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Iranian government builds bridges to Sunni minority

Iran’s Sunni community is estimated at 9% of the country's population.
Two Iranian Sunni Kurd women wearing traditional clothes pose for a photograph as they stand in the Caraftoo cave historical site in Divandare, Kurdistan province, 540 km (338 miles) west of Tehran May 13, 2011. Iranian Shi'ite and Sunni Kurds live in harmony with each other in Divandare, although Sunni is the religion of the majority of the people.   REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl (IRAN - Tags: TRAVEL SOCIETY RELIGION) - RTR2MDZX

Despite its numerous attempts to encourage unity among different sects of Islam, the Islamic Republic has been unsuccessful in creating amicable relations with its own Sunni Muslim citizens. Therefore, every once in a while in different regions of the country, there is tension between the government and the Sunni community. These conflicts are evidence of historical problems between the two sides.

Sunni Iranians are usually scattered across the border regions of Iran. A majority of them live in Kurdistan, West Azerbaijan, Golestan, Sistan and Baluchistan, and Northern and Southern Khorasan. There are also smaller communities in provinces bordering those mentioned above, as well as in metropolises.

There are no official statistics regarding the Sunni Muslims of Iran. The Statistical Center of Iran releases statistics regarding the Muslim population in general without differentiating between different sects of Islam. According to the CIA World Factbook, the Sunni population of Iran makes up about 9% of the population (about 7 million). Sunni websites and organizations complain about the absence of any official records regarding their community and believe their number is much greater than what is usually estimated. 

Demographic changes have become an issue for both sides. Radicals on either side speak about the increase in the Sunni population and usually issue biased predictions regarding demographic changes in the country. One prediction, for example, claims that the Sunnis will be the majority in Iran by 2030. In this atmosphere of mutual fear, some Sunnis look for conspiracy theories when government restricts their religious freedoms. At the same time, some Shiites have criticized Sunnis' disregard for Iran’s population-control programs and have asked for the removal of restrictions to ensure the continued existence of a Shiite majority in Iran.

Regardless of conspiracy theories, the issue of the lack of trust between the two sides has resulted from a conflict of identity in Iran. Therefore, that Shiites are frightened by the idea of Iran separated from Shiism. At the same time, Sunni Iranians consider Shiite Islam to be a threat to their own identity.

This problem first emerged during the discussions that preceded the writing of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic in 1358 (1979). Certain Shiite clerics were attempting to have Shiite Islam recognized as the official religion of Iran. Their actions were criticized by Molavi Abdol Aziz, a representative of the Sunni population of Baluchistan in the constitutional convention. Finally, in Article 12 of the Constitution of Iran, Shiite Islam was recognized as the official religion of the country: “The official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelver Jaafari School, and this principle will remain eternally immutable. Other Islamic schools, including the Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki, Hanbali, and Zaydi, are to be accorded full respect.” This conclusion displeased the Sunni — as well as a few Shiite — members of the constitutional convention. Sunnis felt that with Shiite Islam as the official religion of Iran, they were being labeled as “outsiders.” The small Shiite group, on the other hand, was displeased that the title “the absolute true religion,” which had existed as a title for Shiite religion in the previous version of the Iranian Constitution, had been removed from the new one.

The Iranian government has been using different methods of publicity — for example, calling for the week of unity for Shiites and Sunnis, or confronting Shiite radicals who had disrespected the Sunni sanctities — in trying to close the gap between the Sunnis and the Shiites. However, official media outlets in Iran broadcasting movies and sermons disrespecting Sunni beliefs has always been problematic. More important, substantial publicity work done by Shiite seminary schools and government centers in Sunni-populated areas, starting in the 1990s, has noticeably intensified the problem. Therefore, there has been a decline in religious interaction between Shiites and Sunnis in those areas. For example, interreligious marriages or joint religious activities for events such as Ashoura have decreased. On the other hand, the Sunni population has also reacted to the elements mentioned before by showing Salafi and jihadist tendencies. This fact has further deepened the gap between the Sunnis and the Shiites.

Accordingly, religious and social restrictions have been imposed on the Sunni community. Sunnis complain about restrictions on building mosques in metropolises such as Tehran, their lack of freedom in publicizing and teaching their own religion, and their inability to have a strong political presence in Iran. The spread of poverty in Sunni-dominant regions has also added to this dissatisfaction. From time to time, these restrictions have resulted in violence. For example, stopping the construction of a Sunni mosque, and its eventual destruction in Mashhad in 1372 (1993), resulted in two-sided violence in Baluchistan and Khorasan. Following these events, there was a blast at the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad in which the existing evidence pointed to the radical Sunni groups. This trend resulted in the emergence of Sunni terrorist groups, the most famous one being Jundallah, in whose October attack 14 Iranian border guards were killed. At the same time, issuing death sentences for Sunni activists has expanded the circle of violence.

International human rights organizations, Sunni religious organizations and Iranian social activists have all paid close attention to the difficulties of the Sunni community. On Nov. 9, Human Rights Watch published a report concerning the religious restrictions imposed on the Sunni population of Iran and requested their removal. In January, in a meeting with the Iranian foreign minister, the president of Al-Azhar University, Ahmad el-Tayeb, requested that the Iranian government give full rights of citizenship to Sunni Iranians. Famous Iranian social activist Mohammad Nourizad has recently traveled from city to city in Sunni Kurdish areas hoping to stop the spread of violence. In his most recent letter to the leader of Iran, he has asked for the removal of the death sentences issued against Sunni activists. Molavi Abdol Hamid, the Sunni Friday prayer imam of Zahedan, while criticizing the exiting constitution of Iran and the way it regards the Sunni population, has asked the Iranian government to at least guarantee that the Sunni population benefit from the rights bestowed on them by the Constitution.

The increasing gap between the government of Iran and its Sunni community is the outcome of accumulating historical problems and is being intensified by the current political conflicts in the region. In an atmosphere such as this, if the government is seriously attempting to change its approach and let rights of citizenship take precedence over ideology, it can lessen the divide between Shiites and Sunnis and gradually mend the problem. Appointing Ali Younesi, a well-known reformist figure, as the presidential adviser in charge of ethnic and religious minorities’ affairs was a positive step. However, his background of working in the intelligence service has worried the Sunni community and has prevented them from trusting him.

Finally, in regard to a solution, the Iranian government must provide full freedom of worship to the Sunni minority in the entire country, stop any kind of disrespect toward their sanctities, engage Sunnis national political decisions (especially in their own regions), and show more attempts at economic development of these areas.

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