Iran: Students and Sufis Against Stonings
by Stephen Suleyman Schwartz
The world continues to watch anxiously as the Iranian clerical dictatorship ponders the fate of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani -- a 43-year old mother of two children, Sajad, 22, and Farideh, 17 -- who faces death at the hands of the Tehran tyrants after she was found guilty of adultery, apparently with no evidence – although she is a widow, whose husband had died before her allegedly prohibited conduct. She was sentenced to public stoning; now, possibly, hanging.
Pressure from political and other public figures outside Iran, as well as in the Iranian émigré community, compelled the regime to withdraw the stoning decree, but it is unclear whether Sakineh Ashtiani will still be hanged, as many fear. At the end of July, her lawyer, Mohammad Mostafaei, disappeared from public view in Iran, and Mostafaei's wife and her brother have been arrested.
We hope that the international outcry over the threat to Sakineh Ashtiani will return the opposition Green Movement in Iran to a vigorous position in opposing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his patron, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In February, the regime and its henchmen, facing the democratic opposition's Green partisans, who claim that last year's election was falsified to keep Ahmadinejad in power, found themselves at a stalemate.
Neither the government nor the Green movement appeared strong enough for one to overcome the other in the streets. The Green opposition has fallen into a period of introspection as it tries to decide how to attain political reform.
Only one element in Iranian society appears to have remained resolute in confronting the despotic state. This factor comprises the spiritual Sufis, organized in mystical tariqas or "paths." The Sufis have suffered clerical repression at various times during Khomeinist rule, but arrests and suppression of Sufi gatherings and institutions have increased in recent years, especially after the February standoff.
An international Committee for the Rights of Students and Sufis in Iran (CRSSI), previously titled the Committee to Protect the Rights of the Students and Dervishes, with branches in Europe and support in the U.S., continues to publicize the atrocities of the regime, and has called for the release of Sakineh Ashtiani and the abolition of stoning as a punishment.
The CRSSI has mainly represented the Gonabadi Nimatullahis, although it has called for solidarity with other major Sufi groups. The Gonabadi Sufis, in pursuing their struggle against the Tehran torturers, estimate their potential allies as including about five and a half million students, located in more than 374 Iranian universities. CRSSI also asserts that 20 million Sufis, gathered in both Shia and Sunni orders, may be mobilized against the clerical misrulers. These include the Shia Gonabadis, as well as Sunnis in the Qadiri and Naqshbandi orders, and the esoteric Ahl e-Haqq movement, which has at least two million members but generally conceals its members' affiliations. CRSSI warns that Ahmadinejad, his clerical backers, and his accomplices in the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the intelligence apparatus harbor a plan to completely eliminate Sufism and its devotees.
Most importantly, the Sufis have called for complete separation of religion from the state. A leading Gonabadi figure, Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh, has described to the Iranian-language Radio Farda branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty threats to a Gonabadi meeting house in the town of Karaj on May 10, by 100 members of the dictatorship's Basij militia assisted by plainclothes police. In addition, 24 Gonabadi Sufis have been tried and sentenced to flogging as well as prison terms and internal exile, and Sufis have been forbidden a traditional burial for their dead relatives – an abuse also perpetrated by Saudi-inspired Wahhabis attempting to destroy Sufism.
Thus, the Iranian rulers imitate the Wahhabis while at the same time claiming to fight against them. Azmayesh notes, as have others, that the Tehran government has formed four commissions, aimed at liquidating Iranian Sunnis under the pretext that they are all Wahhabis; wiping out Sufis as they do not accept the ideological concept of "a supreme Islamic leader;" eliminating the Baha'is because their global headquarters is located in Israel, and labeling new mystical tendencies as devil-worship.
Azmayesh has eloquently summarized the relationship between spirituality and politics in Islam: "Sufis believe absolutely in the necessity of separation between religion and politics. Sufis believe that if religion and politics are mixed, not only will it be impossible to solve the problems in the world, moreover, the respectability and credibility of religion will vanish. This is especially true when those who have the authority of religion and politics take advantage of their positions. They put the label of Islam on their horrible acts and feel free to impose severe penalties in the name of Islam on those who stand in their way. They harm the reputation of Islam in the eyes of the people and history. People think that Islam really is an ideology that advocates violence and that Islam is based on terror."