Suffocating the Baha'i

The religion's credo is in conflict with almost every dogma promulgated by the Iranian clerics.

bahai center 224.88 cour (photo credit: Courtesy)
bahai center 224.88 cour
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As Baha'is around the world celebrated their new year last weekend, thoughts and prayers turned to Iran where the community has been shaken by the arrest and impending trial on trumped-up charges of seven members of the Yaran, the ad hoc group formed to administer its affairs at a national level after the banning of the governing National Spiritual Assembly in 1983. Coming in the wake of an 18-month long anti-Baha'i media campaign led by the semi-official Kayhan newspaper, the reported collection by state security services of "identifying particulars" on community members and a general increase in arrests and detentions, it raises fears that Iran's 300,000 Baha'is may be facing an intensification of the state-sponsored persecution to which they have there been subjected since the mid 19th century. Then tensions between the followers of Babism, the embryonic religion out of which the Baha'i faith developed, and Persia's clerical and civil establishment led to violent confrontations in which as many as 20,000 Babis were killed including their leader, Sayyid Ali Muhammad (the Bab), who was executed in July 1850. Although their situation had improved by the 1860s, when Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri (Baha'u'llah) emerged as the Bab's generally recognized successor and began refining his teachings as Baha'ism, the community remained under threat, suffering sporadic attacks directed or incited by the Shi'a authorities which resulted in hundreds of deaths. Baha'is fared better in the early years of the secular Pahlavi dynasty. However, in the mid-1930s they became targets of a government crackdown on independent social groupings which resulted in the censorship of Baha'i literature and school closures, the prohibition of meetings and the illegalization of Baha'i marriage contracts. Their position considerably worsened during the 1950s when, for cynical political reasons, Muhammad Reza Shah oversaw a campaign of repression by the civil, military and clerical leadership, while the dissemination of anti-Baha'i propaganda by the official media helped provoke public passions against them. This culminated in the 1955 pogrom during which the army partly destroyed the National Baha'i Center in Teheran while, all over the country, private homes and businesses were looted and burned. Baha'i men were dismissed from state employment, children expelled from schools and Baha'i women abducted and forced into Muslim marriages. There were also a number of murders, including the hacking to death of seven men by a mob in a village near Yazd. The situation was calmed only when public order was threatened and international pressure increased. However, state suppression of Baha'i activity continued intermittently through the 1960s and 1970s and independent religious organizations such as the Hojjatiyeh worked indefatigably to destroy the Baha'i faith. ASKED SHORTLY BEFORE to his return to Iran in February 1979 whether there would "be either religious or political freedom for the Baha'is under an Islamic government," Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini simply said, "They will not be accepted. No." Baha'is were therefore formally excluded from the protections afforded to religious minorities under the 1979 constitution, paving the way for what the UN Human Rights Committee described as their "systematic persecution" by the state "including summary arrests, torture, executions, murders, abductions and many other harassments." More than 200 Iranian Baha'is have been executed since the revolution, most notoriously the entire nine-member National Spiritual Assembly in 1980 (eight of their nine replacements were also executed in 1981, seven of their respective replacements in 1983) and 17-year-old Mona Mahmudizhad, hanged with nine other women in 1983, for the crime of teaching religion to children. Thousands more have been unlawfully arrested and arbitrarily imprisoned. Although judicial murders have largely been halted on account of the international outcry, Teheran has continued what the Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC) describes as its "deliberate and coordinated campaign to suffocate and ultimately destroy the Baha'i community" through a process of social, cultural and economic strangulation. In 1991 the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, signed the Golpaygani Memorandum, a secret government order still in force which stipulates that all official "dealings with [Baha'is] must be in such a way that their progress and development are blocked"; civil employment, higher education and "any position of influence" are to be denied them once their religious affiliation is established and their "cultural roots... confronted and destroyed." To date, tens of thousands of Baha'is have been stripped of their jobs, business licenses and pensions or deprived of an education solely on account of their faith. They cannot legally inherit property and their marriages are not recognized, meaning Baha'i wives are treated as prostitutes; all marriages contracted prior to 1979 have been annulled. Private and public property has been sequestered, vandalized or destroyed, including religious shrines such as the houses of the Bab and Baha'u'llah's father, demolished in 1979 and 2004 respectively. Cemeteries are also routinely desecrated, most recently that at Kharavan, bulldozed by the government last January. According to the IHRDC, "The cumulative and intended effect of these widespread attacks has been to terrorize an already vulnerable minority group into submission." TEHERAN DEFENDS its actions on the basis that Baha'ism is not a religion but "an organized establishment linked to foreigners, particularly the Zionists" which aims to subvert the Iranian state. But this is self-evident nonsense. The claim that Baha'is are Israeli agents (the seven Yaran officials are charged with "espionage for Israel") is based solely on the fact that the Baha'i World Center is located in Haifa. But Baha'is have had links to this region since 1868 when Baha'u'llah was exiled to Acre and he himself chose Mount Carmel as the World Center's site (and that of the tomb of the Bab) some 70 years before Israel was founded. Indeed, Teheran has a long history of demonizing Baha'is through allegations of associations with its enemy du jour, including the Russians whom it claimed created Babism in an attempt to undermine Shi'a Islam; the British, whose conferral of a knighthood on Baha'u'llah's son Abdul-Baha in 1920, was presented as proof that Baha'is were "imperial spies"; and, more recently, Americans and Wahhabis (although just last week Britain was accused of using Baha'is to "cause disturbance in Iran"). The citing in this context of their supposed links to the Pahlavi regime ignores the fact that Baha'is are faith-bound to be loyal to their governments. Iran's treatment of its Baha'is is, in the final analysis, nothing less than a medievalist religious persecution. The Bab's self-identification with Imam Mahdi and Baha'u'llah's declaration of prophethood both present, in Bernard Lewis's words, "a challenge to the Islamic doctrine of the perfection and finality of Muhammad's revelation" and, consequently, their followers are considered, by definition, to be "heretics," "apostates" and "enemies of God." Furthermore, as Douglas Martin points out, "There is hardly a tenet of [Baha'i] credo that is not in conflict with some dogma promulgated by the clerics of Shi'a Islam" in Iran, such as the rejection of priesthood, community decision-making, independent scientific investigation and, particularly, the equality of women. Teheran's treatment of its Baha'i community has long been denounced by the international community; the UN, the EU, several national legislatures and numerous NGOs have, since the early 1980s, passed rafts of resolutions of condemnation and concern. But more concerted action is required in the face of what the IHRDC now categorizes as "crimes against humanity." Security Council sanctions are surely warranted against the world's real apartheid regime. The writer is a freelance journalist, writing mainly on Irish and Middle Eastern affairs. He is preparing a book on the history of Irish-Israeli relations.