Iran: What Would Real Democracy Look Like? – Fakhteh Zamani
I would like to thank the UNPO and the Nonviolent Radical Party for organizing such a wonderful and needed conference. It has been my great pleasure and honor to listen to all the esteemed speakers—even those with whom I may not completely share the same views.
Our panel has been tasked with the tricky responsibility of sharing strategies for change and outlining the role of the international community in fostering democratic movements in Iran and its Diaspora. In this short address, I shall discuss the organization I represent, the challenges we face in the Iranian society, why the support of the international community is essential, and conclude with solutions for a better Iran.
As the founding president of the Canada-based Association for the Defence of the Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran, I represent Azerbaijani activists who have been marginalized and victimized solely on the basis of their ethnicity, language, and religion. Rising to the challenge, Azerbaijani activists have embraced the responsibility of defending not just Azerbaijani rights but of other unrepresented groups. Dr. Reza Baraheni, acclaimed political activist has passionately shared that “little is more traumatic than the suppression of one’s mother tongue.” I agree and also believe this is something all humans, not just Iranian minorities, can understand. Inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, our organization hopes to serve as a tool to create awareness regarding the exclusion of minorities, and become a catalyst for positive change in Iran. Thus the Association was born, out of a sociopolitical climate that refuses to recognize the violation of minority rights.
The suppression of minorities lies at the core of the Iranian government’s attempt to alienate their history and assimilate them into the dominant Persian culture. The effects of such tactics also limit these communities from developing economically, socially, and politically. This is not a recent development, but something that has its origins in the first Pahlavi era that started in 1925. The demand for cultural, linguistic, religious, and political rights is a legitimate right of all. Unfortunately, it is not a recognized right in Iran today. For example, in an attempt to demand these rights and seek democratic participation from the government, Azerbaijani Turks have organized peaceful protests similar to that of the “Green Movement” and have suffered violent reprisals from government and other groups. These efforts have largely remained unnoticed in the dominant Persian media. Moreover, bringing this to the attention of influential leaders and authorities is to risk being labeled a separatist, pan-Turk, foreign agent and traitor to the country. I, personally, have found this rather puzzling as Azerbaijanis largely seek equality and inclusion in the official fabric of Iranian affairs. So, my dear friends, you see that the challenge of unrepresented groups are twofold—hostility from the government through imprisonment, torture, or death; and from the opposition groups through indifference and suppression.
However, there is hope, and being a part of this conference inspires me as it offers the opportunity to rewrite negative narratives and forge a constructive path to an inclusive Iran. We need the help of our esteemed hosts and the international community in creating awareness of the challenges faced by unrepresented groups in Iran. We commend you for the incredible courage and support you have lent the “Green Movement” and request that the same type of support be given to other ethnic groups. For example, we do need the international media to cover such news worthy stories like the protest of May 2006, where, according to an Amnesty International estimate, thousands may have been arrested and scores killed. In this way the international community can be essential in acknowledging those excluded through racism and oppression.
I would also like to argue that the most sustainable role for the international community is to encourage a platform that addresses issues facing not only the Iranian government but the whole society with its ethnic linguistic and social injustice issues. Iran is a multicultural society where most than half the population belongs to a non-Persian ethnic. For a sustainable democracy, we need the international community to hold Iranian leaders accountable for the preservation and protection of minority rights. Much can and will be gained when a government seeks to take care of all its people.
Having mentioned the challenges within the Iranian society and highlighted the important role the international community can play, I will share what steps Iran and the stakeholder groups should undertake to bring about the change desperately needed.
A necessary step is that all must recognize and acknowledge the disregard for diversity, misrepresentation of non-Persian groups, and racist policies by the government and the larger society. This has created an economic and sociopolitical inequality in the country. Such an approach to unity or nationhood always produces disillusionment within minority groups against the dominant group thus giving way to conflict, and war—which is unsustainable for any state. It is similar to a virus that could destroy us from within. For real change, the Iranian society must fully embrace the diversity of the entire people. This means that as the movements in Iran fight for progress, we must discuss the diversity of needs that face our society. As stakeholders in this struggle, we must fight to work in tandem to discuss the issues that face each and every group in Iran and develop ways in which to address their needs.
The only movement or ideology that can produce significant change in the Iranian society, is the one which will acknowledge and grant full rights to all minorities—not just Azerbaijanis, but Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Turkmens, and more—and fully commit to combating racist elements in our Iranian society. I believe this ideology and approach will be the critical element to fostering democracy and human rights in Iran.
The invaluable support of the international community will also offer a political bullhorn that places these human rights violations in the world’s consciousness, creating transparency and placing onus of responsibility on those perpetuating the marginalization of minorities.
As I conclude, allow me to leave you with a quote you all know so well: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This was argued by the iconic Martin Luther King jr. in his quest for civil rights of Black Americans. The injustice of minorities in Iran is truly a threat to all—Iranians and their friends in the international community—as true democracy will never be realized if we do not address these challenges on our way to progress.
Thank you for your kind attention
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