We can all agree with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in his criticism of the US’s hesitation to confront extremist organizations in Iraq and Syria. However, it is difficult to accept his televised statement that Iran warned of the threats of extremism and religious dogmatism and that Iran has, from the beginning, stood against this barbaric phenomenon.
Everyone blames Saudi Arabia for the spread of Islamic extremism across the world, and there is some truth in this. However, it is not a result of official state policy, but a product of social activity, unlike Iran, which is responsible for much of the institutionalization of Islamic extremism via state policy. Iran has contributed to the creation and spread of extremist Islamic organizations under the banner of exporting its Islamic Revolution. It was only after the genie escaped the bottle that Iranians felt the gravity of the threat against them and against their allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Iran has also supported extremist Sunni groups in northern Lebanon since the 1980s against Saudi Arabia’s allies. Iran also established and supported extremist Palestinian groups in a bid to weaken Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, as part of a regional competition to influence Palestinian decision-making. Since the 1980s, Iran has been a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in Egypt and Sudan. It also glorifies Sunni terrorists, naming a street in Tehran after Khaled Islambouli, who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. All in all, there’s plenty of evidence regarding Iran’s mistakes in sponsoring Sunni and Shi’ite religious extremism and activities.
Therefore, Iran must not throw stones at the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al-Nusra Front and other brutal Sunni groups when it has done so much to foster them. Much of today’s religious extremism is a direct result of the Islamic Revolution, which brought an extremist Shi’ite religious group to power in 1979. Since then, the Islamic world has leaned towards religious extremism and radicalism. I don’t know if Zarif has forgotten the threats made by Iran’s leaders against prominent authors and television producers in Iran and Europe under the pretext of defending Islam, when in fact they were political moves made within the context of the struggle with the West. There also exists a long list of Iranian moderates, reformists and intellectuals who have been either jailed or forced to flee Iran.
Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari is in exile in Germany, along with other Iranian intellectuals, because the Iranian regime prosecutes such people for their ideas. Eshkevari criticized the principle at the heart of the Islamic Republic, that of velayat-e faqih, and said he did not think it was obligatory for women to wear headscarves. He was charged with crimes that carried the death penalty, but was sentenced to seven years in prison. Aren’t these the same ideas that ISIS upholds? Isn’t this radicalism?
Sunni and Shi’ite extremism are both similar. Proponents of both sides tend to denounce the other as the most brutal, while they both seek to suppress civil liberties and freedom of thought. Iran’s religious moderates lost their struggle and most were purged from the top ranks of the country’s media, education and political systems, and the regime has become an extremist Shi’ite party which now controls all aspects of Iranian people’s lives. The regime did not settle for merely eliminating moderate figures inside Iran, but also supported extremists abroad as a basic pillar of its policies. It thus supported religious groups in Shi’ite communities in Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf, and it marginalized civil Shi’ite parties. This is how Hezbollah was born in Lebanon.
Therefore, Zarif cannot simply overlook this history and decide who is extremist and who is moderate. Yes, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is a terrifying extremist figure, and so was Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyah, who was notorious for his brutality. Both of them abducted civilians and killed civilian hostages. Both falsely used the name of God and Islam to justify their crimes. Iran raised and trained such people, and currently supports the Houthis in Yemen—a tribal group which follows the Zaydi sect and whose members converted to Shi’ism. They are currently, like ISIS, calling their leader a caliph, and declaring themselves to be in a state of rebellion against the state, looting cities and towns that oppose them. Despite this, Iran supports and helps them.
However, even if we disagree with Iran over what defines extremism, we do agree with it on the importance of working together to fight terrorist groups, mainly ISIS. It is also important for Hezbollah to end its sectarian war against Syrians and other Lebanese parties. The world must realize that fighting extremism and terrorism requires Muslim countries, mainly Saudi Arabia and Iran, who represent the Sunni and Shi’ite sects respectively, to cooperate. Saudi Arabia and Iran must first begin to admit the problem of extremism that has infiltrated their societies. They must confront this on educational, media and religious levels without exception, as extremist groups are fundamentally all alike, whether they are Sunnis or Shi’ites.
We can only hope that Iran changes its policy and stops supporting extremist Sunni and Shi’ite groups, and that together we can open a chapter of Islamic cooperation that spreads moderation and respect for others.