From Border to Border

Comprehensive research study on identity and ethnicity in Iran

By: Kameel Ahmady

A word to the readers

This is summary of a comprehensive reasrch on peace-based identity and ethnicity, conducted in thirteen Iranian provinces based on an anthropological view, the full version of which will be available in the form of a book for those interested. An interest in the study of identity and enthnicity has always exixsted and intensified in me by my own Kurdish background. Many of the ethnic attitudes,  anecdotes,hearsay and war time memoirs form part of my lived, childhood experiences. I have lived and grown up in a region not far from the towns near Iraqi borders and a short distance from the Turkish border. For this reason I may have attained a clearer understanding of identity and ethnicity. Another reason  for my interest  in identity and ethnicity is the history of my own studies in other countries and mostly in Iran and its rural and deprived societies.

These studies kept me in direct contact with the ethnicities that live in low-income and underdeveloped regions, an encounter and connection which in the end led to the recognition of different dimensions and angles of ethnicities. The third reason for studying and researching identity and ethnicity is the necessity for distinguishing these ethnicities from one another, as well as the weaknesses and shortcomings that have existed in center oriented policies for a long time leading to an unfair distribution of wealth and power in different and important regions outside the center. Another important reason is the role and importance of peace in the geography and history of Iran, especially at this critical juncture, inspiring me to conduct a peace-oriented study on identity and ethnicity.

Studies for this research were mainly conducted on the elite of these ethnic groups and less on the common people. They first attempt to answer questions about what the understanding of these people is of ethnicities and themselves and how they use it as a basis to create a sense of otherness wih other identities, and where they see themselves in the political and economic structure of the Iranian society today and what their opinion is about convergence, political cooperation, mother tongue and the concept of center and the surrounding ethnicities?

The phenomenon of ​​ethnicity and the formation of identities and subcultures within national identities have become increasingly important in the contemporary world, and factors such as territorial divisions based on national government, inequalities, deprivations, ideologies and colonization play an important role in the formation of ethnic groups within societies. Many globalization experts around the world counted a number of factors that would weaken ethnic tendencies among today’s educated youth after the years of World War II.

They included the continuation of macro-plans and structural uniformity at an international level, globalization, the growth of urbanization and education, ease of access to different environments, and the world of media which is shrinking the concept of time and space. But the process of autonomy in the former Soviet republics and the UK colonies, and the continued pursuit of ethnic identity in the heart of Europe and other countries, and dozens of other cases indicate the survival of ethnic tendencies in the new world in spite of all views. Such cases show that the pursuit of ethnic identity should not be considered specific to the Third World and underdeveloped countries.

Ethnicity is of high importance in Iran as a country with high ethnic diversity, compared to other countries. There have been ethnic tendencies among Iranian ethnic groups with varying strength and weakness. It should be noted that before the establishment of a modern state in Iran, the distinction between government and ethnic groups was not easy because ethnic groups and their heads were present in the governmental structure and the Iranian government was interdependent with those ethnic groups, and together they formed a single system called the Iranian identity. The government relied on these ethnic groups to mobilize armies, collect taxes and duties, and secure borders, and the ethnic groups shared in and benefited from the governmental power, and if the balance between the two was upset; this was restored.

This situation occurred in some marginal parts of Iran, especially in the last century and in the historical periods such as the Constitutional Revolution, World War I and II, expulsion of Reza Shah, the coming to power of the second Pahlavi and at the time of the Islamic Revolution’s victory. But with the coming to power of the central forces, it can be said that the local political-administrative organization had a short life.

A historical review of ethnic groups in Iran shows that they have been offended by discriminatory laws, especially on language, religion, and civil rights. In the Constitutional Revolution, rights of these groups were not taken into account, and during the Pahlavi era, the publication and distribution of newspapers, magazines, and books in ethnic languages ​​were strictly prohibited. Today, the main reason and root of these dissatisfactions can be found in the feeling of political, cultural, economic, linguistic, and religious inequality among some ethnic groups in comparison with other ethnic groups, especially Persian speakers. In the political arena, Kurds, Turks, Arabs and the Baloch believe that they have no place in the political structure of the country and none of the officials of their ethnic groups are seen in the main high-ranking posts of the country.

In economy, the non-central provinces lack the necessary facilities and it is believed that most of the country’s facilities are accumulated in the central provinces. In the cultural section, the studied ethnic groups believe that there are restrictions on holding seminars and regional conferences, and the national and local media do not pay decent attention to or reflect the cultural rituals of these regions, nor do they serve their local cultures. In education, there are no textbooks in their mother tongues and the Kurdish, Turkish, Arab and Baloch children are forced to study in the country’s schools in a second language. In religion, most of the Baloch, as well as some Kurds, have different religious affiliations from the country’s official religion, and these Kurds believe that the religious views of the governmental officials have led to a political, cultural, social and economic oppression.

What we mentioned is only part of the ethnic demands of the last century, especially in the years after the rise of the Islamic Revolution. These demands have always been viewed as a security matter detrimental to national unity and consensus and they have been met with confrontational and violent reactions. This, as a result, has led to a violent behaviour between the centre and ethnic groups causing an irreparable damage to national unity and consensus.

Given that ethnicity and nationality are considered as modern social identities, and on the one hand in the nineteenth century ethnicity referred to groups of people living outside capitalism polis, and in the twentieth century this concept was applied to groups of people with a common language, territory and history, first defined for a nation and second with at least a language or even a territory distinct from the nation, in confrontation and competition with the nation, build their own history, unify the linguistic pluralism within themselves and specify their territory; and on the other hand, nationality is an identity that has a historical continuity and background that reflects a set of commitments and duties of a group of people who belong to a specific geographical location, decide, act and conclude together, so today there are two different views and interpretations between the political parties and civil activists in this regard. Also, considering the ambiguities between ethnic and national identities, and the fact that among some minorities present in the land of Iran, there is a great emphasis on using the term “nation” instead of “ethnicity”, this study does not intend to undermine any concept by using the term “ethnicity”.

Since this study seeks to observe the scientific spirit without imposing individual values ​​on the process, the author has achieved a decent understanding and knowledge of both of these views. This study is based on an anthropological and ethnocentric views. Throughout this study, the author has used both concepts of nation and ethnicity, maintaining his neutrality and keeping the issue of identity and ethnicity away from prejudice.

As mentioned, this study has attempted to answer the following questions and investigate these cases in detail using scientific methods and numerous interviews with the elites and people.

– What understanding do ethnicities have of themselves and of other identities with whom they feel strangers?

– Where do they find themselves in the political, economic and social structures of Iran today?

– What is their opinion about convergence, cooperation, political participation, the mother tongue and centralism?

– Is there an intellectual and practical room for gaining more independence among ethnicities?

The results of this study can help decision makers to solve the related problems peacefully and strengthen national unity and consensus by showing the current demands of each ethnic group.

I am obliged to appreciate the support of all those who helped me to conduct this study in various stages. Members of my family whose unconditional support never diminished, and who were by my side in all the difficult stages of this work, as well as my close friends who encouraged me in the research process. All the people who came together in order to collect and analyse the narrations of this work and conduct this comprehensive study. I am especially grateful to my assistants and colleagues, Ms. Roza Hemmati and Mr. Seyyed Mohammad (Jamal) Hosseini, who helped me during the research process to coordinate and collect contents and references. I am thankful to Ms. Sanaz Tabari for rereading the book and adding several quotes to it. Many individuals and institutions have helped to complete this research, many of the field studies were made possible only through exploratory travels, field training, support and cooperation. In this regard, I thank Mses Roza Hemmati, Sanaz Tabari, Dr. H Sorkhabi, Kurdistan Shahmoradi, Mohsen Maroofi, and Dr. Moslem N for their advice and monitoring the study’s process and performing the quantitative analysis of the research, extracting field data and drawing figures and tables. My gratitude to Ms. Marzieh Nekokar for her editing, comments, and her accurate attention to details, especially in editing the content of this work. My special thanks to Dr. Hassan Rashidi for reading the final manuscript and helping to make it smoother and more accurate by providing advice and reminders about necessary corrections. I thank Shafaqh Rahmani for reading and reviewing the theoretical literature of the text. I would also like to thank Professor Abbas Vali for his advice on the text and the first format of this book.

I owe my friends and colleagues for their support, hospitality, wise opinions and suggestions in thirteen provinces and cities of Iran, including Tehran, Isfahan, West and East Azerbaijan, Zanjan, Ardabil, Ilam, Khuzestan, Boushehr, Semnan, and Sistan and Baluchistan. Many of the dear friends whom we visited for interviews, and many others who helped to smooth field coordination and communication. Their names are too many to be mentioned here and there are those who kindly cooperated and asked me not to mention their names. I am also grateful to clergies, religious institutions, and other social figures who helped me with this study. I especially thank the interviewees and their families including officials in the departments and organizations of social and health services, various universities across the country, the Islamic Azad University and Payam Noor University, Al-Zahra University and Tabriz University for their unhesitating support in providing knowledge and information to complete this study.

Kameel Ahmady

April 2020


One of the characteristics of the new world is humanity’s getting rid of restrictions of traditions, accordingly, instead of being bound to the acceptance of traditional ideas, values, ​​ rules and norms of their ancestors, they redefine and define them independently. Identity and discovering what identity group each people belong to is one of the concepts that people independently seek to understand in the new world. Of course, many experts predicted that after World War II and the subsequent expansion of macro structural programs at national and international levels, as well as the growth of urbanization, education, easier travel to different environments and the atmosphere created by the media , would lead to the shrinking of time and place and reduce ethnic tendencies.  They believed that today’s educated young people of would not have would not be tied and restricted. But the process of autonomy in the former Soviet republics and the UK colonies and the continued process of seeking identity in Europe and developed countries such as UK (Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales), Spain (Basque Catalonia), Italy (northern and southern Italy, Veneto, and Venice), Poland (Upper Silesia), Switzerland (Zora), Belgium (Northern Flanders), France (Brittany), Cyprus (Turkish part of northern Cyprus) and dozens of other countries show that, contrary to all these views, ethnic tendencies exist in the new world.

In the last century, ethnic tendencies have also existed among Iranian ethnic groups with varying strength and weaknesses. In the early years of the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah and in Azerbaijan, the Democratic Party was able to declare its independence for about a year and take over the administration of some parts of Azerbaijan. At the same time, in Kurdistan, Kurdistan Party was able to take control of a number of Kurdish cities. In the years after the revolution, most of the Kurdish regions were in conflict over ethnic identity.

During the ruling of Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah, the Baloch regions also witnessed similar events, which were later extinguished by countermeasures of the central government. Also, among the Arabs, there have always been tendencies toward ethnic identities over the last century, Their latest activities in this field can be seen in the efforts and actions of groups such as Al-Ahwaziyah which is a sign of ethnic dissatisfaction whose main reason is political, economic, cultural, linguistic and religious inequality, and other factors that existed among the ethnic groups.

They climaxed when a comparison was done with other ethnic groups, especially with Persian speakers. Politically, the Kurdish, Turkish, Arab and Baluch ethnic groups believe that there is no place for them in the political structure of the country, and that there are no officials of their ethnic group in the main posts of the Ministry of Governorship, the embassies, ​​and other posts. And in economy, there is a belief that the majority of the country’s facilities are concentrated in the central provinces. In regions such as Azerbaijan, where people today have some facilities, it is either as the result of the efforts of the people themselves or their industrial factories were built before the Islamic Revolution.

Culturally, the studied ethnic groups believe that there are restrictions against the regional conferences, festivals and local rituals and that the national and local media neither reflect nor serve their local cultures. As for their mother tongues, 40 years after the Islamic Revolution, children of different ethnic groups are forced to learn their lessons in the second language in the country’s schools, and there is no single unit for formal education in the mother tongue during the whole period of education. Baloch and some Kurds have religiously different tendencies from the country’s official religion, and believe that the ideological view of the authorities has led to abuses against them in this regard. The absence of a Sunni mosque in the city of Tehran or compensating for the lack of senior managerial posts among members of these groups is among their important demands which have not been fulfilled yet, contrary to the various promises given to them.

The above is only part of the demands of ethnic groups in the last century, and especially in the years after the rise of the Islamic Revolution, the demands that have always been dealt with as a security matter, and considered detrimental to the national unity and consensus and addressed as confrontational and violent actions. As a result, violent behaviour between the centre and ethnic groups is seen which, after a while and with the weakening of ethnic groups, has turned into an unpleasant silence over the people in those lands. Also during this period, no practical action has been taken to fulfil ethnic demands and achieve social justice and equality in order to prevent these violent acts.

This is while the efforts of a government should always be in the direction of preventing violent acts and solving problems in a peaceful atmosphere and through peaceful interaction. A government should activate parties and NGOs creating a space for the ethnic elites while accepting cultural diversity through listening to the demands of different groups. The result is ignoring cultural differences, following politics of assimilation and carrying out extremist actions by both the centre and the party which may backfire and cause violent behaviours rather than achieve justice and equality – a process which may continue in a vicious circle.

Based on these principles, in the present study, an attempt has been made to investigate the demands of different groups while investigating the topic of identity among Fars (or Persian-speaking), Turk, Kurd, Baloch, and Arab ethnic groups which can be a factor in achieving social equality and justice and, as a result, bring lasting peace to the society and show a way out of conflicts. Certainly expressing these points through scientific methods by conducting numerous interviews with the elites and at the public level. Showing the current demands of each of the studied group can help the decision-makers to resolve disputes peacefully and contribute to the national unity and consensus.


Identity is not an intrinsic and fixed category, but a fluid concept. Every identity is the product of a particular dispute, and accordingly identity is not static and fixed and can be considered as a process with a historical and evolving aspect. Ethnicity-ethnocentrisms as a phenomenon and the formation of identities have become very important in the contemporary world. Factors such as territorial divisions based on national governments, inequality and deprivation, ideologies and post-colonial policies play an important role in the national atmosphere. Ethnic identity is a kind of social identity. It is a special set of objective, subjective, cultural, social and sensual factors that manifests itself in a human group and distinguishes itself from belonging to other groups.

Pluralism and diversity of identities have been an existing fact in most societies. In this contemporary time, despite the processes of modernization and the establishment of modern institutions, not only has this diversity of identities not been diminished, but it has become a controversial issue as to how to identify the lines that distinguishes and separates identities and differences. The subjects obtained more diverse representations. Iran is a land of diverse ethnic groups and a country with multiple ethnicities, where the topic of ethnic convergence or divergence in relation to social unity and consensus is worth considering. Ethnic and identity policies have always existed throughout the political and social history of Iran. With the rise of the Islamic Revolution, despite the recognition of ethnic diversity in the Constitution, ethnic policies in the Islamic Republic of Iran, have been subject to the time, and in many cases, the ethnic meaning has not been represented. In fact during the political history, governments of Iran have always tried for ethnic assimilation i.e.

the view of the rulers was mostly the integration of different identities in the form of a single identity and under the umbrella of the Persians. For example, even the adoption of macro-policies regarding the Iranian ethnic groups in 1999 (Haqpanah, 2003) did not lead to the adoption of a specific procedure for ethnic groups, and the application of different tastes in different regions of the country continued. The ethnic tendencies led to declaration of autonomy (in the past) and numerous protests and dissatisfactions of the ethnic groups (in recent years).

In this study, examining the theoretical literature of identity and ethnicity, a reasonable understanding of these concepts will be presented.  Based on field evidence and the results of interviews with ethnic minority elites, their views on the concepts of identity and ethnicity will be explained. The demands of this group will also be discussed mainly to achieve social justice and equality. We will also speak about the role that governments can play in fulfilling these demands. The research will also consider the measures taken to eliminate economic, political, cultural and linguistic inequality, and other issues helping national unity and consensus to achieve a stable peace. Ignoring these demands can lead all the ethnic groups and the country as a whole to the edge of crisis and collapse.

Research objectives and significance

Life in the Iranian society has long been associated with multi-ethnic and multi-identity. Any general explanation of multi-ethnic societies without examining the factor of ethnicity will not be efficiently adequate. Considering the growing importance of ethnic societies in the formation and strengthening of social consensus, attention has been paid to the scientific study of ethnic groups, particularly at a time when democratization has led to a growth in ethnic and identity awareness. In this regard, many scholars believe that national consensus and identity are rooted in ethnic societies and a very old sense of ethnicity as a form of primitive nationalism. Ethnic solidarity and the consensus of identities in multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies can bring peace, fill ethnic gaps and create an intellectual and practical atmosphere for the independence and self-determination of ethnicities, provided that the ground for decision-making and collective will are created. Here, the main problem is the collective identity of the ethnic groups in Iran. Group or social identities are a realm of social life in which individuals consider themselves as belonging to a group with the pronoun “we”.  It is a feeling of belonging which brings a sense of duty and responsibility.

In humanities, a government has 4 essential foundations:

– A territory or border that defines the geographical territory of a government.

– Population or people, which means individuals with the citizenship of a government.

– Sovereignty means that internally there should be no rival or equal authority with the government and, externally, the country should be free from the domination and authority of any other government.

– And the government consists of the political and administrative organizations of a country and the methods of governing a country or a political unit.

According to this definition, the absence of any of these four components will destroy the efficiency of a government. Apparently, among these components, the first two, i.e. land and population, are more than anything else influenced by ethnicity and ethnic identity. Governments need comprehensive understanding of national identity, ethnic identities and network for communication among members of ethnic groups and also among ethnic groups to achieve stability and maintain security and safety as their most important duty. Also, the necessity for a comprehensive understanding of each ethnic group’s view of itself and the identity which they believe distinguishes them from others are felt for a civil society by activists in the field of identity and culture and all those who have a heart for peace and reconciliation among the people.


This study has been conducted using an interpretive view and a qualitative method using grounded theory (GT). In the first group, the elite were interviewed with an anthropological approach and in the second step, ordinary people from Iranian ethnic groups (especially Turks, Kurds, Arabs, the Baloch, and Persians) were interviewed in a parallel and simultaneous process. Based on the qualitative nature of the study, purposive sampling was used, the theoretical saturation of the data was obtained from one hundred interviewees and 215 more interviews were conducted for further confirmation.

Of course, on our path, we have also benefited from the supervision and advice of experts in the qualitative method.  The data of the present study were collected using in-depth and semi-structured interview techniques. The interviews and data collected were analysed in three stages using theoretical coding (open, axial and selective), and at first the informal interview method was used in order to process the data to obtain the important concepts and categories of participants. At the second stage, using grounded theory, the categories and concepts obtained from the interview process were adapted for theoretical sampling, and then, the general lines of the interviews were formed through the concepts and categories.

Using semi-structured interview, the questions of the questionnaire were standardized and this process continued until the theoretical saturation. Then, by open coding, at the same time of data collection, concepts, categories and sub-categories were obtained. By axial coding, sub-categories were related to each other and categories. The cause, process and consequence were determined. Finally, after selective coding, the study theoretical result was obtained.

Research Literature

Identity and Ethnicity (definitions and concepts)

Ethnic identity is one of the forming factors of the cultural identity in any society. The ethnic identity definition is based on cultural markers such as language, religion, customs, dress, and historical backgrounds which all people or some aspects of a group or an individual’s identity are associated with. Reisman (1953) coined the term ethnicity in sociology, but it was widely used in the 1960s and 1970s (Glazer and Moynihan, 1975).

In the early 20th century, social science researchers often considered racial, ethnic, and linguistic interests and identities as a kind of historical regressionism and abnormality that had been destroyed by surrendering to communism or been consolidated and dissolved within the framework of liberal democratic institutions. Ethnicity was considered as a remainder of the early stages of the evolution in human society, which would sooner or later disappear (Golmohammadi, 2007) and it was believed that with the expansion of capitalism, the establishment of national governments, the increase in the level of communication and information, the growth of urbanization, the growth in literacy and education level, and the process of socialization, ethnic identity would be archived in history. This claim found stronger theoretical support by proposing related theories of globalization and the formation of the global village. It was believed that the process of globalization, especially cultural globalization, would lead to the establishment and domination of a single culture over the universe and the indigenous cultures, and lifestyles. They bellieved that even the languages of the ethnic subcultures would be forgotten (Tohidfam, 2003).

Another group, however, believe that not only will the globalization not lead to the extinction of ethnic groups, but it will help the growth in the development of ethnic self-awareness and the strength of ethnic movements through the tools it provides. The national identity is a very key and evolving concept that, especially in the case of a country like Iran, plays a fundamental role in forming the behavior and political positions of people and pliticians and, hence, the country as a whole.

Part of the ups and downs of the Iranian history has been the product of ethnic diversity. The political and military conflicts with the dominant ethnicity and other ethnicities / nationalities, and the formation of the other nationalistic views on ethnic culture and etc. are the outcome of this diversity in identities with simultaneous impact on ethnic / national identities.

Frederick Barth’s understanding of cultural differences is significant. He defined ethnicity from the outside to the inside as follows: possessing some cultural features does not make a difference in a social group; rather, it is social interaction with other groups that makes the difference from a social point of view possible, clear and significant.  Accordingly, ethnicity is interpreted differently in relation to others. In Barth’s own words, from this point of view, the main focus of a research is not defined by the belonging of some material cultural characteristics to a specific group, but it is the border of ethnicity is defined by the differences created, developed and continued by interaction with others. The cultural difference does not generate ethnic societies by itself; it is social contact with others that leads to the definition and categorization of “us” versus “them”. Group identities should always be defined by what they are not, that is by the people who are not members of the group (Eriksen, 1993).

In addition, there are few concepts with as many meanings as identity. The trace of this concept can be found in daily disputes as well as scientific and academic debates. The existence of many synonymous or close and related concepts for identity like I, me, we, self-understanding, self-image, self-representation, self-awareness, self-concept, ego, super-ego and personality also originate from here (Doran and Mohseni 2003, p. 81).

Contrary to the opinion of psychoanalysts, social psychoanalysts and sociologists emphasize the fact that the sense of individual identity is formed dialectically between the individual and society. Although they agree that identity is usually manifested in an individual’s feelings and attitudes, but it is formed on the basis of social and group life. Social identity manifested in a personality separate from the social world of other people has no meaning. The individuals are unique and changeable, but personality is constructed in a completely social way and through different stages of the process of socialization (Gol Mohammadi, 2002, p. 222 and 223).

Ethnic identity is a type of collective identity that refers to a set of characteristics distinguishing an ethnic group from others, creating a sense of belonging between their members and uniting them under a specific ethnicity. This type of collective identity in countries with ethnic and cultural diversity is so important that it is juxtaposed with other identities such as local, regional, ethnic and cultural identity and is intertwined with concepts like ethnic group and ethnicity.

Works related to ethnic studies in the Middle East not only deal with the problems Arising from the definition of ethnicity and conflicting criteria that determine the nature of ethnic groups, but they also ignore the historical features of ethnic and tribal societies and their relationship to the government. The main reason is that in these studies tribes and ethnic groups usually have the same meanings and the features of ethnic groups are attributed to tribal societies. Thus, the linguistic and religious groups in the Middle East, formerly organized by their ethnicity, are now considered distinct ethnic groups in constant struggle with the government to

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