By Ali Rıza Gafuri
Historically, Iran had been virtually Sunni, with small minorities of Shiites only in some cities, until the 16th century when the Turkish-Sunni Safavid dynasty, ruling over the Iranian region, changed its sect to become Shiite due to political considerations.
Later, it emerged as a rival to the Ottoman Empire and became known as the “Islamic community that does not join the Holy War (Jihad).” After the 16th century, the Sunni community in Iran had to move toward and even beyond the borders as a result of pressure and oppression. Today, about 2 million Sunni Turkmen live along Iran’s common border with Turkmenistan, 4 million Sunni Baluchs live near the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, several million Sunni Arabs live on the coasts of the Persian Gulf, about 7 million Sunni Kurds, Sanandaj Sunnis, Kermanshah and Hamadan Sunnis, about 500,000 Sunni Turks and several thousand Sunni Turks live in Talesh and Astara; all suffer from serious repression.
Iran’s inner opposition is always troubled with its own specific problems, and they don’t care about the problems of Sunnis. Any interest in the problems of Sunnis is deemed as animosity against the revolution and as separatism. So no one dares do this. Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, Sunnis have been perceived as a national threat and, therefore, their activities have been continually monitored, and they have been classified as non-Islamic, uncultured and uncivilized, and this is how they are portrayed for Shiite Iranians.
Serious areas of concern
Today, Sunnis in Iran have a substantial population (around 15 million), and I will now mention some of the problems Sunni communities face in Iran. Some of the following items may surprise you, but it is obvious that there is currently very serious Shiite sectarian discrimination in Iran.
Sunnis living in Iran are not allowed to name their children as they like. There is a book of permitted names at civil registers, and no one can pick a name that is not in this book. For instance, Iranian authorities do not allow people to choose Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, or Aisha as names for their children. Civil registers won’t put these names on ID cards. They tend to refer to the famed Persian poet Omar Khayyam as Khayyam, dropping the Omar part.
Sunnis are allowed to serve in the military, but they are not permitted to become officers.
Almost all administrative or employment forms contain the question, “Are you Sunni or Shiite?”
Printing of Sunni reference books is not free.
Religious courses given in schools in predominantly Sunni regions teach Shiite beliefs. Little information is given about Sunnism.
Several years ago, a political decision was made to introduce a Shiite representative of the spiritual leader (Wilayat-e Faqih or Guardianship of the Jurist) to religious madrasas belonging to Sunnis. This representative enjoys extraordinary power and authority. He can appoint or remove from office anyone at will. The practice, opposed by Sunnis for the time being, enables Shiite beliefs to be taught in these madrasas.
Every year, the “Week of Union” is marked in Iran to promote rapprochement between Shiites and Sunnis. But this is just a slogan, and this activity is intended to lure Sunnis into Shiism. So their message is, “Come and join us so that Islam becomes united.”
Currently, there is not a single Sunni minister in the current cabinet. However, since the public elects deputies, there are several Sunni deputies in Parliament.
Sunni madrasas and mosques are not provided any state support. They are maintained by the endeavors and efforts of Sunni communities.
Recently, two Sunni mosques were demolished by the state, citing various reasons, in Mashhad and Bojnourd.
Although there are around 2 million Sunnis living in Tehran, there is not a single mosque where they can perform their Friday prayer. Moreover, Sunnis who used to go to the Pakistani Embassy School and the Indonesian Embassy to perform their Friday prayers are now prohibited from doing so; this is a clear indication of the pressures against them. Although there are numerous churches (mostly Armenian) in Tehran, it is peculiar that there is not a single Sunni mosque.
In Iran, Sunni scholars are prohibited from gathering together. They cannot travel freely — abroad or at home.
Sometimes, TV channels, radio stations and magazines openly insult the well-respected figures of Ahl al-Sunnah [non-Shiites and those who follow the Sunnah]. In particular, they openly attack Aisha.
Are you a Muslim? Are you Sunni? These questions are very common. Ahl al-Sunna is generally designated as Ahl al-Dalalah (the misguided).
Shiites call Abu Lolo — a Persian soldier also known as Pirouz Nahavandi — who martyred the Caliph Umar, Father Lolo. They do this out of respect for him and, until very recently, they would visit Abu Lolo’s grave in Kashan near Isfahan in an ostentatious way to hurt Sunnis. (The death of Caliph Umar is a sad event for Muslims, so a loud homage to Abu Lolo is very hurtful to Muslims.) On the anniversary of the martyrdom of Caliph Umar, they hold a ceremony they call Djashn-e Omar koshi (the celebration of the killing of Umar), and create a statue of Umar and throw dirt and other things on it. This ceremony is still held in the south of Tehran and in some parts of the country.
All of the administrators in predominantly Sunni regions are Shiite. Sunnis are never allowed to become such administrators.
Sunnis do not have their own TV channels, radio stations, newspapers or magazines. In comparison, Armenians have their own newspapers and magazines published in Armenian, and Zoroastrians have their own newspapers and magazines.
Sunnis who changed their sects to become Shiite are given positions and ranks.
Sunnis are prohibited from wearing their traditional apparel at school, and instead, they are made to wear a particular uniform.
Sunni languages (Azerbaijani, Turkmen, Talesh, Kurdish, Baluch) are not taught in school.
Sunni scholars who deliver sermons parallel to (or in line with) their beliefs are punished. Recently, Abdolali Khayrshahi, a Baluchi imam, and Eyup Genci, suffered serious torture. Sunni scholars were executed on various charges in Iranshahr.
Although popular among Sunnis, Sufism is forbidden in Iran.
All religious leaders whom Shiites love are also loved by Ahl al-Sunnah, but Shiites do not pay the slightest respect to the leaders loved by Ahl al-Sunnah. Thus, they say, “May God’s curse be upon him/her” when the names of highly respected leaders of Islamic history such as the caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Muawiyah as well as the wife of Prophet Muhammad, Aisha, are mentioned.
When Ali Shariati argued as a result of his studies that some of the Shiite practices against Ahl al-Sunnah are unjust and wrong, Shiite Iranians accused him of being a Sunni. Until recently, his books were censored in Iran.
Iran considers defending the rights of Shiites in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to be its responsibility. Is it so merciless against Sunnis in its territories because it sees them as unprotected? Is it the sort of justice and fairness that their understanding of Islam dictates? Or does Iran obtain a sort of satisfaction connected to some historical incidents?
A matter of opression
The main subject of this article is, as the headline implies, the ongoing merciless and inhuman oppression of 15 million Sunnis in Iran. As is known, Iran never exhibited support of Muslims in the face of the injustices and tyrannies they faced in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir and China. Why? Because Iran did not dare confront Europe in Bosnia, Russia in Chechnya, India in Kashmir and China in China, and the Muslims in these areas are Sunni. Why does it care about Iraq and Palestine? First of all, it has perfectly good relations with the large Shiite population in Iraq, and it exerts much influence over them. Second, by pretending that it cares about the Palestinian issue, it seeks to create grounds for conflict with Israel and to benefit from this conflict. In any case, any chaos in the Middle East serves to extend the life of the regime in Iran. Iran does not have any agenda items other than nuclear energy and conflict with Israel. When these two elements are removed, the game Iran is playing will end, and it will have to deal with its internal conflicts. Unjust pressure against Iran’s Sunnis has never been on the agenda of Turkish foreign policy. The problems Sunnis are facing in Iran are not heard in Ankara as they never make it to Turkey’s embassy in Tehran. In addition to the above-mentioned problems, the intensity of pressure against Sunnis has recently increased, going beyond the limits of endurance.
In June of last year, Maulana Abd al-Hamid, the representative of the Baluchistan province and all Iranian Sunnis, attended the international conference of Islamic scholars in İstanbul, but after his return to the country, he was detained at Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran; he was questioned, his passport was confiscated, and he was banned from traveling abroad. The timing of this act is meaningful as it came after his return from Turkey. Just as Shiites living in Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia have expectations from Iran, 15 million Sunnis living in Iran expect the same from Turkey. Like Maulana Abd al-Hamid, the master and manager of Iran’s biggest Sunni madrasa in Zahedan, Baluchistan, many other scholars who attended the conference in Turkey were detained, questioned and banned from traveling abroad.
Iran did not stop at wasting the support Turkey openly lent to Iran in the face of its international problems. According to reports by http://en.sunnionline.us, the official website of Iran’s Sunnis:
The Revolutionary Guards surrounded the Friday Mosque in the city of Kamyaran in Kurdistan province and searched people who wanted to perform the Friday prayer to provoke them.
The Resalat newspaper published a fabricated story about Maulana Abd al-Hamid, claiming that he had issued a fatwa, telling Sunnis not to put alms in Khomeini Committee aid boxes.
This story was refuted by Maulana Abd al-Hamid.
The sources of the funds allocated to the renovation of a mosque in Zahedan were questioned, and the Sunni scholars in the region were slandered.
Hafez Ismael Mollazehi, the son-in-law of Maulana Abd al-Hamid, who was teaching at the biggest Sunni madrasa in Iran, Dar al-Ulum, was arrested without any explanation.
Likewise, Haji Abdurrahim, the second son-in-law of Maulana Abd al-Hamid, who was one of the caretakers of the madrasa, was also arrested without any explanation.
Hafez Mohammad Islam, from the same madrasa, was assassinated.
Mawlawi Amanallah Gumshadzehi, a master at the madrasa, was assassinated.
Maulana Ahmad Naruyi, the administrative affairs director of the same madrasa, was arrested without any explanation.
Mawlawi Abdulali Khayrshahi, a scholar from Zahedan, was arrested.
Sunnis were banned from performing Friday and eid prayers in some mosques in Tehran.
Mullah Muhsin Husayni, the imam of the city of Kamyaran in Kurdistan province, was arrested.
Sheik Shafi Kurayshi, a scholar among the Talesh, a Turkish tribe, with a population of several thousand, living in East Azerbaijan province, was arrested.
Hafez Abdurrashid, the Sunni Friday prayer imam of the city of Zabol, was arrested.
Tehran deputy Mehdi Kuchekzada insulted Aisha in Parliament, and this drew flak from Sunnis.
Mawlawi Ali Reza Rasuli, a Sunni scholar in Mashhad, was arrested, but later released.
Eyup Genci, a scholar in the city of Sanandaj in Kurdistan province, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Shafi Burhani, a lecturer at Mahabad Azad University in the province of Kurdistan, was summoned to the intelligence branch and went missing.
Of course, there are many other names and acts not covered here. We hope these incidents will stop. Now the question is: Are these problems covered by Turkey’s foreign policy?
[Dr. Ali Rıza Gafuri is an independent researcher and writer.]
(Courtesy: Today’s Zaman)