Azeri Turkish, My Mother’s Language

By Abbas Djavadi — February 21 is the International Mother Language Day and, again, I think about my own mother language, Azeri Turkish.

Half of the world’s 6,700 languages are in danger of disappearing before the century ends. «A language is endangered when its speakers cease to use it, use it in fewer and fewer domains, use fewer of its registers and styles, and/or stop passing it on to the next generation» (UNESCO).

I know, Azeri Turkish is not one of those 3,500 or more of endangered languages spoken by small communities, which UNSCO calls the public to protect. Azeri Turkish is spoken in Iran by 10-20 million (out of 66 m. total population of the country in 2009) plus by eight million people in the Republic of Azerbaijan where it is the state language. Azeri Turkish is a Turkic language, similar to, but not the same like Turkey’s Turkish. It is distinct from Persian, Iran’s state and official language.

Sure, nobody forbids us to speak Azeri Turkish at home or on the street. Even in mosques of Azeri populated Iranian provinces (Eastern and Western Azerbaijan, Ardabil, Zanjan), mullahs pray in Azeri Turkish and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, himself an ethnic Azeri, occasionally speaks in Azeri Turkish to warn of «enemies› attempts» to dismember the country. This was also a concern of the Shah regime that was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago.

I am certainly not a fan of the Islamic Republic, nor was I one of the Shah regime. I do, however, try to understand their concerns. The language issue was politically misused at least once in our history. In 1945, when Soviet troops occupied northern Iran, a pro-Soviet autonomous government was established in Tabriz, Iranian Azerbaijan’s capital that ultimately led to a de facto separation of Iran’s Azeri Turkish-speaking regions from the central government in Tehran. The main demand, and many say «pretext», raised by that government was the discrimination against Azeri Turkish language. That government fell after Soviet troops were forced to leave Iran. Since then, anybody demanding language rights for Azeri Turkish in Iran was referred to Moscow and that this kind of demands would instigate a split of Iran’s unity and territorial integrity.

But the facts remain unchanged since the centralization of state and education in 1920s: Iran’s ethnic Azeris can hardly write and read in Azeri Turkish because there is no education in their own, mother language. There is no single Azeri-Turkish school in the whole country, not even a course, and no institute at any university teaching the language. An Azeri-speaking citizen talks in Azeri Turkish to his family members and friends and neighbors, but writes his letters to the same people in Persian because he or she doesn’t know how to write in a standard Azeri Turkish.

Lack of education and official use has led to the social irrelevance of speaking and using the mother language. Practically banned from official written form, Azeri Turkish has been infiltrated by local and societal dialects and slangs on the one hand and Persian’s overwhelming dictionary and sentence structure, on the other. The language has dangerously become a folkloristic tool that its native speakers could (and, in practice, are encouraged to) abandon.

What is that if not discrimination? Imagine, you grow up in a mother language and an environment that is linguistically different from what you hear in school, in offices, on radio and TV, and from what you later read in newspapers.  You start to learn a language in school that is not your mother tongue. That’s fine. It’s Persian, the beautiful language of Iran. Every Iranian should learn it. Otherwise, how should we communicate?

But depriving a group, let alone millions of people from learning and using their mother language is a gross violation of a very fundamental human right. And it creates inequity in social chances. Nobody is prevented from taking any position in government or army or any other social activity because of being an Azeri or a Kurd. But the better you know and use Persian, the country’s single official and state language, the more chances you have to be successful. Those millions with a mother language other than Persian are disadvantaged compared to their Persian-speaking compatriots.

There is no (and, during the Shah’s rule, there has been no) ban on the use of Azeri Turkish in the private sphere. But there is (and has been) a strong resistance to its use in education. Most recently, a group of prominent writers including Ali Reza Sarrafi has been arrested simply for publishing and promoting works in Azeri language and on its literature and history.  Shahnaz Gholami, a prominent blogger and human rights activist, was imprisoned because she has been demanding the right for education in Azeri Turkish. Both Sarrafi and Gholami were charged with «acting against the national security of the Islamic Republic and its territorial integrity.»

There are many who argue that, on the contrary, repression against ethnic and linguistic rights weakens the social feeling of unity and provokes separatism. You would feel more integrated in a country and nation where your fundamental rights are respected and observed.

But, apparently, the Islamic Republic still believes that the risks of losing control and threat of disintegration of the nation are higher than the benefits of granting linguistic rights to Iran’s ethnic minorities. They suspect that «enemies» would use ethnic rights to sew animosity and division in the nation that now holds together. The question is which feelings «enemies» could use more effectively: the feeling that your mother language is deprived of basic rights or the feeling that you have similar linguistic rights like the native speakers of the majority.

For the neighboring Turkey, it took 30 years of terror and fighting against the Kurdish Workers› Party, PKK, to even acknowledge the existence of a large Kurdish minority. Ethnic and linguistic minorities are better off in Iran than in Turkey. But let’s hope Iran won’t need Turkey’s bitter experience to conclude what is in its own, best interest.

[A reprint from February 21, 2009]

(Published on RFE/RL’s website, republished on Peyvand, Iranian Minorities Human Rights Organization )