Marginalizing Religious Minorities Risks Fueling Radicalism in Iran

By Ali Alfoneh | Nonresident Senior Fellow - Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East | Dec 11, 2017
Marginalizing Religious Minorities Risks Fueling Radicalism in Iran

A senior aide to President Hassan Rouhani has revealed that “rogue and radical elements” within the government oppose the integration of Iran’s disenfranchised Sunni community into the sociopolitical fabrics of society. In an interview with Jameeh-ye Farda on December 11, Hojjat al-Eslam Ali Younesi, former Iranian intelligence minister, did not identify who these “elements” are, but claimed that they “at times take hostage a political movement, an institution, ministry or an entire branch of government” in their “sabotage” against the Rouhani government’s outreach to Iran’s religious and ethnic minorities.

Citing examples of such acts of sabotage, Younesi disclosed that “the [Rouhani] cabinet sent a circular to all institutions and ministries… instructing them to recruit among the elites of religious and ethnic minorities, but unfortunately there was sabotage within the government.” Younesi further claimed that the government invited Mawlana Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, Iran’s most prominent Sunni cleric, to President Hassan Rouhani’s swearing-in ceremony, but “the decision was not authorized.”

Ismaeelzahi had expressed a similar concern in an interview with reformist Ebtekar on December 2. Praising the defeat of ISIS, he warned: “We must think of future vulnerabilities so radicalism does not raise its head elsewhere… Let us remember that injustice, discrimination, poverty and penury are social problems resulting in radicalism.”

The Sunni leader also offered some telling observations about the state of affairs in Iran: “Our Sunni brethren are absent in the [government] bureaucracy, and if they are represented, they are very few.” He added: “We have problems teaching the Quran to our children, and in certain places, organizing prayer.”

Earlier this year, Ismaeelzahi wrote a letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to express his community’s concern over reports of a “secret order” issued by the country’s Judiciary to speed up the execution of Sunni death-row prisoners. He called on Khamenei to address the “Sunni community’s concerns,” and added that the latest spate of executions of Sunnis convicted on drugs-related charges reinforces the notion that the Judiciary’s directive actually exists. 

Comment: While Tehran is declaring victory over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the plight of Iran’s disenfranchised Sunni population risks creating tomorrow’s radicals. Younesi makes the right observation that some of the problems of Iran’s religious minorities are not so much caused by their faith, but due to the fact that they live in Iran’s periphery areas. Iran’s wealth is used in the center, while the periphery is left to its own devices. However, he is just as correct in his observation about religious minorities perceiving underdevelopment of their region as faith-based discrimination.

The question, however, is if the president has the courage to fight against radical elements within the state who obstruct and sabotage the government’s outreach to Iran’s Sunni community. If Iran continues to marginalize and discriminate against its Sunnis and other minority groups, it may have to deal with radicalization within its religious and ethnic minorities in the future.

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