• Iran
  • July 12, 2010
  • 14 minutes read

A Talk with Iran’s Dawa and Reform Group SecGen Abdulrahman Mohammad Birani


In an exclusive interview in the Iranian capital, Tehran [interview was conducted by E-mail from Cairo with Birani in Tehran], which is his first this year with any Arab or foreign media organ outside Iran, Birani stresses that there is no organizational link between his group and any side outside Iran, including the Muslim Brotherhood Group.

Birani considers that the Dawa and Reform Group is the only organization that has activities within all the circles of the Sunni society in Iran, with all its sides and ethnic groups. He rejects the claims that the group receives any aid from any Arab or Islamic sides.

With regard to the dispute between the reformists and the conservatives in Iran, Birani says: We see common aspects between us and each of the two sides, but the reformists are closest to us because of their intellectual openness, and their defense of pluralism to the extent of allowing some elite Sunnis in their reformist parties even at the level of decision making.

However, Birani points out that after the declaration of the results of the last presidential elections, the group opted not to engage in protests in order to – as he says – protect the interests of the Sunnis.

It is worth noting that Birani, who was born in Iran’s Kermanshah Province in 1954 and obtained a Bachelor Degree in Shariaa Science at Tehran University, is about to argue his doctorate thesis in international law at Al-Nilayn Universities. Birani also has been the secretary general of the Dawa and Reform Group since 1991.

The following is the full text of the interview:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people consider you as part of the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, but you reject this claim. What then are the limits of this relationship?

[Birani] The Dawa and Reform Group is an Iranian Islamic group that was founded before the Islamic revolution in 1979 by ulema and Islamic callers influenced by the intellectual ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood Group. However, the group is independent in its decision making and stances, and its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood remain within the domain of concepts, and of benefiting from the Muslim Brotherhood expertise and experiences.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you a part of the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood?

[Birani] We are not a part of the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are your relations with the Muslim Brotherhood center in Cairo?

[Birani] Naturally, as acting Islamic group we have good relations with the Islamic movements and their symbols, especially the Muslim Brotherhood leaders; however, we have no organizational link to any side outside the country.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How does the Iranian Government treat you, as you are not officially a party?

[Birani] From the beginning of its foundation, the group has taken into consideration the ethnic diversity, the sectarian differences, and the historical disputes, and has dealt with them realistically and wisely. The group has adopted a centrist course in ideology and behavior that is far removed from extremism and arousing disputes. Thus, the domain of activities of the group has widened and reached all the provinces in which Sunnis live, at the level of the ulema and the private Shariaa schools, and also reached the student circles, the women sector, and the civil society institutions. The group has preserved its relations with the other tendencies at home. At the level of the Muslim world, we have relations with the intellectual leaders, the ulema, and the symbols. We have been a founding member of the Federation of Private Associations in the Muslim World and also of the International Association of Muslim Scholars.

We have decided to adhere to the principle of dialog and of resolving the problems through legal means away from the media clamor. In exchange for this, the government deals with us in a semi-official way. We consider that this method is the best to resolve our problems. Ultimately we are on the side of freedom for all, political openness, and mutual trust between the people and the government.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there contacts or dialogs between you and the authorities in Tehran?

[Birani] Yes, there are dialogs and meetings with some of the authorities concerned.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the number of your members within Iran? What are the sources of finance for the group?

[Birani] We are the only organization that has activities within all the circles of the Sunni society in Iran with all its sides and ethnic groups, be they Persian, Kurdish, Baluchi, Torkuman, Arab, Talysh, Azeri, or any other ethnic group. Therefore, we have hundreds of symbols, thousands of members, and huge masses of supporters and followers. The group is financed through the help of the members, and its charitable supporters and sympathizers.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you receive aid from any Arab or Islamic side?

[Birani] No, we are an independent group in every aspect, including the economic aspect. We do not receive any foreign aid. However, the charity department of the group might sometimes cooperate with some other charities to build mosques and Shariaa schools, to support orphans, and help the poor.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you see the Arab and Muslim stance toward the issues and demands of the Sunnis in Iran?

[Birani] We reject any interference by any country in the affairs of other countries. At the same time, there are sectarian minorities in some Islamic societies; there are intellectual and historical disputes that have not started now, and some of them go back a thousand years, and they cannot be resolved quickly or lightly; also there are grounds to arouse these disputes, and to transform them into conflicts and aggression against the rights, and hence squander the resources of the nation, as we have seen in some neighboring countries, as divisions and disputes can develop into conflicts and fighting, which is extremely dangerous. Therefore, it would have been better for the governments, the intellectual elites, and the ulema to focus on these issues, and to cooperate together to resolve the problems in civilized peaceful ways.

There is no doubt that the sectarian disputes are an important part of the reality that cannot be ignored, and also it is not right to stir them up. We believe that a fanatical reaction to sectarian fanaticism and the stirring up of dispute will not serve resolving the problem. Previously we have submitted a proposal in this concern to the most erudite scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, God preserve him, chairman of the International Association of Muslim Scholars, as a project calling for the drafting of a document to include the rights and duties of the Sunni and Shiite Muslim minorities in the Muslim countries in the same way we have witnessed the blessed efforts with regard to the rights of the Muslim minorities in the western societies.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you support Jundullah group? What is your stance toward them?

[Birani] Avoiding violence is one of the intellectual and behavioral pillars of the group, as is recorded in our documents. We have opted to avoid violence under any circumstances as an unalterable firm foundation, and as an operation method to interact with others, and also in order to create the political and social development in society according to our understanding of the Koran and Sunnah. Therefore, we reject violence in any form and from any side, and we do not believe that violence can be a means to establish what is right.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion of Sheikh [Abdolhamid] Ismail Zehi, who presents himself as the religious supreme authority for the Sunnis in Iran?

[Birani] In fact we have not heard His Eminence Sheikh Abdolhamid, God preserve him, define himself in this capacity. At the same time, he is one of the leaders of the Sunnis, and has made good and highly appreciated efforts, especially in Baluchistan; there are other Sunni groups, tendencies, symbols, and leaders.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, how is the situation of the Sunnis now in Iran? Do you consider that the Sunnis are exposed to discrimination or persecution?

[Birani] The leaders of the Sunnis attached great hopes to the Islamic revolution in Iran. They hoped that it would put an end to the historical disputes and hatred, and would provide equality among citizens. The leaders of the revolution succeeded in drafting a Constitution that responds to most of the demands of the society in general, and grants the basic rights and public freedoms to all citizens; however, some of the articles of the Constitution stipulate that the official school of thinking is the Jaafari one, and prevent the Sunnis from becoming presidential candidates, and these articles were then objected to by some Sunni leaders. However, the percentage of success in implementing the Constitution has been less than expected because of reasons that we are not going to list. Therefore, there are problems, and naturally we do not deny the existence of these problems.

On the other hand, not all doors are closed. For instance, as the issue of not allowing the building of mosques for the Sunnis in the capital Tehran became notorious, we contained it through a compromise by opening in the capital a number of prayer corners for holding the Friday prayers, the prayers of the two Ids, and the night prayers of Ramadan; the government deals with these prayer corners with tolerance, and sometimes cooperate to solve the emerging problems of these corners.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have a stance toward the current dispute between the reformist tendency and the conservatives?

[Birani] On the basis of the intellectual bases of the group, we can see common aspects with each of the two sides, but the reformists are closest to us because of their intellectual openness, and their defense of pluralism to the extent of allowing some elite Sunnis in their reformist parties even at the level of decision making. For this reason, we were supporting the reformists in the presidential and parliamentary elections. In the last elections we supported the reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi in an extensive way, and we issued a statement in which we pointed out the most prominent rights and demands of the Sunnis. However, after the declaration of the election results, we opted not to engage in the protests in order to preserve the interests of the Sunnis.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you see the clamor surrounding Iran’s nuclear program?

[Birani] We consider that using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is a right for all peoples, as it is needed by the times, and we consider that to deprive any people of this right is unacceptable. The Islamic Republic of Iran always stresses that its nuclear activities are peaceful, and that it does not want nuclear arms; therefore, Iran is entitled to have this energy for peaceful purposes, and it is wrong to deprive Iran of it. We are in favor of a world free of nuclear weapons, and we hope that this will happen.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you support the continuation of Iran’s occupation of the UAE islands?

[Birani] First: We do not agree to the use of the word occupation. Second: We all know that there are border disputes between most of the countries in the region, which would be better to resolve through dialog. The same applies to the islands. There ought to be a dialog, and the misunderstanding ought to be removed. There is no doubt that Iran and fraternal UAE are bound by religious and cultural common factors, in addition to a high level of family links between the two peoples. This dispute ought to be resolved in a peaceful and civilized way, and we hope that this will happen.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you see the attempts to bring the Sunnis and the Shiites closer together?

[Birani] There is no doubt that the idea of rapprochement and dialog between the followers of the schools of thinking has been the blessed fruit of the good efforts undertaken by prominent leaders of the contemporary Islamic awakening such as Sayyid Jamal-al-Din [al-Afghani], Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, Imam [Hasan] al-Banna, the ulema of Al-Azhar, and Shaykh Muhammad Taqiy al-Qimmi. They have launched a wise project aimed at Islamic unity, and bringing the followers of the schools of thinking closer together, and the first rapprochement house was established in Cairo. This project has been one of the fruits of the reformist intellectual school that paved the way for accepting the other, and for dealing with the different opinions on the basis of the principle of the legitimate diversity of opinions and interpretative judgment. This openness is expressed by the golden rule: “Let us cooperate on what we agree, and excuse each other in what we do not agree.” The Muslim Brotherhood Group has adopted this concept, and according to it a generation of thinkers has been brought up in the school of Muslim Brotherhood, and these thinkers have risen above the ethnic, national, linguistic, and sectarian differences, and they deal with them in a civilized Islamic way. This has become the law of the group and its characteristic.

After the Islamic revolution in Iran, the World Forum for Proximity of Schools of Islamic Thought was established. This forum has held many international conferences attended by some ulema and leaders of thinking at home and abroad, and it has exerted a great deal of effort and achieved several aims. However, in the light of the current circumstances under which the disputes, conflicts, and challenges have increased, and the mutual trust between the two sides has shrunk, we consider that the achievement of the aspired for aim of Muslim unity requires strong and sincere will in addition to the participation of the influential intellectual authorities from both sides; moreover, this requires the agreement of the public opinion, and its being convinced of the need for rapprochement, because getting the agreement of the intellectual and political leaders on some issue is the easy part, but convincing the people is the major part of the issue.