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Ethnicity and Sectarianism in Iran; From Myth to Reality [Qomiyat va Qowmgarayi dar Iran; az Afsane ta Vaqe’iayat]

Hamid Ahmadi. Ethnicity and Sectarianism in Iran; From Myth to Reality [Qomiyat va Qowmgarayi dar Iran; az Afsane ta Vaqe’iayat]. Tehran: Nashr-e Ney (1387 [2008-2009]).

This book explains the historical formation of ethnicity and ethnic conflicts in Iran. Ahmadi starts with a review of ethnicity theories. He points out that the term ethnicity was constructed for studying a particular historical situation, meaning the situation of different groups from different races, languages, and religions in the United States. He criticizes the application of theories of ethnicity and ethnic nationalism to Iran because of the historical and systemic differences. He rejects universalization of this concept and emphasizes a historical analysis.

He refers to the importance of tribal societies in the history of Iran. Tribes in Iran have been either state builders or built by states . They have had a cooperative relationship with the government . They functioned as the representative of government in each region, and the government recognized them as so.

The book then examines different components of ethnicity such as language, myths, race, shared historical memories, religion, and customs in three regions of Kurdistan, Baluchistan, and Azerbaijan . He observes that these factors  have existed in these regions in the past, but were not politicized and did not lead to the formation of ethnic identities. Politicization of these elements in the form of centrifugal  and separatist tendencies goes back to the formation of the absolutist modern state. Ahmadi argues that basic dependencies and connections such as language, religion and culture are rooted in the pre-modern era, but the emergence of the phenomenon of ethnicity and the politicization of these matters are modern constructs .

Three important factors have played an important role in this construction : the modern state, the political elite, and the international system.

Regarding the first factor, Ahmadi explains that before Pahlavi regime, because of the presence of a semi-confederation between tribes, and because of the mechanisms such as loyalty to the king, one did not witness ethnic conflicts . With the rise of the modern state and the disruption of the mutual relationship between the government and tribes, ethnic conflicts were formed .

Three groups of elites also have been influential in the process of the construction of ethnicity:

1.      Tribal bosses whose interests were placed in risk with the centralization policies of the government

2.      Educated elites who were relatives of the tribal bosses

3.      Non-ethnic elites who used language and religious issues instrumentally in their resistance against the central government


Finally, addressing the international context, Ahmadi argues that the United States and the Soviet Union used ethnic issues in Iran as tool in the rivalry between them. Iran’s neighbors also resorted to these issues in use against Iran. Two other international factors have been important according to the author: the international discourse of autonomy for each nation and international intellectuals (like orientalists) and social science scholars who “discovered” historical roots for people who did not know about these matters themselves.