Iran's most prominent Sunni leader was excluded from the inauguration ceremony for President Hassan Rouhani, leading some Sunnis to accuse the government of discrimination and neglect.
Molavi Abdul Hamid, the well-known and influential religious leader of the Baluchi Sunni community, told government newspaper Iran that he had not received an invitation to the high-profile ceremony on August 5, which was attended by presidents, dignitaries and high-ranking officials from around the world.
Abdul Hamid said that Mohammad Shariatmadari, the Vice President for Executive Affairs, and “other government officials” had insisted he attend, but that he had not received an official invitation from the Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani or parliament’s executive committee. “Apparently they were not inclined to invite me,” said Abdul Hamid, “...so we preferred not to attend.”
His absence was widely reported by the Iranian media.
It is estimated that Sunni Muslims make up about nine percent of Iran’s population. Most Sunnis come from Iran’s Kurdish, Baluchi and Arab ethnic groups, who lively mainly in the northwestern and southwestern parts of the country.
Tehran Representative Mahmoud Sadeghi, member of parliament for Tehran, commented on Twitter that perhaps the government could justify not having a Sunni in the cabinet, “but how can they justify not inviting Molavi Abdul Hamid to the inauguration ceremonies?”
“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. “Perhaps if the votes of the Sunni community had gone to Mr. Raeesi, it would be his inauguration right now, not Mr. Rouhani’s.”
Millions of Votes from Sunnis
During this year’s 2017 presidential election, all prominent Sunni figures supported Rouhani. He won Kurdistan by 75 percent and Sistan and Baluchistan by around 73 percent. So Rouhani shirking a key Sunni leader will have repercussions, and it will take time for the Rouhani administration to rebuild trust with the Sunni community.
Rouhani had pledged to address issues affecting minorities in both of his election campaigns, but this latest development suggests he is not willing to honor that promise.
“Unfortunately experience has shown that when politicians need the Sunni vote and a big turnout, they will kowtow to win votes and get the support of people like Mr. Abdul Hamid, who has credibility with the Sunni community," says Moradzehi. "But when the elections are over and done with, not only do they ignore the demands of the Sunni community, but they even behave in a way that can be seen as offensive. Sunni figures were absent from both the swearing in ceremony and the inauguration. Those who claim to believe in unity and brotherhood should have not ignored a community of 15 to 20 million.”
Officially, the Iranian parliament was responsible for drawing up the guest list for the ceremony. “This does not make the government less responsible,” says Moradzehi, suggesting that Rouhani and his administration could have flagged up any obvious omissions, especially if they thought it might damage relations.
The Sunni scholar says there is a “narrow-mindedness” when it comes to looking at important public events like the inauguration, an unwillingness to acknowledge what messages might be communicated. It amounts to “ignoring the people’s votes,” he says. “It’s an insult to people who went to the polls and sincerely voted for Mr. Rouhani. This is what the Sunni community is complaining about and objects to.”
Abdul Hamid's exclusion from the ceremony led to harsh criticism from the public, online and off, including from some of Iran’s influential literary figures.
But Abdul Hamid was not the only figure who was conspicuous by his absence. Former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were not invited either. However, Moradzehi argues this isn’t really the same. “It is possible that they were absent as a result of partisan and political reasons, or because of accusations and past differences. But there are no such accusations as far as Mr. Abdul Hamid is concerned. The Sunni community sincerely and wholeheartedly supported the government. This kind of discrimination, neglect and scorn has always existed but in this case I consider it a big lapse in political wisdom and judgment.”
Moradzehi dismissed suggestions that officials might have simply made a mistake. “This was intentional. Abdul Hamid was in Tehran before and during both ceremonies and it was easy to contact him.”
...as ISIS ups its Persian Propaganda
A few days on, it is difficult to see why the Rouhani administration would have practiced such bad judgment — even if he faced pressure from some of the country’s more conservative factions, there is so much at stake in terms of keeping the public’s support. In recent months, ISIS has produced propaganda aimed at Iran’s Sunni community, including a video in March. In July, it released a video that directly threatened the country’s majority Shias. And while realistically ISIS commands little influence in the region, other localized groups do have power, and the government must know that allowing sectarianism to breed could not come at a worse time.
In February, Molavi Abdol Hamid appealed to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to reassure Iran's Sunni community after there were reports that scheduled executions of Sunni death-row prisoners might be sped up following a secret order from the head of the judiciary, Sadegh Larijani. If Khamenei was irritated by the religious leader's appeal, he possibly could have influenced the decision not to invite him to the ceremony.
“Perhaps they should not boast of national unity and understand that things like this aggravate class conflicts and religious discrimination,” says Moradzehi.
The government’s next move? To begin the long process of regaining trust, says the Sunni scholar. “They must abandon monopolistic ideas and behavior. With what we are witnessing in the Sunni community these days, regaining people’s trust will not be easy.”