Since 2005, tensions between the Iranian authorities and the largest Sufi sect in the country, the Nematollahi Gonobadi, have been rising. The Dervishes that make up the sect prescribe to a form of Shia Sufism. However, their beliefs differ from mainstream Iranian Islam, leading to declarations that the sect is ‘weakening Islam’ and that they are ‘political agitators’ becoming common. Now houses of worship are being destroyed, Gonobadis are being detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and their practices being suppressed. This harassment of the Gonobadis by the IRGC has resulted in sporadic outbreaks of violence by Gonobadis against the Iranian security services.
The most recent example was the Gonabadi Dervishes’ protest in Northern Tehran. The protest occurred in response to the arrest of one of their community leaders, Nematollah Riahi, and the lack of clarity regarding where he has been detained and what the charges against him are. Six men were reported dead in the aftermath of the protest: five members of the security services and one member of the Gonabadi sect. Government news organizations have portrayed the event as an aggressive mob attacking both civilians and police alike, whereas other media sources have argued protesters were heard declaring that they did not want violence but felt there was no other option following aggressive police interventions. Three hundred arrests have now been made. These arrests are not a new phenomenon. A number of Gonobadis have been arrested in Iran under ‘National Security’ laws, and multiple protests by the Gonobadis have taken place. There is, understandably, a sense within the Gonobadi community that they are being persecuted unfairly. The fact that the arrest of Nematollah Riahi is shrouded in mystery only entrenches this belief.
However, these violent outbreaks leading to the death of policemen will only escalate tensions. There is a desperate need now for communication between the Iranian authorities and the sect. The Dervish leader, Nour Ali Tabandeh, condemned the violence committed by the members of his sect and offered his condolences to the families of the security services killed at the protest. These calls for non-violence are vital and must be heeded by the sect if tensions between the Gonobadis and the Iranian authorities are to abate.
Unfortunately, the Government response to the attack has been hostile. Following the demonstration, a police spokesman, Saeed Montazer Al-Mehdi was quoted decrying the deaths of two of the Basij paramilitary force, an organisation loosely affiliated with the IRGC, at the hands of a ‘superstitious cult’. This sentiment was shared by government media, who referred to the event as an attack by a ‘Dervish Cult’. Using this kind of derogatory language about what after all is the largest Sufi sect in Iran will only further antagonise the community. Additionally, as long as the government maintains a narrative that is at odds with coverage from alternative media sources, fears within the Gonobadi sect that they cannot work with the Iranian authorities will be reinforced and the likelihood that they will continue to resort to violence will be greater. Dialogue, compromise, and transparency are now crucial in order to prevent further tragedy.
Political insecurity in Iran is currently a major issue. These Gonabadi demonstrations come on the heels of some of the largest economic and social protests Iran has ever seen back in December and January. A constant criticism leveled at the Sufi community is that they are political agitators and want to destabilise the Iranian government. These allegations have often triggered persecution and arrests. It would be easy during this time of political uncertainty to further suppress the Gonabadi community. However, to do so will have a lasting impact on Sufi relations in Iran. In order to maintain peace and prevent further tragedy, it is important to recognise a people’s desire for rights as just that, and open a dialogue, rather than belittle them as political agitators within a ‘superstitious cult’. Such dogmatic derision will simply further cyclical violence.