In Iran, which is 90-95 per cent Shia Muslim, the passing of a date set for a decision over whether a non-Muslim can hold an elected public office is significant for the country’s religious minorities and their rights.
The date, April 5, passed without that decision being made for a Zoroastrian voted onto his city council. After Sepanta Niknam was elected last year in Yazd, an historic city in central Iran with many ancient Zoroastrian sites, a losing Muslim conservative candidate protested, on the grounds that a non-Muslim should not be elected over a Muslim. Niknam, who had already served a four-year term as Councillor, received three times as many votes as Ali Asghar Bargheri, who came 45th.
Following Bagheri’s complaint, in September 2017, a few months after the election, the Guardian Council appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei suspended Niknam’s position on the theological grounds that a non-Muslim should not rule over a Muslim. (The non-elected Guardian Council determines if the laws passed by the Parliament are in line with Sharia).
“Sepanta’s suspension from a position he was democratically elected for highlights an emerging battle over the right of Iran’s religious minorities to run for office,” Mansour Borji of Article 18, a London-based advocacy organisation, told World Watch Monitor. “Sepanta was voted for by Muslims and non-Muslims alike and won against a candidate openly backed by the country’s ultra-conservative elite. This vividly illustrates the fact that the majority of Iranians do not share the same discriminatory values as those of the ruling clergy.”
Iranians – Muslim and non-Muslim – took to social media to express their disdain for the suspension. Then, after the Head of the Parliament and President also expressed their opposition to the suspension, the matter was referred to the Expediency Council, an independent body created by the Supreme Leader to reconcile the Guardian Council and Parliament if they face deadlock.
In October 2017, Niknam had to take six months’ authorised leave of absence, during which the Expediency Council was to deliver its ruling. According to Borji, the Expediency Council is trying to delay until the issue is forgotten.
In April 2017, Ahmad Jannati, a conservative cleric and senior member of the Guardian Council, said religious minorities should not be allowed to stand as candidates at all, since this violated the wishes of the Islamic Republic’s founding father, Ruhollah Khomeini.
In October 1979, at the very beginning of Iran’s Revolution, Khomeini said candidates should “first of all be Muslims… Second, they should believe in our movement. They should be trustworthy and sincere in their faith”.
Jannati said that, as it was against Khomeini’s wishes for non-Muslims to rule, it was “therefore against the tenets of Sharia [Islamic law]”.
Borji says that the reinstatement of Niknam’s position is unlikely. “Today, Sepanta’s fight for reinstatement is a fight against religious discrimination and against the lack of respect for people’s vote and their choices,” he said.
Niknam recently took to Twitter to say that he did not want an exception to be made for him. “I proclaim here that until this issue is resolved for all religious minorities, I will not return to the [City] Council,” he wrote, in Farsi. “I will only go back to the Yazd Council if the law permitting religious minorities to be elected is reaffirmed by the Expediency Council. If this is not going to be principally dealt with, and this issue is only resolved for me personally, and the problem remains for minorities in future elections, I will not attend the Council meetings.”