Iran closes private TV channels for ‘inciting sectarianism’

by Arash Karami, Al-Monitor

Iran’s Intelligence Ministry reported Jan. 4, “Enemies who were using the name of Shiites created 17 satellite TV stations, and their offices inside the country were closed.” Domestic intelligence official Mohammad Pourfallah did not specify which offices were targeted, but they were most likely affiliated with the Shiite Shirazi movement.

Critical of the Islamic Republic of Iran, some of the followers of the Shirazi movement are known for controversial practices that Sunni Muslims find insulting. In an indirect attack on these clerics, Pourfallah continued, “Maybe in Qom they issue fatwas under the name of marja, but the criteria for us is the statements of the supreme leader, [and for him, causing] difference between Sunni and Shiite is haram.”

In October 2010, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa saying, “Insulting any symbols of Sunni brothers, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammad’s wife [Aisha], is forbidden.”

This was not the first time Iran has targeted the Shirazi networks. In August 2014, at the urging of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, a number of news stations in Iran were closed for causing “differences between the followers of Islam.” These latest closures took place during Iran’s “Unity Week.”

Most Sunni Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad was born on the 12th day of the third month of the Islamic calendar, Rabi al-awwal. Shiite Muslims, the second largest sect in Islam, believe he was born five days later, on the 17th of Rabi al-awwal. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has celebrated “Unity Week” between these dates for Mawlid. A number of Iranian websites have reported recently that “Unity Week” had actually started before 1979. They quoted Ayatollah Khamenei as saying that while he was exiled to Iran’s Sunni-majority Baluchistan region by the previous government, he gathered with Sunni clerics to show unity between Shiites and Sunnis.

In those statements, Ayatollah Khamenei said that the “enemies of Islam” will attempt to “make small all of the common points between Sunni and Shiite brothers” while exaggerating the differences.

In the context of the increased sectarianism that has gripped the Middle East since 2011, the statements and actions of Iranian officials during Unity Week have a great sense of urgency.

During a meeting with Iraqi politician Ammar Hakim Jan. 5, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani said, “A real Shiite has to observe Islamic morals and respect his counterparts and learn from the teachings of the imams. He should not use the excuse of religious ceremonies to disrespect what other religions hold sacred.”

A number of outlets also published the text and audio files of former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini saying, “In Islam, it is this brotherliness that is the source of all charity, and they want to take this brotherliness away from us,” and, “If you see someone that acts opposite [of this brotherliness], isolate this person and state your opposition to this person. They are harming Islam and harming Shiism.”

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