By Mahmoud Hakamian
On Sunday, Agence France-Presse reported that two managers at an Iranian state television channel had been fired over the broadcast of a live program deemed insulting to Sunni Muslims. While this headline given the impression of meaningful efforts by regime authorities to exhibit sensitivity to Iran’s minority groups, the underlying incident is also one of many examples of a culture of discrimination in Iranian state media and in mainstream Iranian society as a whole.
In fact, one might conclude from long-term reporting on the matter that the recent firings are based not on a serious commitment to reform but rather on an effort to preempt large-scale public protests in the wake of the latest insult to a minority of the viewing audience. As just one example of this phenomenon, Khuzestan Province was rocked by weeks of protests last year after the airing of a children’s television segment, ostensibly on the topic of cultural diversity, which seemed to erase the Arab identity of the region.
But regardless of current trends in the treatment of religious and ethnic minority groups by Iranian state media, the regime itself is widely recognized as being in the midst of a long-term crackdown on such groups, as it works to reaffirm a hardline identity in the face of challenges from both at home and abroad.
In one of the latest examples of escalating assaults on religious groups that are supposedly subject to official toleration, IranWire reported on Saturday that regime authorities had forced the closure of an Assyrian Christian church, despite the fact that it had remained in compliance with the various restrictions previously placed upon it.
The report quotes a source familiar with the incident as saying, “A large number of agents entered our church compound and changed all the locks on the doors, removed the cross from the church’s high tower, installed some monitoring instruments and started to threaten and force our custodian to leave his place inside the compound immediately.”
The church in question has stood for roughly a century and was legally confiscated in 2011, but was permitted to remain the site of Christian services, provided that they were conducted only in the Assyrian language. Although converting from Islam to any other religion is illegal in the Islamic Republic, traditional communities of adherents to minority faiths are afforded rights under the constitution. However, in practice these rights are routinely curtailed, as evidenced by a wide variety of raids and forced closures.
Increasingly, these sorts of actions are being carried out not only against easily recognizable religious groups but also against any social or cultural gatherings that are deemed threatening to the nation’s theocratic identity. For one recent example, the BBC reported last week upon the arrest of 30 individuals who were participating in a yoga class. Authorities identified the class as violating religious strictures on multiple counts, as by accommodating both women and men while allowing them to exercise in “inappropriate” clothing.
The BBC report noted that the Latin dance-based exercise known as Zumba was made illegal in 2017. But it also pointed out that as the regime’s restrictions on popular youth activities and minority cultural expressions expand, so too does the public backlash against those restrictions. It quoted one Iranian Twitter user as saying, “An establishment that finds even yoga harmful does not need the USS Abraham Lincoln warship to end its existence.”
The White House recently ordered the accelerated deployment of that aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, in response to apparent threats of attack from Iranian forces or Iran-backed militant groups in the surrounding region. But President Donald Trump insists that he is not angling for war, and some observers have speculated that the long-term ambition of his administration is to promote domestic revolt along the lines of the nationwide uprising that occurred in late 2017 and early 2018.
Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, said in the aftermath of that uprising that it could spark a “year full of uprisings” leading to the “final victory” of a cosmopolitan and democratic Iranian populous over a politically and culturally repressive, theocratic regime.