Molavi Abdol-Hamid Ismaeelzahi (L), a Sunni theologian and the spiritual leader of the Sunni community in Iran, in a meeting of Sunni clerics with president Rouhani, on December 11, 2016. (IRNA)

By Maryam Dehkordi

January 21, 2019

Prominent Sunni clergymen such as Molavi Abdul Hamid Ismael Zahi have repeatedly criticized travel restrictions imposed on them by the Islamic Republic. Now an informed source tells IranWire that such security measures are not limited to high-profile leaders.

Over the past week, security agents have detained and threatened Sunni seminary students and clergymen in Mashhad, according to the source. The men had traveled from Sistan and Baluchistan but were reportedly banned from entering Sunni seminaries and mosques, leaving them no other option but to return.

“Last week, when religious schools in Baluchistan were closed due to the holidays, a few groups of teachers and students traveled to Khorasan,” says the source, who does not wish to be identified for security reasons. “At least three of them were summoned by the Intelligence Ministry and interrogated.”

One of them was reportedly released after he signed a pledge stating he would not return to Mashhad without notifying the Ministry beforehand.

Others who had traveled to Khaf in the eastern part of Khorasan were also detained, according to the source. The intelligence agents inspected their phones, notebooks, and cars, he says, and forced them to return to Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan, immediately.

Why the Travel Restrictions?

“No legal warrant [for restricting my travels] exists,” Molavi Abdul Hamid Ismael Zahi told BBC Persian in July 2018. “Officially I have not been served with any warrant. But any time I want to travel, I encounter problems. So, practically, I am not allowed to travel.”

Mehdi Nakhl Ahmadi, a human rights and Sunni rights activist, uses the term “provincial arrest” to describe these travel bans, which he stresses do not only apply to people like Abdul Hamid.

“Molana Gorgij, the Sunni Friday imam of Azad Shahr in Golestan province, and Kak Hossein Amini, president of Imam Bokhari religious school in Sanandaj [capital of Iranian Kurdistan], are among the Sunni clergymen who have encountered problems when trying to attend official Sunni meetings and public gatherings,” he tells IranWire.

Kak Hossein Amini has complained of repeated interference by security forces during his travels, both inside and outside Iran. “Not only do I have problems traveling outside Iran, even for a pilgrimage to Mecca,” he told Nakhl Ahmadi in a recent conversation. “I also encounter opposition from security agencies when I want to travel between [Iranian] cities and provinces.”

While the press often reports security measures taken against prominent individuals, less well-known targets without a media platform frequently fall under the radar, Nakhl Ahmadi says.

“I have talked, directly and indirectly, to several clergymen and seminary students in Khorasan, Kurdistan, Sistan and Baluchistan, and Golestan. They told me about these threats and restrictions, but because they are afraid they do not want to broadcast their problems.”

Nakhl Ahmadi believes it is the deliberate policy of the Islamic Republic to prevent the creation of independent civic organizations, which it sees as a threat. “The regime views the minorities as people that must be restricted more than others because they have beliefs that are different from its ideology.”

The security restrictions against ordinary Sunnis are not limited to travel, he says. They also manifest themselves through discrimination in the hiring process, the prevention of Sunnis from building mosques in Tehran and the inhibition of Sunni religious teaching in schools. While the last of these is not technically banned, obstruction by the regime means very little is taking place in practice.

Nakhl Ahmadi adds: “At the level of the clergymen and seminaries, they impose travel bans and other restrictions through the so-called ‘Supervisory Council for Sunni Seminaries’, which is designed to control the Sunni clergy and their students.”

Who Enforces the Restrictions?

According to IranWire’s source, the Intelligence Ministry enforces the restrictions on religious activists, clergymen, and seminary students in Sistan and Baluchistan. It does so through its offices in Mashhad and Khaf.

In the past, Sunnis have also ascribed responsibility to intelligence agencies under the supervision of the Supreme Leader, such as the Intelligence Organization of the Guards. They have even blamed part of the judiciary, according to Nakhl Ahmadi, though many of the threats and detentions “are of course also carried out by the Intelligence Ministry”, he says.

In a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in 2017, Molavi Abdul Hamid took direct issue with the Islamic Republic’s discriminatory policies toward minorities. Khamenei responded with a letter of his own, in which he insisted that “discrimination amongst Iranians from any ethnicity, race or religion” was prohibited in Iran.

“All pillars of the Islamic Republic are required to act according to religious teachings and the Constitution,” he wrote. In practice, however, restrictions and discriminatory policies have continued unabated.

“This policy [towards minorities] is not exclusive to a specific institution or group,” says Nakhl Ahmadi. “It is the will of the regime to make minorities understand that they are not first-class citizens, and they must not expect the same rights and treatment as other citizens.”

The restrictions are diverse and extreme, he says. “Usually before and after specific ceremonies, like the graduation ceremony for the Sunni seminary in Zahedan, they create a lot of problems for the organizers and the participants, from banning certain individuals and officials to arresting or threatening people because of what they have said.

“A while ago, security agents prevented the graduation ceremony of one of the seminaries in the city of Khaf. Of course, this kind of harassment happens more often in the provinces of Kurdistan, and Sistan and Baluchistan.”

The Unfulfilled Dream of a National Identity

According to IranWire’s source, security agents often insult Sunni clergymen by calling them “deviant” and “seditionist”. This is largely the result of extremist preaching by Shi’a clergy, he believes.

“Now security agencies are getting touchy about Sunni clergy who travel to Mashhad,” he says. “As a result of drought and poverty, many Sunni have migrated to the outskirts of the city from Sistan and Baluchistan, and other towns in Khorasan.

“Clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, responding to reports from their fanatical followers, have repeatedly expressed their concern that ‘Wahhabism’ is spreading in Mashhad. So when Sunni clergymen travel to Mashhad, it worries them.”

However, only a tiny minority of Sunnis hold extremist views, Nakhl Ahmadi stresses. “Like other belief systems, there are a variety of tendencies among the Sunnis, and some of them are more extreme. But such groups form only a very insignificant percentage of the Sunnis in Iran. I can say with certainty that less than two or three percent of Iranian Sunnis have extremist tendencies.”

He adds: “It is also important to point out that, if we look at the factors that allow such a small group to exist, a large part of the blame lies with the regime and its unjust treatment of minorities.”

Nakhl Ahmadi believes that poverty and discrimination are the main drivers of fanaticism in the underprivileged regions of Iran. “These are regions where people are so desperate that they accept any dubious promise. They are suffering from an identity crisis and do not believe they belong to the ruling system. But they cannot find an alternative for it.

“Under such conditions, extremist beliefs become the only solution they can find, in the hope, it will give them a kind of identity and goal. We would not have this problem if Iran was able to provide its citizens with an inclusive national identity.”

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.