The changing of place names (toponyms) that have indigenous origins, is inextricably linked to a variety of political and cultural factors in some countries. The Iranian regime’s long-term efforts in shaping a national identity are the prominent motivation behind the name changes in the non-Persian region of Azerbaijan in north-western Iran, which includes the largest ethnic minority group of about 30 million Turks.
The lack of feeling of belonging to the Persian identity amongst the non-Persian ethnic groups with a different language, culture and values, which set them apart from Persians, has often been the most significant obstacle to establish a common identity. This post addresses the interplay between the renaming of suburbs, towns, villages, districts, streets, and provinces in north-western Iran and the eradication of the ethnic identity of Turkic minorities, where they have often been denied the right to education in their mother language over the past 90 years.
The place names with indigenous origins create the identity of a place and its indigenous people. In that sense, place names must be written in compliance with established rules of linguistic correctness, and established place names may not be changed without compelling reasons.
The changing of geographical names in multicultural and diverse societies has been used as a way to enforce the assimilation and unify the identity of citizens with different languages and cultures. The most prominent example is the ‘Bulgarianization’ process in Bulgaria in early 1971, where the Bulgarian Communist Party, the ruling party of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, enforced the assimilation of the entire Turkish population to establish a unified socialist nation.
This is a process that is at the intersection of representations of the indigenous people of the place in question, in terms of their ethnic identity. Every place name is associated with the historical and cultural-social conditions and in place to form the identity of the nation, including unique distinctions in the culture of an ethnic community. This indicates a direct linkage between indigenous place renaming, and the creation of a new identity of the place as a vital part of nation-building.
The Iranian regime has often made solid efforts to eradicate ethnic identities with the aim of establishing a Persian identity as the national identity of the Iranians. These efforts have manifested themselves in the attempted assimilation of minority cultures and languages, repression of regional demands for self-governance, and periodic episodes of armed conflict over the years.
Arguments about national belonging and racial and ethnic differences have become increasingly prominent in Iran over the past 100 years. The 100 years of efforts to change of place names, particularly in the Turkic speaking regions, to Persian names is a way to eradicate the identity of these places and their inhabitants in northern Iran. What is clear is that such a state practice would intensify divisions within the Iranian society in its entirety. Given that the geographical place names reflect the languages spoken in the place and region in question, the derivation of these names importantly signifies the languages and history behind these names which form the place’s culture and intangible heritage.
Intangible heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalisation, which indicates traditions or living expressions inherited from people’s ancestors and passed on to their descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts. Due to the origins and motivations of geographical names it is possible to establish relations with the cultural, social, political, economic and natural aspects of the area they refer to, given that the original names of places present the intangible cultural heritage inherent in the place they identify.
Creation of a common Persian identity has been an objective that the Iranian regime is geared to achieve by renaming the non-Persian geographical places. However, the non-Persian ethnic groups have often striven to preserve their identity through defending the geographical names. What is clear however is the indigenous people’s reluctance to the formation of a national unity and national identity. Changing the original names of places is a manifestation of a greater dissent of non-Persian ethnic groups from being part of Persian identity.
It is important to note that the toponyms are the key elements of the ethnic and political identity of an area since they define the place as a territorial unit in all aspects, including culture, language, etc. In the multicultural and multilingual society of Iran, in which Persians as the ruling ethnic group are granted democratic rights, and other ethnic groups are deprived of them. Importantly, the non-Persians have often been dissatisfied due the discriminatory practice of the Iranian regime in the application of the Iranian Constitution. More importantly, Article 15 of the Constitution which has never been enforced in practice. It reads:
“use of regional and ethnic languages in the press, the mass media, and the teaching of their literature at schools, alongside the Persian language [as the official language of Iran], is freely permitted”
Meanwhile, it has led to the return of nationalism within Persian identity, which serves to ignore minority ethnic languages, through which those minorities transmit and express their culture and values. Having said this, the changing of the name of non-Persian places to Persian is not only to support the re-interpretation of history of these places and their inhabitants but also to impose a clear-cut ethnic profile on it.
It is important to note that geographical names, as part of the intangible cultural heritage in a society, are also a major part of the language of the local people of that society. As subject to a violation by a state of its cultural heritage obligation, therefore, the Iranian regime’s approach to identity and language of the non-Persian places clearly would give rise to ethnic divisions and conflicts in Iranian society. This is while promoting tolerance of, and respect for, diversity and ethnic identities would contribute to democratic nation-building in the multicultural and diverse society of Iran rather than the subjective and unrealistic history about a divisive past and a common memory based on Persian language and identity.