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Iran's Sunni Uprising
Women’s rights activists have been joined by an unlikely ally: Baluch and Kurdish clergy.
Something remarkable is happening in Iran. Muslim clerics are calling for the Islamic Republic to submit to a referendum on its continued existence. In other words, Islamic clergy are backing a revolution against clerical rule.
First it was Molavi Abdulhamid Ismailzahi, the imam-jum’a of Zahedan. (He’s roughly equivalent to the archbishop of Baluchistan.) Now it’s a collection of Kurdish clerics in Sanandaj. Kurdish imams in other cities have gone even further, singing a banned song about Kurdish martyrs from the pulpit or blasting the slogan “women, life, freedom” from mosque loudspeakers.
But these aren’t the Shi’a clerics who run the Islamic Republic. Baluches are almost entirely Sunni, as are most (but not all) Kurds. They have been among the most marginalized peoples in the country, under the Islamic Republic as well as the Pahlavi monarchy before it. Many are seeking self-rule or even independence.
Iran’s current uprising is an unlikely combination between two strains of discontent. The slogans of the protest movement focus on cosmopolitan liberal grievances against theocratic rule. On the other hand, the highest-intensity rebellion and repression has taken place in rural minority areas.
So far, they have been held together by common outrage about government brutality. It is unclear what will happen if the uprisings crystallize around a more specific political project.
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The very spark of the uprising contained both strains. Mahsa Jina Amini was a Kurdish woman visiting Tehran in September when she was arrested for “bad hijab” and died in police custody. Her death was a symbol of so many different inequalities: gender, ethnicity, social class, and political connections. It opened up a general airing of grievances against the Islamic Republic.
The protests around Amini’s death coincided with unrest simmering on another Iranian periphery. Baluchistan is the poorest part of Iran’s poorest province. The central government’s control has always been tenuous, and security forces have been particularly unaccountable and brutal there. After a Baluch imam accused Chabahar’s police chief of sexually assaulting a teenage girl, protests erupted in late September.
Police opened fire on a protest outside of Zahedan’s grand mosque on September 30, “Bloody Friday,” killing dozens of people. It was the deadliest single incident of the current uprising. Rather than scaring people into submission, it has inflamed anti-government unrest across Baluchistan, with cycles of new protests at the funeral of each victim.
Abdulhamid has vehemently defended his flock. From the beginning, he spoke out against the authorities’ version of Bloody Friday, which blamed armed guerrillas for the massacre. His sermons not only referred to general discontent with the Islamic Republic, but said that morality policing was driving the public away from religion.
The top Sunni cleric has not always been an activist for liberalism and women’s rights. After the Taliban successfully conquered Afghanistan, he congratulated the ultraconservative militants. (Both belong to the same Deobandi religious movement.) When a human rights organization revoked Abdulhamid’s prize over those comments, the cleric said he did not want such a prize anyways.
In years past, Abdulhamid shifted his political support between the Reformist and Conservative parties. His consistent concern has been to protect the interests of Iran’s religious Sunni minority, no matter which way the winds in Tehran blow.
As for armed resistance, the most well-established Baluch separatist groups are Jaish al-Adl and Ansar al-Furqan, who are explicitly Sunni Islamist.
Now Kurds are under the hammer. The uprising began in Kurdistan and has continued there intensely. Over the past few days, the Iranian government has gotten significantly more aggressive in Kurdish cities like Mahabad and Javanrud, bringing in troops armed with heavy weapons and killing dozens of people.
Although conservative and sectarian strains run through Kurdish society — especially the clergy — there is also a long tradition of secular nationalism and revolutionary leftism. In fact, the slogan “woman, life, freedom” comes from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a socialist guerrilla movement in Turkey with affiliates across the Middle East.
The current alignment echoes Iran’s previous 1979 revolution. After the Shi’a Islamist movement took power in Tehran, the Kurdish revolutionaries continued to resist the new Islamic Republic, and urban leftists such as the Fedayin-e Khalq joined them. The brutal suppression of that uprising left a trauma that continues to reverberate through Kurdish society.
Still, there has been Sunni Kurdish resistance to the Iranian government along religious and sectarian lines. Some Iranian Kurds have fought alongside Al Qaeda in Syria. A few years ago, Kurdish gunmen shot up the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the name of ISIS.
Importantly, not all of Kurdish society is Sunni. There are significant Shi’a communities in Kurdistan as well as smaller indigenous Kurdish religions. Revolutionary solidarity could bridge the sectarian divide.
Or not. The government sent Kurdish-speaking troops, who shouted Shi’a religious slogans, to put down unrest in Javanrud.
At the moment, the uprising is held together by a very simple grievance: the government is terrorizing its citizens. It began with a police murder and is sustained by scenes of security forces brutalizing peaceful protesters, including minors. Deobandi clerics and Tehrani hipsters can agree on the basic principle that the authorities should not shoot children.
“We are your sons and we are at your service,” one Kurdish cleric told a crowd of protesters. “We have grown up with you and we will die with you. Our life is together and our death is together.”
The sense of solidarity may bring different parts of society closer together in attitudes. Persian-speaking liberals have started to talk more about minority rights, and Sunni clerics seem to be adopting the rhetoric of women’s rights. Revolutions have a way of rallying people behind principles they did not expect to defend.
But a coalition built on common enemies may be more fragile than it looks. Once the enemy is weakened and factions start making specific plans for the future, they may find out that their material interests are quite different.
Iranian opposition media has often downplayed the ethnic nationalist side of Baluch and Kurdish demands, and played up slogans for Iranian unity. Kurdish activists — both inside Iran and outside Iran — have been complaining that Persian-speaking solidarity is shallow and ignorant of Kurdish realities.
Iranian exiles reportedly got into a confrontation with protesters carrying ethnic minority flags at a rally in London.
Fissures may also erupt within Baluch and Kurdish society, as clerics and other activists discover that they do not share the same vision of freedom from central government rule. The Kurdistan Workers Party began its uprising in Turkey by targeting Kurdish landlords, and it has had to wage several bloody struggles within Kurdish society ever since.
The journalist Azadeh Moaveni ended her gripping firsthand account of the uprising in Tehran with a quote from an anonymous activist. It is worth pondering.
“Of course they urge people to come out, promising the day after collapse will be better, a utopia, although we know the day after is when everything is broken, and when the problems start,” the activist said. “But there’s also no doubt that the country is being destroyed, and that reform is dead.”