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.
This year’s commemoration at Evin began when the Sufis arrived with their baggage and proclaimed their willingness to be locked up alongside their colleagues. The tribute to the Sufis in custody, past and present, was marred by further repression. The Revolutionary Guard Corps (Pasdaran) arrested 350 Sufis, mistreating some of them, yet released them in the evening. The government granted them their main demand: family visits for seven jailed Gonabadi lawyers and Internet personnel, who had been held in solitary confinement in Evin Prison’s Ward 209 for 37 days. The group were among 60 Gonabadi Sufis detained by the government in 2011.
The meetings with relatives—limited to parents and spouses of the Sufi prisoners—were carried out in tense conditions, lasting only minutes. Security officers supervising the encounters insulted the prisoners and their loved ones, and otherwise interfered in their communication.
Of the seven currently in Evin, four must contend with health crises caused by their imprisonment. Hamidreza Moradi, webmaster for the Gonabadi website, may require amputation of a foot because of blood circulation obstruction caused by torture and beatings. Mostafa Daneshjou is a pulmonary disease victim. His lung capacity has diminished by 40 percent during his jail term. Reza Entesari was physically mutilated by the security forces. Amir Eslami is a heart patient. On February 12, he was taken briefly to a hospital from prison, having suffered two cardiac traumas behind bars.
The other three Sufi attorneys in Evin are Omid Behrouzi, Afshin Karampour, and Farshid Yadollahi. In addition, two Gonabadi Sufis, Saleh Moradi and Kasra Nouri, held illegally in Adel Abad prison in the city of Shiraz for eight months, have conducted a hunger strike in solidarity with those incarcerated in Evin. The strike continues, after 40 days.
The Gonabadi site, Majzooban Noor (The Alluring Light), claims that the action by the two Sufis in jail in Shiraz has forced the regime to transfer the seven Sufis out of solitary confinement in Evin.
Maryam Shirini, wife of Sufi legal advocate Amir Eslami, told Iranian media that the “Evin seven” will be tried a fourth time, beginning on March 11. Shirini recalled that when she was allowed to see her husband, “His face was swollen and yellow colored with a bruise around his eyes. . . . And even he was not aware of their [next] court date. . . . [N]o one knew the date of their trial, and mentioning the name of the court was treated as an offense!”
The group has been charged with “acting against national security and insulting the Leadership and spreading lies.” The indictment of lawyer Farshid Yadollahi, he said, was based on his providing an interview to the U.S.-financed Iranian dissident broadcasting station, Radio Farda, in 2011.
Yadollahi commented to the Sufi website then, “A specific policy governs Iran restricting freedom and human rights to the interests of the rulers. . . . [E]very citizen who, intentionally or unintentionally, dissents from the system of governance, is considered in opposition.”
In an open letter released last week by the International Organization for the Preservation of Human Rights in Iran (IOPHRI), the Sufis who journeyed to Evin Prison accused the Tehran government of blacklisting Sufis from employment and preventing their children from gaining an education. Lawyers who defended the Sufis were removed from the judiciary and journalists who wrote about their complaints were fired.
The Sufis wrote of their attitude and that of their children, “The [Sufis] never bow in front of anything but God, and they will never sell their dignity to these fools, to live a worthless life, even if this resistance would cost them their lives.” The Sufis announced they “cannot remain silent and bear oppression . . . like all their leaders in history who have never borne oppression. . . . In our homeland, anyone who cries out for freedom must go to prison so that nobody should hear a voice demanding mercy and freedom of thought. The oppressors are frightened that people might learn how that freedom can be gained.”
In an earlier letter to Khamenei, the Sufis demanded answers to key questions: “Do all the citizens of our nation have equal rights in our constitution? Who or where are the sources of so much oppression and unjustified actions in destroying the worship-places of Gonabadi Sufis?” They stipulated further, “The legal representatives of the accused had no access to the contents of the case and no permission to meet with their clients (without presenting the case and all the related evidence, no court can be held, [and] our lawyers at no time had any access to the contents of this case). According to law the accused should be informed at least five days before the beginning of the trial to prepare his defense, but in this case we were informed orally only 10 hours before that. Can such a trial be fair or just?”
Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh, a Gonabadi representative living in Europe, articulated the struggle between Sufis and the Iranian government in a commentary following the Qom destruction of the Gonabadi house in 2009. “Sufis are a danger to the ayatollahs,” he affirmed. “In the background is the question of to whom the Iranians will donate their voluntary religious contributions, to the ayatollah of their choice or, as is happening more and more, to the charity organizations of the different Sufi orders.” The Islamic Republic, he continued, “has caused an aversion to traditional Islam in a lot of people. The Sufis offer a way out; with them people are in another atmosphere without having to abandon their religion. The spiritual experience may differ but the Sufis are within the Islamic tradition.
“However, the number [of Sufis] increases continuously and this makes some of the ayatollahs nervous. It is a threat to their base of power.” The same may be said today.