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  • Yaghoob Foroutan

Demographic and Social Analysis of Minorities in the Islamic Republic:The Visibility Question

Bio:


Dr Yaghoob Foroutan completed PhD in Demography at The Australian National University’s

Demography & Sociology Program, Canberra, Australia. His doctoral dissertation on Muslim/Non-Muslim women's employment differentials in Australia was awarded The W. D. Borrie Essay Prize by the

Australian Population Association. He has been Post-Doctoral Fellow at The University of Waikato, New

Zealand (2010-2012), where he now holds a position as Research Associate at The University of Waikato

Islamic Studies Group, Hamilton, New Zealand. Further, he is Associate Professor of Demography at

Social Sciences Department, The University of Mazandaran, Babolsar, Iran. Dr Foroutan also holds a

position as Adjunct Member at Religion and Society Research Cluster, Western Sydney University,

Sydney, Australia.


Dr Foroutan has served as the Chair of the Scientific Group on ‘Demography of Asian Migrants and

Diasporas’ at The Asian Population Association; and as a committee member for The Society of the

Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in the USA. He also serves as Editorial Board Member of academic

journals including 2 journals in Persian language Sociology of Social Institutions (University of

Mazandaran) and Journal of Social Sciences (Ferdowsi University of Mashhad), and also 10 journals in

English language Comparative Islamic Studies; International Journal of Social Science Studies and

Technology; Today Social Science; International Journal of Social Science Studies; International Journal

of Education, Culture and Society; Humanities and Social Sciences; Cultural and Religious Studies;

International Journal of Islam; Journal of Modern Educational Research.


Dr Foroutan has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals including Journal of Population

Research; Current Sociology; British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies; New Zealand Sociology; Journal

of Muslim Minority Affairs; International Migration Review; Journal of Beliefs & Values: Studies in

Religion &Education, etc. In 2022, Dr Foroutan has also been recognized amongst the World’s Top 2%

Scientists 2022, detailed here in this link: https://elsevier.digitalcommonsdata.com/datasets/btchxktzyw/4


Abstract:


The starting point of this study is the Huntington’s (1996) notion arguing that western ethno-

religious minorities in the Islamic states are more discriminated against than Islamic minorities in

western states. While the status of Muslim minorities in the western settings has been almost

sufficiently studied, there is still little in the existing literature to explore the status of religious

minorities in the Islamic settings. The present study has contributed to filling this research gap.

The field of this study is the Islamic Republic of Iran which holds the world’s largest Shi’a

Muslim population. It is also the home for some religious minorities including Sunnis, Christians,

Jews, and Zoroastrians. This study has revealed how these religious minorities are represented by

the educational system in this Islamic setting on which the authorities have had an absolute power

particularly upon the 1978 Islamic Revolution when the western-oriented Shah monarchy was

replaced by an Islamic regime. In sum, the research findings of this study focusing on educational

resources identified not only as ‘opportunity’ and ‘reform’ but also as ‘a tool of democracy’

(UNESCO 2004) emphasize the underlying conclusion that this Islamic setting still has a long

way to go in order to meet democratically the minorities’ visibility from a socio-demographic

perspective.


Key words:


minorities, visibility question, representation, ethno-religious minorities, Huntington,

Islamic republic of Iran, socio-demographic perspective.


Introduction and Literature:


The underlying idea to build up the framework of this study came from Huntington’s (1996)

notion arguing that western ethno-religious minorities in the Islamic states are more discriminated

against than Islamic minorities in western states. Is he really right? In fact, this question mark has

become the starting point for the present study. The status of Muslim minorities in the western and

non-Islamic settings has received overwhelming attention by researches as there is a large body of

literature with specific focus on this part of the coin. How about the other side of the coin? In fact,

there is still little in the existing literature to give specific attention to the status of religious

minorities in the Islamic settings and further studies are required to provide research-based

evidence to deal with this research gap.

As discussed in the next section, the field of the present study is the Muslim-majority country of

Iran. It is worthwhile to state that another Muslim-majority country in which religious minorities

have received a relatively considerable attention in the existing literature is Pakistan. For instance,

in a recent study on Religious Minorities in Pakistan, Fuchs and Fuchs (2020: 67) have

documented that “minority identities by their very existence complicate debates about the place of

religious difference in a liberal political framework, and challenge processes of nation-building

that primarily or even just rhetorically rely on narratives of religious belonging”. In addition, there

are a few other studies in the existing literature focusing on religious minorities in the Islamic

settings including a comparative study of demographic, social and economic data on Muslim

minority and majority countries (Abedin 1989), a study on non-Muslims in the Islamic state:

Majority rule and minority rights (Berween 2006), and another study on non‐Muslim minorities in

an Islamic state (Rahman 2007). According to these studies in the existing literature, although an

Islamic model has been argued as ideal for governing multi-religious, multi-cultural, and multi-

ideological societies in terms of the principles of majority rule and minority rights, this still

remain as the ultimate question: who should govern? and how? (Berween 2006:91). In a more

recent study on Religious Freedom in Pakistan: A Case Study of Religious Minorities, (Mehfooz

2021), while it has been found that both the Constitution of Pakistan and Islam guarantee religious

freedom to the country’s religious minorities, still some Muslim clerics seem to be attempting to

deny religious freedom to other faiths in Pakistan. However, the existing literature still lacks

substantially fresh research finding to address the place of religious minorities in the Muslim-

majority contexts with specific reference to the role of the Islamic authorities’ official

mechanisms such as educational system, religious institutions, state’s communications channels of

Radio, TV, newspapers, etc. Accordingly, the present study is responding to this scientific call and

contributes to filling this research gap in the existing literature and contemporary knowledge.


Theoretical Backgrounds


This paper presents research-based evidence about the association between educational

institutions and religious socialization with specific reference to the representation of religious

minorities in the Islamic state through its educational system. According to social scientists and

sociologists, the process of socialization is employed in order to protect social unity and group

superiority. Berger (1967, 126), for instance, asserted that “the modern world is defined by large

numbers of groups competing with each other for control over the process of socialization”. In

more recent years, the process of socialization has been recognized as a “strategy” which a society

or a group employs in order “to transform the characteristics of the newcomers, so that it can

admit them with the confidence that their behaviour will not endanger group unity” (Plus 2007,

253). It has also been documented in the literature that the important influence of family on the

religious socialization of children is closely associated with the official education of schools

because religious socialization is “a process of education”. More specifically, the key role of

educational institutions, in particular school and its educational materials, has been substantially

emphasized in the socialization theory (e.g., Britton and Lumpkin 1977; Arbuthnot 1984; Bender

and Leone 1989; Taylor 2003; Lee and Collins 2008, 2009; Foroutan 2012, 2021). For instance, it

has been theorized that children’s “social self” is shaped by language and interaction (Mead

1934).

Moreover, the literature identifies the educational system as the first official agent and one of the

most powerful engines of socialization (see Britton and Lumpkin 1977; Arbuthnot 1984; Bender

and Leone 1989; Taylor 2003; Lee and Collins 2008, Foroutan 2017, 2019). Since educational

textbooks “present a microcosm of ideologies, values, and beliefs from the dominant culture”

(Taylor 2003, 301), it is important to know how various religious minorities are represented in

these vital sources and whether our children are democratically socialized towards religious

minorities through these official educational materials. These research questions are particularly

relevant for the present research because it took place in an Islamic setting where religion

traditionally plays a critical role in society and Islam dominates as the state religion detailed in the

following section.


Research Questions


This section specifies more clearly the key research questions considered to be focused and

examined in the present analysis. Accordingly, the research questions are detailed below:

- The starting research question of this analysis, as noted before, relies on Huntington’s

(1996) notion arguing that western ethno-religious minorities in the Islamic states are more

discriminated against than Islamic minorities in western states. Is this really right on the

basis of the new and fresh research-based evidence?

- While Muslim minorities in the western and non-Islamic contexts have been sufficiently

studied, how about the other side of the coin? In other words, how have religious

minorities been treated and represented in the Islamic settings?

- More specifically, due to the vital role of educational system on socialization process from

childhood, it is crucially important to explore: (1) whether and how well are our children

democratically socialized towards religious minorities? (2) How various religious

minorities are treated and represented in the educational system of the Islamic authorities?

Moreover, it is worthwhile to emphasis the fact that the research questions highlighted above tend

to be overwhelmingly more important and appropriate to be addressed and examined in the

context of this field of study. This is due to the fact that the present research takes place in an

Islamic setting where not only religion traditionally plays a critical role in the society and Islam

dominates as the state religion, but also because the socialization mechanisms particularly

education system are substantially influenced and operated by the Islamic authorities upon the

1979 Islamic Revolution, as detailed in the following section.


The Field of Study


The field of this study is the Islamic Republic of Iran which is largely a Muslim-dominated

country and holds the largest Shi’a Muslim population in the world. Its major religious minorities

include Sunni, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. Table 1 presents Iran’s population by religious

affiliation in 2011 and the latest census in 2016. In addition, the present analysis focuses on its

educational resources that are recognized as the first official agent of and one of the most

powerful engines of socialization process. The educational system of Iranian schools comprises of

three major levels and covers eleven grades: five for primary schools and three each for

intermediate and high schools (see Table 2).

It is vitally important to note that these educational resources are usually the sole materials of

schools and The Ministry of Education (TME) has the authority and supervision over the whole

process of producing these textbooks. This process begins from the selection and appointment of

the textbooks; authors to the publication and distribution of the textbooks throughout the country.

Moreover, the TEM has the authority, partly through its screening committee (so-called Edarehe

Ghozinesh) to make decisions regarding the recruitment of teachers. These two strategies (i.e. the

authority and supervision both on textbooks; authors and on school teachers) are mainly taken in

order to ensure that the state's religious considerations and preferences are properly met by the

educational system.

Furthermore, religion traditionally has played a vital role in the Iranian society. However, since

the 1979 Islamic Revolution in particular, the country has been entirely governed by an Islamic

regime that has enforced the dominance of religion. In turn, the dominance of religion has been

entirely represented and reflected by the educational system. For instance, other studies conducted

in this Islamic context (Foroutan 2012, 2019, 2020) have revealed that the most prevalent finding

was the ubiquitous presence of the terms “religion” and “God” throughout the educational

materials. This was a dominant observation in both “religious” and “other” textbooks of all school

levels (that is, primary, intermediate, high school levels). Similar results demonstrated the

predominance of religious names in the textbooks examined. Although this was expected in the

“religious textbooks”, it was also evident in “other textbooks,” in which more than half of all

names are of a religious nature (Foroutan 2017, 2021). As a result, all of the issues discussed

briefly above echo the key fact that not only do these educational materials have the potential to

play an exceptional role in children’s socialization process, but more importantly they provide an

opportunity through which the states interpretations on a wide range of important issues,

including minorities issues, can be explored. As such exploration is the underlying aim of the

present study.



Research Data


As briefly mentioned before, the research evidence of this paper is based on a study focusing on

the educational system of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The educational system of Iranian schools

comprises of three major levels: Primary, Intermediate, and High schools. In both Primary and

Intermediate levels, all textbooks have been included in this analysis: containing 36 and 37

textbooks respectively (n=N). In the level of High school, since there are various disciplines

consisting of a wide range of textbooks, a sample of textbooks in this level was selected. The

sample includes 19 textbooks which are commonly used in various disciplines of High school.

Accordingly, this analysis includes, in total, 92 textbooks. It is critically important to stress the

fact that these school-textbooks are substantially widespread as standard and compulsory

educational resources and are used in all schools throughout the country. This evidently echoes

the exceptional role that these educational materials can potentially play in the socialization

process. Due to the central focus of this paper on religion, the textbooks in this analysis have been

classified into two major categories: ‘religious textbooks’, and ‘other textbooks’. The former

includes textbooks entitled ‘Religious Education’ (Talimate Dini), ‘Holy Gifts’ (Hedyehaye

Asmani), Religion and Life (Din va Zendegi), and ‘Teaching Quran’ (Amozeshe Ghoran). The

latter refers to all other textbooks included in this analysis. Table 2 provides detailed information

on the title and number of these school-textbooks by school levels included in the present

analysis. Appendix 1 provides further details regarding the title and number of the textbooks by

school levels (i.e. Primary, Intermediate, and High schools).



Research Method


Methodologically, this study uses the method of content analysis, which has been identified as a

strategy for collecting and analyzing qualitative data through the use of an objective coding

scheme (Berg 2001; Taylor 2003). The method of content analysis can be used in two ways: latent

content and manifest content. The former is mainly based on the interpretive reading of the

researcher who attempts to understand ‘the symbolic meaning of the data in order to uncover its

deep structural meaning’ (Taylor 2003: 303). The latter refers to the visible and countable

elements in the books or other instruments of social communication (such as television, radio, and

cinema); for instance, pictures and names of men and women or images identifying gender roles,

which are countable as they are physically present in the books.

The present study uses the manifest content analysis method. It is worthwhile to mention that the

important impact of pictures in textbooks has been documented in previous studies. As Low and

Sherrard (1999:311) explained, this importance lies in the fact that ‘readers assume that they

[photographs] are objective slices of reality, thus giving the photographs authority and allure...

Photographs can thus carry connotations, be they intentional or not, never stated in the text’. This

tends to be more applicable to younger audiences. Accordingly, this methodological advantage

has been considered in the present analysis which deals with children and students in school-ages.


Research Findings


This section highlights the major results of this study which are based on several research

strategies in order to approach its key objectives outlined above. Giving specific focus to the

characteristics associated with the religion of Islam, this discussion includes the following

religious characteristics: the world’s major religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism), Prophets

(Prophet Mohammad and other Prophets), Holy books (Quran and other holy books), and Islamic

sects (Shiite and Sunni). Further, the representation of these main religious characteristics will be

discussed in terms of two major types of books (‘religious textbooks’ and ‘other textbooks’),

educational grades, and school levels (Primary, Intermediate, and High school). The discussion of

this section is based on the results of this analysis illustrated in Figures 1, 2, and 3.


1. Main Religions: Islam, Christianity, Judaism


The discussion on the findings of this research strategy begins with the representation of the three

major religions in the school-textbooks of this study: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism (it should

be mentioned that this analysis also includes other relevant words for each of these religions such

as Islamic, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish and so on). Before moving forward to highlight these

research findings, it is worthwhile to mention that according to the latest population census of Iran

in 2016, there are 130,158 Christians and 9,826 Jewish in Iran. Table 1 provides further details

regarding the religious affiliation of population in Iran in 2011 and 2016. The Constitution of the

Islamic Republic of Iran recognizes religious minorities such as Christians and Jewish (as well as

Zoroastrians and Sunnis). How these religions have been represented in the educational resources

of this Islamic setting? The results of this analysis illustrated in Figure 1 show that the words

related to the ‘religion of Islam’ are overwhelmingly more represented than those related to the

‘religions of Christianity and Judaism’: 96 per cent and 4 per cent, respectively. This pattern

applies both to ‘religious textbooks’ and to ‘other textbooks’. This means that the presence of the

religion of Islam, relative to the two other religions, throughout all textbooks is so substantial that

the differences related to the representation of the religion of Islam in these two main sorts of

textbooks are negligible.


2. Main Islamic Sects: Shiite and Sunni


In addition, the results of this analysis illustrated in Figure 1 indicate how frequently the two

major sects of Islam (Shiite and Sunni) have been represented in the textbooks. According to this

Figure, of total frequency of these two Islamic sects in the textbooks, about a quarter is allocated

to Sunni and the remaining majority to Shiite. While the substantial dominance of Shiite remains

across all the textbooks, the dominance varies in ‘religious textbooks’ and ‘other textbooks’:

approximately 75 and 95 per cent, respectively.




3. The Prophet Mohammad and Other Prophets


The results of this analysis illustrated in Figure 1 also show that the Prophets have been evidently

represented in different ways. According to this Figure, of total frequency stating the names of

prophets in the textbooks, more than half is devoted to Prophet Mohammad (60 per cent) and the

remaining is allocated to all other Prophets. Further results of this analysis regarding the

representation of Prophets are indicated in Figure 2. Here, Prophets are classified into three

categories: 'Prophet Mohammad', 'Other Messengers' , and 'Other Prophets'. It should be noted that' Messengers' (Rasul or Ule al Azm) refers to five special Prophets who have been sent holy books,

which include the Prophets Nuh (Noah), Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad. The first four

are considered as 'Other Messengers' in this analysis. 'Other Prophets' refers to all other Prophets

(so-called 'Nabi') to whom holy book has not been sent. This, for example, includes such Prophets

as Aaron (Haroon), Ismael, Yusuf (Joseph), and Yaghoob (Jacob). Figure 2 shows the results of

this analysis regarding the representation of Prophets by educational grades and school levels. It is

evident that the representation is closely associated with educational grades. This tends to be a

more evident observation in Primary school-textbooks in which there is a reverse relation between

the dominance degree of the representation of Prophet Mohammad in the textbooks and

educational grades: the lower the educational grade, the greater the dominance degree. For

example, the proportion allocated to Prophet Mohammad in the textbooks Grade 1 is twice greater

than the corresponding proportion in textbooks Grad 5 (about 84 and 40 per cent, respectively).

However, this pattern does not entirely apply to the textbooks of higher school levels. In

particular, a varying pattern exists in the textbooks of High school level in which the presence of

Prophet Mohammad becomes increasingly more evident as educational grades goes up.




4. Holy-book of Quran and Other Holy-books


Moreover, the results of this analysis regarding the representation of the holy book of Quran and

other holy books are shown in Figure 3. It illustrates the percentage distribution of the names of

the holy books stated in the textbooks of this analysis by school levels (Primary, Intermediate, and

High school). Generally speaking, the most visible pattern relates to the substantial dominance of

the holy book of Quran which applies to the textbooks of all school levels. It is also evidently a

predominant pattern in both ‘religious textbooks’ and ‘other textbooks’. For example, of total

frequency of representation of the names of holy books in the textbooks of Intermediate school

level, more than 96 per cent are allocated to the holy book of Quran and the remaining 4 per cent

to all other holy books. The corresponding proportion in the textbooks of High school level is

more than 92 per cent for Quran and the remaining 8 per cent for all other holy books. Further,

this substantial dominance of the holy book of Quran relative to all other holy books exists in both

‘religious textbooks’ and ‘other textbooks’ of Primary school level. This observation is more

important to be stressed in the ‘religious textbooks’ of Primary school: one the one hand,

interestingly, the title of these textbooks is Hedyehaye Asmani (Holy Gifts). On the other hand,

the word of ‘Quran’ has been frequently mentioned in these textbooks (that is, about 238 times)

and other holy books are almost absent in these textbooks. This casts doubt on the compatibility

between the title and content of these particular textbooks.


Concluding Remarks


The starting point of this study has been Huntington’s (1996) notion arguing that western ethno-

religious minorities in the Islamic states are more discriminated against than Islamic minorities in

western states. While the status of Muslim minorities in the western settings has been almost

substantially studied, there is still little in the existing literature to explore the status of religious

minorities in the Islamic settings. The present study has contributed to filling this research gap.

The field of this study is the Islamic Republic of Iran which holds the world’s largest Shi’a

Muslim population. It is also the home for some religious minorities including Sunnis, Christians,

Jews, and Zoroastrians. This study has revealed how these minorities are represented by the

educational system in this Islamic setting. It is worthwhile restating that educational system has

been recognized as the first official agent of and one of the most powerful engines of socialization

process from childhood and school-ages. More importantly, the educational resources of this

study are the sole school materials throughout the country on which the Islamic authorities have

an absolute influence particularly upon the 1978 Islamic Revolution when the western-oriented

Shah monarchy was replaced by an Islamic regime whose power has been increasingly dominated

across the country including its educational system.

The results of this study have clearly indicated an overwhelming invisibility and under-

representation of the minorities. This suggests that not only the religion of Islam and Shi’a

Muslims (compared to other religious minorities including Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and

Sunnis), but also the main characteristics related to the religion of Islam including Prophet

Mohammad and the Holy book of Quran (relative to other Prophets and Holy books) have been

overwhelmingly more represented in the educational resources. These forms of dominance are

partly understandable in a country in which Muslims and Shiite are markedly its predominant

populations. However, it should be also considered that the magnitude of the invisibility and

under-representation of these minorities is substantially high. For instance, while the religious

textbooks of Primary school are entitled ‘Holy Gifts’ (Hedyehaye Asmani), the holy books other

than Quran are almost invisible and disappeared in these educational resources. These sorts of

overwhelming invisibility, under-representation, imbalance, and incompatibility affect

significantly the democratic process of socialization from childhood.

The effects of such a representation and socialization process through the official mechanisms like

educational institution and whether and how effectively it has been socially perceived are another

story that stand outside of the scope of the present study and have been considered and discussed

in other studies (Foroutan 2021, 2022). Despite whether and how effectively such a representation

and socialization process through the official mechanisms has been accepted by individuals in the

society, two key points cannot be ignored. First, this educational system is an official body of the

Islamic authorities which has an exceptional power and absolute influence throughout the country.

In particular, it deals with audience in childhood and juveniles in school-ages when their identity

and personality are shaping. As a result, whatever they learn from and however they were dealt by

this official mechanism will more or less remain with them and will somehow affect their

knowledge and behavior for the rest of their life in future. Second, the focus on such an official

mechanism provides a good opportunity for us in order to unlock and to shed further lights on the

official reading and interpretation of the authorities about the issues under study which is here the

issue of minorities’ visibility. Accordingly, the results of such studies also reveal that how

minorities have been perceived by the states and authorities. This particularly applies to the states

like the Islamic setting of the present study that have an absolute power and entire influence over

such representation and socialization mechanisms as educational institution throughout the

country.

In conclusion, it is acknowledged that since the field of this study is a Muslim-majority and Shi’a-

dominated country, the general patterns explored in this study confirming the dominance of the

religion of Islam (compared to other religions including Christianity, Judaism as well as

Zoroastrians, etc.), the dominance of the Islamic Prophet of Mohammad (compared to other

Prophets including the Prophets Abraham, Jesus, Moses, Nuh or Noah, etc.), the dominance of the

Islamic Holy book of Quran (compared to other holy books including the holy books of Bible,

Injil, Torah, etc.), and the dominance of the Islamic sect of Shi’a (compared to other major

Islamic sect of Sunni) can be expected as normal patterns and a matter of no surprise. Moreover,

such a dominance of the majorities’ ideology and power relations has been documented in the

prior studies termed as ‘eloquent silence of ideology’ (Eaglenton 1976), ‘imagined communities’

(Anderson 1991), the ‘political hand of state textbook-adoption policies’ (Apple 1992), and

‘ideological bombardment’ (Arnot 2002, Foroutan 2021). However, the vitally important point to

be taken into account here is the magnitude of the majorities’ presence and dominance, as

compared to the others (i.e. minorities): the minorities are almost invisible as observed in this

analysis and discussed in this paper. This substantially high magnitude of invisibility and

overwhelming under-representation of minorities damages significantly the nation’s appropriate

socialization process from childhood.

As a result, such an inappropriate experience of childhood can also harm considerably their

attitudes and behaviors on the acceptance and tolerance of school-ages children towards

minorities while they grown up enough in their adulthood throughout life span. These are the

main reasons why minorities irrespective of their number and population size are also expected to

be properly treated and visibly represented through socialization mechanisms particularly

educational resources from childhood. This particularly applies to countries such as the

contemporary Iran due to their specific demographics including a substantially increasing

proportion of children and younger populations (Foroutan 2019, 2022) whose potential aspirations

for modernity are fuelled by the wide-spreading access to the global modern communications

technologies and social media of the contemporary world. In sum, the research findings of this

study focusing on educational resources identified not only as ‘opportunity’ and ‘reform’ but also

as ‘a tool of democracy’ (UNESCO 2004) emphasize the underlying conclusion that this Islamic

setting still has a long way to go in order to meet democratically the ethno-religious minorities’

representation and visibility from a socio-demographic perspective.



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Bio: Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah holds a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Wales, UK and an M. A. (Hons) in Islamic Studies with specialization in Comparative Religions from the

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