It was 1979, and the Islamic Revolution had been victorious. A new government was being formed whose mandate and laws would be dictated by Twelver Shia Islam. For members of religious minority groups in Iran, the developments taking place were a cause for anxiety.
The “Islamization” of the government was then entrenched following a nationwide referendum. Pressure on religious minorities was growing more pronounced, and in western parts of Iran, the followers of a centuries-old religion were feeling particularly insecure: the Yarsanis.
More than a million followers of this 14th-century syncretic faith reside in Iran, and at the time it was reported that they would soon be targeted by the Iranian government, just like the Baha’is before them. Thousands of Yarsanis therefore decided to temporarily cross the border into Iraq, and wait there to see what the Iranian regime would do.
But then the Iran-Iraq war broke out. Those still over the border were considered Iranian citizens in Iraq, and were thus deported to a camp in southern Iraq in a horrible “exile-within-exile”. This report tells the story of a Yarsani migrant, Ali Moradi, who was just 15 years old at the time of this ordeal. He later made his way into northern Europe from Iraq and became a city councillor in Finland. Exactly 40 years on from the start of the Iran-Iraq war, he recalls this period to IranWire.
When debate got under way about the form Iran’s new government should take immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the direct intervention of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini put a stop to it. In a speech on March 8, he declared: "Your path is the path of Islam. Your path is to establish the Islamic Republic. I am voting for the Islamic Republic, and I ask you to vote for the Islamic Republic. Not a word less, not a word more: Islamic Republic."
From that moment on, no other model of governance was considered. In April 1979 the people were offered a yes/no referendum on instituting an Islamic Republic. The name "Islamic" was enough to warn non-Shia Muslims of looming catastrophe. Then in December 1979, the new Constitution was adopted – and the only religious minorities it recognized were Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews. With the flick of a pen, millions of Iranians were left out in the cold.
The Threats Begin
Alireza “Ali” Moradi is now 55 years old. He sits in front of our reporter in the central library of the Finnish city of Jyväskylä, recalling those dark days.
"We were living in the border areas,” he says. “It was reported that the new Islamic government would not tolerate the Yarsanis and would not permit us to hold religious ceremonies. They said they would shave our moustaches. Fear was rife and so we began leaving Iran."
A reader in 2020 might well ask, what does the state have to do with the length of citizens’ moustaches? The long moustache is an important symbol for Yarsani men and forms a crucial part of their beliefs. For this reason, Islamic Republic officials have often shaved off Yarsani prisoners’ moustaches to humiliate them. The most recent incidence of this took place in a Hamedan jail in 2013 and in response to the grievous insult, several Yarsanis set themselves on fire. Such acts have become harder for the authorities to get away with over time, in part due to the growth of the internet.
In the early days post-Islamic Revolution, however, such degrading treatment of Yarsanis was commonplace and spurred many to leave the country and wait in Iraq until the fate of the Islamic Republic became clearer.
"I was 15 years old in 1980,” says Ali Moradi. “It was three months before the start of the Iran-Iraq war. Several hundred people left Iran in two caravans near the Ezgaleh border. Others had gone before. All in all, about 4,000 to 5,000 Yarsanis had gone to Iraq when suddenly, war broke out."
The Fate of the Iranians in Iraqi Territory
On September 22, 1980, Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Iran and a bloody eight-year conflict ensued between the two neighboring states. Several thousand Iranian Yarsanis who had taken refuge in Iraq were caught in the crossfire.
Ali Moradi and his relatives, who were in the Meydan area near Darbandikhan in Iraq's Sulaymaniyeh province, moved through artillery fire to the Iraqi city of Khanaqin in Diyala province and remained there until around 1982. It was then that the Iraqi government began deporting a number of tribal leaders, as well as several prominent Yarsanis, to southern Iraq.
Moradi was by then approaching the age of 18. He and other Yarsanis took part in a local demonstration against the measure which could have got them killed. “In Saddam's Iraq,” he says, “demonstrations were strictly forbidden. The security forces were told that the Iranians were revolting in Khanaqin and they came with the intention of shooting us in the heads."
Some of the more canny demonstrators, though, brought along pictures of Saddam Hussein which they held aloft in their hands. "They didn’t whether to shoot us or not! ‘If they’re against the government, why they are holding Saddam’s picture?’”
Minorities at Home and in Exile Camps
In the fall of 1982 the Iraqi authorities began deporting Iranian ethnic Kurds en masse to Ramadi, south of Baghdad, and to Baqubah and Khanaqin near the border. Military trucks carrying Kurdish citizens rolled through the region, with 45,000 to 50,000 Kurds taken to Al Tash camp alone, a short distance from the city of Ramadi. Ali Moradi’s family were among those who were forcibly displaced.
"Each family was given a tent,” says Moradi. “There was no water, no electricity. Many people lost their lives from infectious diseases, diarrhoea and malnutrition."
Two painful years passed. In 1984, the Iraqi government finally allowed a delegation from the International Red Cross to visit the camp. "Our situation improved a little in terms of water and electricity,” says Morado. “But the tent only lasted a year. We had dug the ground and built a roof over it, but it couldn't last. Little by little, we started building houses for ourselves instead."
In Moradi’s recollection, around 6,000 to 7,000 of those held at Al Tash were Yarsanis, while the rest were mostly Sunni Muslims. “There were very few Shiites,” he says. “We came under pressure, we were discriminated against, and there was a lot of violence against us and beatings. We could not respond to any of it. We were considered infidels."
Moradi says the pressure eased after Kurdish opposition parties were also allowed to visit the camp: "The first year or two was very difficult. Then came the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) and the Komalah Party, who held meetings to promote the idea that religious differences should not lead to division. Later, the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (the MKO, or People’s Mojahedin Organization) also established a small headquarters there."
The Iraqi government had provided a limited stipend for the residents of Al Tash, but it was not enough to live on, so Moradi went into work. “From 1985, and for 10 years until I left, I was teaching the Persian language,” he says. “We were not in financial trouble but in 1990, when the United States and coalition forces attacked Iraq and the first Gulf War began, the situation became more difficult for us because Iraq was sanctioned.”
As a result of the attack in 1990 the International Organization for Migration visited the camp and began enrolling those Yarsanis who were willing to return to Iran voluntarily. Some seized the opportunity to return, but after a few arrivals Iran abruptly stopped accepting other returning residents of Al Tash. So, says Moradi, “I came to Finland in the spring of 1995, with the help of international organizations, along with my wife and four children at the time."
Living Under Cover
Contrary to the popular belief that the Yarsanis are an Islamic sect, Yarsanism is a syncretic religion with almost nothing in common with Islam. Followers consider fire and the Sun to be holy and observe the principles of equalization, purity, righteousness, and oneness. Many of their religious rites are accompanied by playing the tanbur.
The Yarsanis’ religion does not advocate violence or destruction, and there is no resurrection, heaven or hell. They believe in reincarnation after death, or “Don-a-Don”: moving from one don (“garment”) to the next.
Many of the older religions of the Iranian plateau had been forgotten and extinct since the fall of the Sassanids. With the arrival of Islam, other groups such as the followers of Mani and Mazdak were suppressed. But when Yarsanism emerged in the 14th century, the key to its survival was what followers called “the Secret”: they strove to keep both their beliefs and practices as quiet as possible.
Even today, Yarsanis in Iran try not to reveal their religion. They tick the “Muslim” box on administrative forms, at universities and in government departments, so as to be able to live and work with as little outside interference as possible.
"In Iran,” says Ali Moradi, “we have two identities: our real one and the identity we have to express because of the oppression of the official religion of the country. That is, to introduce ourselves as Muslims."
Ali Moradi has been a member of Jyväskylä City Council since 2008 and is an active member of the society he now calls home. In Iran, a Yarsani cannot so much as pursue further education if they declare their religion. Four decades since being uprooted from their home, Moradi and others in Europe can only hope that one day, their brothers and sisters will be just as as free in Kermanshah and the beautiful Dalahoo.