Who speaks for the Fatemiyoun?

BBC Persian made a splash when it reported last week that about 2,000 Afghans had died in Syria fighting on behalf of Assad as part of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a proxy militia organized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The number, an outdated figure whose accuracy we might discuss in a different blog post, was attributed to a Fatemiyoun “cultural official,” a man named Sayed Zuhair Mujahed.

Who is this Mujahed? Is he really a Fatemiyoun “official”?

The short answer is that he appears to be too outspoken to hold a formal post with the tightly run Fatemiyoun ship, though he has served with the outfit in Syria and still maintains an association with it, which allows him to speak informally for the group and its fighters.

In Fatemiyoun parlance, “cultural” activities include three broad functions:

  • Public relations for the group: Includes public statements, producing propaganda films and songs, documenting the war in photos and video, etc.;
  • Services for active-duty fighters: Includes organizing religious events at regional bases in Syria, organizing tours for singers of religious songs to the frontline, managing commemoration ceremonies of Shiite imams, etc.; and
  • Services for dead and out-of-commission fighters: Includes managing burial ceremonies for fighters, holding anniversaries for dead commanders and events for fighters’ families.

The current cultural deputy for Fatemiyoun is an Iranian cleric called Hojjat Ganabadinezhad, a cleric who is a key member of Astan-e Qods-e Razavi, the powerful charitable trust headed by Ibrahim Raisi, the hardline cleric and politician who is a member of the Assembly of Experts and ran against Rouhani in the 2017 elections. The trust manages the Imam Reza shrine, Iran’s most revered Shia holy site.

Sayed Zuhair Mujahed, on the other hand, is a 34-year-old Iran-born junior cleric of Afghan heritage who served in the Fatemiyoun in Syria, most likely in a cultural role. Although he was born, raised and educated in Iran, the Iranian media still refers to him as an Afghan. And Mujahed has embraced this role, carving his niche as a pro-Afghan, pro-Fatemiyoun spokesperson and advocate in Iranian media.

Sayed Zuhair Mujahed's selfie in Tehran

Sayed Zuhair Mujahed takes a selfie in Tehran

Mujahed refers to himself as a “preacher” and is still a student at a seminary in Mashhad, where he also speaks to the media on Fatemiyoun and Afghan issues.

Mujahed has complained about the mistreatment of Afghans in Iran and how Fatemiyoun veterans and their families are sometimes not given their due. In December 2017, he appeared on a live show alongside Nader Talebzadeh, a TV personality and conservative activist, to criticize Iranian conservatives and conservative media for not doing enough to recognize the sacrifices of Fatemiyoun fighters. In a Facebook post, he recalls the producer reprimanding him for his remarks.

In another social media post, he criticizes Iran’s censorship of books after seeing differences between Afghan and Iranian translations of Zalmay Khalilzad’s book, The Envoy:

I’m reading a PDF translation of the book by [Afghan journalist] Harun Najafizada. Today, I went to a bookstall in Mashhad to buy the book [in hard copy] and only found the translation by Mustafa Ahmadi, which had been corrected. I felt very sorry after reading the two translations. In today’s open world, why are some [quarters] hesitant even about quoting a writer?

There are numerous other instances where his interviews and social media posts indicate a lack of message discipline, deviating from the standard IRGC/Fatemiyoun line. This indicates that although he may still maintain an association with the Fatemiyoun after his Syria tour, he probably does not hold an official post.

However, some outlets, such as conservative-leaning Tasnim News, have identified him as “the designated successor to Fatemiyoun’s cultural deputy.” But Tasnim has also referred to him simply as “an Afghan cleric.” Most recently, Tasnim published his statement disavowing any formal association with the Fatemiyoun after BBC Persian identified him as a Fatemiyoun official.

It is possible that his tour with the Fatemiyoun in Syria and his continued association with Fatemiyoun families have blurred the lines about his actual role, causing some confusion in the media. After all, he can be seen at a lot of Fatemiyoun cultural events in Iran, including at burials, commemorations and events for Fatemiyoun families. These appearances fit within his role as a cleric because clerics are expected to officiate, perform rituals and lead prayers.

But the Fatemiyoun runs a tightly PR coordinated operation. Authorized messages echo across various social and traditional media outlets. Statements often appear verbatim in various media outlets to ensure accuracy. As a lifelong resident of Iran and a cleric, Mujahed probably enjoys some leeway in speaking his mind, but his free-wheeling style hardly squares with Fatemiyoun’s highly scripted approach to PR.