ladies and gentlemen.
My name is Dr. Shapoor Ansari.
I am honored to be here. Now, you might be wondering why I am here: I am not a politician or a diplomat, nor have I ever been. What I am is a 78 year old retired cardiac surgeon who has been living in the United States for over 50 years, and who believes in equality for all mankind and the universal nature of human rights.
I love my adopted country, I love Iran and I love my homeland, Azerbaijan.
As a physician, I am committed to promoting good health in all mankind. To that end, I created the coronary bypass surgery program at the Rajai Heart Center in Tehran, by invitation of the Iranian government, beginning in 1990. For two years, and without any compensation, I trained mostly Persian surgeons in Tehran to set up that program. Prior to my arrival, there was no single successful coronary bypass surgery graft performed in Iran, but upon completion of my work, Iran became self-sufficient in that respect. I have also tried for more than 35 years to build a heart center in Azerbaijan with my own funds, but have been unsuccessful because of the numerous roadblocks put in my way by the Iranian government, who tried to politely redirect me to Persian-speaking areas.
This last point brings me to why I am here today: as a physician, all my life, I have been involved in the treatment and eradication of disease in thousands of patients, in several countries.
It is my diagnosis that Iran suffers from a serious social disease, and that disease is the cultural apartheid that is being intentionally inflicted on almost 35 million Turks by their own government. This apartheid is one based not on skin color, but on ethnicity, and on culture. It is a systematic segregation and degradation of Iran’s Turks that began decades prior to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the 1930s, Shah Reza Pahlavi, in trend with some European countries, instituted policies intended to promote a single, “superior” race—namely, Aryan or Persian— and a single language, Persian. In doing so, they infected Iran with a disease that has, ironically, grown much much stronger under the Islamic Republic.
Let me describe to you the symptoms of this disease, this cultural apartheid, and hopefully suggest a cure.
Millions of Azerbaijani Turkish children are entering school this year, and in the coming years. They are all subjected to cultural apartheid and forced assimilation by the Iranian government. They are not allowed to be educated in their mother tongue (even through cartoons in kindergarten) and will fall behind their Persian counterparts, as they try to master a language that is foreign to them and to their families. Keep in mind, according to Iran’s Foreign Minister, 40% of the entire population of Iran speaks Turkish, and, according to Iran’s Education Minister, 70% of Iranian schoolchildren speak a language other than Persian at home.
I wish this were the only handicap inflicted on these children. Unfortunately, they will carry irreparable psychological scars inflicted on them by their own government’s policy of dehumanizing and degrading Turks in all spheres.
Publically, Azeri Turks are portrayed as ignorant and backwards in movies, newspapers, television shows, sports broadcasts and cartoons, the most well-known of which equated Turks to cockroaches who feed on human feces. Privately, the racial slur “donkey” is in widespread use to refer to Turks, in addition to millions of insulting jokes about Turks being bandied about, even in the Iranian president’s office.
The assault on the Turkish language is a multi-pronged one. Iran bans the teaching of Turkish in the classroom; there is no single course, no one class taught in Turkish in all of Iran today. Moreover, Turks are frequently imprisoned for simply asking the government to institute Turkish language education, for asking their government to enforce their own constitution, which guarantees the right to mother-tongue education. For asking for the right to be taught in their own language, Turks are put in jail, where they often mysteriously die, of so-called “heart attacks,” “suicide,” and “meningitis.”
There are no Turkish language movies shown in theaters. There are no true Turkish language shows broadcast on national television—there is one half-hearted program on provincial tv in which almost everything is spoken in Persian except for the verbs—the verbs used are Turkish. There are very few public performances of Turkish language musical acts. Hundreds of cities, towns, rivers and mountains have been stripped of their Turkish names and replaced with foreign, Persian ones.
These unfortunate facts anyone can discover, so let me tell you a couple of my own personal stories.
Fifteen years ago, my niece and her husband had a little girl. They called her Fidan, a beautiful Turkish name. However, when my niece went to register the name, she was told she could not. Why? Because the chosen Turkish name was not on the list of government-sanctioned names. When asked whether Armenian families also had to choose from this list, they were told there was a separate list for Armenians; there was no such separate list of names for Turks, 40% of Iran’s population. In the end, my niece was forced to name her daughter a Persian name that is a strange one in our culture, a name that has never existed amongst Turks. This is how intrusive Iran’s system of cultural apartheid, of linguistic and cultural annihilation is. It has inserted itself into even the most private and sacred of decisions, that of naming one’s own children.
Not only has Iran’s cultural apartheid infected the private family life of Iran’s Turks, but it has gone even further and inserted itself into the hearts and minds of the Turks. There is a movie in which a grandfather and his granddaughter speak Turkish at home, but in public when the grandfather attempts to speak Turkish to his granddaughter, she tells him not to, and to only speak Persian because she is embarrassed to be seen speaking Turkish in public. This is not just in movies. This happens in real life too.
I once treated a patient at the Tehran heart center, twenty-some years ago, an old man. I spoke to him first in Persian but realized he didn’t understand me. I then explained his condition in Turkish, his treatment options, possible risks of the procedure, etc. His daughter was with him and asked me to explain everything to her in Persian, as she said she didn’t speak Turkish. So I repeated myself to her in Persian. Now I should tell you, I used to also treat a lot of army generals at that time and some were also in the room during this consultation. After the old man’s surgery, whenever he and his daughter returned for follow-ups and we were in a room alone, the daughter was suddenly fluent in Turkish. I asked her how she became so fluent in Turkish so quickly. She told me that in front of the generals and in public she could not speak Turkish. When I asked why, she said that as a sports broadcaster on national tv, she didn’t want anyone to know she was a Turk.
To not want anyone to know you are a Turk; to be so ashamed of your cultural and ethnic identity–this is a powerful effect of Iran’s anti-Turkish agenda. Iran is managing to destroy a language and a culture from the inside out. Turks in Iran, and other ethnic minorities, are being taught self-hatred and self-censorship: to be ashamed, to make oneself invisible and to disappear.
Sadly, Iran’s portrayal of Turks as inferior people appears to be achieving its goal. If I had the time, I could tell you many more stories, many more examples of the symptoms of this disease called cultural apartheid in Iran. But what is the cure?
As long as there is institutionalized discrimination there can be no cure. As long as there is systematic marginalization of a people, their culture and their language, there can be no cure. What is the cure then? I’ll tell you: it is a change in Iran’s power structure.
A quick glance at the ethnic make-up of the political power structure in Iran suggests that Iran is composed overwhelmingly of Persians, non-publically elected Persians. Of the Guardian Council, 6 clergy, 6 advisors: all Persian. Of the Expediency Council, 37 out of 39 are Persian. The head of Parliament is Persian. The head of the judiciary is Persian. The heads of all the branches of the armed forces are Persian. Indeed, the Supreme Leader, who supposedly speaks for God, is Persian, even though he is portrayed as a Turk because he speaks Turkish. Nearly all of the top government posts in Iran are occupied by Persians.
Where are Iran’s ethnic minorities? These posts I speak of, they are not, for the most part, elected positions—perhaps if they were, we would see a different ethnic and cultural composition. Instead, the power structure promotes the Persian agenda, to the detriment of all other ethnic minorities, their culture, music, language and, by extension, identity.
I believe that only a change in the make-up of the government, only with a government composed of democratically elected officials who truly represent the multi-faceted, multi-cultural and multi-lingual beauty of Iran, can cure the disease of cultural apartheid that Iran’s ethnic minorities, Turks in particular, are suffering from.
I hope that one day we will see this type of government in Iran. I hope that one day we will see a country whose people are proud of their heritage, their culture, their language, and whose country also takes pride in them. I hope that one day this disease, this cultural apartheid, can be cured.