“The Islamic Republic’s most significant skill is to turn any subject into a crisis: Relations with the US, the nuclear program, house arrests, women in stadiums, hijab, capital punishment and human rights,” I tweeted on September 5, 2017.
And now we must add the crisis of the Sufis to this list as well.
Here we are not merely talking about “reactions.” Even when it comes to “actions,” the Islamic Republic is highly skilled in finding the most costly way to do things, whether it is regional diplomacy, the country’s nuclear and the missile programs, the administration of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Syria. This holds true even on a smaller scale. In both its actions and reactions, the regime loses control of whatever crisis it creates.
The Islamic Republic’s stance toward Iran’s Sufis follows the same pattern. It turned the situation into a crisis, and then to solve the crisis, or to accomplish its goal to subdue the dervishes, it incurred high costs and quickly lost control. This is exactly what happened on the night of February 19 in clashes between Gonabadi dervishes and the police.
The ruling mullahs and their military and police forces have always worried that the moral and religious authority of some group or other might gain power and influence, so they use the most violent and complicated methods to restrain groups that they see as their rivals or potential rivals. Their treatment of Sufis, other mystic groups, the Baha’is and the Sunnis are clear examples of this approach.
In their confrontations with the Islamic Republic, these four groups have generally shunned violence. The last significant unrest between authorities and the Gonabadi Sufis took place from February 25 to March 10, 2014, when prison officials refused to transfer Afshin Karampour, an imprisoned Gonabadi dervish who had been suffering from severe pains in his kidneys and spinal cord, to the hospital — a move that should have been routine for most incarcerated prisoners. In an article entitled “A Model for Civil Resistance,” I reported on the protests and clashes for IranWire [in Persian]. And this week, the confrontation started with the arrest of Nematollah Riahi, another ailing Gonabadi dervish and an old man.
On February 4, two weeks before the most recent clash, a group of dervishes gathered outside the home of their guru, Noor Ali Tabandeh, in Tehran to shield him from arrest. “The police, the prosecution and other responsible agencies have no plans to take action against Gonabadi dervishes in Tehran,” announced General Hossein Rahimi, commander of Tehran police, at the time. He said that rumors about the impending arrests of the dervishes were “complete lies” and blamed the “hostile media” for spreading the lies to “create tensions.” But, now, it is exactly what he denied — the arrest of a dervish — that has sparked these new confrontations.
During the 2014 protests, the dervishes had a clear, non-violent agenda: “Social and political solidarity, sit-ins, hunger strikes by the prisoners, letters to the president and his advisor in minority affairs, signing petitions addressed to the judiciary, active media campaigns, statements of solidarity from dervishes abroad, informing the international community, dervishes from other towns actively participating in Tehran protests, holding peaceful rallies, and avoiding violence.”
But the regime’s response to the protests was nothing if not violent. Security forces fired warning shots into the air, beat the protesters with batons, tasered them and, for the first time, attacked female dervishes as well. A large number were arrested, including 80 women. At the time, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, was scheduled to visit Iran and government authorities wanted to resolve the situation before she arrived, so they released the dervishes not long after their arrest.
The most recent events resemble those of 2014 in one aspect: Dervishes still try to inform the public about their grievances through public protests. But a lot has changed. This time, their messages of resistance to the regime were stronger and more daring. What is more, there has been a significant increase in various groups expressing sympathy for the Sufis on social media. And, compared to 2014, dervishes are talking a tougher language, including online. For example, one recent tweet by a well-known Sufi activist during the clashes reported that the police were entering the alley where the protesters were. “We are surrounded. If I perish, I love you.” Not only was he documenting what was happening, he was broadcasting his readiness for death. A video posted online included a screenshot of a tweet from another activist, who issued a warning to authorities attempting to enter the residence of Noor Ali Tabandeh. “The regime must be aware of this: If it invades, it must do so over the bodies and the blood of dervishes,” it said.
On the regime side, too, there has been a new and unpleasant development. The government still uses threats and, if necessary, takes suppressive action against the dervishes. The Sufis have had to deal with various social pressures from the government. They are denied government jobs, are banned from institutes of higher education and are the targets of hostile propaganda produced by pro-regime media. They are often summoned and arrested. But, unlike the Baha’is and the mystic group Erfan Halgheh, which are both handled by the Ministry of Intelligence, it is the police that usually confronts the dervishes.
When the Police Lose Control
Of course, the Islamic Republic prefers to use the police for crackdowns, but sometimes this approach does not work. In the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitary joined the fray when the police failed to control the situation. Likewise, in the recent nationwide protests, after seven days of the police proving to be unable to quell the unrest, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards stepped forward and declared an end to “sedition” — meaning that the protesters were now facing the Guards, not merely the police.
This also happened during the Sufi protests on February 19. Police forces were on the frontline of the confrontation with the dervishes, but when it was felt that the police had lost control, plainclothes agents and members of the paramilitary Basij, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, stepped in.
What we have come to now is this: On one hand there is the government, which shows no restraint in using violence against a minority. And on the other hand, we have a minority that is no longer shy about resisting the government, even if violence is involved. This “violence vs. violent resistance” was a characteristic of both the political protests of 2009 and the recent protests across Iran. And now this new form of resistance has spread to protests by the Sufis, as well as other groups that align themselves against the Islamic Republic. At the same time, it has also raised the level of sympathy and respect for the dervishes among other political groups who support civil rights, including the rights of the Sufis.
The Vicious Circle
There has also been a wave of angry reactions to the deaths of three policeman, who were killed after being run over by a bus, and the death of a Basiji, who died when he was run over by a car. Another Basiji was also killed, but the cause of his death has not been confirmed. Who exactly is responsible for these deaths has not yet been established, but the Islamic Republic will use this wave of emotions and calls for a non-violent response as justification to suppress the dervishes with even more intensity, and to portray its potential “rival” Noor Ali Tabandeh as an “enemy.” It’s a vicious circle.
Questions, however, remain: Why did the confrontations between the Sufis and the government turn so violent and deadly, especially when compared with 2014? And what happened between February 4, when Tehran’s police commander denied any plans to arrest dervishes and actually agreed to remove police from the area where protests were taking place in order to disperse the crowds, and the night of February 19, when at least five people were killed and a new crisis began?
It is unlikely that the security agents of the Islamic Republic have given these questions any thought. What we know for the moment is that at least 300 dervishes, some of whom were hospitalized after suffering injuries, have been arrested, and the media affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards have been talking about the “end of riots by the rowdy dervishes.” Using the media to influence public opinion, it is quite possible that some of those arrested will face long prison sentences, or even the death penalty.
The government’s model for handling crises it has itself created is by now routine. The dervish crisis has likely just begun, and we can expect authorities to revert to their strategies of control, and employ their weapons of restraint, in the same way they have in recent years.