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A trip through Iran's Sunni heartland

A journey into Iran's northwest cities of Bukan, Mahabad and Saqqez indicates that while Iranian Sunnis face discrimination, it is rooted in politics, not religion.
EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on leaving the office to report, film or take pictures in Tehran.

Iranian Sunni worshippers (centre) pray as they stand with Shi'ite Muslims during Tehran's Friday prayers October 14, 2011. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl (IRAN - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION) - GM1E7AE1UKE01

How do Iranian Sunnis survive in a Shiite-dominated landscape? This is a common question among people who follow Iranian affairs, given reports suggesting that Sunnis suffer from religious discrimination nationwide, such as not being allowed to build mosques in major cities or to practice their religious rituals. Iran's Sunnis encompass a range of ethnic minorities, from Arabs to Kurds to Turkmens. In August, I visited Sunni Kurdish cities in northwest Iran, attending a wedding in Bukan and then traveling to neighboring Mahabad and Saqqez to see how Iranian Sunni Kurds live. It was my first time in the area, which extends over the large provinces of Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan.

The route to Bukan was mountainous. The farther we drove, the more mountains we encountered. You got the feeling that all the country’s secrets lie hidden behind the last mountain, but that you would never get there. We arrived in Bukan quite late, but not too late for the traditional hana bandan, a pre-wedding ritual that involves adorning the bride with henna.

People were gathering in the street outside the home of the bride's family. They were singing, dancing and preparing for the arrival of the groom. The men wore traditional Kurdish attire, while the women, some without scarves, put the finishing touches on the table where the bride and groom would sit. Sisters and friends of the bride wore yellow and black outfits, helping the bride into her traditional red dress. The moment the groom arrived, the street turned into a big party as an older man broke into song accompanied by two younger men, one playing a flute and another beating the tonbak, a drum typically used at weddings.

Upon first impression, it seemed that the people of Bukan were able to hold their weddings freely and publicly without interference. Luqman, a young student from Bukan who lives in Tehran, told Al-Monitor that such celebrations are respected by the authorities. “Every time there’s a wedding or celebration, we come to our town," he said. "They respect our traditions — as you can see, nothing is banned. The next day the wedding will be held in a very big hall in the city. People will flock there and the celebration will have a more modern look, different from the one you saw today.”

At 2 a.m. the celebration came to an end as we made our way to the city's only hotel. Surprisingly, the streets were still alive at such a late hour. Restaurants were open and barbecues were ablaze. In Tehran, shops and amenities would be closed at this time.

The next day, we headed to Saqqez, an ancient Kurdish city south of Bukan. The Saqqez River runs through the city, and the streets are named after prominent Islamic figures such as the first and second caliphs, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq and Omar bin al-Khattab. Shiites generally do not fully endorse those caliphates, but in Saqqez, the two mosques in the city are named after them.

From Saqqez we headed north to the city of Mahabad. The city is known for being the capital of the short-lived Kurdish republic — the Republic of Mahabad — which was declared in January 1946 and dissolved in December of that year. It was prayer time when we arrived, so we headed to the city’s monumental Red Mosque, which was built in the 17th century during the Safavid era. There we met the custodian of the mosque, Sheikh Yahya Ismaeli, who led the communal prayer and then told us the history of the 18-domed structure. 

“This mosque was built by Boddaq al-Sultan during Shah Safi’s era [1629-1642]," he said. "It’s also a religious school where leading scholars of Kurdistan have studied and taught. Sharia students come here to study and it’s a place that the people of the area have a special relation with.”

He continued, “We are living here alongside our Shiite brothers. What we want is more care from the government for such a monument so that people will continue to come here and practice their prayers. [We also want] students to continue studying so our mosque will continue to be a minaret of knowledge and Islam in our region.”

These first impressions of cities in northwest Iran are not enough to fully understand the situation of Sunni Kurds in Iran, though they do provide a hint. As far as religion goes, Sunnis don’t seem to have a problem praying or attending school. Sunni students are taught religion according to their own version of history, given that the Shiite version of Islamic history differs in many respects. According to official statistics, thousands of Sunni mosques can be found in Iran, including grand mosques in Zahedan and Kermanshah, where many Sunnis live.

There are 20 Sunni representatives in the Iranian parliament, while three Sunnis are members of the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for supervising, electing and dismissing the supreme leader. (Those Sunni representatives are not Kurdish but from other ethnic minorities.) No Sunni has ever been appointed to a ministerial position, though one Sunni diplomat was appointed as an ambassador during President Hassan Rouhani's first term. Here lies the key point: The main problem for the Sunnis of Iran is a political problem, not a religious one.

Iran's Sunni populations are concentrated along the border. This alone puts a heavy burden on their back, given the situation in Iraq and the loose security along the border with Pakistan. With regard to Sunni Kurds, their history of insurgency and their ambitions for independence have made Iranian governments cautious in dealing with this minority. More than four Kurdish revolts took place between 1922 and the first years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. A continued yet contained insurgency against the Iranian government is led by Kurdish groups along the border with Iraq. In Sistan and Baluchistan, groups such as Jundallah, Jaish ul-Adl and Ansar al-Furqan have been fighting the government since 2004. Iran fears that through such groups, the government's regional rivals, mainly Saudi Arabia, might gain leverage in the country and pose a serious security threat to national security.

The Sunni question in Iran is very sensitive, and the establishment in Tehran walks a delicate line in its attempts to build relations that could lead to Sunni integration. At the same time, the establishment's primary concern is to protect the country from attempts at destabilization — a hard task that requires the patience of a rug weaver and the exactitude of a careful artist.

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