Ahmad Kasravi on Iran and Azerbaijan

This paper was submitted to L’Association Française pour l‘Étude du Monde Arabe et Musulman in France, 1996, under the title, "Ahmad Kasravi: From Nationalism to Internationalism"

Ahmad Kasravi was a prominent Iranian social and religious critic and historian. Among the issues he devoted himself to was that of the position of ethnic and religious minorities in Iranian society. He felt passionately that the chief obstacle facing Iran on its road to progress was th/e disunity of the country, its division into warring factions.

One must begin a paper about Kasravi's view of the nationalities question with the first author to clearly examine the issue, Ervand Abrahamian's Ahmad Kasravi, the Integrative Nationalist of Iran. In this essay, he aptly sums up how Kasravi was understood by observers of Iranian politics:

To some, he was the 'theorist of modernization. To others he was a 'dangerous iconoclast' who was eventually and justly murdered for trying to destroy the foundations of traditional authority. For many he was the leading historian of the reform movement. To a few he used history both as a grab bag to peddle his theories, and as a weapon with which he carried out character assassinations of his opponents. For some he was a true philosophe, 'single-handedly bringing an age of reason and enlightenment to Iran'. For others he was a mulla in modern dress, attempting to replace the old superstitions with his own 'highly confused dogma'. He was considered broad-minded internationalist, a 'humanist' concerned with the problems of the world; or again, a narrow-minded nationalist, a xenophobe who wanted to purge all foreign words from the Persian language. Whereas as some saw in him a 'petit bourgeois idealist', an idealogue for the propertied classes, and an apologist for military dictatorship, at the same time others saw in him a 'militant constitutionalist', an uncompromising enemy of the political elite, and a subversive radical whose writings offered a half-way house to many intellectuals as they moved from their Shi'i backgrounds towards the revolutionary socialist movement.

Abrahamian, for his part, finds "the essence of Kasravi" to be in the idea of "the transformation of unintegrated traditional Iran into ... an integrated modern Iran." But the problem, it seems to me, is not entirely with commentators on Kasravi's works as with the complexity and contradictory character of Kasravi's thought over the decades. A man who sought to resolve Iran's dilemmas, he himself was capable of holding conflicting views on various matters. This extends, I have found, to his attitude towards his native Azerbaijan and its place in an integrated Iran.

Kasravi's belief in the need for the Persianization of Iran's ethnic minorities is well-known. Although the biggest issue for him by far was religious rivalry and the role of the tribes, he occasionally felt compelled to analyze the position of Azerbaijan and the Azeris had in Iran. The answer he came up with reflected the complex experience of the constitutionalist revolution. On the one hand, the revolution marked the awakening of Iran to truly national existence, a spread among the masses of Iranians of national consciousness. This was no less true in Azerbaijan, where the constitutionalist press harped on this theme. Azerbaijan was the center of constitutionalist strength. Its deputies were recognize by one and all (including foreign observers such as E. G. Browne) as the most conscious and determined constitutionalists. Its capital, Tabriz, was the fortress of constitutionalism, holding out alone for almost a year of desperate street fighting against the absolutist and clericalist forcers besieging it. During this time, the Tabriz Anjoman was able to declare itself the successor of the Iranian national parliament or Majlis. This meant that the leading lights of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia lived their Azerbaijani identity through their Iranian identity: they were the best Iranians, they were the best, even the only true, defenders of the country in its time of peril. One only has to recall the the names of Kazemzade, Taqizade, Kasravi, Rezazade Shafaq, etc.

But the very magnitude of Azerbaijan's weight in the constitutionalist revolution induced a renaissance of Azerbaijani consciousness. The constitutionalist revolution witnessed an incipient revival of Azerbaijani Turkish as a literary idiom, with poetry and feuilletons being written in this language. This was reinforced by the full-scale revival of Azerbaijani literature north of the Araz River in the Russian-ruled Caucasus in the wake of the 1905 Russian Revolution (an event which had a tonic effect on Persian literature as well.) It is not for nothing that the Azerbaijani autonomists under Ja'far Pishevari would declare themselves the heirs of the Tabriz mojaheds of the constitutionalist period. Kasravi's writings reflect both sides of this dual identity, something which is overlooked when one reduces him to an integrative nationalist.

Kasravi's first (and, one might say, only) involvement in political activity was during the Khiabani affair. In the wake of the Ottoman withdrawal from Azerbaijan, Sheikh Mohammad Khiabani sought to seize provincial autonomy and impose his own vision of social reform in the portions of the province under his control. This is often misunderstood (particularly by Soviet Azerbaijani scholars) as a struggle against Persian chauvinism. In fact, Khiabani had fled for his life from the Ottomans who sought to Turkify the province, and his Democrats solemnly pledged to speak only Persian at their meetings and to work for the Persianization of Azerbaijan(Zendeganiye Ma, p. 88). Moreover, Kasravi's objections to Khiabani (which span some hundred pages of his book Tarikh-e Hejde Salaye Azarbayjan) had nothing tangible to do with language, but to his having arrogated absolute power to himself and settling political and personal disputes with bullets. (The one case in which Khiabani admitted back to his party an Ottoman collaborator is not pegged to any hint of a Turkifying policy on his part, but a case of the sheikh using his power to protect an undeserving friend while mercilessly punishing his enemies.Zendeganiye Ma, p. 87) Indeed, Kasravi seems to share whatever Azerbaijanist sentiment the sheikh had. He expresses clear sympathy with the general exasperation the Azerbaijanis had with the central governmentTarikh-e Hejde Saleye Azarbayjan, p. 860 and told a British agent who sought to enroll him in an anti-Khiabani movement that he would not move against the sheikh in part because "Khiabani had risen up in the name of Azerbaijan."ibid. p. 876, Zendeganiye Ma, p. 99 and he had this to say to a disgruntled Azerbaijan Democrat: "Khiabani has mistreated you and has mistreated me. But we must think of Azerbaijan. This movement is in the name of Azerbaijan."Zendeganiye Ma, p. 105

Kasravi spent much of his life working out Iranian Azerbaijan's place in Iranian history. One of his first efforts was his Azari, ya Zaban-e Bastan-e Azarbayjan. It was written in response to pan-Turkists who were laying claim to Azerbaijan as part of the Turkish homeland. Tehran journalists wrote answers to them which "would have been better left unwritten, since they did not understand what the Turkish writers were saying" and did not know what they were talking about. After he settled in Tehran, he was able to devote himself to refuting the Turkish claims, proving to his satisfaction that the Azerbaijanis had their own dialect of Persian which was lost over centuries of Turkic settlement. It should be mentioned that in the course of this article, he did not neglect the superficial claims Iranian nationalists. The tone of the pamphlet is one of scholarly objectivity and, whatever one may thing of its argument, based on a mass of research soberly considered.

Another was his Eighteen Year History of Azerbaijan. It was written, according to its introduction, with the cries of the victims of marauding tribesmen and the ethnic warfare with the Assyrian population still ringing in his ears. But what emerges is a concern to keep alive the memory of the forgotten common people who did the fighting and dying for the Constitution, identified with the Tabriz fighters. I cite some examples from the version published in the 1930's, where the passions driving the author are more rawly expressed.

On the oath upon the Koran taken by the people of Tabriz and the Majlis deputies to uphold the Constitution, Kasravi writes:I:66

Now that God's Koran is a witness that the Tabrizis have stood by this oath and have not spared life or wealth, thank God that they lived up to the responsibility they had taken upon themselves.... Tabriz gained nothing from this oath except the blood soaked corpses of thousands of youth... laid to rest under her soil, but did Tabriz lose anything? No, never! Tabriz is the loser on the day that it does not live up to its oath and makes God's Koran its foe! But now, Tabriz has won. Now., God is pleased with Tabriz, and who know what shining days lie ahead for this city.

A little later:

Although the constitutionalist movement began in Tehran and this honor belongs to the capital city, Tabriz safeguarded it.... Tabriz was in the clutches of Mohammad 'Ali Shah and bore the yoke of despotism longer, but as soon as it was free of it, it made up for this delay by becoming the constitution's greatest supporter.

A few pages later, on the arrival of the Tabriz delegation to the Majlis, Kasravi writes that "Tabriz's zeal and manliness was the wonder of all Iran."I:80

Regarding Tabriz's military preparations, we read:

If we look closely, we will see that this tumultuous outcry of the Tabrizis was the foundation of the new history of Iran. Mohammad 'Ali [Shah] bombarded the Majlis and every city in Iran was silenced by his aggression, If it had not been for Tabriz's eleven months of resistance, the Constitution would have been uprooted from Iran for many long years. (I:100) Kasravi had a profound aversion to what Margaret Thatcher called the chattering classes: literateurs, journalists, etc. His heroes are the simple, uncomplicated (bi alayesh) fighters, and these are heavily identified with Tabriz:

Here, it must be said that at this time, in Tehran, there were among the constitutionalist many people who knew European history and we note that the newspapers kept recalling the French revolution, throwing the deeds of those revolutionaries in the face of the Iranians.

And yet, these people did not act as the French revolutionaries had and form a national guard. "But," Kasravi adds, the Tabrizis, without making the French revolution their guide and only because every Muslim must be able to fight and know how to ride a horse, drilled from day one. This was the Constitution's greatest help. This alone, it was an indication that the Tabrizis were then wiser than the Tehranis and, in other words, that God's hand was over the Tabrizis. Although he later solemnly states that "there is courage in all Iranians" and decides that "the Tabrizis were simply better prepared and more experienced," he returns to this theme in the second volume of this version of his History, adding: The illiterate masses are more worthy than the literate, for they are not corrupted by the corrosive words of the kharabatis, sufis, etc., and the roots of heroism and pride are not shriveled within them.II:9-10

He has no patience for the fiery Tehran journalists who baited the Shah without preparing for the consequences.II:43-44 He holds up to ridicule telegrams Tehran sent to the provinces boasting that their heavily armed anjomans (political clubs) were prepared to do battle with the Majlis' enemies which were then besieging it. On the other hand "in Tabriz, bands of mojaheds arose, most of whom were proud and firm and struggled sincerely, not deluding themselves and others."

Here, we are reminded of a comment by Edeltrud Jung in her 1976 disseration on Kasravi (Ahmad Kasravi: Ein Beitrag zur Ideengeschichte Persiens im 20 Jahrhundert), that since Safavid times, the Turks were considered the men of the sword while the Persians were considered men of the pen. This tradition makes Kasravi's values appear as another expression of Azerbaijanism. Indeed, Jung argues, Kasravi claims that the Turks have always been able to pride themselves on being better Iranians that the Persians. She quotes Kasravi's 1930's pamphlet Ma Che Mikhahim in which he says:71-72

Through the mixture of Turk and Tajik [Persian], patriotism was renewed in the dead heart of the native population... and so began again Iran and the Iranian people." He added, "With the Turks, the Iranian people obtained a powerful element and their weakness and backwardness was diminished somewhat."

It should be added, however, that Kasravi's view of the Turkic settlers in Iran was not always so sunny. In most of his works,E.g., Azari, Ya Zaban..., pp. 18-19, 24 he depicts them as tribal marauders

The final version of Kasravi's History is particularly interesting from this perspective. It includes a number of poems of (untranslated) Azeri Turkish poetry and occasional passages in (untranslated) Azerbaijani Turkish. Kasravi, usually spare in his praise of Iranian journalism, showers plaudits on Molla Nasr od-Din, an enthusiastically Azerbaijanist magazine, for which the development of Azeri Turkish into a literary idiom was a central project. His History reports without comment the efforts to fight the central government's ban on Molla Nasr od-Din, an indication that Kasravi had no deep discomfort with the circulation of Azerbaijanist literature in his country. He also had rare praise for Molla Nasr od-Din's epigones in Tabriz, which also published much of their material in Azeri Turkish.

Although it is possible to read Kasravi's History as a polemic about national unity, the issue of the Persianization of the Azerbaijanis is simply not mentioned. It is the tribal people who (with the exception of Sardar-e Asad's Bakhiaris) are identified as cutthroats, marauders, and robbers ("murdering Kurds," "pillaging Lurs," "a mojtahed who behaved like a Shahsevan," etc.). Of Kasravi's treatment of the Azerbaijanis in his History, one of his critics observed that it aroused old rivalries which had settled with the passage of time and revived Azerbaijanist sentiment, although Kasravi had himself been an apostle of Iranism and a thoroughly fanatical one at that. In our opinion, whoever would write a history of the Pishevari movement ought not forget this book and its impact. Pishevari's supporters used to use this book to confirm the legitimacy of their movement, considering themselves the successors to and heirs of the mojaheds of the dawn of constitutionalism.Mehdi Mojtahedi, Rejal-e Azarbayjan dar 'Asr-e Mashrutiat, p. 129 Although one might suspect Mojtahedi of being up to some mischief in making these comments--he was a champion of Taqizade against Kasravi's often intemperate criticism of him and the son of the Mojtahed of Tabriz, a stubborn anti-constitutionalist depicted as such in Kasravi's History of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution--he concluded these comments with a firm recommendation of this book as the best written so far.

Kasravi's understanding of Azerbaijan's special role in Iran can be seen in his language reform. It is well known that Kasravi wanted to radically Persianize Persian, purging it of "unclean" (particularly Arabic) vocabulary. It is therefore striking that Kasravi's new language was to borrow its verb structure from Turkish. According to his biography, it occurred to him while stationed in Zanjan (Azerbaijan) in the late 1920's as the government magistrate, that "Turkish is superior to Persian in its verbs. This is one of the things which alerted me to the Persian language's inadequacy and its illness."p. 176 He was to adumbrate this in his 1933 pamphlet Zaban-e Pak, in which he uses the rich and precise Turkish conjugational system as model on which to reorganize its Persian homologue.p. 28

In 1941, Russian and American troops entered Iran and deposed Reza Shah. With the end of the Second World War, the Russian forces procrastinated and backed an Azerbaijani autonomist government. In this period, Azerbaijanism raised its head after having been trampled under the boots of Reza Shah's despotism for a generation. In addition, Turkish newspapers launched claims on the loyalty of their "Turkish brothers" across the border, with Iranian newspapers launching furious counter-claims. At the urging of his friends, Kasravi, who was now hitting his stride as a prophet of a new internationalist dispensation, reluctantly took up the cudgels for Iran in an essay titled "Dastan-e Zaban Inhame Nist."Peyman, Aban 1320/1941 In another essay,"Dar bareye Azarbayjan," Peyman, Farvardin 1321/1943 he reduces reports of disturbances in Iranian Azerbaijan to the work of a few journalists who called for a nehzat-e Azarbayjan which would struggle, for example, for the right of children to be educated in Azeri Turkish. He objected to their invoking the Azerbaijani renaissance of the constitutionalist era as their model. One striking feature of this article is that, when an unnamed Azerbaijanist appealed to the idea that national unity should be based on shared aspirations (vahdat-e amal), he argues that no, it must have a racial basis. This contradicts the observations referred to above of Iran representing a mingling of (among others) Turks and Persians. His sober monograph on the ancient language of Azerbaijan chronicles the settlement of Turkish tribes in Azerbaijan under the Seljuqs and after.pp. 19-28 He was to contradict this stated belief in racial homogeneity soon later in a speech to followers published posthumously. In it, he says that "a nation (tude) of 20 million or so [Iran] separates from others and chooses a country for itself and lives there, meaning that the people join hands and make their weal and woe as one.... It is as if that 20 million gathered and all made a contract to be one in weal and woe and to form a united front in future events and support each other in making the country prosperous and secure."Mashrute, Behtarin...., p. 5 Not only is there no mention of race here, but he adds, "If one day it should happen that we should unite with Iraq, we would become compatriots with the Arabs there." A polemic also written around this time even insists that Azerbaijan had changed its racial composition: "It is indisputable that when the Turkic tribes came to Azerbaijan, they settled and mingled." Moreover, he "put no value in racial distinctions," stressing the blending of races in Iran and rejecting any idea of racial purity.""Dar Piramun Zaban-e Azarbayjan," Azar, p. 6

Despite this initial blanket rejection of Azerbaijanism, when it came down to a stand-off between the central government and Pishevari's forces, Kasravi had trouble choosing sides. Again, he shows some reluctance to return to the mundane, his belief in himself as an international prophet now being in full swing. Much of his energy was consumed in fending off the blows of the reactionary Sadr ol-Ashraf government and its allies, who were persecuting him, abetting the activities of angry mobs who attacked his followers with murderous force. However, the issue was a pressing one and he addressed it. In an article published in his magazine Mehr, although he deplored "the talk of Turk and Persian" and "ostentation by a bunch of fools," he declared all this to be "an echo of the oppression of the [rightist Fourteenth] Majlis majority and the central Tehran government's policy of bribes and threats." He warns that the central government's methods will only lead to "feelings of vengefulness which will not soon disappear." While not agreeing with the use of Azeri Turkish in the public schools and local administration in Azerbaijan or deep autonomy, he does agree with the autonomists that the provincial and district anjomans should be revived, since they would empower the local people to take charge of affairs which directly impact on their lives. These would also serve "to reduce the central government's powers (or rather, dictatorship)." Indeed, in a later speech, he would even claim that his comrades in Tabriz had been the first to recommend the revival of the Tabriz Anjoman.Dey, "Azadegan Bayad Che Konand". Even on the issue of provincial autonomy, he declares that he has no objection if some day Iranians develop the political maturity to know weal from woe and not allow themselves to become tools in the hands of foreigners. Then representatives from the provinces can gather in Tehran and consult and determine what is in the interest of the people and the country while each province would be left free in its internal affairs, with only the Foreign Ministry and the Minister of War and the Majlis being shared. But as things stand, this would only cause chaos. In this same speech, Kasravi has this to say about the Kurdish Autonomists: "In our thought, nation-forming... must be for the sake of the world's prosperity and the people's ease.... For example, if it would make the Kurds more comfortable to separate,... we must consider this a good thing and not object." He simply believes that the Kurds as they presently are would be worse off and, moreover, they would afflict others more and that foreigners would use them against the rest of Iran." The speech concludes with a stubborn attack on multilingualism as a source of division.

It should also be recalled that Kasravi shared the mid-1940's Iranian intellectual's fascination with socialism, particularly from the point of view of his new religion. In particular, he identified with the Azerbaijani Democratic Party's social agenda. "They want to improve the lot of the farmers of Iran and increase the workers' wages."Aya Fahmide Mikonand?" Azar, p. 23

On the other hand, he found nothing attractive in the central government. As mentioned, his followers were being persecuted by this government in its various incarnations, both legally and extra legally. One of Kasravi's close friends was shot dead by government troops in front of his own children in Rezaiye. This man had, significantly, thrown his lot in with Pishevari's Democrats, a decision which Kasravi deplored but accepted as an understandable act of desperation: He was a rationalist, a reformer, and a philanthrope who had been persecuted for his beliefs his entire life. He describes the government's military presence in Rezaiye in the bleakest terms, with the central government troops parading through the streets in tanks and waving machine guns in the faces of the people from morning to night. The military occupation is declared "a pure dictatorship," with "soldiers using their weapons at the slightest disturbance." It should be noted that this is Kasravi's sole depiction of life in Iranian Azerbaijan during this period. In particular, there is no attempt to depict life in autonomist Azerbaijan negatively.

Kasravi was quick to deplore the plan hatched by some "mush brains in Tehran" to sic the mullahs on the Democrats, mentioning in this connection the trip to Qom by Prime Minster Sadr ol-Ashraf. He states his belief that the Democrats can be talked out of their separatism:"Aya Fahmide Mikonand?" Azar, p. 23 "Even the Democrats will understand the damage their ideas will cause and come to regret them."

He also urged the government to be patient on the Soviet presence in Azerbaijan. He preferred to wait and see if they would be withdrawn after the Soviet's deadline,"Az Jehan va Iran," Dey, p. 3 calculating (improbably) that the Soviet Union would not risk discrediting itself before world opinion by breaking its own promise. Finally, he expresses real anxiety about how the government will handle the autonomists once their Soviet protectors leave them. Although some of this can be attributed to Kasravi's lack of faith in his compatriots' noisy anti-imperialism and a general fear of Iran getting into unequal combat with her powerful neighbors, I read this as a hidden wish that the Soviets not leave the Democrats in the lurch.

A word should be said in closing about how Kasravi's historiography is viewed in Soviet Azerbaijan. (I have no material from the post-Soviet Azerbaijan Republic on the matter.) An anthology published in 1985, Janub Azarbayjan Tarikhini Ocherki (1828-1917), includes the writings of the leading lights of Soviet Azerbaijani Iranology and so serves as a good indication of how these scholars view Kasravi. His History is used without criticism as far and away the major Iranian source for this period. Even passages which do not cite him clearly reflect his version of the history of the period. More surprising is that when a list of Iranians is given who distort Azerbaijani ethnogenesis, the name of Kasravi, who polemicized for precisely the positions the Soviet Azerbaijani scholars find so objectionable, is conspicuous by its absence.p. 9 A possible reason for this emerges when one examines the only work by Soviet Azerbaijani scholars I could locate on Kasravi: two articles by one S. Aliev. The first, Obshchestvennaya i Publitsisticheskaya Deyatel'nost' Akhmeda Kasravi Tabrizi v 1932-1946 (1958), consists of an admiring report of Kasravi's religious polemics (painting, for example, Ain, a polemic against modernism in general and Marxism and materialism in particular as a polemic against bourgeois society's abuse of technology). It strains mightily to distill a progressive essence from Kasravi's many and varied writings, its only clear objection to Kasravi's thought being to his attacks on the mystical poets, whom Soviet orientalism elevated to the status of heroic fighters against religious dogmatism (i.e., appreciates them for many of the reasons Kasravi despises them.) The next, Akhmed Kasravi Tabrizi i Problemi Istroii Iranskoi Revolyutsii 1905-1911 is more level-headed evaluation, although heavily distorted by a polemical framework. An evaluation of Kasravi's History, his anti-clericalism and attacks on the role of the landlords and the notables is appreciated, although his doubts about the ignorant masses and his playing up the role of the Tabriz merchant class meets predictable disapproval. There is no mention of his position on "the national question." The point is that Kasravi's stature in Soviet historiography was that of a "revolutionary democrat" and apparently too useful to be attacked for any misguided views on ethnogenesis. (A bibliography of Soviet Azerbaijani scholarship includes one reference to an article from the Khrushchev period on Kasravi, but I have not been able to locate it.)

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