Iran's Gonabadi Dervishes: A 'long history' of persecution
Clashes between members of an Iranian Sufi order and police follow more than a decade of increasing tension.
by Loes Witschge
27 Feb 2018
On the night of February 19, 5 Iranian security officers were killed in clashes with Gonabadi Dervishes [File: Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press]
On the night of February 19, growing tension between Iranian security forces and members of the country's Gonabadi Sufi order came to a violent head in north Tehran.
The Gonabadi Dervishes had gathered that Monday in front of Police Station 102, Pasdaran Avenue, to protest the arrest of a member of their community, Nematollah Riahi, who had been detained a day before.
Clashes broke out after security forces arrived at the scene. The Dervishes said the violence was provoked by policemen and posted photos online, allegedly captured on the night, showing men with bandaged and bloodied faces.
Iranian authorities blamed the clashes on the protesters. The next day, Iranian media reported five security officers had died as a result of the violence: three police officers were killed when a white minibus, reportedly driven by a demonstrator, rammed into a crowd of riot police. In a separate incident, a member of the government-aligned Basij militia was run over by a car, and another was stabbed to death.
More than 300 Dervishes were arrested by Tuesday, Iranian media said.
Farhad Nouri, an editor of Dervish-run news site Majzooban Noor who lives in Australia, told Al Jazeera as many as five members of the Gonabadi Sufi community died as a result of the clashes.
The death toll was the highest for Iran's security forces in a single night since anti-government demonstrations in 2009.
For Iran's Gonabadi Dervishes, say analysts, it follows a pattern of persecution that has existed for more than a decade.
Potential to mobilise
Gonabadi Dervishes represent the largest of Iran's Sufi orders. Estimates of how many members belong to the religious group vary between two and five million. Nouri, who fled Iran in 2011, said as many as 10 million Dervishes live there.
The Gonabadi Sufis consider themselves Shia Muslims, but the mystical Sufi branches of Islam have a different interpretation of the Quran.
"With any alternative faith, whether it's Dervishes or Baha'i or others - they see it as a threat to their official religion," said Omid Memarian of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.
"Dervishes have been under a lot of pressure by the government in exercising their beliefs over the past years. The government is using these protesters to discredit them."
Sufism is very deeply rooted in the Iranian culture. They're not that different from the way that Iranians pursued Islam in its
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