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Abstract:
Overview of the situation of the Baha'is in Iran, 1979-2010.

The Bahai Question:
A Case of Religious Discrimination in Post-Revolutionary Iran

by Sina Astani

2010-05
Since the Islamic Revolution, religious minorities have been persistent victims of persecution by the Iranian government. The rise of Ayatollah Khomeini meant a crackdown on anything that did not fall in line with his approach of Islam. This new regime in Iran called for a cultural cleansing, in efforts to wash away non-Shiite influence. As a result, the Islamic Republic of Iran specifically targeted the Baha’i community. To this day, thousands of members of the Baha’i Faith, the largest religious minority of Iran, have been subjected to imprisonment and execution and denied basic freedoms. Over 200 Baha’is were killed between 1978 and 1998 on the basis of their beliefs (The Persecution of Baha’is in Iran). Even more recently, incidences of attacks on members of the Bahai community have increased, largely a product of Ayatollah Khameini‘s secret memorandum on the “Bahai Question” in 1991. The document affirmed that the goal of the government was to block the “progress and development” of the community in Iran. Of all minorities in Iran, Baha’is have dealt with constant oppression by the Islamic Republic of Iran as the government has rejected their basic human rights, denied them educational and employment opportunities, diminished their social and legal status, and destroyed sacred Bahai sites leading to outcry from the United Nations to stop the cultural cleansing in Iran.

Baha’is have been accused of siding with the monarchy of the Shah and recognized as an opposing force to Islam by steadfast Muslim fundamentalists. However, leaders of the Faith have been dismissed since its inception. The Bab, a young merchant from Shiraz, proclaimed that he was the “Gate” to the Hidden Twelfth Imam and was a new messenger from God who would prepare civilization for the “Promised One”. Following his message, the Bab faced much opposition from the Islamic clergy who did not agree with his claims that he was the “Qaim” or “Mahdi”. Roughly twenty years after the Bab’s martyrdom, a man named Mirza Husayn-Ali Nuri, one of the first to accept the Bab, was sentenced to the Siyyah-Chal prison for being associated with the Babi movement. Babis were perceived as a threat to the nation, especially after a failed attempt by radical believers to assassinate Naser al-Din Shah in revenge of the Bab’s execution. While in prison, Mirza Husayn received revelation that he was this Promised One or “He who God shall make manifest”, calling himself Baha’u’llah which means Glory of God. Upon Baha’u’llah’s declaration, a majority of Babis accepted His station and his followers formed the Bahai Faith. The ulama-backed parliament refused to allow the faith to grow and supporters of the faith were regarded as heretics. During the course of the Revolution, Baha’is were forced to repent their beliefs or chose death.

The ongoing hatred of the Islamic Republic towards the Bahai Faith stems from its ideological objections to the religion. The government is deeply rooted in fanatical Shiite Muslim beliefs and sharia law, which have not allowed for toleration of the religion. Baha’is believe in progressive revelation which means that religion undergoes evolution and that religious revelation is progressive with a Manifestation of God and teachings for each period of time. The Bahai Faith recognizes Muhammad as a prophet of God and believes in the oneness of all major religions, such as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, but upholds that Baha’u’llah is the new revelation. On the contrary, the Muslim religion believes that Muhammad was the last revelation and thus, does not follow the teaching of progressive revelation (The Baha’is in Iran 23). Still, many Muslims have perceived the Bahai Faith as a heretical sect of Islam, with its members aiming to take over the old interpretation of Islam. This notion is largely due to widespread ignorance of the teachings of the faith, which has its roots in Islam but is an independent religion.

A revival of the Hojjatieh Society occurred during the Islamic Revolution in 1979, leading to increased anti-Bahai public opinion. The secret society was essentially a radical Shia organization started by the cleric Shaikh Mahmoud Halabi to curb Bahai missionary activities (Yarshater 426). Most of its members believed that the Bahai religion was an immediate threat to Islam, since its believers acknowledged Baha’u’llah as the Promised One set to bring justice and peace in the new century. Members of the society still awaited the hidden 12th Imam and believed that social chaos most be stirred up for his arrival. The Hojjatieh was praised by Ayatollah Khomeini for combating the faith and turning “five hundred followers of the wayward sect of Baha’ism back to the straight path of Oneness” (“A Faith Denied” 13). Originally, Halabi and the group avoided religious involvement in politics and opposed Khomeini’s idea of the Velayat-e Faqih, in which a head Islamic jurist should hold authority or governance over the people. With the threat of communism spreading across Iran, many of its supporters split from Halabi and dropped this tenet regarding politics to support Khomeini’s style of government in December 1979. As a result, many members of the society, who were considered experts in the Islamic scriptures, were appointed to administrative positions in the new government. Some of the post revolutionary elite were taught Hojjatieh theology. Even though Khomeini later criticized the society in public statement, causing the disbanding of the group, the Hottajieh had an undeniable influence in Iranian politics. There has been a rumored revival of the secret organization in recent years and many have proposed that President Ahmadinejad has ties to the Hojjatieh. Similarly, Supreme Leader Khameini and other religious leaders have been acknowledged as former members.

The Islamic Republic of Iran continued the thread of anti-Bahai belief started by the Hottajieh, as reflected by the constitution drafted on December of 1979. While the Bahai population had hope for freedom after Prime Minister Bazargan’s guarantees of civil rights for all Iranians, the constitution suggested that the community would not be formally recognized by the Republic (Martin 40). The religious minorities of Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism were all referred to in the document, but the Bahai Faith was never explicitly mentioned. These religions were protected under sharia law in accordance with the idea of dhimmi, or “pact of protection”, which refers to the status of non-Muslims in Islamic states. These “peoples of the book”, notably the Jews and Christians, were given fewer rights than Muslims but more rights than people of other religions. Bahai believers were not recognized under dhimmi and their concerns were completely ignored by Shia clerics, as Bahais were revered as anti-Islamic. Under Article 13 of the constitution, recognized minorities were allowed to practice their beliefs and “perform religious rights and ceremonies” (Iranian Government Constitution). Also, Article 26 of the constitution proclaimed the right to form political parties, societies, and associations as long as they originated from Islam or one of the “official religious minorities” (“A Faith Denied” 21). Thus, Baha’is have neither been allowed to formally congregate or organize nor permitted to engage in public worship. Additionally, Article 14 of the constitution serves as a form of protection for non-Muslims that have not conspired or performed any actions against Islam or the Islamic Republic (Iranian Government Constitution). Members of the Baha’i Faith have been exempted by protection under this Article, viewed as heretics by the government. The Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires spoke on behalf of the Republic in September 1979, going so far as to accuse the Bahai Faith as a “political movement supporting the Pahlavi regime” and link the religion with world Zionism (Martin 43). Ayatollah Khomeini cemented this idea when interviewed by the American Professor James Cockroft; when asked if there would be any religious or political freedom for Baha’is under the Islamic Republic, Khomeini replied that “They are a political faction/They will not be accepted” (“A Faith Denied” 24).

Drawing upon the view that Baha’is were opponents of the government, the clerical establishment tightened its grasp on the Baha’i community in the 1980s, due to an increase in anti-Bahai opinion. The fall of Prime Minister Bazargan in November 1979 meant a more powerful Revolutionary Council that took over many of Bazargan’s functions and held an unrestrained control over the reins of government; this indirectly led to more strict Shia clerics who strongly disapproved of the faith making decisions for the nation. The Republic’s newfound goal was to attack the foundations of the community, through subsequent attacks on Bahai leaders by the komitehs, a sort of armed revolutionary police force, and the Revolutionary Guards. So forth, it aimed at the National and Local Spiritual Assemblies which are the councils that govern the faith. The Revolutionary Guards arrested all nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly on August 21 of 1980 during a private gathering and all nine have been assumed to be killed ( “The Bahai Question”). The Assembly managed to reform with newly elected members in spite of the looming danger of facing persecution by authorities. Farideh Samimi, the wife of the Assembly Secretary, exclaimed that the Assembly would change their meeting place often and that only 4 members would meet at a time in order to avoid being noticed (“A Faith Denied” 24). Shortly afterward on December 13, 1981 eight members of this new Assembly were arrested and taken to a temporary holding facility called the Kakheh Javaneh (“A Faith Denied” 24). The victims were interrogated daily in the Kakheh Javaneh and forced to name other Baha’is, pressured to recant their faith. When all eight members were martyred two weeks later, significant Shia cleric and Prosecutor General of Iran Ayatollah Ardebili dismissed that any Bahais were murdered, later claiming on television that the individuals were executed for treason. The Head of the Central Revolutionary Courts, Ayatollah Gilani, addressed the situation and asserted that Bahais were spying for another nation, specifically for Israel in the case of the executed. While most believers were given such charges, many more in following years were killed simply for beliefs. This occurred for Mr. Azizu’llah Gulshani, who was hung on April 29, 1982 for “propagating and teaching the anti-Islamic ideology of Bahaism” and “spending money from the Muslim treasury towards strengthening the interests of Bahaism” when he had been participating in customary Bahai activities (The Bahais in Iran 53). The intention of the Republic had then become clear; their path to put an end to the Faith would not be stopped.

The Islamic fundamentalists hoped that by condemning and detaining the Baha’i leaders that the faith would lose its presence in Iran as believers would eventually give up their faith under such circumstances. Revolutionary Guards forced Baha’is into mosques to sign forms of recantation, subject to beatings and threatened that each believer and their children would face starvation if they did not convert back to Islam. These violent actions of persecution echo the fact that Baha’i believers are not granted the same rights as other Iranian citizens in the Republic and are not permitted to practice their religion in any form or call themselves Baha’is without being scrutinized by authorities.

Furthermore, besides the basic right to recognition and a livelihood, Baha’is have been barred from pursuing an education and seeking employment. Specifically, this began when Muhammad Ali Rajai, previously affiliated with the Hojjatieh in Qazvin, took the title of Minister of Education in the new Revolutionary Council. He made moves to rid the educational sector of all Bahai teachers and to also require them to repay back all of their salaries they earned (Martin 46). These Bahais in the educational system were accused of “[defiling] and [deviating] the minds and thoughts of innocent students”. Similarly, in a February 1980 issue of the newspaper Etela’at, the director of the Department of Education in Eastern Adhirbayjan explained that 50 Bahais in the department had lost their jobs and can only return to their previous occupations if they accept Islam (The Baha’is in Iran 77). The expulsion of Bahai teachers coincided with the Cultural Revolution directed by Khomeini’s new Cultural Revolutionary Headquarters. Plans were laid out to reinforce Islamic influence in universities; most students and faculty members did not agree with Khomeini and as a result violence ensued. Beginning in 1981, Bahai students were required by law to fill out forms given out by the Ministry of Education that questioned them about how long they had been following the faith, if their family members were part of the faith, and if they were ready to recant their faith (The Baha’is in Iran 74). Any student who identified with the faith was likely to run into problems with their school’s administration; in one instance, a Bahai student at the University of Medical Science was expelled in April of 1982 on the grounds of his “belief in Bahaism” and “membership in the Zionist Baha’i community”, the latter being far from the truth as the Bahai Faith has no connection with Zionism (The Baha’is in Iran 74).

Exclusion from the government’s educational system led to the development of the Bahai Institute of Higher Education in 1987 by members of the Bahai community. The institution offered 17 degree programs and over 700 courses in fields such as civil engineering, biology, law, social studies, and music for Bahai youth who did not have the privilege of gaining a university level education. Classes were held secretly in private homes and laboratories in commercial buildings with only a small group of students at a time; many other courses were online classes (“The Bahai Institute of Higher Education” 1). Authorities eventually decided to conduct a series of raids in 1996, seizing records and equipment, but let the institution survive. By September of 1998, the government’s Ministry of Information staged an all out attack on the BIHE by invading Bahai homes and arresting faculty members, pushing them to sign a declaration which would suspend the organization and oblige them to no longer be involved with its efforts (“The Bahai Institute of Higher Education” 2).

As Bahais were removed from the educational system, various government departments followed suit. A motion was passed by the Union of Islamic Committees of Civil Servants to decrease the number of persons in governmental positions who did not believe in a recognized religion under the Republic to zero (Martin 46). In 1984, the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council replaced the Cultural Revolutionary Headquarters, expanding the previous organization’s membership. The new council issued a secret document on the “Bahai Question” in 1991, as previously mentioned, with the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and President of Iran Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to shed some light on the current situation of Baha’is in Iran (“The Bahai Question” 25). It highlighted the recurrent persecution of believers in education and employment, making it a law to deny individuals employment, any position of influence, and schooling if they call themselves Baha’is. Additionally, it suggested that these Bahai students should be placed in schools that strongly imposed Shia principles, which seemingly contradicts the presumed fact that students identified as Baha’is would not be allowed an education.

Bahai believers have also assumed a lesser legal and social status as a result of the Revolution. Thousands of Bahais have been arrested and denied the universal human right to due process. This means Bahais have been detained on various charges without the ability to prove their innocence through fair and public trials. In recent years, a seventy year old man was arrested on the grounds that he had three Bahai CDs and was responsible for “propagating and spreading Bahaism and the defamation of the pure Imams” (“The Bahai Question” 37). His lawyer was only allowed 10 minutes to refute his case and the ruling was a year in prison and 70 lashes, a decision that was not written but given orally (“The Bahai Question” 35). The rights of Baha’is were further disrespected when the Central Revolutionary Court denied burial facilities for the martyred and executed believers. In 1979, the Bahai Cemetery in Teheran was taken over by the government, while workers were arrested and the cemetery closed. Bahais in the capital city of Teheran looked towards the cemetery in Baba-Salman to bury their dead, but this place was soon closed (The Bahais in Iran 14). This left family members in the Teheran area forced to bury their loved ones in part of the Khavaran cemetery called the La’nat-Abad, also known as the City of the Accursed (The Bahais in Iran 14). This barren piece of land was allocated by the government for political prisoners, dissidents, and anti-revolutionaries.

Private properties owned by Bahais, including houses, were taken over by the order of government officials and clerics. Many Baha’is were dragged out of their homes and their personal belongings were stolen. The Revolutionary Court in Yazd passed a bill in 1980 known as “Ruling 59/70” that allowed Ayatollah Saduqi to obtain property previously owned by Baha’is after their death. Bahais were sent to the Revolutionary Court to verify that they were indeed believers and also to claim the properties they owned, which would either be inherited by a Muslim family member or Imam Khomeini’s Charitable Organization when the Bahai passed away (“A Faith Declined” 45).

The Revolutionary Guards did not only confiscate Bahai housing and cemeteries, but also demolished Bahai holy places. One of their largest blows to the Bahai community happened in March of 1979 when control over the House of the Bab, where the Bab declared his mission, was acquired by the government. With the approval of the Department of Religious Affairs, a mob of mullahs tore down the shrine (“The Bahai Question” 50). Recently, authorities built an Islamic center of worship on top of this land.

The government reached its goals by taking over the Umana, or “Trustee”, Corporation which was a non-profit organization with rights to all Bahai shrines and holy places. After destroying the House of the Bab, Baha’u’llah’s childhood home in Takur was turned into rubble and debris by guards and then sold to the public (“The Bahai Question” 55). The government renewed its hatred in 2004; in this year, the grave site of Quddus, a disciple of the Bab, was desecrated.

The 30 year persecution of Baha’is by the Republic alarmed countries around the world; the actions of the theocracy contradicted with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Canadian Parliament considered what was happening in Iran as a “total abuse of religious tolerance” and notified the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission (Brookshaw 260). While the Parliament believed a solution could be procured if they threatened the Iranian government with an embargo on surplus goods, the U.N.’s Sub-Commission on the Protection of Minorities was set on finding a better way of ending the oppression. The U.N.’s Commission on Human Rights selected a Special Representative to overlook the situation of human rights in Iran through the 1984/54 resolution (“A Faith Denied” 47). The situation caused a reaction by the United States as well, and in 1988 the House of Representatives of the Congress met and issued a resolution outlining their stance on Khomeini’s regime. The document stated that the Republic would be held responsible for upholding the rights of its citizens based on international standards and that the President of the U.S. will work with the United Nations to support protection of the rights of Baha’is (United States Congress 5). The Republic ministers refuted the U.N.’s claims. Hassan Habibi, the Minister of Culture, reinstated their belief that “Baha’ism is not a religion, but a political doctrine”. After the insurgence of international pressure in the 1980s, the Islamic Republic lessened its public attacks on the Bahai community. However, in recent years there have been echoes of prior anti-Baha’i campaigns by the government caused by President Ahmadinejad’s rise to power. His public statements exhibited his likings to the Hottajieh society, which many have feared has been revived (“Shi’ite Supremacists”). The Kayhan, a government supported newspaper led by the Supreme Leader’s representative, began spitting out propaganda against the faith in 2005 publishing articles such as “The Bab under the Tutelage of the Jews”, “The Helper of the Zionists” and “A Cesspool of Corruption” (“A Faith Denied” 51). The argument over Baha’is in Iran has remained unsettled; to this day Bahais continue to give up their lives for their religion, despite help from the U.N. and the western world.


Works Cited

    Brookshaw, Dominic Parviz, and Seena B. Fazel. The Baha’is of Iran: Socio-historical studies. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

    Martin, Douglas. The Persecution of the Baha’is of Iran, 1844-1984. Association for Baha’i Studies. Print.

    United States Congress. House of Representatives. Committee on Foreign Affairs. Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations. Religious persecution of the Bahá'ís in Iran, 1988 [microform]: hearing before the Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, One Hundredth Congress, second session, June 29, 1988. U.S. G.P.O. : For sale by the Supt. of Docs., Congressional Sales Office, U.S. G.P.O., Washington: 1988.

    Yarshater, Ehsan. “Hojjatiya.” Encyclopedia Iranica. 12th vol. New York: Encyclopedia Iranica Foundation. 426-428.

    “A Faith Denied: The Persecution of the Baha’is in Iran.” New Haven, Connecticut: Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, 2006. PDF.

    “Iranian Government Constitution.” IranOnline. Manou and Associates, 1996. 20 March 2010. http://www.iranonline.com/iran/iran-info/government/constitution-1.html

    “Shi’ite Supremacists Emerge from Iran’s Shadows.” Asia Times. 9 September 2005. Online. 20 March 2010. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/GI09Ak01.html

    “The Baha’i Institute of Higher Education: A Creative and Peaceful Response to Religious Persecution in Iran.” Baha’i International Community, 1999. PDF.

    “The Baha’i Question: Culture Cleansing in Iran.” New York: Baha’i International Community, 2008. PDF.

    The Baha’is in Iran: A Report on the Persecution of a Religious Minority. New York: Bahai International Community, 1981. Print.

    “The Persecution of Baha’is in Iran.” Bahai.com. 2007. 29 March 2010. http://www.bahai.com/thebahais/pg59.htm

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