On Thursday, February 21, at 10 a.m. local time, Iranian members of the Gonabadi-Nimatullahi Muslim contemplative order celebrated “the day of the Sufi” by protesting outside the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran. The demonstration marked the fourth anniversary of a memorable challenge to the dictatorship of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and “supreme leader” Ali Khamenei.
The historic Green movement for Iranian reform took place in June 2009. But the approaching upheaval was anticipated on February 21, 2009, when tens of thousands of Gonabadis came together outside the Tehran parliament to demand an end to attacks on their metaphysical movement. In the legendary Iranian city of Isfahan, on February 19, 2009, riot police assaulted with batons and tear gas Sufi devotees gathered at the wrecked tomb of the 19th-century poet Nasir Ali. The day before, the tomb had been looted and demolished by local government functionaries using bulldozers. The Shia Sufi meeting house or “husseiniya” next to the mausoleum was destroyed at the same time. The Nasir Ali tomb was a protected heritage site used, since 2002, by the Sufis.
Nasir Ali was a Shia cleric. But he was also a representative of enlightenment in Iranian Islam. Coming from a rich family, Nasir Ali worked as an elementary and high school teacher and administrator, and sent his daughters to be educated and to study foreign languages, when neither was common among Iranian females.
The fury of devastation striking Sufi shrines and centers in Iran, where Sufism has deep roots, is like that seen in Iraq, Pakistan, India, the Balkans, and, more recently, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and Mali. In all such cases, radical ideology drives Islamists to annihilate any basis for Muslim traditions different from inflexible fundamentalism.
Earlier, Iranian Sufi installations were leveled in the religious center of Qom in 2006 and in the town of Boroujerd in western Iran in 2007. On both occasions, state-backed thugs clashed for hours with the Sufis. In the Qom confrontation, where the Sufis had maintained their rituals in a private home, between 1,000 and 1,200 of them were arrested. Hundreds, including women and children, were injured by tear gas and explosives used by regime agents. Within a week, however, the late Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri (1922-2009), who had repudiated a designation as ruling heir to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, denounced the vandalism in Qom.
In Boroujerd, the next year, Tehran’s local bureaucrats deployed bulldozers to remove the ruins of the local Sufi house, after burning it down. Again, resistance was fierce, and about 180 people were reported arrested, and at least 80 injured. Official Iranian media claimed the uproar was caused by Sufi preaching against Shiism in a mosque, and that the Sufis participated in a shootout with Islamist militia. Such charges, which were unsupported by evidence, were nevertheless repeated in Western reporting. Mehdi Karroubi, who would be one of the anti-Ahmadinejad candidates in the Iranian presidential elections of 2009, and who has been harassed by followers of the dictatorship since, joined Montazeri in his criticism of the anti-Sufi aggression in Qom and spoke out similarly against the government on the Boroujerd controversy.
At the 2009 protest in front of the Parliament, the regime’s riot police and plainclothes agents filled the area, 850 Sufis were arrested, and many were held for months in Evin Prison, where they were tortured. Such would be the dictatorship’s favorite tactic, later, in combatting the Green movement.