The second trial session of Iranian Gonabadi Dervish, Mohammad Salas who was accused of killing police officers by hitting them with his bus, in Tehran, March 12, 2018. (AFP)

By Maryam Dehkordi

June 26, 2021

Mohammad Salas, a Gonabadi dervish, was executed in Iran on June 18, 2018. Salas was accused of killing three police officers by running them over with a bus during clashes between dervishes and the police in Golestan-e Haftom Street in Tehran in February 2018. He asserted his innocence in court saying he was forced to confess under torture.

Three years later, Gonabadi dervishes from different parts of Iran visited the tomb of Salas in Boroujerd to commemorate him. Mostafa Daneshjoo, a judiciary lawyer, posted a video of the ceremony on his Twitter account on June 17, 2021, and wrote: “When Mohammad Salas and many others around the world insisted on his innocence, there was no one who could ensure justice and a fair trial for him.”

The incident of Golestan-e Haftam, which took place on February 19, 2018, is one of the bloodiest repressions to have occurred in the last 42 years. The Gonabadi dervish minority had long been known for its tolerance and peaceful behavior.

The clashes erupted after a number of plainclothes agents were deployed around the home of Noor Ali Tabandeh, the grandmaster of the Gonabadi Sufi order. Fearing that security agents were planning to arrest Tabandeh or to put him under house arrest, a group of dervishes surrounded his home to ward off any such attempt. The confrontation soon escalated into violence.

The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC) examined the repressive and discriminatory policies of the Iranian government towards Gonabadi dervishes in a recent report and detailed the persecution they face.

IranWire spoke with Ebrahim Allah Bakhshi, one of the dervishes who was arrested and imprisoned in the case of Golestan-e Haftom.

Ebrahim Allah Bakhshi says the repression of the dervishes has a longer history than the incident of the Golestan-e Haftom: “Dervishes have been oppressed and abused in past decades by the government. As someone whose father and grandfather were also dervishes, I have witnessed and heard first hand accounts of the oppression of dervishes over the years. However, with the growth of social media in the past few years, the new generation of dervishes has more access to the tools that help expose the troubles this oppressed group faces.”

“Prior to the widespread news about oppression of dervishes in Golestan-e Haftom, the extremist government forces were constantly destroying the dervishes’ places of worship,” Allah Bakhshi says about the repressions that took place before the Golestan-e Haftom incident. “Dr. Tabandeh and other dervish leaders were always under pressure from the government. Gatherings usually faced obstacles and hosts were always summoned, threatened and arrested. As you know, there has been a lot of pressure in recent years to close or destroy the dervishes’ Hosseiniyah, congregation halls for commemoration ceremonies. Hence, dervishes host religious rites in their homes. But even these small gatherings are not tolerated and have always been suppressed.”

Beginning of the Collision: The First Days of Islamic Republic

Pointing out that repressing the dervishes was on the government’s agenda from the first year of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Allah Bakhshi says: “The first major clash happened in November 1979. Amir Soleimani Hosseiniyah in Behesht Street in Tehran was set on fire and destroyed. At the same time, extremists destroyed the tomb of one of the leaders of Gonabadi dervishes in Shahr-e-Rey. Two years later, by the order of the then Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, permission was issued to rebuild the Amir Soleimani Hosseiniyah, and official letters were issued stating that the dervishes should be safe and secure. But this was the beginning of a systematic repression of the dervishes, and every few years the intimidation and repression of the dervishes intensified.”

Allah Bakhshi is referring to Ayatollah Khomeini’s letter to Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani, the head of the Central Islamic Revolutionary Courts. According to the report by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, the letter stated that the grandmaster of the Gonabadi dervishes could travel across the country, hold meetings, and that any interference in his affairs would be considered a serious crime and would be punished.

It Gets Worse During Khamenei’s Leadership

After the death of Ruhollah Khomeini and the coming to power of Ali Khamenei, the intensity of oppression against the dervishes increased.

Allah Bakhshi says: “During the 80s and 90s, dervishes experienced all kinds of repressions. Destruction and burning of the Shariat Hosseiniyah in Qom by extremist agents of the government in 2006 was followed by the arrest of hundreds of Gonabadi dervishes, including my father, who had gone to protect the Hosseiniyah. Their trial was not fair and they received long sentences. This led the dervishes to consider setting up an independent media outlet to report on the atrocities against them. They established the Majzooban-e Noor news agency, which has since covered all the news about the dervishes.”

Five years later, in September 2011, another bloody clash took place between Basij agents and Gonabadi dervishes in a small town called Kavar in Fars province. But this time, the Majzooban-e Noor agency media exposed the clash.

A few weeks before the clashes, pro-government extremists inspected the homes of dervishes without official orders while shouting “Down to American dervishes”. They also distributed pamphlets, wrote insulting slogans on the walls, and attacked the dervishes’ businesses. Allah Bakhshi says: “I thought nothing worse could happen. But we witnessed something even more horrible in Golestan-e Haftom. I mentioned Mohammad Salas, Behnam Mahjoubi and Mohammad Raji. Let me also mention Vahid Banai, who was shot dead by security forces during the clashes in Kavar, and his killer, who according to witnesses, was one of the police officers, was never prosecuted.”

The report by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center indicates that the Islamic Republic violated its own laws, as well as its international human rights obligations to the religious minority of the Gonabadi dervishes. The Iranian government has repeatedly vandalized dervishes’ shrines, confiscated their property, and suppressed their peaceful protests.

Why does the Islamic Republic Suppress the Dervishes?

Gonabadi dervishes are Shia Muslims. The IHRDC report says Sufism has a long history in Iran but the root of the dispute between the government and dervishes is one of fundamental ideological differences. Most importantly, dervishes do not accept the concept of velayat-e faqih, or the guardianship of the Islamic jurist, the basis for the authority of Iran’s Supreme Leader over the Iranian government and people. Dervishes refuse to obey an Islamic jurist and, unlike other Shia Mulisms, do not pay Islamic taxes. But if they have funds then they pay it to their dervish grandmaster.

According to the IHRDC report, the guardianship of the Islamic jurist is based on the interpretation of Islamic principles regarding the conformity of one person to the teachings of another; this is something dervishes do not accept. In his attempt to overthrow the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini introduced a new philosophy in this area. According to him, during the absence of the Mahdi, the Twelfth Shia Imam, whose return Shia Muslim await, a righteous jurist has custodianship over Shia Muslims. But dervishes did not submit to this philosophy. In the 1980s, Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh published an article rejecting the guardianship of the Islamic jurist in a magazine published by the Association for Defense of Freedom and the Sovereignty of the Iranian Nation.

“The leaders of the dervishes never interfere in the social and political affairs of the dervishes,” says Allah Bakhshi. “Despite being political, Mr. Tabandeh never asked dervishes to take any particular political stance, with the exception of one case in 2009, in which he advised dervishes to support Mr. Karroubi [in presidential elections]. Even then, it was just advice, not a direct request. The reason was that Mr. Karroubi had supported the dervishes in the crises that had occurred in previous years.”

Allah Bakhshi also says the dervishes have faced their challenges with unity: “The Islamic Republic knows that the dervishes have always stood together. They consider each other as religious brothers and sisters, and if there is a problem, they stand together because of this belief. In all these years, the ruling regime has tried to destroy their solidarity by trying to sow division. After the Golestan-e Haftom incident, they succeeded to some extent. But now, three years later, we see that even the dervishes who are in exile are attending anniversary commemorations of Mohammad Salas’s death. Everyone cares and asks about each other. They have not left the families of Mohammad Raji and Behnam Mahjoubi alone. It means that those efforts [of the authorities] have failed.”

“We can call the younger dervishes warrior dervishes,” Allah Bakhshi says about the rise of the young generation. “The new generation is not just those who are born to dervish families. Many became interested and joined after the Golestan-e Haftom incident. The new generation not only pays attention to tolerance, which is recommended among these like-minded people, but is also concerned with problems of other minority groups. We tried to make things better for everyone in prison. Right now, dervishes in exile in the most deprived cities are doing positive things. Today, it is no longer just a matter of arresting or harassing dervishes. We use the small voice we have to reflect the problems of all minorities, and this is what ideological politicians are afraid of.”

Iran Wire

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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.