The Precarious Existence Of Iran's Sunni Muslims

Feb 11, 2016
Originally published on February 12, 2016 12:04 pm

We've been talking with a Sunni Muslim who lives in Shiite-dominated Iran. He's a member of one of the two great sects of Islam, which are increasingly seen in conflict. His story suggests just how perilous that conflict could be.

Last month, a crowd in Tehran attacked the embassy of Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. They were protesting Saudi Arabia's execution of a Saudi Shiite cleric who had criticized the Saudi government.

The Iranian torching of the Saudi Embassy became another episode in the cold war between these two regional powers. It also underlined an awkward reality: Religious faiths don't obey the borders on a map.

The executed cleric was one of several million Shiites who live in Saudi Arabia. Just across the Persian Gulf, several million Sunnis live in Iran.

They include the Sunni preacher who opened his door to us last week in western Tehran.

We had to ask around the neighborhood to find this place of worship. It has no dome. There's no minaret. You might compare it to an American storefront church, except there's no storefront.

You just have to know it.

Aziz Babaei, the imam, wearing a white turban and gray clerical robe, laughed when he was told that Americans had found him here.

Leaving our shoes at the door, we walked into a carpeted prayer room and settled into plastic chairs to talk.

He welcomed us to his mosque. That is, "We call it a mosque," he said, though it doesn't quite meet the formal definition. He said it's a rental property, not permanent, as a mosque is supposed to be.

He signaled his wife to bring tea as we talked.

"What's it like to be a Sunni among so many Shias?" I asked.

We live together nicely, he told me.

He takes exceptional care to make it so.

When Shiite mosques issue their five calls to prayer every day, they're amplified through loudspeakers and echo down every street. But the Sunni man who sings the call to prayer for this mosque does it indoors, so few people hear.

This worship space is so obscure that some foreign news articles have stated as fact that there is no Sunni mosque in Tehran at all.

The imam says he came from western Iran, near the country's border. It's near the borders, drawn long ago, that the largest numbers of Sunnis can be found. Sunnis moved to the capital for work, and Aziz followed to look after their souls some 20 years ago.

His flock has grown. Some custodians of the upscale homes in this neighborhood are Sunni refugees from Afghanistan. They worship at Babaei's hidden Sunni mosque.

Their imam insists his people are tolerated by the neighborhood. People don't even complain, he says, when worshippers park their cars all over the neighborhood.

But tolerance only goes so far.

Babaei says the administration of Iran's former president tried to shut down this worship space. Hassan Rouhani, the current president, is publicly more tolerant — but the State Department says Iranian Sunnis have been imprisoned for their beliefs. And news reports have said at least one Sunni place of worship in Tehran was shut down last year.

I asked him what he thinks when he hears news of an illegal Sunni worship space being demolished in Tehran.

"Demolish" is not the right word, Babaei insisted. He said improvised mosques are usually shut down just for violating building safety codes.

It goes without saying that a Sunni in Iran must speak with care.

Through our interpreter, Aziz Babaei said he condemns the burning of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. But he also condemns the act that prompted it, the Saudi execution of the Shiite cleric.

I asked if Iran's security officials come in and check his mosque from time to time.

"Yes," he said. Sometimes intelligence agents come here openly to talk. Sometimes they're invisible, joining the hundreds of worshippers prostrate on the floor.

The imam said he's been telling all Sunnis to be careful. One radical act could bring pain on the whole community.

The visiting security agents gave him a crucial insight: They said Iran's Sunnis will be safe so long as the Islamic Republic does not view them as a threat.

At least in that respect, the security men added, Sunnis are no different from any Shiite.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now the story of a man on the edge of a great divide. He's a Sunni Muslim in Iran, a country dominated by Shia Muslims. It's a precarious life. Shia Iran is escalating its rivalry with Sunni Saudi Arabia. Last month, a crowd in Iran set fire to the Saudi embassy. That embassy is where our colleague Steve Inskeep begins our story.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: So we're looking, I guess we could say, at the remnants of the Saudi embassy, an ornate three-story building. Nearly all the glass has been shattered out of the windows. We can see straight through the building where parts of it were burned. Video taken at the time shows a large crowd out on the street and people throwing flaming objects into the embassy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

INSKEEP: That's the cheering captured on video as the flames rose. Iranians were protesting an act by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis executed a Shia cleric, one of their own citizens, which underlined an awkward reality. Religious faiths do not obey the borders on a map. Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia is home to several million Shias. Just across the Persian Gulf, Shia-dominated Iran is home to several million Sunnis. And that includes the Sunni preacher who opened his door to us in western Tehran.

AZIZ BABAEI: Salaam alaikum.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Salaam alaikum. (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: Salaam alaikum. We had to ask around the neighborhood to find this place of worship. It has no dome. It has no minaret. You might compare it to an American storefront church - except there's no storefront. You just have to know it. The imam laughed when told that Americans had found him here.

BABAEI: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Leaving our shoes at the door, we walked into a carpeted prayer room and settled onto plastic chairs to talk.

BABAEI: My name Aziz Babaei.

INSKEEP: Aziz Babaei wore a gray clerical robe and a white turban. And this room - what do you call this room? You don't call this the mosque. What do you call this?

BABAEI: (Farsi spoken).

INSKEEP: We call it a mosque, he says, though it doesn't quite meet the formal definition. He says it's a rental property, not permanent as a mosque is supposed to be. He signaled his wife to bring tea as we talked some more. What is it like to be a Sunni among so many millions of Shias?

BABAEI: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: We live together nicely, he says. And he takes exceptional care to make sure it is so. Shia mosques issue five calls to prayer every day, amplified through loudspeakers and echoing down every street. The Sunni man who sings the call to prayer for this mosque does it indoors so that few people hear. This worship space is so obscure that some news articles have stated as fact that there is no Sunni mosque in Tehran at all. Why did you come here 20 years ago?

BABAEI: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: He says he came from western Iran, near the country's border. It's near the borders, drawn long ago, that the largest numbers of Sunnis can be found. Sunnis moved to the capital for work, and Aziz followed to look after their souls. He insists his people are tolerated in this neighborhood.

BABAEI: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: People don't even complain, he says, when our worshipers park their cars all over the area during Friday prayers. But tolerance only goes so far. The imam says that the administration of Iran's previous president tried to shut down this worship space. The new president is publicly more tolerant, but the U.S. State Department says Iranian Sunnis have been imprisoned for their beliefs, and news reports have said that at least one Sunni worship space in Tehran was shut down last year. From time to time, there is news of an illegal Sunni worship space being demolished in Tehran. What do you think about when you hear stories like that?

BABAEI: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: Demolish is not the right word, he insists. He says improvised mosques are usually shut down just for violating building safety codes. It goes without saying that a Sunni in Iran must speak with care.

BABAEI: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: Aziz Babaei says he condemns the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, but he also condemns the Saudi execution of the Shia cleric that prompted it. Do the security officials come in, check with you from time to time to make sure that there's no one worrisome?

BABAEI: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: Yes, he answers. Sometimes intelligence agents come here openly to talk. Sometimes, they're invisible, joining the hundreds of worshippers prostrate on the floor. The imam says, I've been telling all Sunnis to be careful. One radical act could bring pain on the whole community. He says visiting security agents gave him a crucial insight. They said Iran's Sunnis will be safe, so long as the Islamic Republic does not view them as a threat. At least in that respect, the security men added, Sunnis are no different than any Shia.

GREENE: That's our colleague Steve Inskeep, who's just back from Iran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.