Being Muslim Isn’t Enough By Karma Orfaly

Many Sunnis are Kurdish, Baluchi, or Turkmen, leaving them to suffer from an overlapping discrimination that is based on both religion and ethnicity.

Walk through the streets of Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and you will come across several churches and synagogues. What you will not encounter, however, is a Sunni Muslim mosque to accommodate the over one million Sunni Muslims in the capital city. Due to the fact that Iran is an “Islamic” Republic, when it comes to religious persecution, the world highlights the oppression of non-Muslim minorities: the Christians, the Jews and the Baha’is. However, time and time again, the Sunni Muslims of Iran, which make up 10 percent of the entire population, are overlooked and unheard, as they continue to be persecuted and denied basic human rights.

One of the key issues in Iran is the government’s consistent manipulation of religion in order to maintain power. Iran is based on a theocratic constitution where ulama, or Shia Muslim clergy, are free to interpret the law arbitrarily and inconsistently. This opens the doors for suppression of religious freedoms that, by law, are supposed to be guaranteed. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, holds extensive power over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, and controls the military and security forces of the state. This Shia Muslim monopoly over the state gives rise to many human rights violations, specifically ones that directly persecute religious minorities in Iran.

Although Sunni Muslims are legally granted the freedom to practice their religion, such laws are not enforced. The fact that Sunni Muslims have repeatedly been denied the right to build a mosque in Tehran, or even gather for communal prayers, is evidence that although they are Muslim, Sunnis do not benefit greatly from living in an Islamic Republic. Furthermore, Sunni religious clerics are repeatedly targeted on the insubstantial basis of being a threat to national security, insulting the president, or insulting the supreme leader.

Sunnis are also limited in government participation, and candidates for the presidency are purposely overlooked, as that position is reserved for a candidate of the Shia Muslim faith, the official religion of the country. Simply being a Muslim in Iran does not qualify a person to run for presidency, thus reinforcing the dominance of one sect over the other.

Ethnicity also magnifies the oppression of Sunni Muslims in the largely Persian populated Iran. Because the constitution grants freedom to all Iranian citizens, the interpretation of the law often neglects minority ethnic groups. Many Sunnis are Kurdish, Baluchi, or Turkmen, leaving them to suffer from an overlapping discrimination that is based on both religion and ethnicity.

The issue we witness in Iran, as we do in many other countries in the Middle East, is the monopoly of power for one ideological, ethnic or religious group at the expense of others. Once a specific group attains power, they manipulate the system in order to maintain a stronghold over the country. I am not suggesting that we strip all power from the Shia Muslim majority. Nor am I proposing we place all of the power in the hands of the Sunni Muslims. I am simply advocating for a distribution of power, as well as a consistent and just interpretation of the law, that will guarantee basic human rights for all human beings who live in Iran, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.

Orfaly is a first year majoring in human rights and political science

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