The ferocity of the Gonabadi Dervishes in Tehran has taken everyone by surprise, not least the Iranian regime.
The way they defended their community last week sets an example for secular and liberal groups all over Iran.
When members of the Gonabadi sect faced off against riot police they were not intimidated.
There was nothing subversive in the slogans they shouted — perfectly mainstream cries of “Allah Akbar” and homage to the 12 Shia imams. But there was no doubt they oppose the authorities and the officially-sanctioned, hierarchical brand of Shia Islam.
Much about this organization makes it a powerful force.
It is organized.
It has its own charismatic leader – 90 year-old Noor Ali Tabandeh.
It has passion and a set of values, which includes loathing for Iran’s “mullocracy.”
Last week, fearing that Iranians authorities would move try to arrest Gonabadi leader Majzoob Alishah, members of the group came out to protect his home and made it crystal clear this was a red line. No one – least of all police – would enter the house without permission.
The strength of the dervishes comes partly from the membership, which includes large numbers of well-educated middle class believers. Partly it comes from their religious focus. They care nothing for contemporary politics – sanctions or nuclear deals or proxy wars in Lebanon or Yemen or Syria. They simply venerate their leader and respect his advisors – who are sophisticated professionals.
They project their aims through a small group of spokespeople in Europe and Canada, and maintain a website that explains the history of their persecution.
Over the last two decades some of the dervishes have been jailed in Iran on trumped-up charges. Their mosques in Qom, Isfahan and Borujerd have been destroyed – but the community has always rallied and has stood up to the government when it counted. Everyone knows the dervishes are willing to go to the wall for the cause.
Maybe that’s why they were able to stand their ground so well last week, even when the confrontation turned violent. We know the regime is worried. One sure sign: They are interrupting the service of the social media messaging app Telegram. (They did this too when a series of protests swept the country in early January).
Over the last 10 days, the Gonabadi dervishes have demonstrated a unique mixture of qualities: passion, organization, unwavering leadership and solidarity.
Iran’s opposition groups: Take heart and take note.