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Iran: the people

Our guide to the Iranian population.

The disputed election in June 2009 brought Iranians on to the street in scenes that some compared to the 1979 revolution. However, Iranian society is far from a homogenous entity with its mosaic of different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups.

Ethnic pluralism

Of Iran's 74 million population, estimates on the proportion that is ethnically Persian ranges from between 51 to 65 per cent. Although "Persian" is a somewhat controversial term with a range of different historical applications, it became synonymous with "Iranian" in 1935 when Reza Shah Pahlavi insisted foreign correspondents referred to the country solely as Iran. As such, "Persian" generally refers to those who use Farsi as their mother tongue.

There are a range of minority ethnic groups in Iran, the largest of which is the Azeri community, which accounts for around 24 per cent of the population. While Azeri culture has not been completely suppressed in Iran, there have been accusations that restrictions have been placed on their language and culture. Iran has been accused of anti-Azeri propaganda through its Azeri-language Sahar TV, which is alleged to have depicted Azerbaijan as Zionist due to its commercial ties with Israel.

The Mazandarani, and the linguistically similar Gilakis, are from northern Iran and account for eight per cent of the population, largely based on the shores of the Caspian. Unlike some ethnic and linguistic groups, they enjoy a peaceful coexistence with the Persian majority. Famous Iranians of Manzandarani descent include Reza Shah Pahlavi and the current elected speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani.

Armenians, Kurds and Balochs

The Kurds are one of the most maligned ethnic groups in the history of the Middle East, however their story has been somewhat brighter in Iran, where they account for seven per cent of the population, than in neighbouring Iraq or Turkey. The Iranian constitution recognises the Kurdish language and their status as ethnic minorities, however there is no regional autonomy as some demand. The new found confidence of Iraqi Kurds is problematic for Tehran, and the past years have seen clashes and insecurity escalate. Most notably with the disputed murder of Shivan Qaderi and the incarceration of Roya Toloui.

Armenians have suffered a similarly awful fate but like the Kurds they have faired relatively well in comparison to their Turkish compatriots. Armenians form the bulk of the Christian population in Iran and are allowed their own clubs and schools. Further, Armenians are the only minority group granted official observing status in the Guardian and Expediency Councils.

Iranian Armenian worshippers walk past by the historic Qareh Kelisa (black church) during a religious festival in Qareh Kelisa village, northwest of Iran. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.

The Arab population accounts for around three per cent of the Iranian population and is based along Iran's border with Iraq and the shore of the Persian Gulf. The majority of Arabs are not thought to have a secessionist agenda and many fought against Iraq in the eight-year war. It is a legal requirement to teach Arabic due to its religious significance.

The remainder of the population are comprised of Lurs, Turkmen and Balochs. The Balochs, based on the border with Pakistan, are arguably the greatest cause for concern in Tehran. Jundallah is an ethnically Baloch and violent Sunni group, which claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb that killed seven Revolutionary Guards in October 2009. It has been designated a terrorist organisation by Iran but the unwillingness of the US to recognise the group as such has caused consternation in Tehran. Jundallah, along with Baloch nationalism generally, are alleged to be covertly encouraged, supported by the US.

Iranians carry the coffin of General Nur-Ali Shushtari, deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards ground forces, killed by a Jundallah suicide bomber in October 20, 2009. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.

Shia dominance

As the NS noted in our previous edition on Islam, 13 per cent of Muslims are Shia. Iran has the largest Shia population in the world, with approximately 90 per cent of its population following the faith. Of the Shia population the vast majority are Twelver Shia, the official religion of Iran. Sunnis account for around 8 per cent of the population and are predominantly ethnic Balochs, Kurds and Turkmen. Along with Islam the Islamic Republic's constitution protects and recognises the status of Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians.

The Jewish and Zoroastrian community are both guaranteed a seat in the Majlis, while Armenians (the majority of the Christian population) are guaranteed two. The Jewish community appears to fair better than the Christian community, particularly the Protestant community, which has been viewed with suspicion as a "western" import. It is interesting to note that many Iranian Jews have resisted the overtures of Israel and have stayed put, while the Parsi population in India are descendants of Iranian Zoroastrians.

Iranian Jewish MP Siamak Morsadegh checks a message on his mobile during a speech by defence minister Ahmad Vahidi. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.

The Baha'i faith is not recognised by the Iranian government and followers have been routinely marginalised and persecuted by the state and Islamic religious authorities since its inception in the nineteenth century. Since 1979, Baha'is have been banned from holding public office and have been incarcerated for their beliefs. Further arrests and trials of Baha'is have been reported this month.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood