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Ahwazis oppose sectarianism: setting the record straight

By Abu Moussa Zafrani

Ignorance of the Ahwazi Arabs has prompted some journalists, governments and international human rights organisations to portray their struggle as a sectarian conflict between Sunni Arabs and the Shi'ite state.

In an appeal to set the record straight, the British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS) points out that 80-90 per cent of the Ahwazi Arab population in the southwest of Iran (Khuzestan) are Shi'ite. Ahwazi Arab culture is devoid of religious sectarianism and is instead based around tribal associations that are often mixed Sunni and Shia.

The Sunni Arab population is traditionally concentrated around the Shatt al-Arab (Arvand Rood), particularly Mohammareh (Khorammshahr). A small number of Ahwazi Arabs have converted to Sunnism and Christianity as part of a rejection of the regime's ideology and an extreme fringe minority have been influenced by radical doctrines such as Wahabbism. Most Arabs continue to follow Shi'ite beliefs, while rejecting Khomeinism as a heresy created to justify political oppression and ethnic persecution.

The Ahwazi Arab struggle has nothing to do with religion, it is a fight against social, economic and cultural marginalisation and persecution. The misunderstanding is the result of a campaign of disinformation by both the Iranian regime and some opposition groups who want to deny the problem of ethnic persecution in Iran in order to advance their political agendas.

The regime has vilified and dismissed the Ahwazi struggle as a Wahabbist insurgency. This is intended to demonise Ahwazi resistance as akin to Al-Qaeda, even though it is devoid of any religious ideology. Meanwhile, certain opposition groups and individuals are keen to play down cultural activism - particularly among Arabs - to control the political agenda. These wealthy opposition groups, controlled by middle-class chauvinist nationalists, have unfortunately had high-level access to the media and government, thereby distorting the real cause of the Ahwazi Arab uprising.

An example is the recent US State Department report on religious freedom, which states that Sunnis complain of under-representation "in government-appointed positions in the provinces where they form a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan Provinces."

In reality, the complaints are overwhelmingly about ethnic not religious representation. In some cases, notably Kurds and Balochis, ethnic groups are overwhelmingly Sunni, but their demands are based on collective rights, such as political devolution and self-determination, economic development, human rights and linguistic equality. While there is no doubt that non-Shi'ite groups such as the Baha'is, Christians, Sufis, Jews, Mandeans and others suffer violent persecution, there must also be recognition of the importance of ethnic persecution in Iran.

At an international level, Kurds and Balochis have worked closely with Shi'ite-majority ethnic groups such as Ahwazi Arabs and Azeri Turks to highlight the problem of ethnic persecution in Iran. Religion has not been a barrier to mutual co-operation and solidarity since few want to live under theocratic rule, either Shi'ite or Sunni. Ethnic rights activists seek to work with Iranians of all religions, ethnicities and ideologies to create a free society with fair elections and a political system in which they can live without intimidation and with respect. Misinformation can only create division.