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Clashes Highlight Tensions Between Dervishes And Iran's Establishment

By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL

Fresh clashes between Iranian security forces and Gonabadi dervishes follow years of tensions and persecution of dervishes, whose houses of worship have been destroyed and members detained.

Iranian security forces clash with members of the Gonabadi Sufi community in Tehran on February 19.

Who Are Gonabadi Dervishes?

The Nematollahi Gonabadi order is Iran's largest Sufi order, with members across the country, including in major cities like Tehran and Isfahan. Like most Iranians, they are followers of Shi'a Islam. They pray five times a day and fast during the month of Ramadan. Their rituals include reading spiritual poetry.

The Gonabadi dervishes view Sufism as a way of life through which one can find God. They strongly oppose the use of drugs and preach tolerance. Perhaps more crucially in the current context, they believe that religion and politics should be separated.

Dervish leader Nurali Tabandeh (file photo)

Their leader or "pole" is 90-year-old Paris-educated lawyer Nurali Tabandeh, who defended several political prisoners before and after the 1979 revolution. Dervishes have said that Tabandeh's safety is their "red line."

In recent weeks, dozens of dervishes have staged a sit-in outside Tabandeh's residence in northern Tehran to protect him. They say they became concerned after at least one occasion in which plainclothes agents, believed to be affiliated with security organs, swarmed his street, with clashes ensuing.

Why Does Tehran See Them As a Threat?

Iran's clerical establishment has long opposed any group that it regards as a threat to its monopoly on religion.

Dervishes say their growing popularity is the reason behind the state pressure they face. They claim to have between 2 million and 5 million members in Iran and abroad. They say their tight-knit community also concerns Iranian authorities.

Farhad Nouri, an Australia-based editor of, which covers Sufi news, once suggested to RFE/RL that Iranian leaders are also worried that dervishes could use their network to mobilize against the establishment, which has faced seemingly unrelated street protests recently.

"Particularly after the 2009 presidential election, because of the widespread support of the dervishes for [unsuccessful] presidential candidate Mehdi Karrubi, the establishment became concerned that the dervishes could organize and engage in actions against the regime," Nouri said in 2013.

Some conservative clerics have called the Sufis a danger to Islam. Ayatollah Hossein Nuri Hamedani, a high-ranking cleric in Qom, said in 2006 that by not engaging in politics, Sufis weaken Islam. Hard-liners have also accused the dervishes of being used by foreign powers to create discord within Iranian society.

In 2007, a letter was published by a group describing themselves as seminarians of Qom in which the signatories warned of the "dangers" of Sufism and called on authorities to deal with it "more firmly." They added that the "Hizbullah nation of Iran" is ready to cooperate and assist officials.

Amnesty International says the persecution of dervishes increased after an October 2010 speech by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who denounced "newly created circles of false mysticism."

Sufis, who believe one can reach a direct union with God, and Orthodox Muslims have long been at odds in Iran. The tensions have worsened since the creation of the Islamic republic as state tolerance for Sufis has decreased.

What Kind Of Pressure Have They Faced?

Dervishes have complained of state pressure and harassment for years.

Some of their houses of worship have been destroyed in past years, while hundreds of members have been detained and more than a dozen have been sentenced to prison terms, lashes, or internal exile.

In 2006, a Sufi house of worship was destroyed in Qom and 1,000 dervishes were detained following clashes that reportedly left 100 injured. Authorities claimed the Sufis had illegally turned a presidential building into a center of worship and had refused to vacate it.

Dervishes have also accused authorities of firing their adherents from state jobs and banning them from university studies due to their affiliation with the Gonabadi order.

The New York-based Center for Human Rights In Iran reported that a member of the Gonabadai dervishes, Sepideh Moradi Sarvestani, was expelled from Tehran's Tarbiat Modares University on February 3 "for refusing to formally pledge not to engage in activities deemed unacceptable by officials."

In 2013, at least seven Gonabadi Sufis were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 7 1/2 to 10 1/2 years in connection with the website, which has highlighted state pressure against members of the order and spread news and information on social media.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the trials "bore the hallmarks of a classic witch hunt" while noting that the targeted dervishes were trying "to give a voice to the defense of Sufi rights."

Have Dervishes Resisted Such Pressure?

Many dervishes have resisted Iranian state pressure by staging public protests, sit-ins, or hunger strikes, or simply issuing open letters demanding more rights.

In 2014, hundreds of dervishes gathered outside the office of Tehran's chief prosecutor to express support for several jailed Sufis on hunger strike and to call on the authorities to respect the "civil rights" of Gonabadi dervishes as "equal members of society."

They have also resorted increasingly to social media to spread news and information, raise awareness about the pressure they face, and break the "official news boycott" they say they face.

How Does The International Community See It?

Pressure on dervishes has been cited in reports by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights In Iran and also by the U.S. State Department.

Human rights groups have long accused Iran of violating the rights of its minorities. Iran has dismissed the charges.

What Do We Know About The Latest Violence, Including A RecentBus Attack?

The recent clashes reportedly broke out after dervishes staged a protest over the arrest of one of their members who had traveled to Tehran, purportedly to protect the residence of Tabandeh.

The semiofficial hard-line Fars news agency, affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), reported that a Sufi follower rammed a bus into a group of police officers late on February 19, killing three of them before being arrested.

In a post to its Telegram channel, denied Sufi involvement.

But members of the Gonabadi Sufi order have been quoted by Iranian media as saying that at least one of their number was killed by security forces during the latest clashes.

Read related coverage by Shargh and Shahrvand dailies

Nouri, the Australia-based editor, told Radio Farda that dervishes were not involved and he suggested that opposition activists who aim to create violence could have been to blame.

"There are some opposition groups that are aiming to create violent acts against the establishment," Nouri said in a telephone interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

He said that dervishes have never initiated violence in the past decade, "they've merely defended themselves."

Asked about videos showing dervishes with batons and knives, he said: "When you come under attack, you do what you can to defend yourself."

"Dervishes have a belief that they're all connected, when one come under attack, others rush to help him," he added.

Related coverage by Iranian dailies:


About the author:

Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She can be reached at


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