By Khaled Mahmoud
Asharq Al-Awsat – Sheikh Abdol Hamid Esmaeel Zehi is a leading religious figure amongst Iran’s Sunni community. He is the chairman of Dar al Uloom University in Zahedan and leads the Friday prayer at the Sunni Makki Mosque in Zahedan.
In this interview, he talks to Asharq Al-Awsat about Iran’s Sunni community and its relationship with the Iranian regime.
This is the first interview Sheikh Abdol Hamid has given in months due to the strict supervision that all Iranian Sunnis are subjected to. He has reservations about giving interviews to newspapers and media representatives over the phone. This interview was conducted via email. His brother was imprisoned for four months for publishing photos of attacks on a Sunni school last year in the Baluchestan province.
Q) What is the population of Sunnis in Iran and where do most of them live?
A) They live along most of Iran’s borders. The [Sunni] residents who live on the eastern, south-eastern and north-eastern borders belong to the Hanafi school of thought. The residents along the north and south western borders belong to the Shafey school of thought whilst most Sunnis in Al Ahwaz are Hanbalis. Due to where they are situated geographically, the population there is made up of diverse communities such as the Baloch people, the Kurds, the Turkmen, the Persians, Arabs and the Talysh. Each of these communities has its own language, but the official language of the state is Persian. The Sunnis constitute at least a quarter or a fifth of the country’s population, estimated at more than 15 million out of Iran’s entire population of 70 million. The Sunnis are mainly based in the city of Zahedan, the capital city of the Sistan province. Baluchestan is home to Makki Mosque, Iran’s biggest Sunni mosque, and Darul Uloom University, the country’s biggest Sunni centre of education. The university comprises of a large number of students from all over Iran and from neighbouring countries. In these two religious centres, the important political and religious issues concerning Sunnis are being dealt with and whenever the Sunnis encounter problems or pressure, complaints would be filed there.
Q) Are there any official centres for Sunnis?
A) Unfortunately, there is no official centre or institute in Tehran to follow matters that concern Sunnis with the exception of the Sunni representatives in the Shoura Council, who number nearly 20 out of 280 representatives. Without doubt, this is a very small number bearing in mind the number of the Sunni population. Actually there should be over 40 representatives. The reason the number of Sunni representatives is so little is that the Guardian Council of the Constitution often rejects most Sunni candidates even if they are experienced and competent.
Q) How would you describe the situation of Sunni Muslims in Iran at present?
A) Before the revolution, the royal secular regime was concerned only with maintaining power so it did not see any difference between the Sunnis and the Shia, and the doctrine [one followed] did not play a part in employment or appointment to state positions. As a result, the Sunnis and the Shia equally used to assume government posts, and the Sunnis used to hold senior posts in the police forces as well as in the army. Therefore, the level of concern and confusion about discrimination and inequality was much lower and could hardly be felt.
However, after the revolution, the Shia doctrine dominated and the Shia ideologists took control in the country and were concerned only about the doctrine, therefore, the Sunnis had to confront different problems.
It is worth mentioning that with regards to some construction and development issues in the past thirty years, the new regime provided services to the citizens equally and in all places, and the Sunnis are not worried about these particular issues. The main issue that concerns the Sunnis now is the discrimination in the field of employment within official and major posts. The Constitution stipulated that the official [state] doctrine is Twelver Shia Jaafari Islam and that the President of the Republic must be a Shia. It is for this reason that the Sunnis cannot run for presidency in the elections.
Though the constitution does not forbid the appointment of Sunnis to government positions, not one Sunni has ever been appointed vice president, minister, deputy minister, ambassador or governor. What is even stranger is that they hardly participate in the administration of governorates with Sunni majorities. Therefore, there is clearly sectarianism when it comes to choosing Sunnis for state positions. Even if Sunnis are qualified for the presidential post, or ministerial or government positions, they are deprived of this because of their adherence to their doctrine and ideological opinions.
As for jobs in the police force, the Sunnis were appointed for a short period only following the revolution, and the Sunnis now have no presence in the army. Because of this discrimination, the Sunnis are feeling concerned, tense and isolated.
The second problem faced by the Sunnis concerns doctrinal freedom. Though the constitution stipulates freedom for the followers of all doctrines, there are bodies and institutions that are putting pressure on the Sunnis with regards to educational and doctrinal issues. Consequently, Sunni activists are experiencing serious problems with regards to educational issues in some Sunni areas and Sunni children in some areas are being educated secretly.
The Sunnis do not have one mosque in Tehran, Isfahan, Kerman, Yazd or any other cities with Shia majorities. Furthermore, our Sunni brothers in Tehran were prevented from performing the Friday or the Eid prayers at the school affiliated to the Pakistani embassy recently, and now they if they want to pray they can only do so in some houses. Likewise, in other big cities where there are only a few Sunnis, they take part in the Friday and the Eid prayers in houses, and they are facing real problems in this regard. The Sunnis in cities with Shia majorities are the least fortunate of all Sunnis in terms of ideological issues. They face real problems in building mosques, educating their children and in other religious issues. The complaints filed to state officials are not responded to and are not solved. A resolution was issued recently by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution forcing the Sunnis to delegate authority over Sunni religious schools and educational centres to the government. In this manner, the government is seeking to take control of Sunni mosques and schools and the Sunnis consider this a disaster and are now uniting against this resolution and objecting the executive measures of this resolution. The state’s success in implementing this resolution would mean depriving the Sunnis of doctrinal freedom all over the country.
In brief, the Sunnis in Iran have two major problems: doctrinal freedom, and the lack of equality in assuming government and administrative posts. For their part, the Sunnis never relinquish their rights, they monitor [their rights] through peaceful means, and demand the government acknowledges their legitimate rights and stops depriving them of their rights because of their beliefs.
Q) What about relations with the Iranian government on an official level?
A) The Sunnis have no official relations with the government, except through the Shoura Council representatives. Sometimes there are visits to Shia clerics and Marjas during which we talk to them about the problems the Sunnis are encountering and we exchange opinions regarding issues that concern the Sunnis.
A) What is your position on the continuous controversy between the Reformists and the Conservatives?
Q) The fundamental motive behind the current controversy is the lack of freedoms stipulated by the constitution such as freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of political parties and political components and other legitimate rights. The ongoing controversy is about these issues as well as the validity of the recent elections. What further aggravated the controversy was a set of other social and political issues in the country. If the government does not take the initiative and make amendments and changes to the ruling regime’s structure, the controversy will have consequences that will affect the regime’s foundation. But if it takes initiative and responds to the people’s legitimate problems then we can expect reconciliation between the two sides. If the government adopts a broader vision of these issues, problems will be solved and the regime will remain.
Q) Do you receive Arab or Islamic support?
A) As Iranian Sunnis, we are yet to receive any kind of Arab or Islamic support. The claims made by extremist parties that Sunnis receive support from Muslim and Arab countries are all baseless and incorrect.
Q) What are the doctrinal disputes between the Sunnis and the Shia?
A) Igniting doctrinal disputes [between the Sunnis and the Shia] will not benefit Islam and Muslims, as the differences are made up by people who have had the door shut [in their face] and their political ambitions blocked. Due to the fierce international campaign against Islam and Muslims, the essence of Islam has been seriously jeopardized recently therefore it is our duty to avoid doctrinal disputes.
Q) Have the attempts made by some Arab and Iranian circles to settle doctrinal disputes been successful?
A) The conferences held in Iran and in other Islamic countries that we hear a lot about are limited in their activities to applause and mere propaganda and in reality they accomplish no tangible achievements. Evidence of this is that they have never been successful at achieving the goal that they set out to reach i.e. settling disputes. There are still doctrinal disputes that are yet to be settled, and the conferences were of no benefit to the Ummah. They did not bring together the Sunnis and Shia in Iran nor did they solve the problems concerning the Sunnis. It would have been more beneficial to the Ummah if these conferences had been held out of sympathy.
Q) To what extent has the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad influenced society in comparison to his predecessor Mohammed Khatami?
A) Under Khatami, political freedoms, political components and the freedom of expression were more protected and the standard of living of the Iranian people was higher under Khatami.