A prominent Sunni leader has welcomed comments by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei promoting harmony between Iran’s Shia and Sunni communities.
In a letter published on September 7, the Sunni leader of Sistan and Baluchistan Province, Molavi Abdul Hamid Ismael Zahi, thanked Ayatollah Khamenei for his recent pledge to “eliminate any kind of discrimination,” and urged “all military and civil officials” to uphold the order and enforce justice by treating all ethnicities and religions equally. It was part of their religious and legal duty, he said.
The Sunni leader, who has faced pressure from the Iranian regime, was responding to a recent letter from the Supreme Leader, which was dated August 12. In the letter, published on September 6, Khamenei 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.
Khamenei himself had been responding to an earlier letter from Molavi Abdul Hamid. The letter has not been published but according to the website Tabnak, it took direct issue with the Islamic Republic’s discriminatory policies toward minorities [Persian link].
Following Khamenei’s recent statements, Molavi Abdul Hamid expressed confidence that they would be influential in tackling regional tensions and become “a model for strengthening Islamic unity among countries,” adding that Iran’s enemies would no longer be able to create divisions among Iran’s Muslims.
Molavi Abdul Hamid is considered the spiritual leader of Iran’s Sunnis. Aged 71, for the past 31 years he has been the principal of Darul Uloom Zahedan, the leading Sunni seminary in Iran. This seminary and the Makki mosque in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan, are the most active Sunni political and religious centers in Iran, welcoming Sunnis from all over the country for study and worship.
In recent years the Iranian regime, goaded on by Shia clergy and hardliners, has made efforts to take control of the management and curriculum at the seminary. For example, on March 17, 2014, the extremist cleric Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi announced: “Shia texts must be promoted among the Sunni so that those who are not too fanatic would find their way to True Religion.”
Molavi Abdul Hamid has also faced censorship. His website, published in Persian, Arabic and English, a platform for his work, teachings and views, was blocked for more than two years, from 2012 to 2015. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei does have a plenipotentiary representative in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan, but for all practical purposes, Molavi Abdul Hamid has proven more than a match for the ayatollah’s representative, not only in terms of religious matters, but also when it comes to executive decisions within the province. Nevertheless, relations between the Sunni leader and the Supreme Leader’s representative have not been particularly tense in recent years — but websites associated with the government have been consistently negative about him.
The websites have promoted the idea that Molavi Abdul Hamid is hostile to the Iranian regime, outlining the Sunni leader views on issues conservative the Shia clergy and its followers regard as contentious. These include statements in support of the country’s reformist politicians, his opposition to Iran’s military support for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his assertion that the official results of the disputed 2009 presidential election were invalid, his good relations with Saudi Arabia, his numerous interviews with opposition media, his absence from marches on February 11 marking the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and so on. In contrast with Molavi Abdul Hamid’s calm and peaceful demeanor, a number of principlists have accused him of having core beliefs close to those of extremist, militant Sunni groups such as Jundallah and Jaish al-Adl, groups that are mostly active in Sistan and Baluchistan.
Insulting to Sunni Faith
Although Molavi Abdul Hamid has had relatively reasonable relations with the Supreme Leader’s representative, relations with Ayatollah Khamenei himself have been rather tense. In 2010, Khamenei delivered a speech in which he compared the treatment handed out to the Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to the way that Ali, the first Shia Imam, had treated Talhah and Zubayr, two of the Prophet Mohammad’s companions, in the 7th-century AD. Molavi Abdul Hamid sharply criticized this historical comparison, pointing out that the two companions are sacred figures for Sunnis and denigrating them amounts to an insult to their religious beliefs.
This criticism of the Supreme Leader made 2010 a troubled year for Molavi Abdul Hamid, leading the Iranian judiciary and security agencies, loyal supporters of the Supreme Leader, to respond with vengeance. On July 30 of that year, when Molavi Abdul Hamid returned to Iran after attending a religious conference in Turkey, authorities confiscated his passport at the airport. To explain their actions, Intelligence Ministry agents cited an order by the Special Court for the Clergy. And on September 25, Abdul Rahim Shah-Bakhsh, the Sunni leader’s nephew and son-in-law, was interrogated at the airport as he returned from Turkey. His laptop was seized and two weeks later he was summoned to court and arrested on charges of espionage and financial malfeasance. However, he was released in early 2011 without a trial.
On November 1, 2010, Hafez Esmael Molazehi, another son-in-law of Molavi Abdul Hamid, was arrested on national security charges. In 2011, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage, although the court suspended four years of his sentence.
On March 17, 2014 Ahmad Narooei, the interim Friday Prayers leader at Makki Mosque and yet another one of his sons-in-law, was killed in a traffic accident. Some opponents of the Islamic Republic claimed that the accident was really a set-up, and that he had been murdered.
In his last years in office, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to take steps to improve relations with the Sunni Community in Iran. In spring 2011, there were reports that Molavi Abdul Hamid had met with people close to Ahmadinejad to ask for the founding of a Sunni religious seminary, and had requested other improvements in the way Sunnis were treated, such as ending discrimination against them in government jobs. On the whole though, Ahmadinejad’s government was unable to meet these expectations.
In 2010, Molavi Abdul Hamid was banned from traveling outside Iran/ In early 2013, the religious leader planned to travel to South Africa and Mecca to participate in religious seminars but was not allowed, even though he had recently managed to win the freedom of several Iranian border guards who had been taken hostage by the militant group Jaish al-Adl. In early 2014 he had planned to participate in an international Islamic conference, but discovered he was still banned from traveling abroad.
In fact, there are even travel restrictions on his domestic travel. In early 2016, he told the Center for Human Rights in Iran [Persian link] that he is allowed to travel to Tehran and nowhere else. Furthermore, according to a close associate of Molavi Abdul Hamid, “Sunni clerics [from other parts of Iran] are not allowed to visit Zahedan and Sistan and Baluchistan Province. The intelligence ministry and other security agency prevent them from doing so.”
Not Mosques but “Rented Chapels”
Under pressure from security agencies, Iranian Sunnis are even prevented from holding open Eid al-Fitr prayers in cities including Tehran, in spite of the fact that Sunnis and Shias do not disagree on the significance of this holiday, which marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. Iranian officials have repeatedly pointed out that there are nine mosques in Tehran where Sunnis can worship, but Molavi Abdul Hamid has countered these claims by saying that the locations are not really mosques but “rented chapels.” In the summer of 2015, one of the buildings was torn down, leading Molavi Abdul Hamid to address a sharply critical letter to President Rouhani.
In August 2016, Iran executed at least 10 alleged members of a Salafist insurgent group called Tawhid and Jihad. These executions were followed by more executions of Sunnis in several Sunni-majority cities. In a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei published on February 20, 2017, Molavi Abdul Hamid pointed to “rumors published in some media outlets concerning a secret order by the judiciary chief [Sadegh Larijani] to expedite the execution of Sunni prisoners convicted of drug crimes,” adding that the executions “strengthens the possibility that the judiciary chief’s secret order truly exists” and therefore “requires the wise leader’s [Khamenei’s] prudent and fatherly intervention to calm the worries of the Sunni community.”
In May 2017, two weeks before the country’s presidential election, Molavi Abdul Hamid highlighted the problems Sunnis continued to face in Iran. “Sunnis are facing more problems than Shias in Iran, and securing religious freedom is one of the most important requests Sunnis expect the next president to provide," he said in a Friday Prayers sermon. He denounced discrimination in the workplace, and said Sunnis had been turned down for key positions in the public sector. “Employment in the public sector should be based on the qualification of the applicants, not on their religious or ethnic affiliation,” he said. “It is almost 40 years since the Islamic Republic has been established in Iran,” he said. “It is time for the regime to eliminate Sunnis' serious concerns.”
Snubbed for Rouhani’s Inauguration Ceremony
Even though President Rouhani has expressed sympathy for Molavi Abdul Hamid’s concerns and demands, the Sunni leader did not receive an invitation to the president’s second-term inauguration in August — unlike the president’s first-term inauguration in 2013, when parliament invited him to attend the ceremonies. The recent snub led some of Rouhani’s Sunni and reformist supporters to accuse the government of discrimination and neglect. “Molavi Abdul Hamid was the single most important factor in the victory of Mr. Rouhani in Sunni regions, and gave it everything he had,” said Sunni seminary professor, scholar and writer Molavi Abdul-Majid Moradzehi.
Neither did Rouhani appoint a Sunni cabinet minister, as had been suggested by Molavi Abdul Hamid. But according to Hassel Daseh, former member of parliament from Kurdistan [Persian link], some Shia religious figures pressured President Rouhani, and even a number of reformist leaders, to refrain from appointing a Sunni minister.
But Khamenei’s conciliatory and benevolent tone has sparked hope that change is really underway. “Aren’t [followers of] other religions part of the Iranian nation?”, the leader asked. “[If not] then we must not tax them and we must not conscript them for military service.”
But how sincere is the Supreme Leader? Will his comments really bring about change? Will discrimination against Sunnis, who are estimated to make up around nine percent of Iran’s population, subside?
It is too soon to know. The past, and the influence of hardline Shia religious authorities, do not suggest much hope. But small, tangible steps are possible. For example, the travel ban on Molavi Abdul Hamid could be lifted, allowing him to travel abroad — or inside Iran for that matter — without restrictions. And Molavi Abdul Hamid’s praise of Khamenei’s comments might also be something of a promise, a statement of unwillingness to let authorities ignore what Khamenei has set in motion.
Read the full text of Molavi Abdul Hamid’s letter on his website