Iran’s coming in from the cold but Bahá’ís are still frozen out

Discrimination and university expulsions continue to blight the lives of this religious minority, writes Shabnam Moinipour

April 27, 2016
Female students walking on campus, University of Tehran, Iran
Source: Corbis

“Kids, we are leaving Iran,” said my dad in a calm but firm manner.

I was only 14 when my parents sat me and my two sisters down to break the news. We loved our country and couldn’t understand why my parents would make such a decision. But at that age “going places” was appealing, so I did not object. I thought we were coming back. We never did.

As Bahá’ís, my parents believed in the importance of education, especially for girls, since women are the primary educators of the next generation. My mum had tears in her eyes when she shared with us how her own education had been cut short in 1979 as she was in the process of writing her university exams.

The Islamic Revolution had begun, after which every Bahá’í was expelled from university and further students were denied entry – a practice that continues to this day. My mother was the first generation of Bahá’ís denied access to education as a matter of state policy. My parents didn’t want my sisters and me to go through this too. It was a choice between their homeland and their daughters’ education. What emotional burden they must have endured, I’ll never know.

Years have passed since my parents made the decision to leave Iran. I am now 32 and as I write this piece, I reflect on how fortunate I am to have the opportunity and freedom to complete a PhD, which, as is the wish of my parents, can hopefully be a tool through which I can contribute to the betterment of society.

But this is not about me or my life story. It is about all those other Bahá’ís who are still in Iran and who are denied access to higher education every day. It is about those who have decided to remain in their homeland and reclaim their rights to access education, in the hope that they too will be able to contribute to the prosperity of the country they love.

As a 14-year-old, I was oblivious to all that was happening in Iran. It was only much later when I began to look at my past and my identity as a Bahá’í that I realised that the wholesale exclusion of the Bahá’ís within Article 13 of the Iranian Constitution left an entire community with no means of redress. I then learned of the “confidential” state policies, such as the 1991 Memorandum prepared at the request of Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, instructing the government to deal with the Bahá’ís in such a way “that their progress and development are blocked”.

After much international pressure, the Iranian regime has permitted a few Bahá’ís entry into universities to maintain a good image in the eyes of the international community. However, even these Bahá’í students are expelled before acquiring a degree. Let me tell you about some real examples: Elham, who was studying computer engineering at Malard-Azad university; Sahba, who was studying applied science at Kermanshah university; Shomeis, who was studying drama and directing at Tehran-Azad university; and Arsalan who was studying materials engineering at Ahvaz-Shahid Chamran university. All have been expelled well into their studies because of their beliefs in the Bahá’í Faith.

In the face of mass expulsion, the Bahá’í community developed a peaceful and creative response by creating the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education, a private university staffed by academics expelled from state universities for their religious beliefs. The institute has been raided on numerous occasions and faculty and administrative staff have been imprisoned.

I recognise that by leaving Iran at 14, I was spared the disappointment and dismay that thousands of Bahá’í students face every year when they are denied enrolment into universities under the pretext of an “incomplete file”. It is hard to imagine the kind of feeling that Dorsa, a young Bahá’í woman studying architecture, got when she was summoned to the Information Office headquarters and given the following three choices to choose from: maintain her beliefs and be expelled from university, go abroad to continue her studies, or recant her beliefs and continue her studies. The authorities are fully aware that Bahá’ís, as a matter of principle, do not deny or lie about their religious affiliation.

The Bahá’í faith regards religion as a divine and progressive system of knowledge that provides spiritual and social teachings that enable humanity to advance. Bahá’ís recognise Bahá’u’lláh as the most recent “Divine Educator” – or manifestation of God – who has brought spiritual and social teachings required for this day and age. Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on the equality of women and men, universal education and the absence of clergy challenge many of the beliefs and practices held in Iran today.

Access to education is a universal human right. Everyone, including Bahá’ís, are entitled to it under article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, because for generations Bahá’ís have been barred and expelled from universities in Iran, many may have become desensitised to this discriminative reality and regard this human rights violation as the norm. We must ensure that the international community does not fall prey to tyranny’s false sense of comfort.

Shabnam Moinipour is studying for a PhD in human rights and media in Iran at the University of Westminster.

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Reader's comments (7)

I'm sure you're a very nice person, Shabnam, but Bahaiism is not what you think it is. I'm sure you're heard of Jalal-al-Din Rumi. The people called him Mowlana, which means "our mowla" or our master. Reading Rumi's poetry, one gets the undeniable sense that a higher power is speaking through him. This man, this undoubted master, never claimed to be Imam Zaman. Do you know who did claim to be Imam Zaman? Bahaullah, an English agent whose mission was to create division and disunity among Iranians. What Bahaullah wrote and said in his life does not amount to a single couplet of Mowlana's. And yet this man had the gall and the audacity to claim that he was the Messiah, the Mehdi who has been hidden for over a thousand years. Now, the fault I find with Bahaullah's followers is that they should have realized their prophet was a fraud the moment he died, rather than descend to heaven as a light, and set the earth ablaze with the light of the angels, thus ending the times and the story of the Earth. How could Bahaullah's followers have continued to believe in him as the Mahdi after he died accomplishing nothing in his life except causing a further rift and division among Muslims, Iranian Muslims in particular. Ask yourself this, the Mahdi remained hidden in some hyperspatial non-time dimension for over a thousand years, only to appear on the Earth in the guise of an English agent, accomplish nothing important, and then die, does this sound reasonable to you?
*ascend. If you really believe that Bahaullah was a manifestation of God, then dear Shabnam, please open the Masnavi or the Divan Shams, and tell me what Rumi was. If we are going to throw around that phrase so liberally, then I tell you, all people and all things are a manifestation of God. But whereas God literally speaks through the poems of Mowlana, it is British imperialism that speaks through Bahaullah's words.
Thank you for your comment. If you read my piece very carefully, the point of it is violation of a fundamental human right against a religious minority group in Iran; not about a specific ideology. Unfortunately, you are completely wrong about Baha’u’llah and the Baha’i Faith and do not seem to be familiar with the Baha’i Writings, history and the globally unifying principles. I respect Rumi (Mowlana) both as a poet and as a mystic but I don’t see how that is relevant to the issue of right to higher education. You are definitely entitled to your opinion but the arguments and the theological reasoning you are making very much resemble that of the Iranian regime’s. The Iranian regime has been using such arguments to violate the fundamental human rights of the Baha’is in Iran for over 36 years. While you are entitled to your opinions, your arguments do not and should not be the basis for violation of the fundamental human rights of any group, religious or otherwise.
Dear Shabnam, I am sincerely interested in hearing your elaboration of the Bahai faith, as you understand it. What are its fundamental ideas? How would you describe it in a comparative sense with Islam? Have you heard of Mani, Mazdak, and Suhrawardi and Avicenna? You ask why I mentioned Rumi. Rumi, like Suhrawardi and Avicenna, utilized the existing religious framework, they developed it further, enhanced it, and in the process, verified it. Mani and especially Mazdak, brought forth ideas that in effect caused a rift in society, their religions were subverting the established order, whether that was their intent or not. I compare them with Bahaullah for obvious reasons. But regardless of what I think of Bahaullah, if you explain your understanding of the Bahaii religion and doctrine, if you put forth the Bahaii path here in your own words as a follower of the path, I will consider them without bias. It may turn out that you have something new to tell me, either way I appreciate it.
In case the argument pertaining to the total scope of your post has not become clear yet, The Shias in Iran feel that the Bahaii religion is in effect a force working toward subverting the Shia order of the country. This has nothing to do with the 1979 revolution, the Shias felt this way about the Bahaiis from the very beginning. Since we are done with personal opinions, I am trying to maintain an unbiased outlook, simply stating the facts, which is why I will not make any more claims as to the intent of Bahaullah, and I will stick to the perceived effect of his deeds. The reason Bahaiis are not allowed a university education in Iran (if they openly admit to being Bahaii) is because the Shias obviously do not feel comfortable allowing a subversive element in their country to obtain higher education, a degree, connections and everything else that comes with attending university. The Iranians do not feel the same way about Jews, Christians or Zoroastrians, all of whom are allowed to attend university. In recent years, there has been a program to relocate Zoroastrians and Bahaiis from Iran to the USA via Turkey and Austria. Any Bahai or Zoroastrian in Iran can apply, and more or less all of them get accepted. I have personally known numerous Zoroastrians and one Bahai family who are now living in Southern California because of this relocation program. They stay in Austria/Turkey for a few months, and then they are moved to the USA. Easy peasy. In contrast, if a Muslim Iranian wants to immigrate to the USA, they have to jump through countless hoops, fill out a mountain of paperwork, wait six months to a year, and most likely get rejected in the end. All things considered, the Bahaiis don't have it that bad, living in Iran is no picnic for the Shias either, Shabnam. Instead of singling out Bahaiis (or Christians, or any group of people) which only works to subvert unity, we should focus on the plight of mankind in general. The conditions of mankind in general are horrendous.
I didn't think so. This article is about nothing. It is just meant to display Iran in a bad light, while making Bahaiis (who can't even tell you what Bahaiism is) look like underdog champions. You are not an underdog champion, Shabnam. Maybe write about something that matters next time. And good luck.
Dear friend, My apologies for the late reply, which seems to have upset you. Since this is not a forum, I rarely check this page. You are absolutely right in that the condition of the whole mankind is in a dire situation. That’s why it is not humanly possible for one person to focus on all aspects and all groups. Improving the condition of this world is a collective endeavour. You seem to be very passionate about the plight of humanity so I do hope that you also focus your energy on engaging in constructive dialogues and becoming the voice to those who currently do not have it. There are voluminous information about the Baha’is and the Baha’i Faith on the Internet and I encourage you to read as much as you can about it so that hopefully we could have a more productive conversation together. Here is the official link to the website of the worldwide Baha’i community for your consideration: www.bahai.org Just for your convenience, I’m also including a very brief information below. I hope this helps. The Bahá’í Faith began with the mission entrusted by God to two Divine Messengers—the Báb (1819-1850) and Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892). The Báb is the Herald of the Bahá’í Faith. In the middle of the 19th century, He announced that He was the bearer of a message destined to transform humanity’s spiritual life. His mission was to prepare the way for the coming of a second Messenger from God, greater than Himself, who would usher in an age of peace and justice. Bahá’u’lláh—the “Glory of God”—is the Promised One foretold by the Báb and all of the Divine Messengers of the past. Bahá’u’lláh delivered a new Revelation from God to humanity. Thousands of verses, letters and books flowed from His pen. In His Writings, He outlined a framework for the development of a global civilization which takes into account both the spiritual and material dimensions of human life. For this, He endured 40 years of imprisonment, torture and exile. In short, the Bahá'í Faith is an independent religion and is the most recent of the world's great religions. In thousands upon thousands of locations around the world, the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith inspire individuals and communities as they work to improve their own lives and contribute to the advancement of civilization. Bahá’í beliefs address such essential themes as the oneness of God and religion, the oneness of humanity and freedom from prejudice, the inherent nobility of the human being, the progressive revelation of religious truth, the development of spiritual qualities, the integration of worship and service, the fundamental equality of the sexes, the harmony between religion and science, the centrality of justice to all human endeavours, the importance of education, and the dynamics of the relationships that are to bind together individuals, communities, and institutions as humanity advances towards its collective maturity. You are right in saying that the persecution of the Baha’is did not start from the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It actually started right from the beginning of the Faith and the persecutions have both theological and religious basis, some of which were listed above. Before the revolution the persecution of the Baha’is was sporadic. However, the 1979 Islamic Revolution is significant since the clergy became the political power. It is from the onset of the Islamic Revolution that the persecution of the Baha’is gained momentum and became intense and systematic. The discrimination against the Baha’is even became a matter of state policy. This is due to the fact that there are no clergies in the Baha’i Faith and this threatens the position of the clergy in Iran. The Baha’is believe that humanity has reached a maturity where each individual can independently investigate the truth. Once again, this undermines the power of the clergy who are the maria’ or the “sources of imitation” for the Muslims. The Baha’is of Iran have no political ambitions, are committed to non-violence, and seek only to offer their assistance to the progress of their country. Yet, for 30 years, they have been persecuted wholly for their religious beliefs. Iran’s anti-Baha’i activities are not random acts, but a deliberate government policy. In 1993, concrete evidence emerged that the government had adopted a secret blueprint for the quiet strangulation of the Baha’i community. That evidence came in the form of a secret memorandum, which had been drawn up by the Iranian Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council (ISRCC) in 1991. Stamped “confidential,” the document was prepared at the request of the Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the then President of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The memorandum was signed by Hujjatu’l Islam Seyyed Mohammad Golpaygani, Secretary of the Council, and approved by Mr. Khamenei, who added his signature to the document. The memorandum came to light in the 1993 report by UN Special Representative Reynaldo Galindo Pohl. According to Mr. Galindo Pohl, the document came as “reliable information” just as the annual report on Iran to the UN Commission on Human Rights was being completed. The memorandum specifically calls for Iran’s Baha’is to be treated in such a way “that their progress and development shall be blocked,” providing for the first time conclusive evidence that the campaign against the Baha’is is centrally directed by the government. The document indicates, for example, that the government aims to keep the Baha’is illiterate and uneducated, living only at a subsistence level, and fearful at every moment that even the tiniest infraction will bring the threat of imprisonment or worse. Although some of its provisions appear to grant a measure of protection to Baha’is, its overall impact is to create an environment where the Baha’i community of Iran will be quietly eliminated. The memorandum says, for example, that all Baha’is should be expelled from universities; that they shall be denied “positions of influence,” and instead only be allowed to “lead a modest life similar to that of the population in general”; and even that “employment shall be refused to persons identifying themselves as Baha’is.” You are more than welcome to read the whole memorandum here: http://news.bahai.org/human-rights/iran/the-bahai-question These are only a few examples, of course. During the first decade of the persecutions, more than 200 Baha'is were killed or executed, hundreds more were tortured or imprisoned, and tens of thousands lost jobs, access to education, and other rights – all solely because of their religious belief. The persecutions have intensified over the years. Other types of persecution include economic and educational discrimination, strict limits on the right to assemble and worship, and the dissemination of anti-Baha’i propaganda in the government-led news media. Attacks on Baha'is or Baha'i-owned properties go unprosecuted and unpunished, creating a sense of impunity for attackers. There are continuous reports of incidents of vandalism at Baha’i cemeteries. As noted by a top UN human rights official (Heiner Bielefeldt), the government-led persecution spans “all areas of state activity, from family law provisions to schooling, education, and security." Put another way: the oppression of Iranian Baha’is extends from cradle to grave. Best wishes, Shabnam

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