An important measure of the deep desire for change within Iran—perhaps easily overlooked by the west--is the growing activism of Sufis against the Iranian regime. Within Islam, Sufis are distinguished by their tolerance and by their pacifism.  Nevertheless Sufism has been transformed into one of the key, active players in the Iranian people’s struggle against the rulers in Tehran. It is important to follow this emerging trend in resistance because from this humble sect may come the seeds of the regime’s undoing.

The sheer brutality of the regime has greatly contributed to the recent increase in the popularity of Sufism as it represents the historical rival of “juridical” Islam practiced by the reigning theocracy in Iran. According to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the U.S. Department of State and others, the regime remains a leading source of internal and external terror: more than 400 people, including political dissidents and people convicted of dubious “crimes” were hung in Iran over the first half of 2014 alone, many from cranes in horrifying public spectacles. And the U.S. government names Iran as the “number one state sponsor of terrorism” abroad, for its financial and military support to groups including Hezbollah. In this unremittingly violent environment, Sufism, which has been historically oppressed by the jurists and even branded as heretical by the Islamic establishment, has now gained momentum.


Indeed, for many Iranians who are oppressed by the ruling theocracy, Sufism provides an outlet for spiritualism and an alternative account of Islam that is devoid of the oppressive and extremist tendencies professed by the ruling mullahs. But until recently, Sufism has been a passive movement aimed at preserving their faith.

Active resistance in Iran has been led by groups such as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a Muslim organization that shares Sufi’s critique of juridical Islam. The MEK has worked to undermine the regime by cooperating with western security and intelligence services, providing crucial information on its nuclear program, and by organizing a viable political opposition. While the MEK has constantly faced death for its activities, Sufis have at least evaded mass executions. But there have been escalating reports of mosques belonging to Sufis being appropriated and destroyed, and their leaders arrested by the Iranian regime. This crackdown has helped transform the previously passive resistance of Sufis into a more active resistance against the regime, bringing them closer to the main opposition MEK.

Sufi prisoners are adopting many measures of protest and resistance that are traditionally characteristic of the MEK: waves of hunger strikes with clear political demands, mass protests against the suppressive policies of the regime, and an expressed readiness to sacrifice their lives for the cause of democracy in Iran. This is both a tactical and powerfully symbolic shift that should worry Tehran.  The radicalization of a traditionally pacifist, inwardly-oriented and politically neutral group of Iranian Muslims is a striking example of the general direction of public opinion in Iran.

Popular demand for democratic change in Iran has spread under the weight of international economic sanctions but above all due to disillusionment with the failure of President Hassan Rouhani to deliver economic or social progress or reduce the political repression and violence espoused by the mullahs. The radicalization of pacifists in Iran draws a new line in the sand for the mullahs; it is clear that there is no easy and peaceful way to freedom through the establishment. Active resistance is on the rise. Western policy should re-orient itself in view of these facts and not continue its policy of wishful thinking. Democratic change is the only alternative to a regime that can only survive by relying on domestic repression and export of terrorism. The west would do well to be on the right side of history.

Parsa is professor of History and Humanities and scholar of Philosophy of History, Islamic and Religious Studies at California State University—Fullerton.