By Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
5 February 2018
The Iranian regime boasts about respecting religious freedom and being tolerant towards religious minorities, and President Hassan Rouhani has frequently promised them equal rights. Nevertheless, reports from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International reveal a different story. The rights of the Iranian people to enjoy religious freedom continue to be violated and many are facing systematic persecution and discrimination on a daily basis.
One specific example of the ongoing harassment and persecution by the Iranian authorities is linked to the regime’s targeting of Sunni religious leaders. Sunnis constitute the largest religious minority — roughly 5 to 10 percent of the population — in the Shiite-majority nation.
Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi is considered Iran’s highest-ranking Muslim Sunni cleric and is regarded as a “spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni minority.” He is the head of the council of Sunni religious schools in the Sistan and Baluchestan Province and is a member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars. The Iranian regime has intensified its harassment of Ismaeelzahi. He has attempted to find a middle ground with Iran’s ruling Shiite clerics, but his attempts have failed.
The Iranian regime targets leaders of religious minorities in a shrewd attempt to impose fear collectively from the top of the group, in order to restrict the activities of its members.
Ismaeelzahi is facing an “ongoing climate of intimidation and fear” and the regime has barred him from travelling within the country, let alone abroad. In a recent interview with the Centre for Human Rights in Iran, he pointed out: “We know that if we don’t ask for permission before we travel, the authorities will create problems for us.” He highlights the complexities of the issue by adding: “We understand the situation and the pressures that exist. So we have decided to coordinate our plans with the authorities. We wanted to go to Mashhad but they didn’t allow it. We said thousands of people go to Mashhad every day. They said those people are different because, if I go to Mashhad, the people will come to see me. Then we wanted to go to Kerman and we talked about it with the authorities, but they didn’t give us permission.”
From the perspective of the Iranian regime, the country’s Sunni minority and religious leaders are viewed through a prism of suspicion and are regarded as an opposition group, or even as outsiders though their homeland is Iran.
In addition, since one of the major revolutionary and religious principles of Iran’s ruling clerics has been to export Shiite ideology, non-Shiite groups are considered rivals, conspirators or threats to achieving such an ideological goal. No Sunni has been appointed to a high-level government position since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
The Iranian regime mainly utilizes the Ministry of Intelligence (Etela’at), the Basij and the judiciary to intimidate and control the country’s Sunnis.
Sunnis have not been successful in invoking the Iranian Constitution, which guarantees rights to Islamic traditions other than Shiite. Article 12 stipulates: “Other Islamic schools, including the Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali, and Zaydi are to be accorded full respect, and their followers are free to act in accordance with their own jurisprudence in performing their religious rites. These schools enjoy official status in matters pertaining to religious education, affairs of personal status (marriage, divorce, inheritance, and wills) and related litigation in courts of law.”
This failure is due to the lack of fairness and due process in Iran’s judicial system, as well as the regime’s trumped-up and ambiguous charges against many Sunnis. Such articles in Iran’s Constitution that guarantee the rights of Sunnis are only a facade to delude the international community into believing that Iranian leaders respect religious freedoms and the human rights of all groups, irrespective of their ethnic or religious backgrounds.
Iran’s treatment of the country’s largest religious minority, the Sunnis, and their leaders continues to deteriorate under the second term of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency.
Iran’s Sunnis have the right to exercise their religious faith. It is incumbent on human rights groups and the international community to pressure the Iranian regime to halt its intimidation, persecution and harassment of the Sunnis and their religious leaders.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business.