Feb 22, 2018

Iranian Security Forces Clash With Members of Mystical Islamic Sect

Five members of security forces are reported killed; sect members known as dervishes had staged sit-in outside police post

Asa Fitch in Dubai and Aresu Eqbali in Tehran
Wall Street Journal
February 20, 2018

Police in Tehran arrested hundreds of protesters after five security personnel were killed in confrontations with members of a mystical Islamic sect, the latest sign of social tensions in Iran following widespread demonstrations last month.

Scores of the sect members, who follow a Sufi branch of Islam and are known as dervishes, had staged a peaceful sit-in Monday in front of a Tehran police station to demand the release of one of their co-believers.

They clashed with riot police sent in to break up the protest after nightfall Monday, resulting in the death of the five security forces, a police spokesman said Tuesday, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

“The riot was subdued by the security forces and the main instigators were arrested,” the police spokesman, Saeed Montazeromahdi, was quoted as saying. More than 300 people have been taken into custody, he said, including the drivers of a bus and car that rammed into security forces.

The dervish unrest marks another iteration of public discontent after a bout of nationwide demonstrations between late December and early January. Those protests, which included an uncharacteristically direct rejection of Iran’s ruling system, died out as the authorities cracked down. But Iranians have continued to demonstrate in other ways.

Dozens of women have been increasingly bold in their defiance of Iran’s requirement they wear Islamic headscarves in public in recent months. Video and images shared on social media have showed them waving their headscarves from the ends of sticks in busy streets, risking arrest.

Strikes and labor unrest have also continued unabated since the protests died down.

The latest clashes began after people gathered at a police station in northern Tehran to protest the recent arrest of a Gonabadi dervish man named Nematollah Riahi. It wasn’t clear why he was detained, but the dervishes have long been persecuted by the Iranian authorities, according to rights groups.

At least four were arrested during the bout of unrest in early January, but were released after several days, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

While their religion isn’t outlawed, Sufis have long been marginalized by the Shiite establishment, which brands the dervishes a cult. There are no official statistics on the dervish population, and estimates by human-rights groups vary from about two to five million of a total Iranian population of about 82 million.

Video shared on social media showed protesters clashing with riot police, who used tear gas to disperse crowds. Numerous photos of dervishes, their faces and bodies bloodied and bruised apparently in the clashes, were also shared. None of the images could be independently verified.

Unverified video shared on social media also showed a white bus plowing into a crowd of riot police, an incident in which three died, according to Mr. Montazeromahdi. Two other security personnel, both members of the Basij, a volunteer force under the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, were also killed, the police spokesman said. One was run over by a car, and the other was stabbed, he said.


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