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Ethnocentrism, the weakness of Iranian democratic movements

Ava Homa

The Iranian government crushed the popular “Green movement” in less than a year, which began in June 2009 and took millions to the streets. Sporadic democratic movements continue to sprout but with no tangible result. What the opposition does not comprehend is that the brutal crackdown by the state is not the sole reason for their failure.

Ethnocentrism has continuously plagued the Iranian reform movement.

During the upheaval in 2009, although some Tehran-based minorities—including Kurdish student Sane Jaleh—participated in the protests and were killed by security forces, most ethnic minorities stood on the sidelines from their impoverished, neglected corners of Iran, staring in a daze. A voice in the back of their minds silently asked the frustrated youth: “Do you now understand what it’s like to be persecuted just for asking for your rights?”

In 1979, most of the Kurdish population stood against the rising theocratic regime. When Ayatollah Khomeini labeled Kurds as “infidels” and ordered them to be killed, not only did the Revolutionary Guards attack and loot the Kurdish region, but many non-military volunteers (Lashkar piade emam zaman) joined as well.

Throughout the years, while Baha’i were burned alive, Turkmens’ Sahra movement was crushed, Arabs were hanged in droves, and Baluchistan region was plagued with poverty, the majority of fortunate groups in Tehran and other wealthy cities looked the other way.

After three decades of overlooking minorities’ democratic demands, the privileged began fighting against the regime but the disadvantaged remained distrustful. The Green Movement, despite its initial momentum, failed to attract the marginalized and suffered the same destiny as the poor men’s movements.

Iran has long strived to assimilate ethnic groups including Kurds, Baluch, Azeris, Turkmens, and others. The demands of these groups terrifies most Iranians—including the democratic activists—who believe that diversity endangers ‘their’ land by instigating separatist outlooks.

The opposition’s incapability to see diversity as strength makes them the unwitting agents of the regime, reproducing an equally harmful national chauvinism it claims to reject.

Presently, activists are becoming more aware of the importance of getting the majority of Iranians on board but still have a limited view of the ethnic groups, tinted with bias and apprehension. For as long as their difficulties are shunned, minorities cannot fully embrace the reform movement.


Both the theocratic regime and the democratic opposition have more in common than they wish to admit. For both, preserving Iran’s current borders is more valuable than granting minority rights. For instance, many are concerned that if minorities receive education in their mother tongue, they will no longer wish to “assimilate” and seek to “separate.”

While the adults remain unsure how to grapple their baseless fears, for children in non-Persian regions, the first grade of elementary school continues to be a traumatic experience since they have to learn literacy along with a new language. As a result, they start school one step behind their Persian counterparts and are humiliated for not being “good enough” in reading or writing in a language that is not theirs.


Overall, ostracized communities do not see their demands reflected in the Green Movement agenda and conclude any future reforms will only benefit the dominant Persian society. Ethnic minorities believe that whether they decide to remain part of or separate from Iran, their rights to self-determination should be recognized. Nevertheless, they are not.

In Iranian culture, separatism is not a political term; it is a pejorative word, equivalent to treason. When Kurdish or Azeri activists seek ethnic rights, their request is immediately demonized as “separatism” by the regime and the opposition, adding insult to injury. The opposition cherry-picks their definition of democracy, denying one of its fundamentals. Hence, chauvinism has created a blind spot in the so-called democratic movement.


Iranians across the political spectrum often belittle minorities’ demands. Rather than trying to improve life for citizens who reside in floundering margins, and provide genuine incentives to improve their living and social conditions, both the regime and opposition disregard and downplay such demands.

Admittedly, minorities in Iran do not speak with one voice. The educated ones who do have a voice tend to tie their cause to the mainstream, one that is more influential and cohesive than others. The voiceless remain without much representation and misunderstandings thrive.

The scattered, disingenuous actions toward democracy and equality continue in Iran and abroad but for as long as the dominant group fails to see the ethnocentrism in their own backyard and the simultaneity of oppression for the underprivileged, the struggle for genuine democracy is bound for failure.


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