Number 81 ● June 13, 2017


ISIS and Persian Da’awa

Menahem Merhavy*



The attacks on the Iranian parliament building and the mausoleum shrine of Khomeini, which took place on June 7, 2017 and left twelve dead, brought the terror of ISIS to the heart of Tehran. Until last week, the conflict, which bears geo-strategic as well as religious overtones (Sunnis vs. Shi'is), was carried out beyond Iranian territory, either in Iraq, Syria, or in the virtual space of the media. The twin assaults demonstrate an escalation of the conflict between Iran and ISIS, and recent focus on Iran in ISIS's propaganda. In late March 2017, ISIS released an unusual recruitment video, titled "The Kingdom of Persia: from Past to Present” (Balad-e Fars, Az Dirua Ta Emruz). This video is particularly intriguing for two main reasons: First, the ways by which it attacks some of the basic ideological beliefs of the Islamic Republic of Iran (unlike traditional Salafi attacks focusing on the Shi'a and Shi'is); second, it is directed at Iranian Sunni Muslims as its target audience.


Produced in Iraqi province of Diyala, the thirty-seven-minute film attacks Iran from a pseudo-historical perspective sprinkled with numerous anachronistic and a-historical assertions, pointing to the ostensibly deep roots of pagan worship in Iran from the ancient past to its present. It begins with a description of the bleak world that preceded the appearance of Muhammad and his divine message: “Empires were fighting each other for the mere pursuit of power. One of those empires was the Persian Sassanian Empire,” states the opening scene. The narration admits that the empire that stretched far and wide, but the narrator reminds us that its main cities were near the borders of modern Iran. Against a backdrop of immersion in pagan rites and beliefs, God granted the Persians a figure who knew better, Salman al-Farsi, who is considered to have been the first Persian to abandon paganism and embrace Islam by Islamic historiography.


The ensuing part presents a short history lesson about the encounter between Iran and Islam by a narrator, who relates to how the Iranians tried to take over the region following Abu-Bakr’s campaign in Persia, and how this episode instigated a series of massacres of Muslims by the hands of the Sassanians: “They did not spare ulama’ until the land was empty of them all.”


The narrative then jumps to the Safavid dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1501 till 1722, where Ismail, the founder of the dynasty, is accused of having destroyed Sunni mosques indiscriminately, while allowing the restoration of churches. This is also the period when other Shiite rites of hatred were born, such as forcing the preachers (khutaba’) to curse Abu Bakr, the first Caliph who is revered by the Sunnis, and celebrate the murder of Umar by Abu Lu'lu al-Majusi. Iranians turned him into a national hero and his grave became a pilgrimage site. Indeed throughout the film Iranians are referred to as “Majusis,” recalling the pagan connotations of their Zoroastrian ancestry.


Next follows another fighter speaking to the camera, Abu Mujahid al-Baluchi, who also relates to the Qajars and the Pahlavis and to how they paved the way for Ayatollah Khomeini, who is presented as the worst enemy Sunni Islam ever faced. The speaker emphasizes the fact that Khomeini returned to Iran on an Air France flight, implying the foreign involvement in his return. The rule he established in Iran was a dictatorship in the guise of the rule of Islam. While he proclaimed the rule of many clerical bodies, Khomeini, according to al-Baluchi, established a rule of one faqih.


The raison d'etre of the Islamic Republic is the aspiration to export Shi'ism, in the guise of supporting revolutionary movements around the world. The Kurds saw it coming, which is why they rebelled right after the establishment of the Islamic Republic. A video of Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah in Lebanon, stating that Hezbollah is built, funded and supported by Iran, drives this point home.


The film suggests that the Islamic Republic, from the very start, had been treacherous and swerving in its policiesand continues this line Soin its policy/attitude towards the Palestinians, and dealings with America (in Iran-Contra affair). The contradictions of Iran’s policies are evident and point to its hypocritical nature. The film insinuates that while the Islamic Republic presents itself as the protagonist of the anti-western camp, it actually did business with both America and Israel (the Mossad is presumed to have been involved in the sale of arms to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war). While speaking out against Israel and attacking anyone who has relations with it, the film further claims, Jews live peacefully in the Islamic Republic, protected by the state. Following the same line, The Basij militia and the Revolutionary Guards were supposedly created to spy on and discriminate against Sunnis wherever possible. There are no Sunni mosques in Tehran, the film claims, although there are both synagogues and churches.


At this point the speaker addressees the Sunnis of Iran and begs them to join the fight against Iran: “How long will you be able to succumb”? he asks. The voice-over then turns to more practical advice directing the listeners among the Sunnis in Iran to assist ISIS in intelligence gathering against the security forces of the Islamic Republic: “You now have a rare opportunity to stop the repression of the believers: track their movements, report on their installations, their means of transportation, and gather weapons. If the identity of the audience was iplied up to this point, it is specified here: The Baluchis, the Kurds, Arabs and Persians.


The last part of the new ISIS's anti-Iranian film is dedicated to showing the problematic status of Sunnis in Iran. Capturing a meeting between Sunni leaders Molavi Abdol-Hamid Islma’ilzahi, a Sunni leader refutes what turns out to be a common opinion among the Shiite majority in Iran, that the high birthrate among the Sunnis endangers for the Shiite majority in certain areas (referring to Khuzestan and Sistan-Baluchistan). Isma'ilzahi, assured the noble Shiite clerics that the rumors claiming that Sunnis want to buy land in order to drive Shiites out of these provinces are false, and he is willing to take an oath on the holy Quran to support his claim. In reaction the film quotes a verse from the Sura of the Table (al Maida) that reprimands those who try to bend in face of pressure, pointing an accusing finger at the Sunni clerics just shown a second earlier.


From the Sunni minority the film turns to deal with other minorities whose relations with the Islamic Republic are fraught with mutual distrust and occasional violence. Here the tactic of the film is to show de-contextualized utterances of three leaders of the Islamic Republic: Khomeini is cited comparing the Kurds and infidels. Both Supreme Leader Khamene'i and President Rouhani are documented declaring their war on terror, which the film now implies means Sunnis.


Towards the end of the film, which was mainly dedicated to de-legitimizing Iran in the eyes of its Sunni minority, the last a few shots show ISIS fighters addressing Sunnis in Iran, calling them to join ISIS in its war against Iran, and threatening the leadership of the Islamic Republic, as to their destiny in time of conquest. The last shot shows a Persian platoon (katibeh), named Saleman al-Farsi, presumably in an attempt to find a Persian model-hero to look up to when addressing Sunnis who grew up with a deep sense of Iranian national pride.


Despite the terror which struck Tehran and alerted its security forces, it can be surmised that among the states where ISIS has been active, Iran seems to be less likely to become unstable, having built its national identity on the language of Islamic symbols for centuries, followed by 38 years of the Islamic Republic. On the regional level, it is interesting to follow the implications of these attacks on Iran’s regional policy in relation to both Iraq and Syria.


 *Menahem Merhavi (PHD) is a research fellow at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, Tel Aviv University.

Tel Aviv University, Ramat-Aviv 61390, Tel Aviv P.O.B. 39040, Israel  

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