Iranian Sunnis complain of discrimination

The religious minority says they are treated as second-class citizens, but are hopeful for changes under Rouhani.

Last updated: 09 Mar 2014 13:38
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Many Iranians living in Sunni areas voted for Hassan Rouhani in elections last year [AP]

In a recent speech made in Iran's southern city of Bandar Abbas, President Hassan Rouhani asserted that his government has promised equal rights to Shia and Sunni Iranians.

But human rights groups claim that Sunni Muslims' rights are being systematically violated in the Islamic republic. New York-based Human Rights Watch has said Iran's authorities discriminate against Muslim minorities, including Sunnis, limiting their political participation and employment and banning them from building mosques in major cities.

In October 2012, Sunni activists wrote a public letter to Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, calling for an end to discriminatory policies and their lack of civil rights. But the letter went unanswered.

Since his election, Rouhani has claimed to make efforts to improve the situation of Iran's Sunni Muslims, making a statement dedicated to minorities' rights and charging a special assistant to investigate the issue.

Sunni scholar Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi told Al Jazeera: "Sunni Muslims in Iran hope for an end to discrimination. Everybody is hopeful Rouhani can fulfil his promises and also implement the constitution and stop illegalities and stop the discrimination."

Rouhani likely had heavy Sunni support in last year's presidential elections. About 85 percent of people living in Sunni areas of Iran participated [Pr] in the polls, and Rouhani received especially high shares of the vote in Sistan and Baluchistan (73.3 percent) and Kurdistan (70.8 percent) - provinces where a large number of Iran's Sunnis live.

Everyone should be able to act within the framework of his religion. That's it. It's reasonable and not excessive. We want this to be defined within the framework of the constitution.

Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, Sunni scholar

Ismaeelzahi said Rouhani's speeches made Sunni Muslims believe they would no longer be treated as second-class citizens. "The most important discrimination against Sunni Muslims in Iran is discrimination in assigning responsibilities to them and employment. Sunni Muslims in Iran have faced this problem since the Islamic revolution."

Approximately 10 percent of Iranians are Sunni, many living in the provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan, Kurdistan, Kermanshah, Khorasan and Khuzestan. It is also estimated that about one million Sunni Muslims live in Tehran.

But few have government jobs. Mohammad Hussein Gorgi, the Sunni imam of Azadshahr in northern Iran, told Al Jazeera: "Until now, in the ministries and embassies of the Islamic Republic's government, no Sunnis are employed, and they haven't taken any important positions like governor or administrator... it doesn't mean that there's no competent, principled or resourceful people among Sunnis. Rather, it shows the lack of trust towards them."

He added: "But since this government is the government of prudence and hope, we are hopeful that Sunnis will be assigned to important positions."

Iran's Sunnis are also underrepresented on Islamic TV programmes. Iranian Sunnis' public letter to Khamenei stated: "After Iran's Islamic revolution, Sunnis are not allowed to broadcast and express their opinion... even in one TV programme or one provincial media centre. Instead, national media have been free to desecrate... and offend Sunni Muslims."

The presence of radical Sunni groups has increased the government's pressure on Iranian Sunnis. In recent years, armed Sunni groups have launched attacks within Iran's borders. In response to an attack by radical groups last summer, the Iranian government executed 16 Sunni rebels and declared that the action was in response to terrorist attacks. In February, a hardline Sunni group called Jaish-e-Adl took five Iranian soldiers hostage in the border area in Sistan and Baluchistan province.

Sadegh Zibakalam, a political analyst and professor at Tehran University, believes an additional problem is that many Sunnis do not conflate their identity with Iranian national identity. "When the Islamic revolution occurred, if a few surveys had been done, the result would show that Sunnis did not have a serious, obvious identity... they were Sunni, but in the society they were mixed with the Shia majority. Unfortunately, for a lot of reasons, Sunni identity became much more pronounced during these years [following the revolution]."

Zibakalam said the Islamic republic's social and cultural policies spurred Sunnis to develop a stronger sense of self-identity. "The social demands of Sunnis were not met after the revolution. The government's approach meant that Sunnis weren't attracted to the social framework of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

"Everyone should be able to act within the framework of his religion," said Ismaeelzahi. "That's it. It's reasonable and not excessive. We want this to be defined within the framework of the constitution. We believe that if this is achieved, then Iran will achieve national security, national unity and power."

Follow Farshad Mohammadi on Twitter: @Farshadmm


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