The religious make-up of Iran’s population is marked by a paradox: while many religions and sects are present, the overall picture is one of homogeneity, as over 99% of Iranians are Muslims, and of these somewhere between 75% and 90% adhere to Twelver Shi‘ism, Iran’s official state religion for the last five centuries. However, the exact numbers are unknown, since Iranian censuses ask citizens for their religious affiliation but allow only four choices: Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism, the latter three constituting the “recognized” minorities. This classification is enshrined in both the constitutions of 1906 and 1979.

Iran’s Sunnis, the largest religious minority and numbering many millions, live mostly in the country’s periphery and overwhelmingly belong to ethnic minorities: Kurds in the west, Turkmens in the northeast, Baluchis in the southeast, Arabs on the shores of the Persian Gulf. For this reason, resentment against discrimination among Sunnis becomes easily couched in terms of ethnic nationalism. Moreover, these ethnic groups straddle Iran’s borders, conferring a geopolitical dimension to the ethnic/sectarian question.[1]

In addition, various Sufi orders offer Muslims a spiritual alternative and thereby arouse the suspicion and often hostility of the clergy. Iran’s non-Muslim citizens include, in addition to the above-mentioned constitutionally “recognized” communities, Mandaeans, Yezidis, Sikhs, and most numerically important, Baha’is, whose numbers were estimated at around 300,000 on the eve of the revolution.

The constitution of the Islamic Republic retained the provisions of the 1906 constitution regarding non-Muslims, granting them freedom of worship and parliamentary representation (three deputies for Christians, and one each for Jews and Zoroastrians). It improved on the previous basic law by acknowledging the existence of Sunnis, stating that they were “free to act in accordance with their own jurisprudence in performing their religious rites,” adding that in areas where they formed a regional majority, “local regulations, within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils are to be in accordance with the respective school of fiqh.” Recognizing that these two articles did not exhaust the nation’s religious diversity, a third article, intended for the benefit of all remaining non-Muslims, proclaimed that they must be “treated kindly by the government and by Muslims in general.”

This differentiation of citizens according to their religion is reminiscent of apartheid’s classification of citizens by race, except that where the racist regime in South Africa at least maintained the pretense of “separate but equal,” the Islamic Republic does not even do that. The most repressive treatment was meted out to the Baha’is. Since the revolution, a total of about 300 have been killed, which equates to one in a thousand. There being no civil marriage in Iran, religious marriages contracted according to their faith were not recognized by the state, leaving their children in a legal limbo. Their cemeteries were bulldozed and they were given no land to bury their dead.

The “recognized” minorities fared better. Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians maintained their houses of worship, communal institutions, and separate family laws. They were even exempted from the general prohibition of alcohol. They were allowed to have their religion taught to their children at school, although the textbooks were written by Muslims.

Iran’s Sunnis, who have received far less international attention than Arab Shi‘ites and are perhaps the most overlooked Muslim community in the Middle East, have fared better than non-Muslims. In traditionally Sunni areas of the country mosques function and flourish, although the Sunni population of Tehran, whose numbers runs into the hundreds of thousands, is not allowed to have a mosque of its own; the government invites them to attend prayers in Shi‘ite mosques, an option most of them do not find attractive. This has posed a problem for Sunni diplomats stationed in Tehran, who in the 1990s held their Friday prayers in the basement of the Pakistani school. Like non-Muslims, Sunnis suffer discrimination in state employment, but to a lesser extent. Even in Sunni-majority areas like Kurdistan or Baluchistan, government officials are routinely recruited from among the local Shi‘ites. But there are a number of Sunni MPs in the Majlis.

The liberalization of social, political, and economic life during the presidencies of ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami benefited religious minorities. The signs “special to religious minorities” disappeared from eateries and pastry shops; Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene’i does not deem “people of the book” polluting. Jews, who had been treated more harshly than Christians and Zoroastrians, were given exit visas more easily. The penal code was amended to equalize the blood money of Muslims and (“recognized”) non-Muslims. Mandaeans were recognized as a “people of the book” in 1996 by Ayatollah Khamene’i, but not given the parliamentary seat they demanded.

President Khatami made a point of embracing high dignitaries of the three recognized minorities at his first inauguration, named three trusted Sunni personalities as his advisors for Sunni affairs, and sent them as his personal emissaries to Sunni-majority areas. In Tehran, they acted as ombudsmen for Sunnis who felt discriminated. In Kurdistan, for the first time, two Sunnis were named district governors. But, as in other areas, the reformist administration’s actions were stymied by the entrenched powers: when the Presidium of the Sixth Majles attempted to co-opt a Sunni Kurdish MP into its ranks, Shi‘ite ‘ulama’ in Qom protested so vehemently that the President’s parliamentary supporters gave up the idea.

The reformists’ efforts bore the most visible fruit in Baluchistan, Iran’s largest Sunni-majority province. By making concessions to the local population, the government defused sociopolitical tensions exacerbated by the proximity of Afghanistan, where the virulently anti-Shi‘ite Taliban supported Baluchi insurgents, and Pakistan, a country whose Baluchis have been in a state of almost continuous rebellion for years. Baluchis rewarded the reformists by voting en masse for the reformist candidate in the 2005 presidential elections.

Unsurprisingly, the advent of Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2005 brought reversals on all fronts. The heightened sectarian tension in Iraq has led to an increase in anti-Sunni sentiment among the military and intelligence figures who dominate the regime. Public policy now aggressively tries to reaffirm the Shi‘ite nature of the state. One way that this is done is through the saturatation of Sunni-majority areas like Baluchistan with Shi‘ite imagery on occasions such as the mourning ceremonies for Imam Husayn in the month of Muharram, which leads to a sense of being occupied. Predictably, Iran’s Sunnis have become more restive. In Baluchistan a shadowy organization called Jundullah wages a low-level insurgency against the Revolutionary Guards, fuelled by the drug trade with Afghanistan, ethnic nationalism encouraged by the United States, and Sunni fundamentalism financed by Saudi Arabia. In the Kurdish areas of Western Iran people watch Kurdish television broadcast from Iraqi Kurdistan and wonder why in Iraq a Kurd can become President while in Iran he cannot even become provincial governor. Meanwhile, Wahhabi missionaries from Saudi Arabia ply Iran’s southern coasts.

Sufis also came under attack. In February 2006 mobs destroyed their main house of worship in Qom, and a year later a prominent Sufi leader, Nur Ali Tabandeh, was arrested. The “recognized” minorities have come under closer scrutiny by the state as well. As might be imagined, the new intolerance has hit Baha’is the hardest. The organs of the state have maintained a steady barrage of accusations and calumnies intended to incite the population against the Baha’is.

What is often forgotten in discussions of the Iranian regime’s discriminatory policies towards those citizens who happen not to profess the official religion of the state is that these policies contradict not only article 14 of the constitution, which enjoins the government to treat non-Muslims “kindly,” but also numerous international conventions to which Iran is a party. International law creates both rights and duties for states, and when a state consistently disregards its duties, it cannot expect the rest of the international community to respect its rights.


[1]. Other Muslim minorities include the largely Kurdish Ahl-e Haqq, whose membership runs in the hundreds of thousands, the non-Twelver-Shi‘ite Ismailis (less than 100,000), and the Twelver Shi‘ite Shaykhi sect.


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