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Iranian Azerbaijan and the Cartoon Cockroach Controversy

Submitted by on April 30, 2010 – 3:23 pm 25 Comments |  

Iran is to Azerbaijan as Thailand is to Laos: just as Thailand has far more Lao-speakers than Laos, Iran has far more Azeri-speakers than Azerbaijan. Some 18 million Azeris live in Iran (where they comprise 20 to 25 percent of a large populace); that is more than double the number in Azerbaijan (whose 8 million Azeris account for 90 percent of a much smaller population). Although the discrepancy is not as large as that between Laos and Thailand in regard to the Lao, the Azeri case is in some respects more pronounced. In contrast to the concentration of Lao speakers in just one country outside Laos, for instance, large Azeri populations extend into several neighboring countries, with an estimated 800,000 in Turkey, 600,000 in Russia, and 280,000 in Georgia. And whereas Lao and Thai are closely related languages, Azeri—a Turkic language—is unrelated to Persian, an Indo-European tongue. Azerbaijan is clearly an “underfit” country, with the majority of the ethnic group upon which its national foundations are based residing outside its boundaries.

But beyond simple ethnic proportions, the Lao/Azeri analogy does not go very far. Isan is the poorest part of Thailand, and its Lao-speaking inhabitants tend to be politically and economically marginalized and culturally disparaged. Northwestern Iran, on the other hand, is one of the wealthiest and most industrialized parts of the country, and its Azeri-speaking inhabitants are well integrated within the Iranian nation. The Azeri community in Tehran is also substantial and relatively prosperous. Iranian opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi is Azeri; so—according to some—is Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of the country. (Khamenei’s father was Azeri, but not his mother; he evidently speaks Azeri less fluently than Persian [Farsi] and Arabic.)

Despite the prominence of Azeris in Iranian national life, ethnic tensions are not absent. State language policy dictates that official documents, governmental correspondence, and textbooks must be written in Persian. In early 2010, Azeri activists in Iran called for demonstrations against the suppression of Azeri-language schools, hoping to use the U.N.’s International Mother Language Day (February 21) to publicize their cause. The planned protests failed to materialize. According to the South Azerbaijan website, “Repression and fear seem to be the main factors in preventing this year’s International Mother Language Day demonstration.”

In 2006, neither fear nor repression prevented massive ethnic protests from engulfing the Azeri region of Iran. Unrest was sparked by the printing of a comic sketch in a national magazine that was deemed insulting to the Azeri people and their language: in the cartoon, aimed at children, a boy says several words meaning “cockroach” in Persian, and the cockroach sitting across the table responds by asking “what?” in Azeri (with all words spelled in Roman letters).

In the resulting Iran newspaper cockroach cartoon controversy, demonstrations turned to riots and Iranian security came down hard. According to official sources, 330 protestors were arrested and four were killed.

Despite the uproar, the cartoon itself did not appear to be designed to insult the Azeri people. The cartoonist, an Azeri himself, was apparently poking fun cleverly at the “dialogue between civilizations” campaign of the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. The fact that a seemingly innocuous cartoon generated such fast fury led Iranian nationalists to deduce foreign incitement. Some suspected the involvement of “Pan-Turkists,” adherents of a mostly defunct movement seeking to politically unite all Turkic speaking people. Naturally, suspicion also fell on the United States, which is habitually seen as scheming to destabilize Iran, in part by maintaining intelligence connections with Iranian Azeri separatist intellectuals. Concerns over U.S. intentions were to mount with the subsequent publication of Ralph Peters’ map of a reimagined Middle East (see next Monday’s post).

The Iranian government shut down the magazine in which the cartoon was published, and arrested the artist, Mana Neyestani. He was subsequently charged with “publishing provocative materials and fomenting discord.

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  • ironrailsironweights

    If you stare at the purple image of the Azeri-speaking region long enough, it sort of looks like an insect.


    • Azerbaijani Turk

      This map is false, they have modified it intentionally to show that Azerbaijanis in Iran, live in a small tiny region in the northwest. Unfortunately many areas specially border regions of South Azerbaijan have been forcefully populated by non-Azeri ethnic groups, like Kurds, in order to weaken the ethnic strength and unity of Azeris. Here is a realistic map of historic South Azerbaijan:

      • Vladimir Mayakowski

        Kurds live in that area since prehistoric times, when neither azeris nor turks were completely unknown. There were Armenians, talysh speakers and azari (but not azeri) speakers in that region.

  • Erik

    Iran is like a glass house, the inevitable collapse of the Islamic regime will tear apart the territorial integrity and sovereignty of modern Iran and pave way for multiple independent states (including the Azerbaijanis). Take Yugoslavia for example, thats the road Iran is heading towards.

    • Nora

      In your dreams. Unlike Yugoslavia, Iranians feel a real attachment to Iran. Yugoslavia was a failed concept because it was based on no common grounds apart from a suicidal political ideology known as communism. Iran has been the same home for these people for thousands of years. Take a look at the writings of Azerbaijani poets of the 19th and 20th centuries and how they spoke of Iran as their “vatan”, i.e. homeland. So go dream about how Iran is breaking up. None of these communities can support themselves without being united to each other. The only reason why Azerbaijan isn’t part of Iran today is because of the Russian invasion which annexed it from Iran’s territory. Azerbaijan is an example of a failing state that will eventually either run out of oil money and get swallowed by a future secular Iran, or run out of oil money and get swallowed by a future “Eurasian Union” led by Russia. Pick the lesser of the two devils when that happens Erik. 

      • Thank you for your opinions, Erik and Nora. Let me respond just by pointing out that the fact that the country’s poets/politicians/ideologues talk about the concept of “homeland” does not mean that the country isn’t going to ultimately fall apart. The Soviets talked about “the Soviet homeland” for decades, and as soon as it could, the USSR fell into constituent countries. Russia itself has been promoting the concept of “homeland” too on different levels from politicians to poets, but it appears that it may yet fall apart:

        • Nora

          Dear Asya,

          I haven’t heard of an Uzbek or Turkmen poet calling Russia his homeland, though. The affinity of an Iranian to Iran is stronger than any affinity a Yugoslavian or Soviet had for those respective countries. And yet, the divisions only happened as a result of political instruments from other countries. 

          The world today is experiencing an age of convergence rather than an age of divergence. The era of nation-states is coming to an end. The world is uniting, which isn’t such a bad thing. The only division that happens today is a result of Washington’s decision-making. Even Yugoslavia, despite having a common ground weaker than that of Iran by a million light-years, wouldn’t have broken up if it wasn’t for America’s policy of divide and conquer, akin to what the British disastrously did to India… and look at South Asia today, toothless, weak and gullible to western intervention. Not to mention Pakistan’s continual demise into the failed state rabbit hole.

          Iranians have been a united people for centuries, despite the different leaderships they had. Where else in the world did foreigners invade a country, ended up adopting the language and culture of the natives, became patrons of it and helped it spread throughout the continent? Iran’s diversity may be seen as a weakness to a bunch of pan-Turkic nationalists sitting in Istanbul and taking orders from Washington on how to squeeze Iran’s regime in cyber propaganda. But the fact of the matter is that throughout Iran’s history, its most notable and most prominent nationalists were of Azeri descent. And that is a bewilderment, which nationalists in Istanbul and politicians in Washington will never ever understand. 

          Iran has been the home for all these groups of people for thousands of years. Most will continue to be a thorn in the side of their enemies, who simply detest a strong, united and independent Muslim country. And should any foolish community within Iran decide one day to sell its soul to the west and breakup from Iran, it will be their loss in the long run, and they’re welcomed to join the long list of tiny/divided oil-rich sheikdoms in the Arab world that are filled with corruption and theft from the ruling elite, while the average citizen is only left to admire a few skyscrapers and soccer stadiums built around the city. 

          But thankfully, the Iranian Azeris aren’t too foolish to play in the hands of the west, unlike their northern counterparts’ leaders who are sucking up all the oil revenue until they leave Azerbaijan dry and ripe for a new Russian conquest, while they escape to their beach homes in Florida. Quite the contrary, the Azeris in Iran are the most vocal of Iranian nationalists. It has officially been incorporated into their culture to speak of unity instead of division. Should that culture change one day, it will be the last nail on the coffin for the death of Islamic and national unity, while Europeans and North Americans continue to strive for more unity and domination over us.

          As for Russia breaking up, that’s not going to happen either. I’ve read the link and the Tengry organization sounds pan-Turkic even from its name. Most of these organizations are funded money by America, through Turkish-based channels, whenever Russia says or does something contrary to the satisfaction of politicians in DC. It’s a well known trick and Americans have made it a habit to use Turkic nationalists as their yes-men for moving opposing countries’ policies. They’ve done it to the Chinese with East Turkestan, they’re doing it with the Russians with these fake Siberian republican movements, even though most of these republics are titular state names with minority Turkic populations, and they’re trying to do it with Iran.

          Countries that broke off from the USSR realized how much of a mistake they made. The concept of the Eurasian Union that Russia started, which CIS nations all approved of, reflects how badly the situation is over there. All of these countries cannot live by themselves and needed to become in union with others right from the beginning. This is why even Azerbaijan is treading on thin ice.

          India would’ve been a strong, fearless nation in Asia if the Muslims and Hindus had cooperated and established a united Indian state instead of playing to the British game. The condition of citizens in the CIS nations, especially in Central Asia, would’ve been greater and its citizens would’ve had better economic opportunities if they were still part of Russia. And the concept of the Eurasian Union is going to try to solve this deficiency.

          • Thanks for sharing your opinions, Nora!

            I will have to disagree with you on the affinity of people — politicians and poets — to the Soviet identity. Plenty of non-ethnic-Russians who sang praise to the Soviet homeland. Many still miss it. However, it is not at all clear that the Eurasian Union idea will ever take off the ground. In fact, as I discussed in the post to which I’ve linked before, splitting Russia is shared by a variety of people today, not just Turkic nationalists, but Russians themselves, politicians and poets, once again.

            You are correct that “the era of nation-states is coming to an end”, but it seems that nation states fall apart rather than unite. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union are but two iconic examples. Somalia, Sudan — do I need to continue? Everywhere people want to separate rather than unite, especially when different cultures/religions/languages are concerned. By the way, what’s a good example of a “united country” of Muslims and non-Muslims (such as you say India is not because of the British)?

            As for your question (rhetorical or otherwise): “Where else in the world did foreigners invade a country, ended up
            adopting the language and culture of the natives, became patrons of it
            and helped it spread throughout the continent?” — two points. First, how do you envisage this in connection to Iran? Who’s the invaders and who’s the natives, according to your view of the world? And second, “where else in the world”? In Britain, which you hate so much. In fact, they had twogroups of invaders both of which eventually adopted the language of the natives but where instrumental in making the country what it is.

          • Nora

            Dear Asya, I don’t hate Britain. Britain’s policies divided India up and practically destroyed that part of the world, as well as dividing other parts of the world. Hating policies is different than hating nations or people. I love the British for what it’s worth. I detest their history of dividing up people’s lands due to political gains, which the west is (unfortunately) still keen on doing. How much of our lands do they want to divide anyway? Probably until we’re small bits of pieces, weak, gullible and dependent on the support of our very own ideological enemies. They chose to become our enemies by resorting to these methods, not the other way round. 

            I don’t think you’ll find an Uzbek or Turkmen poet who praised Russia and called it his homeland. Azerbaijanis are Iranians and have always been Iranians, since pre-Islamic times. The concept of creating a country in order to represent something as artificial as language or ethnicity is backward; it should belong to history books. New world countries, such as the United States, have all built themselves on common values and ideals… of liberty, democracy, truth, knowledge, science, philosophy, etc. What’s a new Azerbaijani state going to do anyway? Chances are it’ll grant nothing but take the Azeri nation further backwards, which is what Azerbaijan’s already doing so I’m not sure why the world needs a second Azerbaijan in the first place.

            When I said invaders, I meant the Mongols in particular, but also the Seljuks and Ghaznavids. They were seen as invaders by local Iranians but they helped enrich Iranian culture and promoted the use of Persian art, language and values across Anatolia, the Caucasus, India, etc. My point was, Iran took everyone into its realm and accepted everyone. Eventually even newcomers became part of Iran and Iran became their home. It’s a hospitable land and I’d hate to see it ripped into shreds by some politically motivated tools in neighboring countries. 

          • I am glad that you distinguish between the British (people) and their policies. Still, I find it interesting how some people prefer to see the British colonial enterprise as “dividing up people’s lands due to political gains”, while others see in it an improved infrastructure, education, health care, etc. Somalia vs. Somaliland is a good illustration.

            I am not too familiar with Uzbek or Turkmen poets, so I won’t comment on that. Perhaps these two groups are different from the others.

            As for your assertion that the idea of a nation state is backward, that may be so, but most countries in the world are — or are striving to be — nation-states. Most independence movements are based on language or ethnicity (why do you call them “artificial”, I am curious?), not ideals of justice, science etc.

            Last, it is indeed true that Iran has been subjected to Mongol, Seljuk, and Ghaznavid invasions, but hasn’t Iran also imposed its language, Persian, on other groups as well? Linguistic evidence most certainly suggests so.


          • I do hate to jump into what is a very interesting conversation, but as far as Yugoslavia goes, it was not a creation of Communism.  The cultural and linguistic spectrum of the Balkan Slavs gave rise to a number of nationalist ideas in the nineteenth century, probably the most widespread of which was that they should all be joined together–Yugoslavism.  Serbia, of course, gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire first, so it became the kernel around which the state of Yugoslavia was formed after World War I.  There was always, however, even under Communism, resentment of the Serbian domination of the state, though the fact that Tito was a Croat mollified that a bit, and even gave fuel to Serbian separatists. I suppose some comparison could be drawn to the USSR or Iran, but each state presents its own difficulties.

            As for India, the British may be accused of dividing it (I think Mr Jinnah was not entirely unfavorable to the idea), but they also created it.  India was a Western geographical expression for most of history.  A ruler like Ashoka or Aurangzeb might have come close to creating a united subcontinent, but those were quite ephemeral and neither had a great deal of success in the South.  It is rather telling that the official Hindi name for India is not derived from the Sindhu river that westerners cross when entering India, but rather Bharat, which may ultimately be an ancient term for the Earth.

          • Nora

            I forgot to add this…

            “By the way, what’s a good example of a “united country” of Muslims and non-Muslims (such as you say India is not because of the British)?”You have me cornered, I must admit. I cant think of a good example. I mean, it doesn’t change the fact Britain did everything it could to break India up but I’m sorry that I cant think of a good example for what you asked for. You won me in this one Ms. Asya. 🙂

          • I can’t think of any either…

          • Az

            The concept of homeland for Azerbaijanis is almost wholly linked to the region of Azerbaijan. If you look at Azerbaijani poetry or music, almost all of them have some romantic affiliation to Azerbaijan. Google songs like Azerbaijan by Muslim Magomaev, it’s just one of many. Rarely in Azerbaijani poetry will you find the concept of “veten” or the homeland principle attached to Iran. That isn’t to say that Azerbaijanis in Iran wholly want to separate, this figure is actually unsure being that no polling or census would be allowed under the current regime. But to put it lightly, if Iran is Balkanized, like with many countries that have broken up before it, the Azerbaijanis will work to develop their own country, their own language, economy, political system etc. and you will only find a small cabal of people who long for “Greater Iran”, mostly linked to the economic shock associated with secession. Whether or not it is in the benefit of the Azerbaijanis to separate or stay united with Iran is a question for the Azerbaijanis themselves to debate.

      • meral

        Azerbaijanians mixed with Persians may consider themselves Persian-Iranian, it is ok but why do you wanna show it like Azerbaijanians Türks are like that. Take Traxtor football club for example, their stadium is in the middle of nowhere thanks to restrictions but still they fill it with 70.000 people just to show the world South Azerbaijan is not Iran. Azerbaijanians stood with Iran cause Seljuks-Safevids-Qajars were Türks and they were free in their own country but today since Pahlavi time they are under Persian threat. Turkey and Azerbaijan are both secular countries, why do you wanna show the religious sect card here now? There are shias in Turkey and Azerbaijan also plus we are much more democratic countries and have cultural-linguistic ties and we do not call them ” torki-khar ” unlike Persians and we do not show them as cockroaches in our STATE newspapers then call it Jewish-American propaganda. Iran supported Armenia and sent lot of weaponry to Armenians in Qarabağ war while Azerbaijanians were being murdered and after that we have no business with you guys

        • Vladimir Mayakowski

          How do you know that Iran sent weapons to Armenia? Where did you listen about that?

          It was a war for independence! Nagorno-Karabakh has his right of sovereignty. Azerbaijanians killed during war, and the big cause for that was the fact that they fight without their own will, but because of Azerbaijanian goverment force!

    • Salar23

      Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Green movement leader Mosavi and many more iranian leaders are Iranian Azeri. Iranian Azeri are well intergated into Iranian society.As much as 50% of all Iranian have Azeri mix in them! Israel wants separatism in Iran to create instability and encite war.

    • Azerbaijani Turk

      Actually, we the nationalities of Iran, want a Czechoslovakia-type of solution…Usually Farsi-Iranians mention Yugoslavia to scare people and prevent them from pursuing their aspirations….When the goal can be achieved via dialogue why war? 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Persians and Azeris in Iran have been intermarrying for centuries, as both share a common Shia Muslim faith, common Iranian nationality, and common history. In the capital city of Tehran, a city of 17 million out of which 5 million are ethnic Azeris, it is difficult finding a Persian who does not have at least one Azeri grandparent.

    • Salar23

      I  agree, most of these people know nothing about iran! Iranian Azeri and persian can not be separated, Take me for example I have Azeri, persian and Gilani mix! and I know at least 50 % of Tehran’s population have and Azeri mix as well. It’s like saying Americans that have irish and English mix in them want to eventually form separate states! It’s ridiciolus to say the least.

      • Azerbaijani Turk

        It is not our problem that your grandfathers married non-Azerbaijanis in the past….Just because of your mixed ancestry, we can not stick together….Clearly, there is an Anti-Turk policy both in the government (also the one before revolution) and more importantly in the society….Now, you can’t claim that it is all government’s fault….

  • Salar23

    Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Green movement leader Mosavi and many more iranian leaders are Iranian Azeri. Iranian Azeri are well intergated into Iranian society.As much as 50% of all Iranian have Azeri mix in them! Israel wants separatism in Iran to create instability and encite war.

  • Azerbaijani Turk

    It is usually the Farsi-Iranians who mention Yugoslavia’s case to scare people and discourage them from pursuing their national rights which have been denied to them both by various regimes and also the society…

  • Azerbaijani Turk

    We, the nationalities of Iran, want a Czechoslovakia-type of solution….When we can achieve our goals by dialogue and negotiation, why war, right? 🙂 But in case there is no other option left, of course, we will do anything in our power to protect our people, land, and keep high our stance in this issue……

    Farsi-Iranians should pay attention that they are the ones who want to keep it together so they will have to resist in more than one fronts not us….

  • Az

    Actually the map used is a little incorrect. There are Azeri-speaking peoples that extend further West from Lake Urmia including predominately Azeri-speaking border towns with Turkey.