When the news broke that 41 women in Iranshahr in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan had been abducted and gang-raped, it sent shockwaves around the city and across Iran. The horrific crimes were alarming and terrifying. But there was something else disturbing: The news was reported not by the media or government officials, but by the city’s Friday prayers leader. And despite the shock, provincial leaders did little to deal with the situation.

On Friday, June 15, Molavi Mohammad Taeb Molazehi, the Sunni Friday prayers leader, told his congregation about the rapes and abductions, and encouraged the women to come forward.

At first, provincial officials showed sympathy and promised to bring the perpetrators to justice. But little by little things changed, and officials began to deny details, or alter them. Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, Attorney-General of Iran, even accused Molavi Molazehi of “disturbing the public mind.” Despite the bickering over the case, members of the public regarded Molavi Molazehi’s revelations as significant and what he had to say commanded considerable attention.

Friday prayers leaders across the country are appointed by the Friday Imams Policymaking Council, a body under the supervision of the Supreme Leader. Except in Tehran, in all big cities, such as provincial capitals, the so-called “permanent” Friday prayers leaders are representatives of the Supreme Leader and are chosen directly by him. They, in turn, appoint the “interim” Friday prayers leaders for those cities.

As in other provinces, Sistan and Baluchistan also has a Supreme Leader representative, an ayatollah by the name of Abbas Ali Soleimani. But the difference between him and others in his position is that he — a Shia clergyman — is also the “Supreme Leader’s Representative for Sunni Affairs” in both this province and Kerman. He is a symbol for what Ayatollah Khamenei likes to call the “Shia-Sunni unity,” a concept that is often used to bludgeon those Friday imams who dare to criticize Khamenei by accusing them of undermining this “unity.”

But the Supreme Leader’s representatives for Sunni affairs are just one agency among many that help the Supreme Leader control the country’s Sunni population. Others include the Council of the Supreme Leader’s Representatives in Ethnic Areas, the Office of the Supreme Leader’s Representatives for Sunni Affairs in Ethnic Areas, the Planning Council for Sunni Religious Schools, the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought and, last but not least, the Revolutionary Guards.

And yet independent Baluchi clergymen have not been complacent. By founding bodies such as the Sunni Fatwa Council and the Council for Coordinating Sunni Religious Schools in Sistan and Baluchistan, they have tried to organize religious schools and their curricula independently of the government.

Government Imams vs. Popular Imams

The Friday imams of Sistan and Baluchistan can be categorized into two groups. A minority of them are appointed by the Supreme Leader’s representative and are financially supported, directly or indirectly through favoritism, by the government so that they compete with the independents. A majority, however, assume the position of Friday Imam through the support of their people.

“Sunni Friday Prayer leaders are picked by the people,” explains Abdul Sattar Doshuki, president of the London-based Baloch Activists Campaign. “Among the Sunnis of Sistan and Baluchistan, there is no official process to choose the Friday imams. According to Hanafi jurisprudence, people are completely free to pray behind any Friday prayers leader that they choose, call him their Friday imam and consult him on the questions of sharia.” [The Hanafi school is one of the four main Sunni schools of jurisprudence and it has the largest following in the world among Sunni Muslims.]

Following a historical tradition, Sunni clergy in various cities open a mosque for prayers. Clerics who become popular are then gradually recognized as a Friday prayers leader. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that if, in a Sunni-majority city in Sistan and Baluchistan, there are other imams that lead people in Friday prayers in addition to the Friday imam appointed by the Supreme Leader. For instance, in Iranshahr, where Molavi Molazehi from the Nour Mosque broke the news of the gang rapes, there are other independent imams in other mosques who also lead prayers.

In Iranshahr, Molavi Abdolsamad Karimzaei is the Friday prayers leader appointed by Ayatollah Soleimani. In certain cases — as with the news of the rapes — Molavi Molazehi and Molavi Karimzaei have taken completely opposite positions. And there are additional imams with their own followers.

“According to Hanafi jurisprudence,” says Abdul Sattar Doshuki, “Sunnis are not required by sharia to follow the fatwas of a specific imam or to choose a specific mosque or Friday imam. Also, the Sunnis have no ‘sources of emulation.' As a result, they follow independent imams who are not appointed by the government.”

The relations between these independent imams and Islamic Republic officials can often be tense. Molavi Fathi Mohammad Naqshbandi has consistently protested against the discrimination against Sunnis. Molavi Fazlorahman Kouhi, the Friday imam of Pashamagh, revealed illegal behavior by the paramilitary Basij organization, an affiliate of the Revolutionary Guards. And, of course, it was Molavi Molazehi who told the people about the rapes. In the past, he has also criticized the demolition of a Sunni mosque in Tehran. These are just a few examples.

Relations between Molavi Abdolhamid Esmael-Zehi, the most prominent among independent imams in Sistan and Baluchistan, and government officials has always been very tense. He has been banned from traveling outside Iran and even inside Iran he is only allowed to visit Tehran. And the government prevents Sunni religious leaders from other provinces from visiting Sistan and Baluchistan as a means of limiting Molavi Abdolhamid’s influence.

In the Footsteps of Hashemi Rafsanjani

Molavi Abdolhamid is considered to be a moderate, but the restrictions on him started when he directly criticized Ayatollah Khamenei. Over the last year they have exchanged letters and have met publicly to show that they are moving toward unity and mutual understanding but, in practice, Molavi Abdolhamid follows the example set by the late president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Like Rafsanjani, he puts on a show of friendship with Khamenei but, on the side, accuses the Supreme Leader’s “representatives” in various bodies of deviating from the “true path” of the Islamic Republic. For example, in 2011, two years after the Planning Council for Sunni Religious Schools was created on the orders of Khamenei, he sharply criticized the excessive interference of the Supreme Leader’s representative in the council regarding the education of Sunni seminary students.

And this year, Molavi Qureshi, the Sunni Friday imam of the city of Fanuj, went so far as to accuse Ayatollah Soleimani of embezzling from the budget earmarked for Sunni imams.

The government has not responded well to these criticisms and protests. There are other examples besides the travel ban on Molavi Molazehi, including the repeated arrests of Molavi Naqshbandi, the arrest of Molavi Fazlorahman Kouhi, the Friday imam of Pashamagh, and the suspicious death of Molavi Abdulghani Shahvazhi in 2017.

In the absence of a robust civil society, the pulpits of Friday prayers leaders in Sistan and Baluchistan are serving as a limited means for people to voice their complaints. These complaints, of course, have mainly been limited to Sunnis’ demands for their religious rights and their problems in making a living. But the Islamic Republic wants to prevent such a practice from spreading across Iran. Crucially, the response to gang rapes in Iranshahr and the efforts to silence news about them must be seen in this context, and as a continuation of this policy.

 

More on discrimination against Sunnis and Baluchis in Iran:

Khamenei Calls for Unity and an End to Discrimination — But is he Sincere?, September 7, 2017

A Sunni Religious Leader Excluded from Rouhani’s Inauguration, August 8, 2017

Sunni Cleric: Fight Extremism by Ending Discrimination, June 9, 2017

Religious Discrimination Blocks 10 Million People from Top Jobs, January 4, 2017

Hardliner Warns of “Wahhabist” Threat, January 20, 2015

Sunni Friday Prayers Banned in Tehran, January 12, 2015

The Most Disadvantaged Groups at Risk of Execution, February 14, 2014

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