Spotlight on Iran

Editor: Dr. Raz Zimmt
Molavi Abdolhamid, the leader of Iran’s Sunnis

Molavi Abdolhamid, the leader of Iran’s Sunnis

A text message contest organized by the Irancell telecommunication services company causes a storm among Iran’s Sunnis

A prize contest held by the Irancell mobile phone carrier has drawn anger from Iran’s Sunni minority and prompted calls for a boycott of the company in recent days. The outcry began when one of the questions in Irancell’s text message contest used a derogatory term to refer to Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Muslim caliph.

The spiritual leader of Iran’s Sunnis strongly condemned the affront to their faith and demanded an apology from the company. The protest against Irancell took place mostly on social networks. A specially created Facebook page called for a boycott of the company until it issued a public apology. As a result of the protest, the company had to put the text message contest on hold and officially apologize for using the derogatory term.

The Irancell incident has reopened the public discourse on the ongoing discrimination of Iranian Sunnis, who make up approximately eight percent of the population. The public outcry over the affront to Sunni faith comes at a time of growing expectation in Iran’s Sunni community that their status will improve now that Hassan Rowhani has been elected president. Rowhani, who won a particularly high percentage of the vote in some of the Sunni-populated provinces, recently met with the Sunni religious leader and promised to push for a change in the anti-Sunni discrimination policy.

A prize contest recently held by the Irancell mobile phone carrier has drawn anger from Iran’s Sunni minority and prompted calls for a boycott of the company in recent days. The outcry began when Irancell offered its clients to take part in a text message contest that had several questions for them to answer. In one of the questions, Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Muslim caliph, was described as “the one who was deceived by Satan” (فریب خورده شیطان).

The choice made by Abu Bakr, the first caliph, to appoint Umar as heir to the caliphate is considered misguided in Shi’ite tradition, since it barred Ali ibn Abi Talib, whom Shi’ites consider Prophet Muhammad’s legitimate heir, from rising to power. The way that the question was formulated drew strong reactions from the Sunni minority, who claimed that it was yet another serious affront to Sunnis and Sunni faith.

Molavi Abdolhamid, the spiritual leader of Iran’s Sunnis, released a statement condemning Irancell and demanding a public apology from the company. In his Friday sermon Abdolhamid demanded that the company leaders apologize to the Iranian people for offending the Sunni faith, saying that it was an offense to all Iranians. He called on the judiciary to take the necessary measures to prevent companies and establishments from offending the faith of the country’s citizens (

A group of students of religion and other disciplines from Sistan and Baluchestan Province, populated by the Baluchi minority, which is largely Sunni, also released a statement condemning the company. The statement said that, by affronting the faith of Iran’s Sunnis, Irancell is playing into the hands of the country’s enemies and undermines the national unity. The statement mentioned a directive once issued by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who decreed that offending Sunni religious symbols was Islamically prohibited. The authors of the statement demanded that the authorities take measures against those responsible for the inclusion of the offensive question in the cellular carrier’s text message contest (

The protest against Irancell took to the Facebook social network, where a specially created page called for a boycott of the company until a public apology was given. The organizers of the Facebook protest called on Irancell’s clients to throw away the company’s SIM cards and to stop purchasing its cards altogether.

Offending Umar ibn al-Khattab, said the statement released by the organizers, is the same as offending the religious sentiments and culture of all Iranians. The statement went on to call for opposition to the moral affront to Iran’s different religions, which have coexisted side by side in peace and friendship for hundreds of years. The organizers of the protest said that, by boycotting the company, Irancell’s clients will give its directors an idea of the heavy financial price they will have to pay as a result of their inappropriate behavior (

As a result of the public protest, Irancell had to put the text message contest on hold and officially apologize for using the derogatory term. This weekend the company’s PR department issued an apology stressing that Irancell respects the unity of Muslims and all Iranians, regardless of their religious affiliation. The company claimed that the offensive content that appeared in the text message contest was the work of another company with which it cooperated for the contest, and that it was published without Irancell’s knowledge or consent. The mobile phone carrier promised to take measures against the company legally responsible for publishing the content. The statement released by Irancell also included a clarification and an apology from the management of Golden Key, the company responsible for posting the questions for the contest ( At the same time, the prosecutor general of Sistan and Baluchestan Province announced the start of an investigation of the Irancell company over incitement and affront to the tenets of Sunni Islam (

Sunnis make up approximately eight percent of Iran’s population and constitute the majority among the Kurds, Baluchis, and Turkmen living in Iran. The public debate on the ongoing discrimination against the Sunni religious minority resurfaced following the Iranian presidential election. Hassan Rowhani, the president elect, won considerable support from voters in a number of provinces populated by ethnic minorities that practice Sunni Islam—particularly the Sistan and Baluchestan Province and Kurdistan Province, where Rowhani won over 70 percent of the vote.

Shortly after winning the election, Rowhani met with Molavi Abdolhamid, the spiritual leader of Iran’s Sunnis. In an interview given by Abdolhamid to the reformist daily Bahar, the top Sunni cleric described the meeting with Rowhani in positive terms and said that the Sunnis expected the new president to push for an end to the discrimination practiced against them. He had praise for Rowhani and expressed his hope that the new president would take action to improve the situation and status of the minorities and bring them into his new government. Abdolhamid said that the Sunnis demanded equality, justice, and complete freedom of religion. Residents of Sunni-populated areas still face hardship and discrimination, according to Abdolhamid, even though in recent years there has been some improvement in their economic situation thanks to development programs launched in their provinces. He made particular note of the problem of discrimination practiced against Sunnis when it comes to appointment to top executive positions at the national and provincial level (

Abdolhamid has on several occasions in the past strongly criticized the authorities’ attitude towards the Sunnis. In a sermon delivered in September 2010 the cleric said that, after the Islamic revolution, the Sunnis were hoping for the new regime to foster brotherhood and unity among Shi’ite and Sunni believers in Iran, but those hopes were dashed. Abdolhamid took issue with the authorities’ increasing persecution of schools and religious centers for Sunnis. He argued that the authorities prevented the Sunnis from performing their religious ceremonies and educating their children in accordance with their faith, did not allow even one Sunni mosque to operate in Tehran, and imposed restrictions on Sunni prayers on Eid al-Fitr. He stressed that while the Sunnis were loyal to Iran, opposed to any form of violence, and committed to national unity, Iran’s independence, and defense of the country’s borders, they insisted that their legal rights must be upheld by the authorities (, September 11, 2010).