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Tehran Eager to Dunk on Dilemma in Sweden as War Between Muslim vs. West

Violent protests in Sweden following threats about burning the Quran

In recent days, several Iranian state-run media outlets have run articles calling attention to riots in Sweden which originated with a far-right, anti-Muslim political group’s threat to hold a rally and burn copies of the Quran in Stockholm. Rasmus Paludan, the leader of the group whose name translates to English as “Hard Line”, reportedly failed to appear for the promised rally, but arguably accomplished his goal when the resulting backlash sparked multiple days of unrest and clashes with the police.

The context of that unrest has little if anything to do with Iran specifically, but Iranian regime officials see it as an opportunity to promote familiar narratives of a perceived culture war between the “Islamic world” and the “West,” and state media outlets clearly propagate this narrative by assigning blame to the Swedish government and other Western entities while presenting the Iranian regime as a bulwark for justice.

On Tuesday, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) proclaimed that Muslims were being “suppressed on the pretext of defending the freedom of speech,” and accused Sweden of “emboldening” its far-right activists simply by virtue of having not cracked down on Hard Line’s plans for a public demonstration close to Muslim communities. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime continues to dismiss recurring calls for investigation and accountability related to anti-government protests that took place across nearly 200 Iranian cities in November 2019.

Almost immediately after the outbreak of that nationwide uprising, Iranian authorities led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps opened fire on crowds of protesters, killing at least 1,500. Thousands of others were arrested amidst the mass shootings, and many were then subjected to months of systematic torture at the direction of the Iranian judiciary, then led by Ebrahim Raisi, who went on to become president in 2021. Raisi’s prior claim to infamy was a leading role in the mass executions of 30,000 political prisoners during the summer of 1988, which was an early example of the regime’s exploitation of religious dogma as justification for political violence.

In advance of the 1988 massacre, then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini declared supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) to be guilty of “enmity against God” and instructed newly-formed death commissions to “annihilate the enemies of Islam immediately.” In recent conferences and publications calling for action by the international community, some legal scholars have described that massacre as a “genocide” committed against adherents of Islam who rejected the regime’s fundamentalism.

The underlying sentiment is still reflected in the regime’s official narrative regarding current events, which portrays itself and its would-be supporters as being simultaneously under attack from non-Muslims in the Western world and from “Takfiri” elements within traditionally Muslim societies. This is to say that the regime publicly dismisses the Islamic bona fides of its ideological competitors, and often suggests that Western, regional, and even domestic entities are conspiring against the “true” Islam that is Tehran’s fundamentalism.

In fact, allegations of “conspiracies” were made quite explicit on Sunday when Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, commented on the situation in Sweden during his weekly press conference. “The actions of the insulting person [Paludan] and his supporters increasingly necessitate the unity of Muslims and Islamic countries against the conspiracies of the enemies of Islam,” he said, implying that such unity can best be achieved under Tehran’s leadership. Despite the events in question being far from Iran and the surrounding region, Khatibzadeh referred to them as examples of “sedition,” a term prominently used by Iranian officials in reference to various major challenges to their hold on power, including 2009, 2018, and 2019 uprisings that explicitly called for regime change.

A week earlier, Tehran’s Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi applied a very similar framing to recent protests at the Iranian embassy in Kabul and the consulate in Afghanistan, as well as to illegal border crossings and other incidents that threatened to harm relations between Iran and newly-restored hardline emirate known as the Taliban. “This is the enemy’s plot,” Vahidi said, according to IRNA, while demanding that the Taliban commit to protecting the regime’s interests.

Iranian officials and state media outlets have evidently been keen to imply that violent incidents challenging Iran’s aim of ideological dominance are rooted in the West, even when it is more likely that they have direct or indirect ties to the Taliban or another competing entity in the Muslim world. This was the case, for instance, when Vahidi said of a knife attack carried out at a Mashhad shrine by an ethnic Uzbek from Pakistan, “This bitter event shows that the enemy has not ceased its efforts to spread discord.”

The same impulse was seemingly on display on Tuesday after a pair of explosions struck a boys’ school in Kabul, killing at least six people and wounding a dozen others. Tasnim News Agency, an outlet close to the Revolutionary Guards, quoted Saeed Khatibzadeh as blaming the incident on “Takfiri terrorists” and “anti-religious elements.” However, the same report simply glossed over the fact that a third explosion in the same area struck an English language learning center, suggesting that the series of attacks may have been targeting perceived Western influence, in which case they would not support Tehran’s narrative of unrest being deliberately instigated by a Western “enemy”.

But additional details are unlikely to alter that narrative in any case. Whereas Tehran has frequently condemned Western authorities for inserting themselves into regional affairs via public commentary on recent developments, the Interior Ministry quickly responded to the Mashhad knife attack by saying that the absence of such commentary proved that the US and its allies “are among supporters of such acts.” This goes to show that Tehran can be expected to shape its account of any given incident to fit the preconceived narrative, whether that incident occurs on its own territory or far away in a nation like Sweden.