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Rudaw

Opinion

Iran’s Language War against the Kurdistan Region

By Amir Sharifi 22/5/2014
opinion
opinion

Until recently the Islamic Republic pretended it was getting along with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and not intervening in its affairs. Rudaw recently reported that the KRG Department of Foreign Affairs had summoned the Iranian acting consul in Erbil to protest and condemn a condescending statement that had appeared on the consular website, in which  the Kurdish language had been proclaimed to be a “ dialect of Persian,” and Iran was described as the ancestral  “motherland” of Kurds. I must commend KRG officials for repudiating this outright breach of diplomatic protocol. I should hasten to add that, anywhere else, such a diplomatic breach would be cause for expulsion. The central question is why the Islamic Republic is so blatantly and perniciously reviving a moribund myth against the official status of Kurdish in Iraq?

The answer to this question has to do with both politics of language and language of politics. The contemptuous declaration is meant to (1) intimidate the KRG to compromise with and not collide with the Islamic Republic’s  ideological brethren in Baghdad; (2) to bolster the position of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in confrontation with the KRG;  (3) to oppose any political ambition and intention on behalf of the KRG to assert Kurdish political autonomy and independence by threatening to annex it to the presumed historical  “motherland”; (4) to express open hostility to the recognition of Kurdish as an official language in Iraq; (5) to express  alarm and opposition to the emergence of civil and secular trends in the recent Iraqi elections; (6) to challenge the burgeoning democracy  that is contributing to the revival of the Kurdish language and the growing insistence of Kurds in Iran to connect with the achievements made by their fellow Kurds in the autonomous region in areas of educational opportunity, ethnic pride and official status of their native language.

Although the answer to these questions is complex and multilayered, the last one perhaps alarms and worries the Islamic Republic more.

Linguistic repression is endemic in Iran. One revealing example is a directive issued in 2013. The coercive directive (see footnote) cannot be construed as an aberration but a persistent restrictive language policy designed and implemented to obliterate the Kurdish ethno-linguistic identity. A cursive survey of the text of the directive will reveal the ways in which Kurdish as a native language is subordinated and Persian exalted. The directive upholds Persian as a benchmark, linguistically framed as “the language of standards” or the standard language, in need of “reinforcing” its lexical repertoire or   “treasury.” It is claimed that the highly valued official language and its purism (Persian) is now being threatened with the corrupting effect of “local dialects.” The directive goes on to reserve special rights for “non-native students” (Farsi speakers) as it warns against the negative educational implications of using (local dialects) as the language of instruction and communication in the subsequent stages of education.”

This is a contemptuous and threatening call for Draconian linguistic and cultural repression. The directive, unlike the one issued recently in Erbil, had been issued in the context of an institutionalized monolingual language policy that has been in force  for over a century in Iran, an assimilationist policy that has had devastating and ruinous educational consequences for all language minorities in Iran.

 A study conducted by Sarafi on the effects of these restrictions in the representations of ethnic minorities in institutions of higher education offers glaring disparities between native Farsi speakers and non-Farsi speakers. While 58 percent of Farsi speakers receive an academic degree from universities, only 48 percent non-native Farsi speakers do so. With respect to undergraduate enrollment, Farsi speakers constitute 46 percent of the total population of students, while non-Farsi speakers are only 36 percent. Postgraduate levels show even greater disparity, 88 percent as contrasted with 12 percent, and in PhD programs surveyed, the data found  90 percent of graduate students and recipients  to be native Farsi speakers and only  10 percent were  non-native speakers of Farsi.

The current proclamation issued in Erbil is symptomatic of a recurrent and similar colonialist attitude, based on regressive and homogenizing language policies. The officials of the Islamic Republic have for long been worried about the cultural influence of the KRG and the role it is symbolically playing in reshaping regional geo-politics and cultural landscape. With great political uncertainty, Iran is now witnessing the growing influence of a burgeoning democracy that threatens to redefine and reinforce the Kurdish national psyche in Iran, thus heightening “national anxiety” for the Iranian government.

These examples testify to the deep-seated prejudice and aggression of the Islamic Republic against the Kurdish language and ethnicity, both in Iran and Iraq. We cannot be oblivious to this overt distortion of historical and linguistic facts and lack of respect. This flagrant violation of international law should be brought to the attention of the International community and human rights groups who might be able to find legal provisions against such hostility, interventions, intolerance and linguistic distortions.

 Persian intellectuals, linguists and human rights activists and advocates cannot gloss over the injustices perpetrated in their name. For Kurds there is a bitter historical irony as they do have a linguistic affinity with Persian. But the real irony is that Kurds since the time of the Safavids have been the targets of ruthless decimation and linguistic repression, and forced assimilation   into the dominant society in Iran. As for Kurds in the north of Iraq, although there is now a more liberal language policy and Kurdish has acquired official status with Arabic, Kurdish language rights are still vulnerable and fragile. The Islamic Republic’s current language war is nothing but a smokescreen against the cultural revival of Kurdish ethno-linguistic identity in Iran and newly acquired linguistic rights in the autonomous region of Southern Kurdistan.

Dr. Amir Sharifi is president of the Kurdish American Education Society-Los Angeles

Directive

With all due respect, in the pursuit of the language of standards and attention to the official language of the country and the rights of non-native students in classrooms and strengthening the treasury of words and more effective communication in the subsequent stages of education, it is befitting that you dictate to all colleagues that during instruction and communication in educational settings to speak in Farsi and refrain from using local dialects. Signed by Jalal Amini

Comments

 
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mehrdad sarhangie | 22/5/2014
Kudos Dr. Sharifi. For a mere 50 percent persian population to decide, dictate , and in fact impose a national language upon the other half(if not more)is way beyond forced assimilation. It is a futile effort in homogenization, not taking into account the various ethnicities , languages, religions, even languages affiliated (more or less) with religions. This is exactly what is happening in Turkey. 'TURKIFICATION" IN ORDER TO PRESERVE THE "NATIONAL CHARACTER". Same issue; different day. The impact is already clear. In Amed, Kurds can not even speak Kurmanci without a peppering of turkish, and this is the spiritual capital of BAKURIS. kirmasan is already experiencing some of the same issues; Lak (if it is considered part of Kurdish)is being inundated. Gorani/Hawramani is pretty much relegated to religious status for Yarsanis, and the events in Halabja did not help the matters much, as it further diluted the speakers pull(granted, this has nothing to do with "persianification", and mostly a byproduct of the Anfal operation). Thank you for the informative article.We should all be on the watch.
Qaraman | 22/5/2014
Iran and Turkey are switching roles, it use to be Turkey that was terrified of Kurdish language and identity, they're finely coming to terms with it now Iran is panicking. One more reason which is not mentioned in the article is Kurdish is now officially taught in Rojava, in Turkey we now have private schools, Kurdish can be chosen as an extra course in public schools and many universities are offering Kurdish faculties, and soon there will be full public education in Kurdish. KRG has of course always used Kurdish so the only place left would be Iran, I really would like to see them try and stop the Kurdish language, things are very different from 100 or 50 years ago.
Darin | 23/5/2014
Thank you Mr Amir Sharifi but I wonder why you write Erbil with E and not Arbil with A? The Kurds say Arbil and the turks say Erbil and because Arbil (Hawler) is a Kurdish city so it's prefered to say Hawler if not so say Arbil. Don't pay too much attention to the persians and turks because they talk too much nonsense but in the end of the day they do exactly what the USA tells them to do, that's for sure.
Qawramon | 23/5/2014
I'm an ultra nationalist and born in kalar. No one needs to tell me what comes first and where my loyalty is. First of all is this guy Kurdish? And second I recognize his didactic writing. It is confusing and illogical his pattern of writing. I fully understand it but it serves no purpose but to confuse the reader. I've written in this style and it's dreadful that he would use it to write about us. Another thing I would like to say is that even the 'west' considers Kurdish a dialect. This is something we should address. Not just in the mind of Iranians but foreigners. Let's be honest that whole linguistic graPh is made up kind of like the evolution of man from the monkey to the caricature of the white man .life and history is what you make it. It's time we made our own history and path.
Hiwa | 23/5/2014
Seems like those at the Iranian Consulate do not have the knowledge of the subject. For general public's information I must shed some information about Kurdish language that some people might not be aware of. Kurdish language has four distinct dialects; North Kurmanji, South Kurmanji (Sorani), Hawramani and Gorani. Although these dialects are distinct in their respective grammar and vocabulary, if spoken in their pure form, they are mostly understandable to speakers of one another. There are many original words in Kurdish borrowed into Farsi with some changes in spelling or pronunciation. Look carefully at these Kurdish words for example: Jin, Roj, Jang, Zemawend, they are entered into Farsi and written respectively as: Zan (woman), Rooz (day), Zhang (as corrosion of metals), and Damawand (Highest mountain in Iran). As a matter of fact Kurdish is much more pure and original than Farsi, certainly much more structured in grammar, in spite of hundreds of years of language persecution and economic and educational deprivations. Farsi is in fact a mixture of Kurdish and Arabic, old Persian (modified), and if you listen carefully, its impossible to hear a sentence in Farsi without hearing a few words of non Farsi, especially Arabic. So those Iranians that claim Kurdish is a dialect of Farsi, should actually reverse their claim, that Farsi is a tampered variation of Kurdish language. Now we all know a Kurd who doesn't speak Farsi requires a translator in a Farsi speaking group, and by the same token if a Persian travels to a Kurdish city and does not know Kurdish requires a translator. This is the extent of similarity between the two languages. The Iranian counsels claim that the Kurds of Iraq should appreciate Iranian support to obtain democracy in the past decade or so, why don't they enhance the lives of fifteen million Kurds in Iran. I am wondering why?? There is not a single Kurdish school in Iran!
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