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Religious Minorities in Iran, by Eliz Sanasarian:
Review

by Farideh Farhi

published in Arab Studies Quarterly
2001-06-22
Religious Minorities in Iran
Author: Eliz Sanasarian
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 2000
xix + 228 pages, 4 tables, 9 illustrations, notes, bibliography and index, $59.95, hardbound
Review by: Farideh Farhi


WRITING IN AN EVEN-HANDED MANNER about the treatment of non-Muslim religious minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the ways they cope with government policies must surely be one of the most delicate scholarly tasks endeavored. Yet this is precisely what Eliz Sanasarian manages to do in this terrific book about the life and trials of religious minorities in Iran in the first decade of the revolution. Rather than falling prey to either facile denunciations or convenient justifications, the usual dichotomous terms of the debate on religious minorities in Iran, she offers a complex picture of the overall policy of the theocratic state toward its non-Muslim religious minorities and the various ways minorities have dealt with state intrusions in their lives. In the hands of Sanasarian, the Iranian post-revolutionary state becomes a multi-vocal and in many ways flexible institutional entity whose blatantly discriminatory minority policies are often open to negotiation, local variations, and even input by mi nority groups. Minority groups, in her hands, also turn out to be, far from passive victims, rather resourceful communities of varying interests and voices whose engagement with the state is part and parcel of a strategy not only to survive but also live with dignity under very difficult circumstances. Sanasarian's systematic insistence on analyzing state-minority relations at a variety of levels, dealing with officials, institutions, policies, and ideology, explains why a book focused on a very small percentage of the Iranian population can end up offering such a penetrating analysis of the workings of the post-revolutionary Iranian state as well.

As is well known, contemporary Iran is a long-standing heterogeneous polity with a mixture of ethnic, tribal, religious, communal, and national crosscurrents marking its diversity. Ninety eight percent of the population is Muslim (93 percent Shii and only 5 percent Sunni) of various ethnic backgrounds (Persians constitute only 51 percent of the population and Persian, despite being the official language, is the mother tongue of barely half of the population). Religious Minorities in Iran deals with the remaining 2 percent composed of Christians (Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Iranian Christian converts), Jews, Zoroastrians, and Bahais. According to Sanasarian, modern Iranian history has exhibited constant fluctuations between extremes of ultra-nationalism and religious bigotry, moderated by "an almost altruistic notion of existence" (p. 162). The result has been a rather dismal record vis-a-vis religious minorities and yet remarkable in that it did not become worse or out of control during the tumultuous po st-revolutionary years of the early 1980s. The intent of this study is to explore these early post-revolutionary dynamics as they played themselves out in the first decade of the revolution, their impact, and the response of religious minorities.

Sanasarian begins with a short discussion of her theoretical framework, which is based on the notion that not all aspects of state-minority relations can be explained through the analysis of levels or disaggregated parts of the state. Effort must also be made, she argues, to examine the distinctions among minority communities and their responses through psychological and cultural dimensions of minority behavior as well as understanding the way each minority community is organized. Next Sanasarian offers a succinct and very useful background to Iran's ethnic, tribal and religious makeup. This sets the stage for some of the basic arguments of the book that historically religious minorities have been a minute group, which unlike some Muslim ethnic groups, have had no claim on any discrete part of Iran's territory. Furthermore, having experienced local tyranny and being always aware of menacing alternatives, they have proven obedient subjects of the modern state system and, accordingly, many of them have achieve d upward social mobility and have come to see themselves as Iranians.

Such generalizations, however, do not prevent Sanasarian from making the very important point about the differential relations religious minorities have developed with the Iranian polity and society. As far as she is concerned, the Christian Assyrians and Chaldeans, which constitute a very small number of religious minorities and whose history has been intermingled with the missionaries, have not played a dynamic role in the modern Iranian nation-state. The Armenians (the largest Christian minority community) and Zoroastrians are considered "the most dramatic actors in the Iranian political scene" (p. 54), made possible by strong communal organizations and better leadership. The Jews and Bahais, on the other hand, despite relative prosperity under the reign of the last shah, have lived under the perpetual threat of assault for most of the last century. The Jews were mostly bent on survival and lacked strong religious leadership. The Bahais, most harshly and consistently persecuted and never recognized as a r eligious minority, have relied on their own internal solidarity buttressed by international networks to live in their homeland.

These basic points create the framework for a very fascinating discussion about the founding moment of the Islamic republic. Relying on the published proceedings of the meeting of the Assembly of Experts in the summer and fall of 1979, Sanasarian dissects in detail the way the question of recognized religious minorities, or "people of the book" (p. 19), were discussed before their rights and responsibilities were incorporated in the Islamic republic's constitution. She shows the crucial role the four minority deputies (out of 73 deputies elected to the Assembly of Experts), representing the Assyrian/Chaldean, Armenian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian communities in securing some rights for their respective constituencies. She also shows the importance of the sympathy these deputies garnered from the chair (Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, currently under house arrest) and vice-chair (Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, later assassinated) of the constitutional meeting in agitating for their inclusion and in helping to redu ce the repetitive references to Islam in the language of the constitution. Although they did not always speak in one voice "no opportunity was missed," Sanasarian insists, "to expand and stretch the concept of 'right' and by asking 'How about us?' their impact in proportion to their numbers was remarkable" (p. 71). This of course does not mean that they managed to get what they wanted. The constitution still identifies them as "minorities" as opposed to the preferred "communities," reserves many high ranking official positions for Muslims, and is of course replete with rather nebulous references to the necessity of all citizens adhering to Islamic conduct and principles in public. Nevertheless these constitutional discussions and the subsequent product, Sanasarian points out, grant the theocratic state the claim that at its founding moment it offered recognized religious minorities continuity and the same rights as they had before in terms of political representation and freedom of religion, language, and cul ture. Even the exclusion of Bahais could be justified as in keeping with past practice. But as aptly pointed out be Sanasarian, despite constitutional continuity many of the problems associated with the Islamic state's treatment of the officially defined and accepted minorities come to full view at the level of policy and policy implementation.

Some areas such as the sphere of religious practice and issues involving personal practice (i.e., marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance) have generally been left under the supervision of the religious leadership for each community. On the other hand, in some other areas such as the discriminatory penal code that blatantly treats Muslims and non-Muslims (as well as men and women) differently, the religious minorities have had very little room to maneuver. The revival of Apostasy Law has also had devastating consequences for some religious minorities, particularly the Bahais and Iranian Christian converts.

Interestingly, however, Sanasarian shows that among all the changes that ensued in the first decade of revolution education became the most difficult and contentious one facing recognized religious minorities. State intrusions varied from place to place and in relation to different minority groups, but the bottom line was that by the early 1980s the educational autonomy that the recognized religious minorities had enjoyed for decades was being threatened by the new regime. The conflict, Sanasarian maintains was particularly intense vis-a-vis the Armenian community. Being the largest recognized religious minority in Iran (about 250,000 in the mid-1970s and between 150,000 to 200,000 in the 1990s), the Armenians faced the harshest consequences of government intrusions in education, particularly in relation to language instruction. Other religious minorities either had Persian as their main language of instruction (Zoroastrians and Jews) or were too small to stage independent protest (Assyrians and Chaldeans). A long with concerns about instruction of other religions the Islamic state ironically seemed to have been also worried about the spread of the idea of language instruction in mother tongues other than Persian to Iran's large number of ethnic communities. Ultimately what seemed to be a collusion of Persian nationalism and Islamism led the state to force its way in reducing language and religious instruction. But at the level of policy implementation, as Sanasarian vividly shows, it did so inconsistently with noticeable local variations. Rigidity, flexibility, and contradictions ended up being characteristics that can all be attributed to the Iranian state. Meanwhile, in facing this state, religious minorities, particularly the Zoroastrians and Armenians, never stopped raising eloquent objections through their representatives in the parliament and through direct communication of their leaders to various ministries in charge. In other words, "they adjusted but also resisted, they bent but stood firm, they educate d but realigned themselves with the new circumstances" (p. 155).

The portrayal of this complex picture of state-minority relations allows the author to offer two features of state-minority relations that distinguishes the policies of the Islamic republic from those of the Shah's regime: inter-minority discourse, and the localized nature of state-society relations in post-revolutionary Iran. Interestingly, Sansarian here is pointing to something that, I think, can be very useful in understanding the distinctiveness of Iran's post-revolutionary politics in general. Revolutions do indeed cause breaks and in the Iranian case the break came in the form of a shift from the absolute and centralized authority of the monarchy to a divided authority and decentralized system of governance by multiple institutions. The break has also come in the form of a multi-vocal and pluralistic society exhibiting itself and engaging in discourse from within. The fact that the Iranian state has maintained many of its authoritarian and arbitrary tendencies should not detract from this fact about t he fundamental change in the structure of authority and its relations to the society. In fact, without understanding this shift it will be impossible to understand Iran of the 1990s and of the new millennium; a country that has been marked with open competition and conflict among a variety of political forces, a majority of which have explicitly agitated for democracy and reform.

Sanasarian s analysis of a multi-layered state as revealed in its relations with the minority communities obviously offers a much better understanding of the Iranian post-revolutionary state and politics. But it does more than being merely revelatory about the contentious politics surrounding the Iranian state. It also provides a very important insight about why the fundamental issue of contention in Iran remains focused on the way the state treats all of its citizens and why the question of the unequal treatment of minorities (as much as the question of the unequal treatment of women) continues to be a thorn that must be seriously addressed by both the state and Shi'i majority in the struggle to build a democratic society and state.

Let me end by reiterating that Religious Minorities in Iran, while highly articulate about the fate of minorities in Islamic Iran, is also indispensable for those interested in Iranian politics in general. The book is richer in the analysis of some minority communities, namely the Armenian community, and could have perhaps offered a more comprehensive comparative perspective had it also included the plight of the Muslim Sunni minority (a community that for instance has not yet been given permission to have its own mosque in the city of Tehran). But these points only hint at the desirability of further research on a very worthy topic and do not detract from the contribution made by this book to the comparative study of state-minority relations as well as the study of Iranian post-revolutionary politics.

Farideh Farhi is Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute, Washington, D.C.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Association of Arab-American University Graduates and Institute of Arab Studies
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