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A 1979 Kurdish Perspective: 40 Years after the Iranian Revolution



This talk was presented to a workshop on the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. This exciting event was organised by the Institute for Iranian studies at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, on 31st May 2019. The workshop had been preceded by another event on 27th in which the historian Ervand Abrahamian presented a keynote lecture (available now on YouTube) entitled “The 1953 Roots of 1979”.
A 1979 Kurdish Perspective
40 Years after the Iranian Revolution
Marouf Cabi
This talk was presented to a workshop on the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
This exciting event was organised by the Institute for Iranian studies at the University of St
Andrews, Scotland, on 31st May 2019. The workshop had been preceded by another event on
27th in which the historian Ervand Abrahamian presented a keynote lecture (available now on
YouTube) entitled “The 1953 Roots of 1979”.
Some of the ideas in this presentation result from more extensive research I have done previously,
while others can be considered as outlines for further research.
The question for me to answer today is as follows: how can Kurdish sources and historiography
shape our understanding of the revolution, its causes and consequences? Yes, also consequences.
For we are looking for perspectives on a major event which ticks all the requirements to be defined
as a revolution. And as it can be concluded from the debate around What is History since E. H.
Carr’s lectures under the same title, consequences are often more important. Causes and
consequences, whys? and hows?, explanation, interpretation, sources, etc. form the same historical
This said, I try to identify some main problems both with the historiographies of Iran and with
Kurdish historiographies. For presenting my alternative, I rely on what I call postnational theories
which will be also explained below. But why do we need a Kurdish perspective? Why Kurdish
sources? Is it because Kurdish historiography has been in a marginalised position or the
historiographies of Iran need to be more inclusive? I think it is more than that. Firstly, there is a
monopoly over knowledge production; and secondly, Persian hegemonic position reproduces the
notion of Iran as equal to Persian (language and culture). So, we need to challenge this situation
Therefore, I am going to elaborate on these points by focusing on methodology, point of departure,
dominant discourses that continue to shape historiographical awareness effectively. This is crucial
because just adding to the sources may at best alter assumptions, but it won’t change the
worldview. It means we have to address the problem before listing the sources and thinking what
to do with them.
Philosophers and Interpretation
A Personal Story
I would like to start by recalling a story in order to make a point, followed by discussing the
prevalent assumptions insofar as the Kurds are concerned. I am going to take you away from
centre, Tehran, on a journey to the city of Saqqez in Iranian Kurdistan, west of Iran. This is the
story of my encounter with the Revolution. We were a group of young boys aged 10 to 12, in our
neighbourhood. We immediately found ourselves in the middle of the protests as soon as we
witnessed people demonstrating and chanting “marg bar estebdad” (death to despotism). One day
one of the boys turned up in our usual spot and began to talk about Karl Marx and his theses on
[Ludwig] Feuerbach. I vaguely remember the scene, I am not even sure if I caught the name of the
latter, but I vividly remember that he read Marx’s thesis number 11: “The philosophers have only
interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”. I will never be able to
describe the impact of that message on me. It was simple, yet so powerful. Since that moment, I
have never looked back; in fact, I am still going.
However, 40 years after the revolution, and being intellectually more informed, I have a feeling
that we need to do something about Marx’s thesis. To me the point seems to be to interpret the
world [and interpret it ‘correctly’ based on ongoing intellectual achievements). I mean if we do
not interpret the world in this way how are we going to change it? For example, imagine we lack
valuable historiographical or theoretical works; imagine there was no critique of orientalism, no
Edward Said. What would you have done with John Malcom’s History of Persia or Curzon’s
Persia and the Persian Question? In that case, we were like wandering scholars in search of
sources on colonialism, but we didn’t know what to do with them when/if we found them. This
applies to social theories, to gender theories, etc.
Therefore, this is my point: to know the world in question before trying to change it. In the case
of “Kurdish sources”, unless we acknowledge that we need to change the approach, then we would
not know what to do with the sources relevant to the revolution. And let me remind you that at
least 90%, if not all of them, are in Persian!
The prevalent assumption that we need to confront
Kurds are generally defined as a minority and everything they have or do are explained as mahalli
or local. The definition, ethnic minority, is a modern one, as we know. The modern state did not
acquire the monopoly only over the means of violence. It also acquired the monopoly over the
right to define people. To elaborate on this, let me pause on the duality of official and local which
determines, as I have shown in a research, the cultural positions of different cultures in modern
nation-state of Iran; it is based on the relationships between culture and power as well as language
and power. In Iran knowledge production as well as cultural production are determined by the
positions of different cultures in those processes of production. And their positions are determined
by the duality of official and local which characterise modern Iran. The duality emerged, in my
view, in post-world war II period during the intensification of the modernisation of Iran. Iran had
entered the twentieth century with the notion of Persian as the national language of Iran. However,
there were other languages the modern state (as well as cultural modernity in which intellectuals
were involved) had to do something about. As a result, the duality emerged.
Persian is defined as the Official and official is the norm; it refers to the culturally superior. A
consequence of this will be to condemn others to the position of local, making them subculture,
and this includes their history and historiography. Therefore, Persian has appropriated Iran as
an idea, as an entity. History, language and geography, as the main ideological components of this
national appropriation of Iran, have served Persian so that any change to the three components
will be seen as a threat to Iran; it will amount to tajziye talabi or attempts to territorial
disintegration of Iran/the geography. (I will come back to this later). Achievements in the
historiography should be acknowledged. However, in this sense, can we talk about an official
historiographyI do not mean a state historiography just like we talk about official language,
religion, art, culture which are Persian-centric, and which use Iran and Persian interchangeably?
The answer is, yes probably we can.
Now, from this perspective let’s turn to the 1979 Revolution and identify some gaps in the
historiographies. Historical accounts on the referendum for the Islamic Republic do not include
the fact that it was boycotted in the Kurdistan Province or in Kurdistanthe administrative
divisions of Iran exclude many Kurdish cities form Kurdistan Province; however, such cities have
remained politically and culturally attached to the rest. The debates on imperialism, as the main
attribute of the revolution which became a trap for the left, later sealing its fate, do not touch upon
the fact that along with some other leftist movements across Iran this was not the case with the
left in Kurdistan nor even with democratic-progressive forces. In the historiographies of Iran there
is no mention of a period of a quasi-autonomy which characterised Kurdistan until spring 1980
[the city of Bukan remained free/self-managed for another year); a democratic experience which
never posed any threat to ‘Iran’, but was a credit to it. In this period violence was effectively
replaced by the advance of civil society organisations or movements. Furthermore, upon the brutal
suppression of the opposition in the early 1980s, Kurdistan became a space which enabled the
survival of most political movements and parties. As another completely overlooked subject, is
the war in Kurdistan throughout the 1980s which characterised Iran along with Iran-Iraq war. The
war in Kurdistan was another consequence of the ascendancy of radicalism which led to
militarisation, leading to armed struggle as the main form of resistance, thus ending the civil
society movements. To understand the seriousness of this war throughout the 1980s, I draw your
attention to a book published by Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami or The Guardian Force of
the Islamic Revolution in 1387/2000. This book provides statistics for a period of 10 years since
the revolution. For its own casualties, the document identifies “more than 24,000 Martyrs”,
another 21,000 wounded, taken hostage or missing. On the other hand, the document identifies the
casualties suffered by anti-revolutionary groups to be almost 19,000 killed, around the same
number wounded, captured or arrested, and more than 18,000 surrendered. The statistics allude to
a formidable force rather than some groups! [A slide containing relevant pages from the book is
Furthermore, in the historiographies of Iran there is no mention of Qarna and Qallatan either, the
two villages whose population (along with domestic animals) were massacred in summer 1979 by
the Pasdarans. Borujerdi, a former Pasdar, who was sent there to find out what on earth had
happened, recalls the story in his book; Ketab-e Jom‘e (Friday Book), a weekly journal edited by
Ahmad Shamloo mentions the story in a report (autumn 1979) on Kurdistan. The massacre was a
result of rumours and the provocations by the city of Rezayie’s Friday Imam, the notorious imam
jom‘e Hasani, who exploited some rumours to server his own political agenda.
Moreover, there is no mention of the general strike of autumn 1979 which led to the exit of the
Pasdaran form the province. The strike had been preceded by the declaration of Jihad against the
Kurds by Ayatola Khomeini. His decree of 28 Mordad 1358, in which he orders the army, the air
force and the navy to take action (again based on rumours), was published in Keyan; it is not in
Avestan, it is in Persian! The event followed by the same man’s declaration of peace a few month
later when his followers had overrun the American Embassy and Mehdi Bazargan, the Prime
Minister, resigned; this marked the end of national liberalism effectively. The new regime needed
to consolidate itself. So, Kurdistan could wait.
We can add more examples. However, let’s stop here and give an example of what is exactly
wrong with the scholarship in this respect. Think about postcolonial theories. In his valuable book
Iran: A People Interrupted, Hamid Dabashi passionately talks about Palestinians and how they
were massacred by the Israelis. But when he mentions the Kurds, he reminds us of our duty to
cosmopolitanism which is his alternative to colonial modernity and nationalism. No problem with
cosmopolitanism. However, we have to ask, does the idea of cosmopolitanism imply ignoring a
people’s legitimate demands for cultural and national rights? He talks about cultural modernity,
listing Persian and Arabic, Latin American and black literary figures. Not even a single Kurdish
literary figure is included. When he mentions “Persian literary modernism, sine quo non of Iranian
cultural modernity”, historians have every right to ask what about other Iranian literary
Why aren’t such themes which reveal gaps in the historiographies included or analysed? There are
three reasons. Firstly, because of the dearth of research on the Kurds in Iran. We cannot just blame
historians for not including this and that event. Secondly, and more importantly, because of
methodological and chronological reasons. For example, a somewhat fixed chronology of Iran is
reiterated. There is a methodological challenge we should embrace. Of course, there are many
good works which, despite their shortcomings, we need to acknowledge. [Some are mentioned].
We need to embrace this challenge in two areas. They are theory and practice. And for me this
means developing postnational theories. Theoretically, there is a need for theories like ‘post-
colonial’ to achieve transformations in conception and practice insofar as Kurds and Kurdistan(s)
are concerned. Practically, we need to provide methodological and theoretical challenges to the
Persian-centric concept of Iran, making it rest on its constituents not merely on one hegemonic,
powerful part. At the same time, there is a need to present a challenge to a homogenous approach
to the Kurds which is followed by Kurdish studies or studies on the Kurds. In his book, Kurds: A
Modern History (2016), a ‘book’ which seems to be more like an essay to answer an undergraduate
exam question, Michael Gunter explains the situation of the Kurds in Iran as being temporary
quiescent (Chapter 5). Amid the political developments in Syria and Iraq, the historian is
seemingly bewildered by the absent of gun fighting and completely overlooks the advance of civil
society movements which is a reality especially since the early 2000s. (He informs us that “The
Iranian Kurds were not united, and their attempt at armed rebellion had completely failed by 1983”
(p.141). The author needs to ask Sepah-e Pasdaran).
Similarly, in her book, The Kurds and the State (2005), Denise Natali analyses four different
Kurdish societies in some 250 pages, providing ethnic expertise amid the same, recent
developments. Regardless of commonalities, each Kurdish society has its own peculiarities
developed because of decades of socio-economic, political and cultural transformations in their
nation-states during the last century.
Finally, we need to facilitate research and transform Iranian Studies institutes across the world.
Postnational Theories
What do I mean by this term and why do we need such theories? Obviously, nation-state is still
there. It is however a failed experience. Besides, we are intellectually postnational too. On the
other hand, as we are informed by postcolonial theories, indirect colonialism has replaced direct
colonialism, therefore upon the failure of postcolonial independent states, the theories call for
postcolonial transformation to challenge the hegemonic (See Ashcroft 2001).
Postnational theories include different, interwoven aspects, which are able to analyse various
Kurdish societies in different nation-states. I apply them to the case of Iran and believe they will
open up new perspectives for analysing other Kurdish societies too. The historical context of these
theories is nation-state, a multicultural/national nation-state such as Iran. Although there are
similarities in colonial entities and multi-cultural nation-states, the context is still different. Unlike
colonial contexts, in which the main mechanisms of cultural encounter are race and conquest, the
mechanisms of cultural encounter in modern Iran rest on cultural hegemony. I remind you of the
duality of local and official, discussed above.
This said, postnational theories present a challenge to:
(1) the hegemonic
Here let me introduce you to the concept of interpolation which is cultivated in postcolonial
theories. It means “Engaging with the dominant culture to contest it, to change it, to make the
voice of subculture heard […] This engagement can be one in which consumption and production
are deeply implicated, and the forces of these processes may lead to changes in the dominant
culture (Ashcroft 2001).” How? “By using dominant culture as a communicative medium or
consuming it as cultural capital”. However, “the most important aspect of this engagement is not
simply the use of cultural capital but the change made to the system which provides capital (ibid).
The alternative to engagement will be isolation and remaining as the other for ever. Interpolation,
in contrast, means that “the subaltern need to speak out of otherness to speak as the other (ibid).
Finally, “hegemony is not impervious to resistance” and, as it is more evident since the 2000s, the
advance of Kurdish-Iranian civil society movements along with literary and academic endeavours
and journalism testify to the fact that the boundaries of consent and coercion have been in a
permanent state of reforming with major achievements for such movements and endeavours.
(2) the homogenous, national approach
Postnational theories present an alternative to a well-established, homogenous approach to the
concepts of Kurds and Kurdistan. I mentioned some seemingly academic works above. Let me
introduce you to another book, Hoviyat Khahi-ye Kordha wa Aqliyat-e Siasi-e Irani (The quest of
the Kurds for identity and Iranian political mentality) which attempts to create a completely
distinct Kurdish identity. It appears to be a scholarly work, published in Persian outside of Iran
and has become relatively popular. The gist of the argument is that Iraniyat or Iranianness was
historically formed against Kurdishness. It goes back to the ancient times and reclaims Iranian
mythology, which is the foundation of Iranianness, for Kurdayeti or Kurdishness. What is more,
he condemns Kurdish quest or movements in modern times and accuses them of not being
distinctively Kurdish!
However, it is not difficult to highlight the flaws in the book’s arguments. Modern Iraniyat or
modern Iranian historical consciousness was shaped against the west not against its constituents.
That is, it did not form against the Kurds, the Azaris, the Baluchies or the Lurs. Simply because it
didn’t have to. For example, look at this poem (Slide) composed by Hajji Qadir Koyi probably no
later than the 1880s. He addresses a beautiful girl’s askew hat and long tress and compares them
to the Kayanid Crown and drafsh-e Kaviyan or the Kaviyan flag. This very short poem of 14 lines
encompasses Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh which provides the mythological foundation for historical
understanding of Iran. At the same time, Koyi blends Kurdayeti and Iraniyat by elevating himself
to the status of Ferdowsi. In the end the poet says:
Hajji [himself] is the Kurdish Ferdowsi; and you [the girl] shouldn’t break your promise like
[sultan] Mahmood [Ghaznavi] did (emphasis added).
The sultan, as we know, was Ferdowsi’s patron but did not keep his promise of financial support
when the poet’s long poem finally concluded.
Therefore, pre-modern historical consciousness of various peoples residing in the region was
decisively shaped by mythologies which functioned/continue to function as the wheels of
historical narratives. Hajji Qadir was born in Koyi, then in Ottoman Kurdistan and went to Istanbul
where he imbibed modern, national ideas. In this sense, pitting Kurdayeti and Iraniyat against
each other will be ahistorical; in this case too, a Kurdish scholar has taken ‘Persian’ for ‘Iran’.
Based on the above analysis of approach and sources, I am going to end my presentation by
highlighting some more examples of the revolutionary events. Read the newspapers published
during the revolution. A word accompanies the term ‘Kurds’ and that is tajziye talabi (territorial
disintegration). There is in play a discourse of power which denies national rights by reminding
all how sacred the geography is. In these sources we see a psychological war against the Kurds in
which both the old and the new regimes along with many intellectuals seem to have formed a
united front, as if no revolution had happened at all. There exists, as we know, a paranoid style in
politics in Iran’s modern history. The list of relevant terms such as awamel-e bigan-e (foreign
agents), jasus (spy) or khaen (traitor) which form such a style is a long one. Are we prepared to
add tajziye talabi to that list? Atrocities have roots also in preconceived ideas.
Finally, the revolution transformed Kurdish politics in Iran with the effect that it has not left the
scene ever since, unlike before. However, there is a lesson of the revolution insofar as the Kurds
are concerned. Kurdistan’s eventual forceful submission and the end of its democratic experience,
the suppression of the left (in the wake of Banisadir’s Cultural Revolution in spring 1980) along
with the demise of liberalism guaranteed the ascendency of radicalism in Iran. So, for
authoritarianism to succeed there are many forces to contain. Kurdistan is one significant one.
And that’s how more critically oriented, centrifugal historiographies can shape our understanding
of Iran, its past and present, providing democratic visions for its future at the same time.
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