Iran’s relentless crackdown on Sunni scholars
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei believes that his religious guardianship is all-encompassing, covering Shiites and Sunnis, clerics and the masses. Therefore, he sees Sunni scholars as being under his guardianship. This means that Iranian media outlets often use generalized titles that express universal legal and political jurisdiction when describing Khamenei’s authority, such as “the leader,” “leader of Muslims” and “the ruler of all Muslims,” connoting total guardianship and absolute power. This pays no heed as to whether this supposed absolute guardianship is accepted by the masses, while there is no acknowledgement of any dissent against it.
This insistence on absolute religious authority has impacted the Iranian regime’s treatment of the country’s religious and ethnic minorities, with the regime incessantly interfering in their affairs and exercising unwelcome guardianship over their rites and rituals.
This was seen recently in the supreme leader’s dismissal of the prominent Iranian Sunni scholar Mowlavi Hossein Gorgij, the Friday prayer leader in the city of Azadshahr, Golestan Province. Khamenei had decided, without consultation, to dismiss Gorgij and appoint another Sunni cleric, Mowlavi Mashouf, in his place, although the latter refused to take over in protest at the former’s dismissal.
As a result of his refusal, Mashouf was arrested by officers of the regime’s infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps intelligence division. The decision to dismiss Gorgij and appoint Mashouf was taken without consulting either cleric or any other Sunni dignitaries or scholars and sparked massive protests in the Sunni-majority Iranian provinces.
This incident shone a light on the dilemma facing Sunni scholars in Iran. This is not the first time that the regime has cracked down on a particular cleric or group of Sunni scholars. The regime has taken measures to restrict the movements of Sunni scholars inside Iran without permission from the relevant authorities. Commenting on the decision, Gorgij said: “Iran alleges that there’s freedom at home. But the well-known Sunni scholars cannot travel to all the Sunni provinces (when they need to).”
A number of points underline the gravity and importance of this approach toward Sunni scholars. Firstly, these restrictions clearly demonstrate the state of terror that the Iranian regime is constructing. Second, the regime’s use of these measures underlines its fragility and its fear of Sunni scholars, particularly their influence on Iranian public opinion — Sunni and Shiite alike — and demonstrates the leadership’s deep-seated concern over the possibility of sectarian or political rebellions against the political system in those regions of Iran where Sunni influence is dominant. These strategic Sunni-majority regions are mostly concentrated in the peripheral provinces in border areas, such as Kurdistan, Sistan and Balochistan, and Ahwaz, which all border Sunni-majority countries.
The ruling elites in Iran are well aware of the central influence of religion on the Iranian people generally. Hence, they are keen to ensure that the country’s Sunni scholars have no role in shaping and influencing the collective Iranian psyche. More importantly, the regime actively opposes any real unity between Shiites and Sunnis and foments hostility among the Islamic sects.
The leadership in Tehran does not wish to see the ideologically indoctrinated incubators of its doctrine reaching out to understand or listen to “the Sunni other” inside Iran, let alone uniting with Iranians of all sects in opposition to the regime itself. Therefore, the regime relies on maintaining a constant climate of sectarian hostility. Making each group mistrustful and resentful of the other is one of the central pillars of the Iranian regime’s policymaking.
The irony is that the regime is keen to promote fraternal slogans encouraging tolerance and “togetherness” with other Islamic sects overseas, while inflicting repression at home. In foreign policy, Tehran likes to promote itself as a unifying force striving to bring Shiites and Sunnis closer together — a PR strategy it uses to whitewash its actual, wholly sectarian, agenda.
At the same time, the regime uses this “togetherness” as a pretext for wielding influence, interfering in the affairs of neighboring states and changing the geographic map and demographic composition of Sunni states. At home, meanwhile, this mask is quickly dropped, with the regime having no qualms about denying Iran’s Sunnis their political and religious rights and imposing restrictions on their scholars.
The Iranian constitution shows the depths of the regime’s sectarianism. Article 12 sets sectarianism in stone with the announcement that Shiite Islam is the official faith of the country. And, according to Article 115, the position of president may only be held by a Twelver Shiite. Sunnis, affiliates of other Shiite sects or any other sect in Iran are thus effectively banned from all senior and influential positions in Iran — not only the presidency. Ever since the constitution was drafted following the 1979 revolution, Sunni scholars and jurists have regularly demanded substantial amendments be made. Sunni leader Molavi Abdul Hamid recently sent a letter to Khamenei calling on him to end the discrimination against Iran’s Sunnis.
The regime actively opposes any real unity between Shiites and Sunnis and foments hostility among the Islamic sects.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Another angle to consider is the regime’s intimidation of Sunni scholars and jurists through its infamous Special Court for Clerics. This court summons Sunni scholars with the specific objective of intimidating them and restricting their movements. For example, it recently arrested a Sunni mufti in Iranian Kurdistan, Sheikh Hassan Amini, over his criticisms of the regime and his condemnation of its discrimination against Sunnis in terms of their lack of representation in government positions.
In a nutshell, the regime has no genuine interest in Sunni-Shiite coexistence, unity and “togetherness” in Iran. Instead, it is far more concerned with maintaining its own narrow sectarian interests and perpetuating its hard-line ideology. It is likely, therefore, that it will continue with its divide and rule approach, threatening the majority with the minority, threatening the minority with the majority, and prioritizing ideologically divisive and sectarian rhetoric for fear that any unity among the people or cooperation among clerics transcending ethno-sectarian affiliations and cutting across confessional boundaries would expose and undermine its ruling ideology and further weaken its legitimacy.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami