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November 24, 2003

Iranians aren't Arabs....

One thing that many Americans (and Germans too as well[1]) find confusing is that Iran is not an Arab country. Mainstream publications have had to offer corrections for decades after mistakenly including Iran in a list of Arab nations or terming it an Arab nation. Here is the ethnic break-down in Iran: Persian 51%, Azeri 24%, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8%, Kurd 7%, Arab 3%, Lur 2%, Baloch 2%, Turkmen 2%, other 1%.

The two big groups to note are the Azeris and the Persians. Persians obviously are the core ethnic group and Farsi is the national language[2]. Azeris though are not an oppressed minority, and I have read that they are over-represented in the power elite. Azeris are a Turkic group and their language is very close to the Turkish of Turkey proper, the main difference is that they are Shia rather than Sunni Muslims. Ethnic affiliations are to some extent fluid between such close groups like the Azeris, Turkomans and Turks, and even with more distant ones like Persians[3].

Persians often take great umbrage at being confused with Arabs. Authors like Robert Kaplan and V.S. Naipul have documented the Persian antipathy toward the Arabs, all the while espousing the Arab religion enthusiastically. It is rather understandable for reasons of history, geography and religion why Iran is bracketed into the Arab world in the minds of many.

But back to specific issues of language: Iran uses a modified Arabic script. If there was one thing that is practically possible in distancing and differentiating Iranians from Arabs, is the option of replacing Arabic script with a Roman alphabet. Tajikstan, which uses a form of Persian (Dari) as its national language has done just that[4], and Turkey's conversion to the Roman alphabet surely helped to distance their identity in the mind of Westerners from that of their former Arab subjects.

So my prediction, within two generations Iran will switch to a Roman alphabet. In fact, I would not be surprised if many non-Arab Muslim peoples switched to a Roman alphabet. Additionally the various peoples of the Indian subcontinent also might switch at some time in the future, something not difficult for certain groups who have low levels of literacy in any case.

fn1. Recently a German acquaintance introduced me to a friend (from Germany) who thought I was "Arabic," since I looked a bit (very vaguely I assume) like an Iranian friend of theirs.

fn2. Between the fall of the Sassanids around 650 and the rise of the Pahlavis in the 1920s native stock Persian speakers were never very militarily prominent. Persia was mostly ruled by Arabs, Mongols and Turkic groups.

fn3. Basically, I'm trying to say that post-French Revolution Western concepts of "nation" and "ethnic group" have less salience in this area of the world, as we learned in Afghanistan. And before Zack Latif chimes in-yes, the big chasm is between agriculturalist and nomad.

fn4. More accurately, they went from Arabic to Cyrillic to Roman.

Posted by razib at 09:45 PM