Be precise about Iranian Arabs

Complaints from outside Iran, about its treatment of "Ahwaz Sunnis" would sound better if they had the numbers right, an Arabic pundit says. Other topics: the US in this region, and the end of Tunisia's 'fun'.

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Punditry about Iran's Arab and Sunni minorities often lacks needed rigour of facts and figures

A striking number of television pundits, newspaper columnists and Sunni clerics have strongly criticised Iran's persecution of its so-called "Ahwaz Sunni minority", according to Abdullah El Madani, a Bahraini expert on Asian affairs.

Writing for the Abu Dhabi newspaper Al Ittihad yesterday, Dr El Madani said that the term "Ahwaz Sunnis" is a misnomer that bespeaks a pan-Arab "deficiency in understanding the various demographic formations in Iran".

This deficiency is due to the fact "that only a few of our universities include research centres specialised in Iranian affairs, as opposed to the large number of Persian centres that have built up wide knowledge about everything that has to do with Gulf or Arab affairs", the author said.

Ahwaz province, which has come up a lot in recent media reports, was known as Arabistan under the Safavids and renamed Khuzestan under Reza Shah Pahlavi, who purged its Arab rulers, from the Bani Kaab tribe, in the 1920s.

The current name refers to those territories that have come under Arab rule during Islamic conquests, the author said.

"True as it may be that Arabs make up the majority of the Ahwaz population, they remain predominantly Shiites all the same," he noted. They speak the Ahwaz dialect, which is close to Iraqi Arabic. They are not Sunnis.

"This means that the Ahwaz Sunnis are, in fact, a minority, much like the Sunni minorities in Kermanshah and Loristan and in other major cities," the writer said.

"It would have been far more sensible to talk about the repression of Sunnis and violation of their basic rights in areas and provinces like Sistan and Baloshistan, Hormozgan, Gilan, Khorasan and Kurdistan."

In all these areas, Sunnis make up either a majority or a large part of the population, and they are known to be predominantly spread between the Hanafi and Shafii schools of Sunni Islam.

According to official data, 51 per cent of Iran's 73 million people are Persian, 24 per cent are Azeris and 9 per cent are Kurds, while Arabs account for just about 3 per cent of the population, El Madani said.

"But many people dispute these figures and argue that the Arabs make up as much as 8 per cent," he added.

Iran's official figures about the number of Sunnis in the country are also challengeable.

"The Iranian regime today says they make up no more than 10 per cent, while official estimates under the previous regime [of the Shah] talked about 30 per cent. In the meantime, independent sources assert that they make up more than 20 per cent," the writer said in conclusion.

Whatever the case, Arab observers must be aware of these variations when trying to defend the Sunnis of Iran.

Belaid's assassination signals the end of 'fun'

To describe a revolution as "fun" might sound shocking when hundreds of people were killed and wounded. But it is no overstatement to say that the Tunisian revolution had some sort of fun to it, wrote Mohamed Al Haddad in the London-based Al Hayat.

It was fun because the revolution restored people's ability to speak about politics and criticise politicians, after a two-decade forced silence, "as if avenging the 'years of ember' that forced them to discuss nothing except football", the writer noted.

How shocking the assassination of activist Chokri Belaid was to Tunisians can be understood only in light of that. Belaid had become a popular figure, and his forte was use of a daring, simple language that ordinary people related to.

Before the revolution, Belaid was known for defending Islamists who faced sentencing under the counterterrorism law, at a time when lawyers would shy away from such cases for fear of being accused of helping terror.

During the early social protests leading to the revolution, Belaid was in the vanguard of lawyers urging civil disobedience.

After the Islamist Ennahda party took office, he kept on levelling scathing attacks at officials, thus striking a chord with people not for his political orientation but as an icon of free, simplified and funny language.

His assassination came to warn Tunisians that the time of the funny, free words is over.

Washington must not let go of its role yet

German opposition leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently warned of the dangers of a US withdrawal from the peace process in the Middle East, during what he qualified as a struggle for the control of the Arab world.

In comment, the Dubai-based daily Al Bayan said in its editorial on Sunday: "The inflamed situation in the Arab world signals an incendiary explosion that could affect the entire region."

Turmoil in Syria has stolen the limelight from the Palestinian issue, which is heading towards a dangerous turn as a result of rapacious Israeli settlement and the stagnating peace process.

Since the ill-fated Camp David negotiations under President Bill Clinton, the US has made no serious effort to animate the peace process. Washington's sudden withdrawal from the issue gave way to successive Israeli governments expanding their settlements. All the while, the Palestinian division has grown deeper.

Washington's quasi-neutral role regarding the major changes in the Arab world in recent years doesn't serve democratic change, the paper said. Allowing so much leeway for highly organised powers that are prepared to fill the power void will eventually transform the rightful and legitimate popular revolutions in a number of countries into battles for the control of these countries.

* Digest compiled by the Translation Desk