Iran Roundtable

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Sunni Muslims’ Tale of Grievances in Iran

The Municipal authorities of Iran’s capital city, Tehran, closed and sealed off the only prayer house – not a mosque – for Sunni Muslims in Tehran, Kurdpa News Agency reported. 

The Municipality acted on the closure a week after the Greater Tehran Police barred the Sunni worshipers from entering this Sunni prayer site in Tehran on January 9, 2015, preventing them from holding congregational Friday prayers. 

Of the 12 million Tehran province population, approximately 1 million are Sunni Muslim, making up roughly 10% of the province’s population. However, the Sunni community in Tehran is prohibited to have a separate mosque of its own. They often gather for prayers in unofficial ‘prayer houses’. Nonetheless, according to human rights organizations, the authorities and security officials impose restrictions on their gatherings for prayers on Fridays and significant religious holidays. 

Iranian authorities claim that there are no Shia or Sunni mosques, but all are houses of God. They claim that in the areas where Sunnis are the majority, the Shias are not allowed to make their separate mosques. Instead, they may pray behind the Sunni Imam, and vice versa, to show their ‘unity’. Yet, Shia mosques are widely built in Sunni-majority areas, where there are a few or no Sunni mosques in the Shia-majority areas of Iran, as in Tehran. 

Despite the lack of precise and official statistics on the population of religious minorities and nationalities in Iran, the Sunnis population is estimated to be between 10 – 18 million of the total population. Iran’s total population stands at about 77 million (2013), putting the Sunni population at 13 – 23 per cent of the total population, with Kurds, Baluchis, Arabs and Turkmens composing the majority of Sunni population in Iran. 

Sunnis in Iran are not recognized in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, denying them of equal status and rights in line with Shias, the regime’s official religion. “Iran’s Sunnis should be allowed to practice their faith freely, as do their Shia counterparts”, said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East Director at the Human Rights Watch. 

In a recent report by the Financial Times correspondent in Iran about Iran’s disgruntled Sunni Muslims, Hassan Amini, a dissident Sunni cleric who lives in Iran’s Kurdistan province, notes “that Sunni worshippers must listen to sermons by imams appointed by Shia rulers in faraway Tehran, a reminder that they cannot choose their own religious leaders or run their own religious schools”. 

Prior to the advent of Safavid Empire in the early 16th century, Sunni branch of Islam was widely practiced and preached throughout Iran. Shah Ismail Safavi adopted Shia as the official religion of his Safavid Kingdom and started a forced policy of conversion from Sunni to the Twelfth Imam Shia that continues to this date under the Shia regime of Islamic Republic. 

Such policies of religious discrimination and forced conversion has been fuelling disgruntlement, adding to fears that the Sunnis in Iran could also become prey to the extremism espoused by the Sunni extremist groups such Islamic State of Iraq and Syria(ISIS), which has swept across the Sunni heartlands. Scores of Sunni extremists from Iran have also joined the ranks of ISIS and other Sunni extremist groups. There were reports that ISIS flag was seen raised in major Kurdish cities of Iran by Salafi militants. 

An allegation that Mr. Amini shrugs off, that “Even in Kurdistan province, ISIS has no following even though about 90 per cent of the population is Sunni and many feel discriminated against for both their religion and their Kurdish ethnicity in a country dominated by Shia Persians”. 

Aside from countless impediments to freely practice their brand of Islam, the Sunnis are barred from holding mid to high level positions within the state apparatus. Despite the large population, no Sunni has ever held high parliamentary, ministerial or judicial positions in the last 35 years. They are also not to be trusted to hold security and military positions. 

Mohammad Hussein Gorgi, a Sunni imam of Azadshahr in northern Iran, complained of the discriminatory policies against Sunnis in an interview with Al Jazeera: “Until now, in the ministries and embassies of the Islamic Republic’s government, no Sunnis are employed, and they haven’t taken any important positions like governor or administrator… it doesn’t mean that there’s no competent, principled or resourceful people among Sunnis. Rather, it shows the lack of trust towards them.” 

As part of his election pledge to win support and popularity among non-Persian and non-Shias voters in Iran, Hassan Rouhani promised greater rights and opportunities for non-Persians and non-Shias, once elected. Failing to accommodate the Sunnis’ demand for cabinet or governorship positions, Rouhani established a portfolio within the President’s office. He appointed Hojjatoleslam Ali Younesi, a Shia-Persian clergy as a Special Assistant to the Presidency on ethnic and religious matters. Even this position and the appointment seem to suggest that Rouhani is as suspicious and distrustful of the non-Shias as his predecessors. 

Younesi, nicknamed Edrisi in the regime intelligence circles had long served as a judge and prosecutor sending hundreds of dissidents to gallows and death rows in the 1980s. He also served as Mohammad Khatami’s Intelligence Minister in late 1990s until his tenure in office as a reformist President in 2005, a sensitive government position often reserved for die-hard clerics and regime faithful. 

Younesi’s appointment and the creation of the advisory position reflects the long-held sentiment that no non-Shia should ever be allowed to hold key positions, including this symbolic advisory position that is supposedly meant to address the grievances of the non-Shia constituents. 

Furthermore, it is a reminder that the deceitful history of this regime tells us that no meaningful reforms and changes can be expected for as long as this regime remains intact, and the deprived and excluded communities including Sunnis are treated as beggars waiting for the regime to fulfill some petty promises made and meant only to lure them to the ballot boxes.

BY: Sharif Behruz