It was a normal night in Manchester. The weather was chilly and the street was dark and quiet. Across from the Islamic Centre, a small group was taking part in a hunger strike, demanding the centre be shut down.
“We don’t have anything else except our health, our body, because we tried to use the concept of democracy to ask the UK government to clearly declare the side with their actions, not with their statements and words. We don’t like to be hungry. We don’t like to sit here, from morning to night in the cold weather. You don’t like to be seen by people who are looking at us like strange things… We don’t have any other ways,” Sophie, one protester, said.
The centre which they are protesting in front of – less than a ten-minute walk away from the UoM – is one of the five branches of the Islamic Centre of England (ICEL). It is registered in the UK as a charity, which means a considerable amount of money (up to ₤150,000 annually) comes from British taxpayers. But according to protesters, ICEL is not only about promoting Islam as it declares it to be. The word “terrorism” was used multiple times when they talked about it.
ICEL is directly run and authorized by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, and represents him in the UK. Two months ago, Hashem Moosavi, who is the director of the centres in the UK, made a statement about the “riot” – as they call the revolution taking place in Iran. He described the protesters as “Soldiers of Satan” and condemned women who remove their hijabs for spreading “poison”.
“They are using the same terminology. That means they are standing on the same side of the regime,” Sophie stated.
“There are many many centres in the UK: Muslin, Christian, many centres are actually doing religious work, and nobody has a problem with that. We don’t have a problem with that,” another protester said.
They made it clear that it is not the religion that matters. Islam- Shia or Sunni- is never their target. It’s the centre using its status as a charity to promote political opinions and activities that are a real threat to the Iranian communities.
“I don’t feel safe being here right now, [when] we are doing this, you know, none of us actually feeling safe and secure because we know these people are watching us. We can’t go back to Iran anymore.”
The protester also mentioned that the person who runs the centre in Manchester right now is the brother of Alireza Avayi, who was the Minister of Justice in Iran until a year ago. Avayi was in office in 2019 when a massacre killing 1500 protestors was ordered.
ICEL is certainly not the only representative of Iran’s regime overseas. As a matter of fact, in Germany, there have been debates about the closure of the Islamic centre in Hamburg since this November. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution describes the Centre as “Iran’s most important representation in Germany and a significant centre of propaganda.” Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag, is pondering the closure of the Hamburg Islamic Center and is also going to vote on whether this centre should be closed and how it should be closed.
Here in Britain, until the end of November 2022, the petition for the immediate closure of ICEL has gathered more than 28,000 signatures. However, the British government haven’t shown any efforts to put it on the agenda.
The protests for Iran have been continuing for months, but people in the UK have known little yet about the real situation. Here is the story told by Jason, who was also among the protestors. Years ago, one of his sisters ran home, crying her eyes out.
“As much as we try to understand what’s going on, she said nothing,” he said.
“After a few days that she slightly got out of the shock, she just told us that she has been grabbed on the streets by some strangers. And as soon as she found some police officers, she went to tell them what had happened. When she told them, one of the police officers grabbed my sister again and called her name and kicked her out. ‘You just go home. This is what you deserve. This is what you have to happen to because of what you’re wearing.’ And my sister just came back from college. She had worn properly, at least nothing to be seen.”
Iranian women are deprived of the most basic human rights, like singing in public or riding a bicycle. At the sit-in, a lady was holding a dog in her arms. In Iran, this common scene is forbidden as well. Dogs are regarded as dirty creatures. If the police found a lady with a dog, the dog will be taken away and probably killed. After putting up for decades, Masha Amini’s death ignited fury across the country. Thousands have taken to the streets, but it’s extremely dangerous to be against the regime in Iran. Right now, more than 14,000 protesters are under arrest, with executions a realistic punishment. Children have been shot dead in the street.
“They use ambulances. They use fire trucks as well as uniforms to pretend they are not any of the riots. And they put people inside and take them to unknown places,” Jason said. He even mentioned how the regime took away the children and tortured them to make their parents talk.
At the sit-in, people were holding pictures of young people missing or dead because they were against the regime. There were girls at the age of 16, 17 and 21, and a boy at the age of 21.
The collective trauma eventually brought unity among the Iranian communities. People who are in this group sitting in front of the Islamic Centre did not know each other until recently. This particular group of protestors didn’t know each other until the end of 2022, but their solidarity is striking.
“Not only us. We have a bigger group. We have demonstrations once or twice a week, or sometimes more. We are trying our best, to be the voice of our countrymen who are deprived right now.”
They made their demands against the regime clear: shutting down the ICEL, closing the Iranian embassy in London and expelling all the diplomats, and get the government to prescribe the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) recognised as a terrorist organisation.
“Finally for the first time in 44 years, we’ve come together,” Sophie concluded.
Powered By Spotlight Studios
0161 275 2930 University of Manchester’s Students’ Union, Oxford Rd, Manchester M13 9PR