By Ali Alfoneh
March 5, 2018
Bread riots, hijab protests and now Sufi skirmishes. Individually, they don’t threaten Iran’s leaders but, occurring in consecutive waves, they appear to erode the foundations of the country. Iran comes across as either unwilling or incapable of providing bread, personal or spiritual freedom to its citizens.
The latest round of unrest in Tehran began February 19 when uniformed officers of the Law Enforcement Forces (NAJA) surrounded the house of Nour-Ali Tabandeh, 90, the Qutb — spiritual leader — of the Sufis of the Gonabadi order. It is the largest Sufi order in Iran and the Qutb’s devout followers from all over the country rushed to the rescue of their leader, who they feared could be arrested by police.
In the ensuing skirmishes, the police indiscriminately attacked people near Tabandeh’s residence. Horrific video footage of hospitalised men and women of all ages circulated in the Persian-language blogosphere. Tabandeh remains in his house but 300 of his followers were arrested by the police and remain incarcerated at Evin, Fashafouyeh and Qarchak prisons.
Three riot police were killed when a bus was driven into their ranks. A member of the Basij, which is one of the five forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was run over by a car. Another was stabbed.
This accelerated the government propaganda machinery’s virulent attacks against the Sufis. The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, which previously referred to the Sufis as “a deviant sect” is using the derogatory term “Darvish-e Daeshi” — “Islamic State Sufis.” Kayhan, a conservative newspaper in Tehran, calls them “Satanist” and various other authorities accuse the Sufis of criminal acts as diverse as “car theft” and “raping women” to “freemasonry” and “acting as the lackeys of foreign enemies.”
One of the few government officials deviating from the hateful chorus against the Sufis is Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli. In support of the Sufis, he said: “We consider the dervish currents in the country as a wise, rational and balanced current.”
Iran has a tumultuous history in dealing with the Sufis, suppressing them with various degrees of violence, which peaked during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In January 2006, authorities bulldozed the hussainiya (congregation hall) of the Gonabadi order in Qom, provoking large protests. More than 1,000 Sufis were arrested and 200 people, including the Qom deputy police chief, were wounded in the skirmishes. Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, then one of the country’s most senior clerics, who was under house arrest in Qom, and Mehdi Karroubi, at the time chairman of the National Trust Party, declared support for the Sufis but in vain.
Other Gonabadi hussainiyas were bulldozed in Tehran and Isfahan in 2007 and 2008, each time provoking large protests and leading to the arrest of followers. This, despite the Sufis being one of the country’s most peaceful communities.
Why does the Tehran regime provoke conflict with peaceful and largely apolitical Sufi orders?
Why doesn’t it tolerate them instead?
Why radicalise a group of believers?
The answer has much to do with the nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It does not tolerate the existence of non-governmental organisations or interpretations of religion that aren’t sanctioned by the government. The very existence of charismatic leaders such as Tabandeh provides an alternative to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This is intolerable to the regime.
The Sufis, in a February 23, 2014, open letter to Iranian President Hassan Rohani warned: “Don’t transform [our] shouts [for justice] into hatred.” There is little indication the regime is listening.
The Arab Weekly