Colonial reality of Kurds in Iran

Behrooz Shojai

Presented on Twitter Space, April 4, 2023

As Iran moved from a territorial empire to a modern one, the concept of sovereignty was redefined according to a mix of the Jacobinist notion of French nationalism and a German notion of primordial nationalism.

This means that the cultural and linguistic characteristics of a particular ethnic group, namely the Persians, was elevated to be the sole source of definition of the identity of sovereignty. Historical narratives based on Persian history are considered the only legitimate narratives, while any other narratives are considered illegitimate, dismissed and in the best case contested. The languages of other ethnic groups are considered local dialects / گویشهای محلی, and all other narratives are marginalized and dominated by the Persian supremacist discourse. The policy of Persian colonization, after the establishment of the modern Iranian nation-state, has been implemented through a process that has been detrimental to all non-Persians, particularly the Kurdish nation. In the territorial empire of Iran, like other pre-modern state-formations, sovereignty was not based on the will of the people or the nation, but rather defined by a sole ruler, a sovereign, the king or the shah.

The Persian nation-state era has been identified as a period when the process of territorial colonialism was initiated, which continued after the elimination of on-Persian local rulers and reached an intellectual level with the inauguration of Persian education system. The policy of assimilation of non-Persians and deculturation has been evident since the beginning of the 20th century.

Adisa Ajamu and Uhuru Totep’s way of describing colonialism is applicable to the colonial reality of non-Persians in this political geography, specifically the Persian modern state has implemented three types of colonialism, namely: a) territorial, b) intellectual, and c) mental colonialism.

To support a dominant Persian narrative, a comprehensive system of education has been developed, which is supportive of not only the colonization of the lands but also the mindset of colonized people. The episteme of the colonized non-Persians is shaped by the colonial Persian epistemology. Colonized groups, such as Kurds, Balochis, Turks, and Arabs, are effectively mis-educated within the colonial education system. This miseducation creates distresses, biases, and goals for itself. Therefore, in Eastern Kurdistan, like other non-Persian territories, we can witness a clearcut example of a mentally colonized people.

It is important to recognize that the Kurdish political elite operating within the Kurdish national movement formulate Kurdish demands within the context of colonial reality and according to the parameters of colonial epistemology. This is not a coincidence, as the Kurdish political elite is itself a product of colonization. A significant portion of this elite identifies itself as Iranian, and their political parties emphasize the Iranianness of the Kurds.

They have internalized the statist historiography of the Persians, which informs their self-conception and actions. For example, Mohtadi’s decision to ally with Reza Pahlavi and Azizi’s willingness to negotiate Kurdish rights under the Persian Constitutional flag are indicative of this internalization. A constitution that shaped the frontiers of the Persian nation-state without asking the people within the territories. A constitution that lacks legitimacy among the non-Persians, because they were never present at its formation. Besides, it is important to note that this flag has historically been used by the Persian army to perpetrate genocide against the Kurds, Baluchs, and Lurs and other minoritized nations.

I would also like to draw your attention to the modern education system in Iran and its impact on Kurdish identity, a phenomenon that has been referred to as “deculturation.” The Iranian education system has implemented a three-stage process that involves teaching Kurdish individuals to be ashamed of their identity and heritage, promoting Persian cultural heritage and history as more prestigious and desirable, and offering more opportunities for recognition and career advancement to those who have fully assimilated into this system.

This approach has had a negative impact on the Kurdish people, leading to a suppression and distortion of their cultural and literary heritage. Kurds have been portrayed as uncivilized and lacking in cultural depth, while their intellectual development has been suppressed in formal education. This epistemic violence can be likened to “menticide,” where individuals willingly surrender their reality and identity to the interpretation of others, in this case, Iranians, and assimilate themselves into that reality. This has resulted in Kurdish elites positioning themselves against the interests of their own people, leading to a state of mental slavery.

Language has been used a major tool of colonial suppression. However, we must recognize that there is a distinction between physical and linguistic suppression. Linguistic violence can be more enduring than physical violence, and it is often directed against a culture, making cultural extermination a difficult challenge to overcome. Therefore, language is a primary target of colonial aggression, and efforts to preserve and promote native languages are essential.

Language is not merely a tool for sharing culture, but it is also a vehicle for transmitting culture and reflecting the collective voice and experiences of a people’s history. When a language is systematically and aggressively erased, it results in the erasure of historical events, stories, struggles, heroes and the roles of individuals in that history.

The use of a colonial language creates a colonial perspective of the world, shaped by the introduction of an external culture into the center of the colonized people. This perspective is often developed by a series of ideological parameters that are defined outside of the colonized’s environment. Colonized individuals, due to their linguistic disadvantages, perceive their own cultural experiences and understanding of the world as illegitimate and inferior.

As Fanon stated, a colonial language acts as a key that unlocks doors that were previously closed, creating a divided sense of self within the colonized person, one that is regressive and the other progressive. A colonial language promotes linguistic standardization and reinforces its hegemony while often resulting in the loss of non-official and indigenous languages.

Let us recapture the insidious nature of colonialism and how it operates. One of the keyways in which colonialism operates is through the imposition of the colonizer’s culture and values onto the colonized population. This takes the form of erasing or devaluing the culture and traditions of the colonized people in favor of the colonizer’s own way of life. As Frantz Fanon wrote in his book “The Wretched of the Earth,” colonialism seeks to turn to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it.

Language is a main key tool in the process of colonialism, as it is used to impose the colonizer’s worldview onto the colonized population. This involves forcing the colonized to learn the colonizer’s language and speak it exclusively or changing the meanings of words in the colonized language to fit the colonizer’s needs. As Homi Bhabha writes in “The Location of Culture,” colonial power is constituted through the devaluation of the colonized’s language and culture.

Norms and values are also reshaped and redefined in the process of colonialism. The colonizer’s cultural norms and practices are often held up as the “correct” or “superior” way of life, while the colonized population’s own norms are dismissed or even criminalized. This can have a profound impact on the way the colonized people see themselves and their place in the world.

In short, colonialism involves a process of violent imposition and erasure, in which the colonizer seeks to dominate and control the colonized population in every aspect of their lives. It involves imposing the colonizer’s culture, language, and values onto the colonized people, and reshaping their understanding of the world around them.

Colonialism is imposed through violence and domination, but its continuation has been achieved through subtler means, such as the hegemonic processes of mental colonization. The colonizer colonizes the minds of the colonized population through the practices of language and literature, cultural traditions, social norms, and colonial languages such as Persian. These processes legitimize the colonizer’s worldview and way of life while erasing or devaluing the culture and traditions of the colonized people.

The theorist of colonialism studies, Totep, emphasizes that mental colonization is a crucial aspect of the process of colonialism. He argues that the colonization of the mind is a key part of the system of power and control imposed by the colonizer. Today, colonization is realized through deculturation, a process by which the ethnic identity of a culture is lost. This includes the loss of language, values, and beliefs, which are replaced by those of the colonizer.

Deculturation has a profound impact on the colonized population, as it can lead to a loss of identity and a sense of displacement. It also perpetuates the power imbalance between the colonizer and the colonized, as the colonized are forced to adopt the values and beliefs of the colonizer in order to survive. Deculturation can also lead to the criminalization of the colonized people’s norms and practices, further erasing their culture and traditions.

However, despite these challenges, there are still those who seek to preserve and promote Kurdish culture and language. They stand as a beacon of hope for the future of the Kurdish people, and we must support their efforts to ensure that Kurdish culture and heritage continue to thrive in the face of adversity. Zara Mohammadi, Mojgan Kavusi, teachers of Kurdish language are just few of the grassroot leaders to mention.

We must recognize that education and training in a system that is shaped outside of our cultural center can profoundly impact our perceptions and even social classifications. The example of the borders between East, West, North and Southern Kurdistan highlights how social classifications and cultural norms can adopt colonial standards. Therefore, linguistic colonization has a significant impact on not only the preservation of culture and history but also on the perception of ourselves and others.

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