Noisy Water Review

A Fire in the Forest:
Ramifications of Oppression, and the Response of the
Baha'i Community of Iran

Aziz Tebyanian

The Awakening

The letter is in front of me. The friend who emailed it to me this morning was sure that I would appreciate receiving it. Now, I am reading it over and over again. My lips say the words as I read them. But I have to stop frequently and try to overcome my emotions, my feelings of joy intermingled with sadness. The struggles for freedom in my beloved birthplace, Iran, have reached a milestone. At no time before have we, the intellectuals of this land, been able to accept that human rights knows no boundaries; at no time have we been willing to let go of the false assumptions that had entered our minds about the scapegoat, the oppressed Baha'i community.

And now at long last, a letter of admittance, of apology has been composed, that all who are sincere in their defense of freedom can sign and support. I am one of those who are, for the first time in a century and a half of persecutions, breaking their silence. “We are ashamed for all these transgressions and injustices, and we are ashamed for our silence over these deeds” is what the letter says.

I wonder about the reasons for the silence of intellectuals of diverse backgrounds and their unwillingness to defend a large group of their compatriots, the largest non-Muslim minority of their country. What has been the reason for my own silence? Am I not a renowned scholar and writer who could have used my influence to defend my fellow citizens? Have I not spent decades of my life to preserve our cultural heritage by strongly opposing acts and policies that were destructive to our national heritage sites? Where was I when the sacred places of the Iranian and world Baha'is were razed to the ground? Weren't these a part of our cultural heritage? How about when loyal and peaceful citizens were arrested, tortured, and executed on baseless charges? Or, when thousands were denied their basic rights to education and occupation?

We were all silent. Many of us believed in the century-long propaganda of the clerics claiming that these people were agents and spies of foreign governments. It is even more perplexing to see that even those of us that did not like the clerics did not question these claims and looked the other way when it came to the Baha'is, not bothering to investigate the issue. Many of us were too busy with our own ideologies and political affiliations, or had unaddressed inner fears and inhibitions. Among us, there was, and still is, a powerful taboo surrounding this name: Baha'i. A nation was raised to think of it as the worst and the most wrong. How deep our lack of understanding when we said the oft-heard sentiment: “He/she is such a wonderful person; too bad he/she is a Baha'i.”

What is it that has awakened many of us from the 160-year-long sleep? Is it because in the past three decades group after group of us were drawn in the same whirlwind of repression that had engulfed the Baha'is for so long? Now that we too have become targets, we are seeing the true face of the calumniators who had been making accusations against the Baha'is to keep the public afraid and resentful of them.

Sitting in my room all the way across the globe, looking at the historic letter, I am an expatriate with a burning desire in my chest for a day when I can cross the ocean I see from my window, on my way to a free homeland, a place with a glorious past when Cyrus, the great, the king of kings, composed the first declaration of human rights. With a hope for a future when all the children of that land can live together in peace, harmony, and freedom, I sign this letter, a letter that is a testament to the resolve of the great majority of the people of my country to see in every person a noble being with a right to freedom, a right to equality.

The open letter “We are ashamed!” addressed to the Baha'i community of Iran was signed and published in 2009 by a group of Iranian academics, writers, artists, journalists and activists throughout the world. The above fictional rendering—which was written in order to more comprehensively convey their point of view—can be considered as representing the sentiments of these individuals.

Baha'is are the followers of the Baha'i faith, which originated in Persia, present-day Iran, and is now the second most widespread religion in the world. Its main tenets are the oneness of God, oneness of religion, and oneness of humanity. It was founded in the mid 19th century by Bahá’u’lláh who declared his mission as the inaugurator of a new dispensation, and as the latest in the line of the Messengers of God who are sent by the one loving Creator from age to age to infuse spiritual impulse into the life of humanity. These divine Educators, who include Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Christ, and Muhammad, both renew some eternal verities such as belief in divinity and morality, and also bring social teachings that are suited for the needs of the time in which they appear. The Baha'i teachings include: the need for independent investigation of truth, the elimination of racial, religious and gender prejudices, the equality of women and men, the elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty, and the establishment of a world federal system of governance. These teachings, Baha'is believe, are suited for our modern time and can help humanity reach its collective maturity and attain the lasting peace that have been foretold in all the scriptures of the past.

Since its inception, the Baha'I Faith’s progressive teachings made the newborn faith, and its adherents, a target of fierce opposition, slander, and attacks in the land of its birth. History repeated itself once again. Every time a reformer (religious or otherwise), and especially a new Messenger of God starts to effect a transformation in the structure of society, strong forces of hostility resolve to stay the tides of change. The most notorious among these have been the clerics. In the case of the Baha'i faith, the Muslim clergy who perceived it as a threat to their much-cherished influence among the uneducated masses, and to their sources of wealth and authority, branded the new faith as heretical and blasphemous. Added to the incentives shared by all the rulers of the religions of the past, who opposed the new faiths to maintain unchallenged positions of power, was the fact that there is no ecclesiastical system in the Baha'i faith, and the affairs of the Baha'i communities are managed by lay governing bodies that are elected democratically. The Muslim mullahs soon joined hands with the despotic and much corrupted rulers of the land to wipe out both the new belief and its believers, who were rapidly increasing in number in Persia and the surrounding countries. The persecutions that followed were described by many European observers of the time as unspeakably brutal. Massacres led to the death of about 20000 men, women and children, and often involved horrific physical and mental tortures.

After a hiatus of relative freedom during the fifty years of the Pahlavi era, the Islamic regime that came to power in Iran in the late 1970's restarted a systematic campaign of state-sponsored oppression against the Baha'is. As reported by numerous sources including the United Nations' Office of Public Information of the Baha'i International Community, for more than three decades now, despite tremendous international outcry, hundreds have been executed and imprisoned, tens of thousands expelled from governmental jobs, and denied entry to colleges and universities; houses and workplaces continue to be burnt down; children are harassed by school administrators and teachers; even cemeteries are bulldozed.

In the last century and a half, the clerics were able to construct a taboo around the Baha'i phenomenon by on the one hand continuous slandering and on the other strictly prohibiting the availability of any unbiased literature or informational sources for the public on the beliefs and practices of the Baha'is. This has led to a universal lack of knowledge about the Baha'i faith among the Iranians, and a deeply entrenched psychological reluctance to investigate it. As Dr. Nader Saiedi notes, “the collective cultural unconscious has been so dominant and powerful that it has deprived many of our thinkers from the courage to think for themselves, leading to a situation that inserts the unconscious in place of consciousness, and collective prejudices and lies in place of scientific and rational investigation.” And, those few among the general public or the intellectuals who have known about the truth of the matters have been, for the most part, unwilling to openly speak about it, for fear of being branded a Baha'i or a Baha'i-sympathizer.

In the last three decades, and especially the last few years, though, more and more people have become aware of the facts surrounding the issue, to a degree that it can now be confidently asserted that the majority of the Iranian people are against the injustices that the Baha'is are subjected to. Professor Abbas Milani says “there is a new surging consciousness amongst millions of Iranians, dozens of intellectuals, and even a handful of Shiite clerics that the treatment of Bahais has been a shameful part of our past. More and more people are convinced that Bahais have, like any other Iranian citizen, the inalienable right to practice their faith, and that as citizens of Iran, they should be entitled to all the rights allotted to any other citizen, from any faith.” There are many reports of individuals who have evinced extraordinary courage in defending their Baha'i neighbors or co-workers against government attacks. Many Iranian human rights organizations, political parties, and scholarly associations have, likewise, advocated for the rights of Baha'is in Iran (Karlberg 248).

The All-Encompassing Problem

Not just the Baha'is, but all sections of the Iranian society— religious and ethnic minorities, dissidents and political activists, women and youth — are subjected, to one degree or another, to the prevalent discrimination and oppression. But, as both Baha'is and non-Baha'is have stated, the case of the freedom of Baha'is has a special significance in the struggles for achieving freedom and democracy in Iran. Professor Milani, who is the Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford, where he is the co-director of the Iran Democracy Project states “Iran can’t become a democracy unless it has had a full reckoning with its Baha'i problem.” This is not just because the persecutions they are subjected to are more severe than other groups, or that they are a peaceful community who are focused on service to their fellow-citizens, who obey the government and never get engaged in subversion activities, or partisan politics for that matter. But, especially because an end to the phenomenon of the scapegoating and ignoring this community will mark a maturation in the collective social life of the Iranian people, and in particular its intellectuals and activists, who while advocating freedom for all, have for a long time closed their eyes to the violation of human rights of a few groups, in particular the Baha'is. Dr. Saiedi rightly identifies anti-Baha'i prejudice as the key to the failure of the 1979 Iranian revolution saying “It was the presence of organized and pervasive anti-Baha’i sentiment in both the motivation for revolution and the dynamics of the revolutionary process that led to the emergence of a paradoxical situation in revolutionary Iran: the desire for democracy and freedom coincided with religious intolerance and racism; hence in the name of democracy a system of reaction and discrimination came to existence in Iran.”

The following is a fictional letter from a moderate young Muslim who lives amidst the contemporary situations of unrest and convulsion of the Middle East, written to investigate the common experiences and thoughts of a large section of the non-Baha’i community that is nevertheless invested in reform:

The sounds are loud, with intermittent periods of silence. Every once in a while, I go to my mom’s sickbed from where my teen sister never leaves, now sitting, now huddling. Mother is saying prayers quietly, asking me every time she sees me to promise to not leave the house until the situation is calm. My neighborhood has turned into a battlefield.

Where I live, in my city, in my country, peace and calm have always been fleeting. Indeed, the whole region of the Middle East seems to be at a never-ending turmoil. Why is it that the ideals of a just society who we as Muslims have always coveted have seldom been materialized? Why are we in our homelands captives of tyrannical regimes and in exile marginalized and suspected? At many times in recent history, this region has seen uprisings born of people's desire for freedom. But the replacements to the systems of repression have, time and again, proved to be no more desirable.

I believe we have failed in achieving the goal of creating just societies because we have been losing some vital pieces of the puzzle all the way along, adamantly refusing to make changes to some of our divisive and destructive ways of thought and action.

I am a Muslim who has a firm belief in a Compassionate and Merciful God, in the prophet Muhammad who educated and united the barbarous and warring tribes of Arabia, and in the true teachings of Islam which promote tolerance and brotherhood. These teachings were instrumental in the creation of the first universities of the world by the Muslims, and for the efflorescence of arts and sciences. But whatever happened to the great Islamic civilization whose achievements inspired the European Renaissance? Despite having countless brilliant minds and tireless individuals who are devoted to the progress of our lands, why are the peoples of the Muslim world living under harsh conditions of social and economic deprivation and backwardness?

Just as the Westerners learned lessons from the golden era of the Islamic civilization, we may also have to closely examine and adopt some of their ways of conduct that have contributed to the creation of their relatively free and prosperous societies. The most glaring shortcoming of our societies is a lack of appreciation and tolerance for diversity, diversity of belief, religious or otherwise, and of race, ethnicity, and cultural background. We need to categorically and emphatically renounce every expression of exclusivity that has characterized even the moderate Muslims' treatment of others.

To be tolerant of others, and to strive to live a harmonious life with them, does not necessitate abandoning our faith in Islam, because Islam is a faith of tolerance in essence, although its course was changed by those who abused their power after the passing of Muhammad. Muhammad's wars were all defensive in nature. As both prophet and statesman, he had to defend his people, young and old, men and women, from the attacks of enemies who opposed the new and progressive religion and its followers. But many of the wars that occurred after his death were waged by those ambitious usurpers of power who wanted to broaden their dominions. Muhammad was most considerate towards the Christians and the believers of other religions. But many of those who profess belief in him consider people of other religions as infidels.

I am going to go a step further, knowing that I will be publishing this letter anonymously. If a belief in a faith or system of thought causes pain and misery for humanity, it has to be abandoned. I have, and many of us have, an ill mother who has not had access to medicine for three days, a sister who is traumatized and imprisoned at home instead of studying at school, a father who was tortured to death when I was a child by those whom he regarded as his Muslim brothers who needed to change their extreme interpretations of Islam.

We have had enough of the miseries of conflict and destruction that the extremists among us have brought on others and themselves. But they have not been the sole culprits. A large number of moderate Muslims, who are quick to lash out against the discriminations the Muslim communities in the West are subjected to, are silent, reluctant to speak, or sometimes agreeing when it comes to the minorities that are discriminated against in Muslim countries.

This double-standard is our nemesis. Unless totally obliterated, the line that separates and singles out some groups for unequal treatment has a tendency to stretch itself. Like an unchecked line of fire, it does not content itself with a few trees only. It will consume the whole forest.

Once and for all, we have to wipe out from our hearts and minds every element and trace of religious, ethnic and gender prejudice that keep us captives of our own narrow worldview. Unless and until we do this, we will not be able to bring lasting peace and prosperity to our societies, even by sacrificing thousands of lives to overthrow totalitarian regimes. They will be replaced by similar ones.

The Response

A whiteboard, an instructor, and a group of university students are normally found in classrooms and campuses. But it is not so in Iran. For thousands of young Iranian Baha'is, classrooms mean living-rooms and garages. Raids and arrests, also, bring to mind images of criminals and gangs. But pursuing higher education in those same living-rooms and garages has made these students a target of government attacks.

After the Islamic theocracy came to power in Iran, and a new wave of systematized attacks against the Baha'is was restarted, among the many discriminations that were put in place to socially and economically suffocate this community was a general ban on entering universities. The response of the community to the oppressions offers a unique alternative to the other forms of non-violent resistance experienced in the past century.

The Baha'is established their own ‘‘open university’’ in a process that was described in the New York Times as ‘‘an elaborate act of self-preservation.’’ The Baha'i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) was created in 1987 to provide for the educational needs of Baha'i youth and young adults after they were denied access to Iranian colleges and universities. The BIHE now operates via online courses, supplemented by seminars and labs in Baha'i homes and offices throughout Iran. Despite efforts by the Iranian authorities to disrupt the university’s operation by raiding hundreds of Baha'i homes and offices associated with it, by confiscating BIHE materials and property, and by arresting and imprisoning dozens of faculty, the university has grown to the point that it now offers 14 undergraduate degree programs and 3 graduate degree programs in the sciences, social sciences, and arts. Over 700 courses are offered through the services and support of approximately 275 faculty and staff. The university relies in part upon the services of Iranian Baha'i academics and professionals, many of whom were fired from their jobs by the Iranian authorities following the Islamic revolution. It also relies on a network of affiliated global faculty that support the university through online courses, curriculum development, and other services. Its reputation for academic excellence has led twenty-five respected universities in North America, Europe, and Australia to accept BIHE graduates directly into programs of graduate study at the masters and doctoral levels. The BIHE is, in short, a clear illustration of the constructive resilience of the Iranian Baha'is (Karlberg 239).

Without denying the achievements of the civil disobedience movements, Professor Michael Karlberg suggests in his paper, “Constructive Resilience: The Baha'i Response to Oppression”, that many pitfalls of the methods employed by those movements can be avoided if, in response to oppressions, this little examined paradigm of social change is instead adopted (242-245). He says “The Baha'i teachings assert, in essence, that oppositional strategies of social change, whether violent or nonviolent, have reached a point of diminishing returns at this stage in human history because they do not address the underlying cause of injustice and oppression. The underlying cause, according to Baha’u’llah, is a widespread reluctance to accept, on a spiritual and intellectual level, the organic unity and interdependence—or common identity and interests—of all human beings” (Karlberg 242). As “a radical new model of social change—entirely non-adversarial in nature” the Baha'i approach seeks to promote the essential oneness of humanity in dealing with all issues confronting societies, even in situations of extreme pressure and antagonism (247).

In practice, this has meant, for one thing, to avoid diverting “valuable time and energy away from the construction of alternative institutional forms derived from the principles of unity and interdependence” and instead focusing on building institutions and communities that not only help the oppressed community to deal with its challenges but also serve as models for both the immediate society and also the world at large (244).

In closing, the following is another fictional voice based on reality:

My job takes me to many places around the world. One may envy me for having a sort of job that allows for seeing the beauties of the earth and its peoples. But the work that I do requires me to look into the ugly things of our world, into pain, deprivation, and oppression. I work for Amnesty International, a human rights organization.

I have dealt with tens of cases of repression and have seen the face of evil inflicting misery on individuals and whole groups, but the last one I am working on is peculiar in some ways; it is the case of the persecutions of the Baha'is of Iran. To understand the motives of the oppressors have always been hard for me, but in this case it is even harder.

Imagine a religious minority who categorically believes in and observes obedience to the laws of the land, who has a shining record of a century and a half of service to their fellow countrymen in all the fields and spheres of activity, and who regards as holy the tenets of the official religion of the state, but is under the threat of constant surveillance and harassment from the government. This government which came to power in 1979 has had access to all the documents of the previous regime and the books and belongings that have been confiscated from Baha'i houses and workplaces. But despite its worn-out accusations against the Baha'is as stirrers of mischief, or spies of foreign powers, it has not produced a single document proving its claims. On the contrary, numerous documents and accounts are in existence pointing to the fact that the Baha'is are discriminated against solely on religious grounds. Time and again, for instance, the Baha'is have been offered their release from imprisonment if they recanted their beliefs.

The case of the Baha'is of Iran has other dimensions too. Despite threats to their lives and livelihoods, the Baha'is have not given in to the oppressors by either accepting the role of the victim or adopting the ruthless and violent ways of their persecutors. They have, instead, continued their constructive contributions to their homeland by every means at their disposal. One of their biggest achievements has been the establishment of a university for their youth who have been barred from acquiring higher education.

My organization and other human rights groups play key roles in preventing and stopping crimes against humanity by applying international pressure in various ways. Sadly, in most cases appealing to the humanity of the oppressors does not bring any results. But I believe that the oppressed of the world can learn useful lessons from the approach the Baha'is of Iran have taken in dealing with their situation. No matter how harsh the environment, they have through constructive and non-adversarial ways changed as much as possible the terms of the encounter, resulting in not only the worldwide recognition of their innocence but also winning over the admiration of a majority of their compatriots, including many inside the ruling circles. Moreover, they have continued their laudable contributions to the advancement of their country which is, in the long run, the best solution for the problem of ignorance and tyranny.

Works Cited

Karlberg, Michael. “Constructive Resilience: The Baha'i Response to Oppression.” Peace & Change 35.2 (2010): 222-257. Print.

Milani, Abbas. “In Support of the Baha'is of Iran.” Iran Press Watch. Iran Press Watch, 16 August 2009. Web. 1 June 2012. < http://www.iranpresswatch.org/post/4724 >

Office of Public Information. Baha'i Question: Cultural Cleansing in Iran. Baha'i International Community, September 2008. Web. 21 May 2012. < http://question.bahai.org/ index.php >

Saiedi, Nader. “Why the Ideals of the Iranian Revolution were Condemned to Failure.” Iranian. Iranian LLC., 27 March 2009. Web. 1 June 2012. < http://www.iranian.com/ main/blog/nader-saiedi/why-ideals-iranian-revolution-were-condemned-failure-1 >

“We are ashamed!” Iranian. Iranian LLC., 4 February 2009. Web. 30 May 2012.
< http://www.iranian.com/main/2009/feb/we-are-ashamed >

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