PRAGUE, 16 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In what human rights observers say is unprecedented, authorities in the city of Qom have arrested more than 1,000 followers of the mystical Sufi tradition of Islam.
The Iranian government had been showing signs of increasing antipathy towards Iran's Sufi community, but experts say the scale and violence of the clashes on 13 November is unheard of.
The deputy governor of Qom, Ahmad Hajizadeh, said 1,200 worshippers -- also known as dervishes -- were arrested as police sought to close a Sufi house of worship.
Hajizadeh said 100 people, including more than 30 police officers, were injured in the clashes.
"More than before, people are running away from a totalitarian interpretation of the religion."
Qom officials say the Sufis had illegally turned a presidential building into a center of worship and had refused to leave it.
Some of the dervishes were armed, they add.
Representatives of the dervishes deny the charges and say they are being targeted due to the increasing popularity of Sufism.
Figures produced by sources close to the Sufi groups and human rights activists also differ from official accounts. They put the number of the arrests at 2,000 and say that 350 people were injured.
Following the clashes, the authorities demolished the house of worship as well as the homes of two leaders of the group.
Clash Between 'Dervishes And Fanatics' Entering A New Phase?
Sufism is based on the pursuit of mystical truth and Sufis believe that mystical practices involving dance, music, and the recitation of Allah's divine names can give them direct perception of God.
Although Sufi Muslims strictly observe Islamic practices and beliefs, some conservative Muslim clerics see it as a danger to Islam. Some even argue that Sufism is a deviation of Islam.
In Iran, there have been always some tensions between Sufism and more orthodox traditions of Islam.
However, observers say these tensions have worsened since the establishment of an Islamic republic, some 27 years ago, and state tolerance for Sufi groups has diminished.
Never before, though, has there been an attack as strong as seen this week, says Abdol-Karim Lahidji, vice president of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights.
"Unfortunately under the years of the rule of the Islamic government we have seen limitations on non-Muslims -- above all, Baha'is, Jews, and also Christians -- and on Sufi groups, and their meetings have been disrupted," says Lahidji, but "it is unprecedented in the modern history of Iran that a Sufi group should be treated" as it was in Qom.
Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh, a Paris-based scholar who specializes in Sufism, says that the Qom clashes mark "a new phase…between dervishes and fanatics -- a phase of violent encounter -- because until now only the leaders of [Sufi] groups were under pressure. Now, though, there is a confrontation with ordinary people who are facing pressure merely because they are dervishes."
Qom Not A New Target
The Qom worshippers belong to the Nematollahi Gonabadi order of Sufism, one of the largest Sufi groups in Iran and a strand of Sufism that Azmayesh represents outside Iran.
Azmayesh says that pressure on Sufis -- and "especially on the Nematollahi Gonabadi order" -- has increased "a lot" since the hard-liner Mahmud Ahamdinejad succeeded Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami as Iran's president in June 2005.
Sufism is based on the pursuit of mystical truth and Sufis believe that mystical practices involving dance, music, and the recitation of Allah's divine names can give them direct perception of God. Although Sufi Muslims strictly observe Islamic practices and beliefs, some conservative Muslim clerics see it as a danger to Islam. Some even argue that Sufism is a deviation of Islam.
"Now unfortunately, when the pressure groups and fanatics want to repress the Sufis, those who enforce the laws are not stopping them," says Azamayesh.
Several anti-Sufi books have been published in Iran over the past year and several clerics have also harshly condemned Sufism, Azamayesh says, noting that the recent clashes in Qom erupted after a speech by a cleric, who blasted Sufism and called for restrictions on the Sufi community.
Iran's hard-line daily "Kayhan" on 14 February quoted senior clerics in Qom as saying that Sufism should be eradicated in the city, while the Reuters news agency reported that in September one of Iran's hard-line clerics, Grand Ayatollah Hussein Nuri-Hamedani, called for a clampdown on Sufis in Qom.
Qom is considered to be one of the centers of Shi'a Islam.
The governor of Qom, Abbas Mohtaj, has reportedly accused the dervishes of having links to foreign countries.
However, Azmayesh believes that Sufis are being targeted because of their "more open interpretation of Islam" and also because Sufism is picking up more followers.
"More than before, people are running away from a totalitarian interpretation of the religion, they are having doubts, and they have lost faith in the work of those who consider themselves custodians of religion," he maintains. "By contrast, they feel very close to the Sufi teachings and its customs, which are based on love."
Azmayesh says there is currently an "inverse trend" in Iran. "As mosques empty," he says, "[Sufi houses of worship] are expanding and being filled."
Iranian officials have said that the arrested dervishes will be interrogated and those who were not among the "main elements and instigators" will gradually be released. Some have already been freed, many of them women.