On Annan, Robinson, Religion and Hypocrisy

Nov. 10, 2008
NIR BOMS and SHAYAN ARYA , THE JERUSALEM POST

Following the passage in Teheran of a new Islamic Penal Code, which codifies the death penalty for males who abandon Islam, the Iranian government called for a conference on “Religion in the Modern World.” With former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, former high commissioner on human rights Mary Robinson, past prime ministers of Italy and Norway, and former president of Portugal in attendance, Muhammad Khatami, the former Iranian president, called upon the “religious leaders of the world to try new ways to create a peaceful co-existence and invite the world to establish peace and security.”

This is a commendable and noble appeal, but one that is overshadowed by the brutal history of religious intolerance in Iran under the Islamic republic which Khatami represents.

Consider some recent events: Last month, security forces entered the Imam Abu Hanifa Mosque in the Azimabad suburb of the city of Zabol. The mosque also served as a religious school and dormitory. They arrested and evacuated the sleeping students and staff and then brought bulldozers and destroyed the building.

This is not the first time such an episode has taken place. Several other mosques have been destroyed in a similar fashion. Why does the Islamic republic destroy mosques?

IRAN IS a religiously diverse country with significant Sunni, Baha’i, Sufi, Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian minorities. With a population of 70 million, there are an estimated 10 million to 15 million Sunnis (this includes the majority of Kurds, virtually all Baluchis and Turkomans, and a minority of the Arabs). Following the Islamist revolution, Sunnis have suffered systematic discrimination. Attempts of forced conversion to Shi’ism have increased in recent years.

This may help explain why Mawlavi (a religious title used by Iranian Sunnis) Ahmad Narouee, the deputy director of the main theological school in Zahedan and a moderate Sunni cleric, was arrested last month. Narouee is one of the most moderate Baluchi Sunni clerics in Sistan-Baluchistan province. He comes from one of the oldest and most influential Baluchi clans, and he is widely respected.

Although close to 400 members of the Narouee clan have been killed since 1979, Mawlavi Narouee remains tolerant in his views. He discourages people from using violence and encourages patience. He supported negotiations with Teheran in the hope that Sunnis would receive local government posts and promotes economic and social development. His moderate views are often criticized by radical elements in the province. But many credit him and his moderate colleagues with preventing increased bloodshed and violence in the province.

Apparently none of that matters to the radical Islamic regime in Teheran. Narouee was arrested and is being kept incommunicado in an undisclosed location.

RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE is not new to the Islamic republic. Since the establishment of the republic in 1979, all of Iran’s religious minorities have suffered varying degrees of pressure and persecution. Even Shi’ite groups are not immune from persecution if they do not adhere to the Khomeini’s radical interpretations.

One case in point is Ayatollah Kazemaini Borujerdiand. He was imprisoned and tortured together with many of his followers. His crime was to call for a non-political interpretation of Shi’ite Islam and for the separation of religion and state. A few days ago, he published an open letter to the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and dared him to agree to a free referendum under international supervision.

But what goes on in Sistan-Baluchistan and other predominantly Sunni provinces differs greatly from such a vision.

Recently, two Sunni clerics Moulavi Muhammad Yousof Sohrabi and Moulavi Abdoulghodus Mollazahi were executed after being forced to confess on television that they were actively creating divisions between Shi’ites and Sunnis. Since 2004, more than 130 people, mostly Sunni men, from as young as 15, have been executed or killed in Sistan-Baluchistan on similar charges.

On September 7, seven young Baluchi men, three of whom were related to the headmaster of the Imam Abu Hanifa Mosque, were arrested by security forces in the city of Zahedan. Their whereabouts remain unknown.

Since the beginning of the revolution many Sunni mosques in predominately Shi’ite cities have been destroyed, closed, or converted to Shi’ite mosques. In cities such as Mashhad, Ahwaz, Turbat-e-Jaam, Shiraz and Teheran, many Sunni mosques have been closed or destroyed by the regime. Getting a license to build a new one is impossible. Such a systematic assault on mosques by a regime that professes Islamic faith is quite astounding.

Khatami, a likely presidential candidate, would like us to believe that the regime he represents seeks to create a world in which religion, politics and faith can live in harmony. A few former diplomats, who perhaps seek further honor and glory, buy his line.

But hopefully not for long. As Edmund Burke has said: “Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises, for never intending to go beyond promises, it costs nothing.”

Khatami and his colleagues should be forced to respond to serious questioning about the recent events in Iran. His easy statements about “peaceful coexistence” must not be accepted so easily – not by Annan and Robinson and not by the rest of the world.

Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Shayan Arya is an Iranian activist, member of Constitutionalist Party of Iran and associate researcher at the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education.

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