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Iran: Deliberate ‘linguicide’ of Arabic language in Al-Ahwaz

I begin my article by addressing some constructive questions about the common factors that can be attributed to the gradual extinction of language, which frequently occurs intentionally and systematically, particularly in multiethnic

countries that one language strictly dominated on other languages as a discriminatory policy to assimilate the language of the ethnic minority or aboriginal people by imposing the most spoken language of particular majority on these people and placing a long ban on their languages to build monolingual country. Apparently, the non-Persian languages have been subjected to harsh measures of linguicide.



The Iranian officials seemingly are not willing to stop burying their head under the sand and accept that people in the integrity so-called Iran are not homogenous in term of ethnicity to be able to bring them together under a certain political banner.


The policies of linguicide in Ahwaz region, enshrined in the constitution and law of Iranian regimes because according to 19 and 15 of Iran constitution all non-Persian ethnic minorities have right for education in their native language but Persian regime violates the rights of learning Arabic in Ahwaz and other non-Persian languages such as Kurdish in east Kurdistan, and Turkish in south Azerbaijan.


This disgraceful policy was adopted by Iran soon after the collapse of Qajar dynasty and formation of Pahlavi monarchy where Reza Shah raised to power and formed the integrity so-called Iran under the slogan of “Aryan land” by occupying non-Persian neighboring regions that had full autonomy during that era such as Arabistan (Al-Ahwaz) under the rule of Sheikh Khazaal in the south and south west of Iran that later its historical Arabic name changed into the current Khuzestan province.


Let us put all this aside and raise some questions concerning language:


What is language death?


The phrase of language death means a process that affects speech communities where the level of linguistic competence that speakers possess of a given language variety is decreased, eventually resulting in no native or fluent speakers of the variety. Language death may affect any language idiom, including dialects and languages.


Why do languages die?


Here, I do include the sociopolitical factors that are fueling by Iran as systematic political targets in Ahwaz region for eliminating the Arabic language among the Ahwazi people whose native language is Arabic while they have no right to learn their language in an academic environment.


These sociopolitical factors are official language policies (monolingual policies), racial discrimination, language stigmatization, repression, war, forced migration, emergence of settlements and so on. The above-mentioned factors were conducted against the Ahwazi Arab people by the hand of Iranian regimes since 1925 until today. However, among these factors, the Official monolingual policies can be and have been a particularly decisive factor in language death of non-Persian nations in Ahwaz, Kurdistan, Azerbaijan where local people speak in their native language that characterize with aboriginal dialects. In fact, after the Qajar dynasty, which had reigned since 1718, was replaced by the Pahlavi monarchy on non-Persian languages and cultures began to be enforced through violence.


Why should we care?


While the illiteracy rate in Iran is about 10 to 18 percent, this is over 50 percent among the Arabs men in Ahwaz (Khuzestan) and even higher for Ahwazi women .the indigenous Ahwazi Arabs students abandon school that rate 30 percent in the elementary level, 50 percent in secondary level and 70 percent in high school because they force to study in the official Farsi language which is not theirs. There is not any official institute for teaching Arabic in Ahwaz and learning Arabic is just confined to religious study for people who want to be a clergyman consequently the Ahwazi Arab are semi learner in their native language and are struggling to learn Arabic despite the denial of their Arabic language .


In fact, the education system in Iran promoted and enforced a superficial sense of nationalism based on Persian language and identity. Therefore, the multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual character of Iranian was explicitly denied and oppressed.


Moreover, shortly after the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in the1925, all non-Persian ethnic groups and nationalities in Iran were denied the right to education in their own language. Notwithstanding the fact that the non-Persian nations such as Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Baluchs, Turkmens, and others constituted the numerical majority in the country, all the Persian regimes from Pahlavi to the Islamic Republic are sought to supplant our languages, cultures, and histories with those of Persian minority.


There are four criteria released from UNESCO indicating languages that are at the risk of death row:


Vulnerable: Most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home).


Definitely endangered: Children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in their home.


Severely endangered: Language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves.


Critically endangered: The youngest speakers are grandparents and older people, and they speak the language partially and infrequently.


Yet, it is not surprise if we admit that the harshest policy of deliberate linguicide definitely practiced in Iran, where the entire state machinery is mobilized in order to eliminate the non-Persian languages including Arabic ,Turkish and Kurdish in both speaking and writing. However, non-Persian people are free to speak in their native tongue in private spaces (e.g., home).but, it would be considered a crime against the “territorial integrity” of the state if a member of the parliament or a political party uses the language in political campaigns, or if the language used in education or broadcasting. It is still illegal to write in the language.


Most publications in Arabic in Ahwaz are regularly banned and confiscated, and authors, translators, publishers, distributers, and even readers are punished by the state.in the recent years several cultural institutes e.g., Al-Hiwar, the cultural institute, was banned and all its founders arrested and sentenced to death penalty under some vaguely -worded charges. This cultural institute despite the severe restriction on its cultural activism was striving to revive the Arabic language among the young generation by holding some educational, cultural programs.


Based on the four above standard indicators about “the language endangerment scale”, I will explain the indicators by comparing them with the suppressed non-Persian languages that are plagued in terrible restricted domain of a harsh linguicide policy:


Linguicide and experience:


Similar to other Ahwazi Arab native speaker, I have experienced bitter times of linguicide. Born into an Ahwazi Arab family in an Ahwazis town, I had to get my education in Persian, the only official language in Iran, a multilingual country where Persian was the native tongue of any half the population.


At Ahwaz University, where I studied linguistics (2006-2010), my professors rarely referred to non-Persian languages and if my classmates from Kurdistan and Azerbaijan or I bring some discussions about Arabic, Kurdish and Turkish language entities, our professors reluctantly answered our questions. These discussions in the class regarding the non-Persian languages would be considered ‘secessionism’, the unforgivable charges that are always waged against our people.


Non-Persian nations were subjected to open and shameful acts of linguicide, cultural annihilation, and forced assimilation. It is apparent that the Iranian regime certainly wants non-Persian people to lose their cultural independence and, in many cases, their spirituality, all of which go hand in hand with language.


As some historical facts have been passed from generation to generation to recall how thousands of Ahwazi Arab people in schools and offices and even in the street were arrested, tortured, and disgraced on charges of speaking in Arabic particularly in Al-Mohammerah during the Pahlavi regime. Since 1925, Reading or writing in Iran’s non-Persian languages was treated as evidence of secessionism, treason and violation of the territorial integrity of the state.


The language policy of the Islamic regime, which came to power in 1979, was no different, in principle, from that of the secular monarchy. Article 15 of the Islamic constitution, which, in contrast with the 1906 constitution, does allow for the teaching of “ethnic literature” in schools, has not been implemented yet. Persian continues to be the only official language in a country where it is the native tongue of no more than half the population. Although publications in non-official languages are tolerated, the symbolic violence, the vilifying of non-official languages, has not come to the end.


Iranian regime not only targeted the speaking, writing, folklore music and every other related expressions in language but also they waged extensive state violence against all the aboriginal and historical name of places in the non-Persian region. Geographic terms, including the names of mountains, cities, villages, streets, rivers and regions, have been persianized.


Today we can see that all the original Arabic names of cities, villages and rivers in Al-Ahwaz were replaced by fabricated Persian names. It is likely surprise you that Ahwazi Arab are not allowed to name their children, as they like. There is a book of permitted names at civil registers, and no one can pick a name that is not in this book. For instance, Iranian authorities do not allow people to choose Abu Bakr, Umar, Othman, or Aisha as names for their children In Ahwaz. Civil registers will not put these names on ID cards.


In many cases, TV Farsi channels, radio stations and magazines openly and systematically insult the well-respected figures of non-Persian religious or historical Arab figures steering a symbolic violence, in the form of a systematic extensive propaganda campaign in order to shame Arab native speakers into abandoning their language and their identity.


By this assessment, in my view, we can classify the Arabic language in Ahwaz along with other non-Persian languages as “severely endangered languages” under the threat of extinction or gradual death where the transmission of language between generations was interrupted by deliberate Persian machinery of Iranian government. This oppressive policy sometime caused non-Persian people to kill their own languages. To clarify this situation, I propose the term “linguistic suicide” to refer to situations where parents who are speakers of minority language sometime deliberately choose not to teach this language to their children and instead adopt a majority language in their home.


The major reason for this phenomenon is the low prestige attached as language stereotypes to the minority language for example the Arabic language called the speech of illiterate and rural people. The Iranian regime by inciting hatred against ethno-linguistic minorities caused the ethnic minorities to feel themselves discriminated against and shamefully neglected by the centralized Persian government. This chauvinist policy also created wide socio-economic gaps between center and the ethnic minorities particularly the Ahwazi Arab people.


All these discriminatory policy against language aims to kill the Arabic language in Ahwaz and other non-Persian languages that lead people to dress Persian culture. The other reason for linguistic suicide is concern about children’s ability to acquire fluency in Persian language, the socially-and economically –dominant language in Iran.


The continuous discriminatory policy against the ethno-linguistic minorities pursued by the Iranian regimes show that the “linguistic diversity” seen as national threat based on the Iranian regime’s chauvinist ideology for this reason the Iranian regimes systematically encourage the Persian community to propagate language stereotype policy in the form of humiliating “ethnic jokes” against non-Persian languages in media or in education system.


For years, the regime authorities prevent those who belong to ethnic minorities to get education in their own language in their schools, which goes against the Article 15 of Iran’s constitution with the fact that in the recent years the regime authorities have imposed restrictions and have banned the use of non-Persian languages in their most populated regions.


It is time for linguists in Iran to stop their silence and speak out against these systematic linguicide policies conducting against non-Persian languages in Iran because the death of language is the death of the soul and identity of people.


At the end, I would like to dedicate this article to everyone who stands to the freedom, every oppressed nation particularly in the Middle East because the new Middle East must be peace, friendship and achievement of national rights of the oppressed nations who lived under racial subjugation for years and the world must open its eyes and support the suffocated voices of these occupied nations especially in Iran.

By Rahim Hamid

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