In recent months, several assailants belonging to the Salafi fundamentalist groups in the Kurdistan province, Iran, have conducted several attacks against other citizens living in the province.
According to the Hengaw News website, on the evening of Friday, 14 May 2021, a group of Salafi-jihadis attacked several citizens with knives in the city of Saqqez. The Salafis justified their attack by saying that the attacks were conducted against some local youths who were drinking alcohol. The clashes escalated. Several of the wounded young men are now reported to be in critical condition. A number of the assailants were also injured during these altercations and attacks.
Two weeks earlier, a similar incident took place in the city of Marivan, also located in the province of Kurdistan, Iran.
In the middle of the night on 1 May, eight Salafis of Marivan attacked the residents of the Darsiran neighborhood with swords and clubs, chanting “Allahu Akbar.”
This time, the assailants claimed that some young people in the neighborhood had “committed blasphemy.” After these clashes, the jihadists returned, shouting, “We are coming back.” The next day, the Salafis launched a massive propaganda campaign in an attempt to intimidate the people of Darsiran. Their Salafi allies in Javanroud, Saqqez, and Sanandaj supported them and threatened to come to their aid in the event of another conflict.
On the other hand, social and political secular groups both within and outside Kurdistan supported the people of Darsiran and condemned the Salafi attacks. The people of Darsiran, one of the old neighborhoods of Marivan with a strong community and identity, prepared themselves the next day to confront the jihadis. Citizens of all ages gathered in the city’s “Daraei” square and announced their readiness to defend their community. A few days after the incident, police arrested several Salafi strongmen, and their judicial fate is currently unknown.
Salafism in Kurdistan province, Iran, is relatively a new phenomenon – It has emerged in the area about 15 years ago.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq, Ansar al-Islam jihadists entered Iran and openly spread their ideology among the Iranian Kurds.
Since the mid-2000s, the Salafis have assassinated several influential and religious figures in the Kurdish inhabited areas in Iran. For example, in September 2009, the Salafi Jihadis assassinated Mamosta Sheikh Eslam and Mamosta Borahn Aali – both men were nfluential local religious leaders.
Salafis have always been active in the Kurdistan province, Iran; but they have only in recent years exhibited the power to attack other citizens in broad daylight.
The recent incidents in Marivan and Saqqez are very alarming. For several years, Islamists belonging to various groups have been propagating their jihadi ideology and recruiting members in Iranian Kurdistan. The cities of Marivan, Sanandaj, Saqqez, and Javanroud have been the main centers of their activities. Members of these jihadi groups now openly attend their meetings, grow long beards, and appear in the cities with their distinguishable looks and attire.
Who are the Salafis?
The Salafis are a group of radical Sunni Muslims who yearn to return to the golden age of the Islamic caliphate. According to them, the Islamic Golden Age occurred during the first three hundred years following the advent of Islam.
Salafis believe that after the Golden Age and the death of the prophet Muhammad, Islam went astray, and the efforts of Muslims in the following centuries have not been able to bring Islam back to its original path. They also maintain that they have a mandate to revive the golden past. Some of the Salafis are jihadists and seek to contribute to this revival aspiration through violent jihad. Other Salafis are non-jihadist and believe that their goal should be achieved through propaganda and peaceful means.
The Salafis who are active and operate in Iranian Kurdistan are, in fact, jihadist Salafis and so their goal is to return Islamic societies to the Golden Age of Islamic rule through violence.
Salafi Base in Kurdistan
The extremist groups in Kurdistan are recruiting the most impoverished, and most underserved people of Kurdistan- those who have no support and feel entirely forgotten. In this situation, hopeless people suffering from discrimination and poverty join these groups out of despising the status quo. As it happens, extremist groups want nothing more from these people than their anger. They masterfully use this rage for their destructive actions, such as intimidation of other citizens.
Farzad Seifikaran, a journalist, based in the Netherlands, told Zamaneh that religion is the most crucial factor for those who join Salafism.
“The most important reason that Salafists were able to recruit for a limited number of Iranian Kurds is a common religion and close relationship with the Kurdistan Region.”
Seifikaran also mentioned that the Iranian government let the Salafists in Kurdistan propagandize freely, unlike other moderate and traditional religious movements in Kurdistan.
According to the Hengaw News website, 141 young people from Saqqez have joined extremist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan in recent months. Mullah Hussein Salehabad, Mullah Hadi Hermidol, and Mullah Mohammad Alavi are among the leading figures in Saqqez who encourage people and youth to join these groups. The situation is similar in Marivan, Sanandaj, and Javanroud. Many Islamists in these cities have joined ISIS in the past few years, fighting the Peshmerga Kurdish forces in the region.
As Seifikaran told Zamaneh, the Salafists do not have a strong base in Kurdistan.”The people of Kurdistan are mainly followers of a particular style of mystical Islam rather than sharia, which is why public opinion has not been pleased with the Salafis so far. Khanghahs (monasteries) and traditional religious scholars still have the most popular base.” He added
What is the Iranian Government’s Position?
Throughout its four decades, the Islamic Republic has been lenient with jihadist Islamic groups in contradiction to its severe repressive response to any movement in Iranian Kurdistan. It started in the early 1980s when the regime collaborated with Ahmad Muftizadeh’s group to suppress the demands of the Kurds and leftist groups. Despite their propaganda against the Shiites, extremist Sunni groups have a strong desire to approach the Shiite government of the Islamic Republic and pursue their common interests in certain circumstances.
Even Islamic groups in Iraqi Kurdistan have tried to establish good relations with the Islamic Republic, and their representatives have traveled to Tehran many times for this purpose.
The Iranian government perceives such groups as viable options for cultivating resilient forces in Kurdistan and confronting secular, left-wing, and even right-wing Kurdish opposition. However, the regime is careful not to go too far in tolerating these groups.
Salafis in Iraq
Kurds in Iraq were first exposed to Salafism in the 1990s. During the civil war of 1993 between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK), Iraqi Kurd Salafis fled to other countries, including Syria and Yemen. After the US-led invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussain, Salafism re-rooted in the Iraqi Kurdish region.
Salafis are Sunni, and most Kurds in Iran and Iraq are Sunni; as Farzad Seifikaran told Zamaneh, this could be considered one of the most important factors that some Kurds are attracted to Salafism.
“The relations between Iranian Kurdistan and the Iraqi Kurdistan region strengthened after the fall of Saddam Hussein in various aspects such as tourism, trade, and even religious affairs. Although these relationships have existed for a long time, they have been limited in recent decades. In the past, religious affiliations were limited to monastic relations and visits to religious sites by both sides. Still, after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of the Salafists in Iraqi Kurdistan, the trend gradually spread to Iranian Kurdistan.”
The Salafis in Iraqi Kurdistan operate independently from Salafis in the Iranian Kurdistan, but there are interactions between the groups.