Baluchistan and Islamic Republic of Iran’s brotherly love
By Nir Boms and Shayan Arya, 22nd January 2009
- Despite propaganda, the Islamic Republic of Iran has not been the promised utopia of religious and social harmony. Instead, religious buildings are routinely demolished and dissidents executed.
- Iran is remarkably diverse. 10-15m people are Sunni muslims; there are also Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Baluchis as well in the country. This means Iran is a real patchwork society.
- Attempts at moderation have largely been a failure and in Baluchistan, there is much unrest. Violence is common.
- Indeed, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a religiously repressive regime and Muhammad Khatami's statements about peaceful coexistence cannot be believed.
For the past three decades, Islamic Republic of Iran’s officials have been trying to convince the world that they are trying to create a utopian society in which religion, politics and faith can live in harmony. Unfortunately some officials have bought in to this idea. Following that policy the Iranian government recently called for a conference on "Religion in the Modern World." With former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former high commissioner on human rights Mary Robinson, past prime ministers of Italy and Norway, and former president of Portugal in attendance, Muhammad Khatami, the former Iranian president and a likely candidate in the next presidential election, called upon the "religious leaders of the world to try new ways to create a peaceful co-existence and invite the world to establish peace and security."
This is a commendable and noble appeal, but one that is overshadowed by the brutal history of religious intolerance in Iran under the Islamic republic which Khatami represents. Consider some events.
Last year, security forces entered the Imam Abu Hanifa Mosque (A Sunni mosque) in the Azimabad suburb of the city of Zabol. The mosque also served as a religious school and dormitory. They arrested and evacuated the sleeping students and staff and then brought in bulldozers and destroyed the building.
Several other mosques have been destroyed in a similar fashion recently. In fact since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979, many Sunni mosques in predominately Shi'ite cities have been destroyed, closed, or converted to Shi'ite mosques. In cities such as Mashhad, Ahwaz, Turbat-e-Jaam, Shiraz and Teheran, many Sunni mosques have been closed or destroyed by the regime. Getting a license to build a new one in most cities is impossible. Such a systematic assault on mosques by a regime that professes Islamic faith is quite astounding. Why does the Islamic republic destroy mosques?
The answer may lie in Iran’s religious diversity. Although the Majority of Iranians are Shiites, Iran, religiously is not a uniform society by any definition. Iran has a significant Sunni population. Nearly 10 to 15 million people in Iran are Sunnis. These include most of the Baluchis, the majority of Kurds, almost all Turkmen and a minority of Arabs.
Followers of other religions such as Baha’i’s, Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians and many branches of Sufis are also numerous. If one adds the secular Shiites and the traditionalist followers of Shiite Islam who oppose the official interpretation of Shiite Islam by the Islamic regime, the number of Shiites who follow the regime’s interpretation of Shiite Islam may not be as numerous as the regime would want us to believe.
Religious intolerance is not new to the Islamic republic. Since the establishment of the republic in 1979, all of Iran's religious minorities have suffered varying degrees of pressure and persecution. Even Shi'ite groups are not immune from persecution if they do not adhere to the Khomeini's radical interpretations.
One case in point is Ayatollah Kazemaini Borujerdiand. He was imprisoned and tortured with many of his followers. His crime was to call for a non-political interpretation of Shiite Islam and for the separation of religion and state.
Last year, two Sunni clerics Moulavi Muhammad Yousof Sohrabi and Moulavi Abdoulghodus Mollazahi were executed after being forced to confess on television that they were actively creating divisions between Shi'ites and Sunnis.
Last June, five young Baluchi men, Abdi Gowharmzhai, Hafiz Salahoudin Gowharamzahi, Moulavi Khalil Zarai, Moulavi Abdel Majid Salahzahi and Oubid Zardkohit were arrested during a raid by the Mersad forces of the revolutionary Guards during an attack to the village of Nasirabad located in Baluchistan province. The attack’s aim was to arrest the local Sunni religious cleric Moulavi Abed Bahramzahi. The five young men were arrested when they tried to prevent the Mersad forces from arresting the cleric, the Baluchistan Human Rights Watch reported. According to the organization, dedicated to reporting the human rights conditions in Baluchistan, there is a real possibility that the five young men could be executed.
Baluchi journalist and civil society activist Yaqoub Mehrnahad, 22, was executed on 4 August 2008. He was the head and co-founder of Voice of Justice Young People’s Society (VJYP), which organized events such as concerts, educational courses for young Baluchies and raised funds to help the poor. His sixteen year old brother Ebrahim Mehrnahad was also arrested last March following his public condemnation of the death sentence imposed up on his brother. He was sentenced to five years in prison last September.
Another Baluchi, Mr. Djalal Shirani, who lived in UAE for many years was arrested and executed recently when he came back to Iran after many years of living abroad to visit his ailing mother. It is not clear what was he exactly charged with.
Many observers of Baluchistan believe that poverty, discrimination and brutal oppression of the local population in the hands of the Shiite forces of the Islamic republic have contributed to the rise in radicalism of the local young Baluchi’s and to the rise in violence in many provinces with predominately Sunni population.
Yet even moderate Sunni clerics are not immune as is evident in the case of Maulavi (a religious title used by Iranian Sunnis) Ahmad Narouee, who is the deputy director of the main theological school in Zahedan. Narouee is one of the most moderate Baluchi Sunni clerics in Sistan-Baluchistan province. He comes from one of the oldest and most influential Baluchi clans, and he is widely respected. Although many members of the Narouee clan have been killed since 1979, Mawlavi Narouee remains tolerant in his views. His moderate views are often criticized by radical elements in the province. But many credit him and his moderate colleagues with preventing increased bloodshed and violence in the province. Yet none of that seem to matters to the radical Islamic regime in Teheran. Narouee was arrested last year and was being kept incommunicado in an undisclosed location for five month before being released last Saturday on Jan 17. It is not clear why he was arrested in the first place or why he was released.
Despite what Khatami, a likely presidential candidate would like others to believe, religious intolerance in Baluchistan and other Sunni areas seems to be the norm rather than exception under the Islamic Republic of Iran. It evokes Edmund Burke’s quote: "hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises, for never intending to go beyond promises, it costs nothing." Khatami and the regime he represent should be forced to respond to serious questioning about the recent events in Iran. His easy statements about "peaceful coexistence" must not be accepted so easily by the world. It is certainly not accepted by many Iranians.
Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Shayan Arya is an Iranian activist, member of Constitutionalist Party of Iran and associate researcher at the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education.