Protests in Iran have the support of Friday preachers

Zahedan’s Sunni Friday preacher not only calls for an end to discrimination against women and minorities. He is now also calling for a vote on the system.

Mawlana Abdulhamid Ismailzahi, spiritual leader of the Iranian Sunnis.

Philip Breu

Eight weeks after the start of anti-hijab protests in Iran, they have no clear leader and no central organization. However, they received an unexpected defender in the person of Mawlana Abdulhamid Ismailzahi. Since late September, the Sunni cleric has become one of the harshest critics of the crackdown and a vocal supporter of the protesters. He has been in open conflict with the regime in Tehran since the Friday preacher from Zahedan called for a revision of the constitution and a vote on the political system.

“If people have everything but no freedom, everything will taste bitter,” the white-turbaned, gray-bearded cleric warned in his sermon on Friday, Nov. 4. If women get angry and throw scarves into the fire, one must ask why. Women took to the streets because they were victims of discrimination. Today women hated their headscarves and Iranians hated their religion. “This is the result of our own behavior,” criticized Abdulhamid.

The scientist, who was born in 1947 in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan, has had an ambivalent relationship with the regime for years. On the one hand, he vigorously fights for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, especially the Sunnis and Baluchis, to which he himself belongs. On the other hand, he maintains cordial relations with the Shiite leadership in Tehran and has supported the election of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as president in 2021.

He calls for tolerance and congratulates the Taliban

In Zahedan, since 1987, he has been in charge of the Dar al-Ulum religious school and the Makki mosque attached to it. Built in 2010 in the Ottoman style, the imposing prayer hall is the most important Sunni mosque in Iran. He belongs to the Deobandi Sunni stream, which has its origins in northern India. Today, the Islamist movement has great influence in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban also follow their reading of Islam.

The imposing Makki Mosque in Zahedan, headed by Mawlana Abdulhamid.

The imposing Makki Mosque in Zahedan, headed by Mawlana Abdulhamid.

Safa Daneshvar / (CC BY-SA 4.0)

This may also explain why Mawlana Abdulhamid congratulated the Taliban on taking power in Kabul in August 2020. At the same time, the 75-year-old called on them to form an inclusive government and later warned that they must also allow access to education for girls. Still, many Iranians reacted with exasperation, wondering how his congratulations to hardliners fit with his commitment to pluralism and religious tolerance.

Despite such misgivings, Abdulhamid is now considered the most prominent Sunni cleric in Iran. Not only has he established himself as the most prominent Baluchi voice, but he is also accepted as an advocate by Sunni Kurds, says Vienna-based political scientist Hessam Habibi, who analyzes the preaching of Abdulhamid and other Sunni clerics in Iran. flight. It also shows that many Kurds are currently showing solidarity with him.

A sharp critic of repression

Abdulhamid was among the first to call for a transparent investigation into the death of Mahsa Amini in moral police custody on 16 September. Since then, he has been tightening the tone week after week. In his sermon on Friday, September 30, he called for a fundamental change in politics and emphasized that people have the right to express their opinion and take to the streets. His rights must be protected and his demands heard, he warned thousands of worshipers in Zahedan.

Shortly after the prayer ended, when some men gathered in protest outside a nearby police station, the police opened fire on the crowd. According to Amnesty International, 66 people were killed this “Bloody Friday”. Abdulhamid later complained in a video that police officers shot him in the head and chest. The demonstrators were not armed, he assured, and called for the punishment of those responsible.

The city’s police chief was later dismissed, but the violence continues. Unlike other regions of Iran, security forces often immediately use live ammunition instead of tear gas. According to Amnesty, 18 people died after Friday prayers in the city of Khash on November 4 alone. No other province in Iran has seen as many casualties as Sistan and Baluchistan since the protests began.

Solidarity, but also prejudices

According to researcher Hessam Habibi, this is due to the fact that the regime sees the situation in the poor desert province in the extreme southeast of Iran primarily from a security point of view. In the rest of Iran, the Baluchis have a reputation as smugglers and dangerous criminals, says the political scientist at FH Campus Wien. In the past, security forces have cracked down on protests with disproportionate severity. Even today, the violence of the protesters is mainly limited to throwing stones.

Habibi refutes the impression that the Baloch have different goals and motives than the protesters in the rest of the country. The Baluchis suffer from the same problems as all other Iranians, the same problems that drove them to the streets. But Shiite Iranians took a long time to show solidarity with the Baloch protests and deal with the “Bloody Friday” massacre, says Habibi.

In his Friday sermons, Abdulhamid repeatedly criticized discrimination against religious minorities. He also mentioned Sufis and Baha’is – breaking taboos in the Islamic Republic. He also dealt with discrimination against women. If the government respected women’s rights, there would be no need for moral police, the preacher criticized. It is a mistake to think that people can be taken to heaven by force.

“Politics is deadlocked”

In his sermon on Friday, November 4, he went one step further. “The Iranian nation has been protesting in the streets for fifty days. They saw blood and were killed,” he said reproachfully. People are hungry and humiliated. Many smart minds have gone abroad. Despite the country’s natural wealth, many Iranians lived in poverty. The authorities could not silence the people by killing and imprisoning them.

People are the source of legitimacy for the leadership and the entire system, he warned. The constitution is 43 years old and many provisions are outdated, Abdulhamid said, but did not specify which ones he was referring to. “Get the country out of this miserable situation,” he demanded. “Vote and meet people’s demands. Current politics is at a dead end.”

These are bold words in Iran. Allegations that Abdulhamid was an agent of Saudi Arabia and supporting the protests immediately surfaced in regime-linked media. However, researcher Habibi does not believe that the priest is in immediate danger. Removing or arresting him would be too risky and could lead to riots, he says. If Abdulhamid is absent as the voice of the Baloch, they could gain the support of other, more radical groups.

Despite all the criticism of the regime, the preacher continues to have a mild effect on the protesters. He wants to avoid a head-on clash with the regime. Powerful tribes in Balochistan are also not interested in escalation. In his final Friday sermon on November 11, Abdulhamid did not repeat his call for a referendum on the system, but simply called for an end to the violence and justice for the victims. At least he is unlikely to let up on this demand.

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