Iranians practice Muslims - Dialogue with the Islamic World

Iran is suspicious of how Sunni Saudi Arabia deals with its Shiite minority. When the Saudi authorities recently executed the Shiite cleric Nimr Baker al-Nimr, a violent storm of protest broke out in Iran, the Shiite protection power. Conversely, however, the leadership in Tehran does not deal better with the Sunnis in their own country, emphasize human rights activists. In the Rajai Shahr prison alone, 27 Sunnis are waiting to be executed, as the "International Campaign for Sunni Prisoners in Iran" (ICSPI) warns.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Shiite belief is the state religion. Nine out of ten Iranians are Shiites. The Sunnis make up almost ten percent of the population. There are also some Christians, Jews and others. In principle, Sunnis in Iran are free to practice their form of belief. Article 12 of the Iranian Constitution grants them largely equal treatment. "In foreign policy, too, Iran repeatedly emphasizes that it makes no distinction between Sunnis and Shiites," says the Iranian journalist and author Bahman Nirumand. "But in practice the Sunnis are disadvantaged in Iran," he says.

According to the ICSPI, the 27 Sunni prisoners are charged with offenses against national security, among other things. In addition, there is the broad accusation of "enmity against God". According to the ICSPI, the prisoners assert that they only preached Sunni Islam and distributed Sunni books.

No conversions tolerated

When it comes to the mission for another denomination, Shiite clergy and officials react sensitively. Not only conversions to officially recognized Christianity or to the massively persecuted Baha'i faith are punished. According to the will of the religious and political leadership, other directions of Islam should not spread further on the northern edge of the Persian Gulf.

The security authorities have repeatedly targeted Muslim mystics of the Gonabadi order in recent years. The places of worship of the mystics were destroyed several times and leading representatives arrested. A protest rally by 800 supporters of the order in Tehran was broken up with tear gas in 2014. According to Gonabadi mystics, the authorities want to prevent even more Iranians from joining this Islamic community, which differs from classical Sunniism such as Shi'aism.

No right to own mosques?

According to statistics, there were around 10,000 Sunni mosques in former Persia. The number of Shiite places of worship is estimated at 50,000 to 60,000 today. This means that there are more places of prayer for Sunnis in relation to the proportion of the population than for followers of the officially predominant denomination. But appearances are deceptive. In its annual report for 2015, the human rights organization "Human Rights Watch" (HRW) criticized the fact that the authorities did not allow Sunni mosques to be built in the capital Tehran. Two Iranian Sunnis reported to the French TV broadcaster France24 that Sunnis would have to go to secret prayer rooms there if they did not want to pray in Shiite mosques. The authorities would have demolished at least one such room in Tehran. "Some Shiite hardliners believe that Sunnis in a Shiite country have no right to their own places of worship," explained one of the two Sunnis.

Non-Shiite Muslims are also disadvantaged in other areas. According to HRW, it is much more difficult for them than for Shiites to work in the public service or to get involved in politics. As early as 2003, 18 Sunni members of parliament wrote an open letter to the highest religious dignitaries in the country complaining about the treatment of Sunnis as second-class citizens. The MPs asked why there had been no Sunni ministers, provincial governors or ambassadors until then. According to the Persian-speaking media, it was not until 2015 that a Sunni was appointed ambassador for the country for the first time.

Denomination often tied to ethnicity

According to Nirumand, an expert on Iran, it is often less the Islamic denomination than ethnicity that plays a role in the exclusion. Most of the Sunnis in the multi-ethnic state are Kurds, Turkmens, Arabs or Baluch, who live in the country's border provinces. There are strong autonomy movements there, against which the central government in Tehran is taking action. The human rights organization Amnesty International also sees membership of a certain ethnic group as one of the main reasons for discrimination. For example, members of the ethnic minorities have poorer access to water, housing, work or education.

Sunniism, ethnicity and aspirations for autonomy are mixed up in the state's perception, explains Nirumand. Iran fears that Saudi Arabia will exert influence on its own Sunnis - just as the leaderships in Riyadh, for their part, see the Shiites in the kingdom as a possible fifth column in Iran.

Andreas Gorzewski

© Deutsche Welle 2016