The Baluch, Sunnism and the State in Iran. From Tribal to Global

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Stéphane A. Dudoignon is the author of a book published in the CERI series in Comparative Politics and International Studies with Hurst & Co and Oxford University Press, entitled The Baluch, Sunnism and the State in Iran. From Tribal to Global. The historian gives us some keys for the understanding of Baluchistan and its distinctive characteristics.

The region of Baluchistan concerns three countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. In this book, you have chosen to focus on the Iranian Baluchistan (Sistan and Baluchestan Province). What research path led you to this region, its population, its beliefs and its leaders?

While working on the politicisation of Islam on the former Soviet realm, I was brought to follow in the footsteps of Central Asian students of religion who had attended in their hundreds Sunni madrasas of easternmost Iran, after the end of the civil war of Tajikistan in 1997. In Khurasan along the Afghan border, and in Baluchistan along the Pakistani border, I have had the chance to observe the development of Sunni religious institutions since the 1970s. There, I discovered the role that cross-border tribal populations (the Aymaqs in the north, the Baluch in the south) have played in the importation to Iran of the system of religious teaching of the Deoband School and in its accommodation, since WWII. A revivalist movement born in Northern India in the late 1860s, the Deoband School tends notably to transform madrasas into a centre of public life.

Beyond the emergence of centralised networks of Sunni madrasas in the former tribal marches of past Persian empires, I was captivated by the—still current—complexity of their interrelations with the Iranian state. I was also interested in the role played by these religious schools in modern-day sectarian competitions opposing Sunni and Shia Islam as well as a variety of Sunni Muslim transnationalisms, as one can observe them against the background of the rivalry for regional hegemony that has been developing between Tehran and Riyadh following the US occupation of Iraq.

Your book shows that despite the existence of Sunni jihadist groups in Iranian Baluchistan since the mid 2000s, the region has remained relatively stable. Could you rapidly explain to us what enabled this stability, beyond the monopoly of violence detained by a strong Iranian state?

The dissemination of the Deoband School has taken place in the eastern Sunni-populated peripheries of a Shia-majority country, where Twelver Shia Islam became again a key element of political identity in 1979. This was possible thanks to the interest shown by the Iranian state, under the Pahlavi monarchy as well as the Islamic Republic. Tehran’s goal was to take advantage of the political resource offered by the Deobandi madrasas acting first as a rampart against the Soviet influence along the country’s eastern frontiers and, since the fall of the Wall, against Saudi influence and the propagation of Salafi teaching.

Conversely, the Iranian Deobandi ulama, among the Baluch especially, managed to negotiate compromises with ‘Guides’ Khomeini and Khamenei after the revolution of 1979, as a compensation for their role as guarantors of social peace in the region. During this period, the Deobandi ulama have played a growing part in tentative resolutions of the intertribal feuds fuelled by the repression of smuggling. The moral authority acquired by them, combined with the military successes of Tehran’s counterinsurgency, permitted them to counterbalance the popularity of the Baluch guerrillas of Jund-Allah in 2002-10 and of Jaysh al-‘Adl – the ‘Army of Justice’, a group whose actions in Iranian territory have been supported by Saudi Arabia since late 2012.

How important is tribalism in the region?

An essential difference between Iranian and Pakistani Baluchistan is the impact of the detribalisation implemented on the Iranian side of the frontier since the 1930s. Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi monarchy, then created the Sistan–Baluchistan Region in order for the Sunni-populated, Baluch-speaking and tribal south to be administered by the Persian-speaking, Shia and non-tribal ‘Sistani’ north. The regional development of a civil service still massively in the hands of Shia Persian migrant-background white-collars, the disarmament of tribes from 1928 onwards and the co-optation of the traditional chiefdoms as relays of central power deeply modified the structure of authority in Iranian Baluch society.

While Pakistani Baluchistan was submitted to a domination by Punjabi military and administrative elites since WWII, Iranian Baluch society faced a Shia Persian ‘colonisation’ (the term is widely used in Iranian Baluch literature). As a result, Sunni Islam became in Iranian territory, well before the revolution of 1979, a vector of political identity and the key element of an ideology of resistance. This combination of evolutions explains, I think, the final emergence of Deobandi religious scholars at the centre of the region’s political scene, at the expense of the tribal leaders of times gone by.

In such context, what is the precise role played by the Deoband School in Iranian Baluchistan?

In Iranian Baluchistan and Khurasan, the centralised network of the Deoband School occupies a middle ground between the Iranian state and the local society since the 1970s. Despite its initial hostility to Shiism, Deobandi teaching distinguishes itself by its relative openness on the nature of the state, seen as a possible arbiter between minority and majority religions—as the Raj in India between Islam and Hinduism. In addition, Deoband remains characterised by the School’s attachment to the theological and juridical legacy of the classical confessional systems (madhhabs) of Sunni Islam, which are permeable to regional traditions, contrary to the Wahhabi ideology promoted by Saudi Arabia. No doubt have these features facilitated the adaptation of Deobandi madrasas to the institutional and ideological backgrounds of the Islamic Republic.

Moreover, Deoband in Iran has become an ally of a Kurdish-born Muslim-Brother party, the ‘Appeal and Reform Society’, since the early 2000s. Officialised in 2002, this organisation has become, together with Deobandi madrasas, a vote catcher whose role showed often essential in general elections. Since 1997, the ‘Sunni vote’ has mobilised support for ‘Reformers’, the ulama of the Deoband School and the preachers of the Appeal and Reform Society playing a role of ‘conservative protesters’ common among Middle Eastern ethno-confessional elites. The Deobandi ulama’s proximity with reformers—between 2005 and 2013 by rejection of Ahmadinezhad’s militant and anticlerical Shiism—has sometimes incited Guide Khamenei and the Pasdaran paramilitary body to encourage the emergence of more loyal Deobandi religious staff, and the inner division of Sunni madrasas, with the support of part of the tribal leaders.

The cover of your book shows the portrait of a Sunni scholar, a figure of tribal baluch ancestry, Sardar Mawlawi Fayz-Muhammad Husaynbur, who was assassinated by ‘terrorists’ in 1981. Why did you chose this picture, and how does it illustrate your analyzis and your argument in the book?

Sardar Mawlawi Fayz-Muhammad Husaynbur is precisely one of these Sunni religious figures originating from the Baluch tribal elite associated with the Islamic Republic after the revolution of 1979. Some have paid with their life their support to the new regime, which was perceived locally as a new form of colonisation. Moreover, Sardar Mawlawi Fayz-Muhammad belongs to a historical period (the Iran–Iraq war of 1980-88) which memory (an essential asset of Iran’s national unity) raises issues in the country’s peripheries because of the marginal engagement of their Sunni populations in the conflict. The absence of the Sunnis of Iran from the war’s historiography has brought the Islamic Republic, in quest of Sunni ‘martyrs’ of the ‘Sacred Defence’ against Iraq, to search for substitute war dead. One of them in Baluchistan is this religious scholar from the oasis of Gwasht, a cradle of the Deoband School in Iranian territory, who, assassinated during the first year of the conflict with Iraq, had his memory revived by the Ahmadinezhad administration. I found that the monument erected to him in 2011, at the oasis’s entrance, symbolises the complexity, and the high level of violence, of the Islamic Republic’s relationship to its tribal periphery and to its Sunni minority.

Stéphane A. Dudoignon was interviewed by Miriam Périer, CERI.