any longer; spread the word on social media, write to newspapers, write to Congress, and demand hearings on this issue.

 The Ahwazi movement is not giving up; it is determined, organized, and strong. But it has been ignored in favor of regime’s narratives. When Ahwazi women march for their rights, there are no images of them inspiring others in the West to share in their struggle. There is no discussion of the abuses they have suffered or the sacrifices they have made. Yet, just as the brave Iranian women in Tehran, the women who have participated in the protests, are risking their lives exposing the racism, discrimination, and denigration of their families, their identities, their culture, and their communities. They have been considered “lesser” – lesser women, lesser people, lesser citizens of Iran, and their voices have remained unheard. That’s all about to change, for in response to the silencing of their roles, in response to the lies about their lack of social role, they have been coming out in the thousands to stand side by side with the men.

 We hope that the State Department takes note of that and remembers. There is no going back; only continuing to resist the oppression, the discrimination, the injustice, and the tyranny of a violent, terrorist, and illegitimate regime which has tried to turn all the nations of Iran into slaves. The time of servitude is over; now comes freedom.

By Irina Tsukerman , Irina Tsukerman is graduated from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.

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