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An outsider's view of Iran's treatment of its Bahá'í community.
Mirrored from

Medieval Ignorance:
The silence of Iranian polity towards Bahá'í persecution

by Iqbal Latif

published in The Iranian
Bahais are an enigma in Iran! The Iranian regime, which doesn't really give a damn about their basic civil rights, flagrantly denies their existence by collectively dismissing the 500,000 strong communities as a nameless forgotten page of Iranian history.

In a blatant display of medieval cleansing the theocratic regime in Iran tries to deny the Bahais hope and deprive them of their will to survive by closing their "Open University" so that they may remain the permanent underclass nailed to the bottom most wrung of Iranian society. The clergy aspires to cast these heretics as the untouchables of Iran in the span of next few decades whilst the Iranians abroad, who are the last surviving bastion of secular Iranica, sadly remain unconcerned.

Perhaps it is an unprecedented effort in the annals of modern human history that a government driven by intense theocratic philosophy is so determined to 'ideologically cleanse' an entire segment of the society in name of Islamic Puritanism. Indeed the theocracy has realised that rather then make martyrs of individual Bahais and attract world-wide attention they could inflict a devastating blow to this small minority by denying their children the chance of an even modest education.

Intellectual cleansing of their ethnic brothers by the clergy dominated regime is incredible and a very disturbing aspect of contemporary Iranian culture. The silence of Iranian polity, like the 'silence of the lamb' when devoured, is even more disconcerting, perhaps in their defence the struggle from dogmatic authoritarianism has so occupied the reformist struggle that the rights of a marginalized minority are relegated to the fringe.

The real truth is though that no one give a damn what happens to Bahais. "Haqeshooneh", is the common dismissive statement when the plight of the Bahais are brought up however the dual rights to exist and believe is the basic human freedom accorded to man from the day we are born, denying this is worst than death.

It was Voltaire who said, "I may not agree with what you say but I'll defend your right to say it". Let us decide that we may not agree to what they say but we defend their right to say it openly. It is definite departure from "Haqeshooneh" but a very encouraging one, great civilisations do not follow archaic laws rather they lead in the quest for truth and justice.

Cyrus 2,560 years ago issued a decree on his aims and policies, later hailed as his charter of the rights of nations. Cyrus's claim to fame was that he symbolized Multiculturalism, a word coined to express the coexistence and peaceful cohabitation of peoples from different background and culture in one land.

The Cyrus Doctrine is the foundation of present advanced societies. It is heart-rending to see that the modern age Iran under totalitarian theocracy in full abandonment of its affluent and evergreen customs is today at the hub of comprehensive tyranny, oppression and injustice! Nations move forward Iran under theocracy has inched backward. The cost of this moral decay of a great society is the damage that cannot be ever estimated.

Nations especially one as culturally and ethnically rich as Iran, which happens to boast itself as the rightful heir to the title of the 'bastion and cradle of civilisations', are the traditional keepers and trustees of the conscience of mankind. Iran, in its existence as a continuous five thousand year old civilisation, bred the finest literary classics, the most elegant poetic prose and has bequeathed an enduring artistic and cultural legacy that is revered throughout the Islamic world.

A civilisation, which taught the world the subtlest of the nuances in language, has been robbed of its millennia-old traditions within a span of three decades by 'theocracy'. A theocracy that has tarnished Persian society with 'medieval ignorance' and in its litany of accomplishments managed to produce a series of crimes against humanity.

If the Iranian theocracy was practising racial discrimination, it would at least be an understandable phenomenon, since the hatred of the "Other" has defined and continues to mar human societies. However to discriminate against citizenry on basis of archaic imported ideology is the most appalling feat of the Iranian theocracy.

The interjections of medieval ideology have created shades and strains that have temporarily robbed Iran of its vast cultural and literary exquisiteness. Tragic it may sound but I'm sure the ideological authoritarian extremism will only be a footnote in the future history of Iran. However the repression of the Bahai minority, which is being robbed of the education of its youth, has condemned it to a future of perpetual decline.

It is this eventuality that we all should assume responsibility for and to avert this Iranians must accept that Bahais are an integral and loyal community within Iran, extending the same inclusiveness reserved for Shi'ites and other minorities. Bahai children should not be allowed to become pariahs and suffer the same fate as their parents, which will occur if the current status quo prevails.

If the deliberate decadence and deflowering of a refined Iranian society under the authoritarian medieval clergy is the grossest of the sins, the plight of the Bahais in Iran is another transgression of equal culpability and intensity. It is unique that not only the voice of majority in Iran but also the rights of minority have been so vehemently subdued with unfailing force. The Iranian theocratic revolution, repulsive as it is in its content and approach, has accorded irreparable damage to the image of Iran and the Iranian people.

The complicity or rather the lamb-like silence of the Iranian people over the persecution of the Bahais is often rooted in the claim they are an "irredentist" minority whose loyalty lies in a "universal" community rather than a national one. Bahais claim that their supreme mission is none other but the achievement of organic and spiritual unity of the whole body of nations was and remains, in my opinion, one of the most groundbreaking ideas of the 19th century. For such an inspiration to arise in the backward and medieval society of Qajar Persia is astonishing.

Bahai ideals, in no way, alienate Iranians and there is no reason for such censure on the part of the latter. One can remain detached from the rituals of the Bahai faith but undoubtedly it is very thought provoking and roadmap of future global constitution. Still than being celebrated for their contribution and evolution of Iranian thought or even engaged in debates about the validity of their beliefs, Bahais are considered to have suspect allegiances, foreign imperialists and "Zionist agents".

The Iranian Bahais can hardly be considered a fifth column! As opposed to Iranian Muslims, who fancifully claim their original roots to be in ancient Persia rather than the Arabian deserts, the Bahais are the distinctive breed in that many are the descendants of the last batch of Zoroastrians to convert to a new faith.

It is a rich statement that 'Iranians do not consider Bahais as Iranians' since it was some of the ancestors of the Bahais, the Zoroastrians of Kerman and Yazd, who maintained their unadulterated pre-Islamic Iranian religion until 19th century, when they converted to Bahaism. The centuries following the invading armies of Caliph Umar converted most of Iran but some maintained their pre-Islamic culture and tradition with zeal, however to accuse the Iranians, who converted from Zoroastrianism to Bahaism only in 19th century, of 'adulteration of stock' is vicious and wicked.

Shi'ite Islam in itself was a continuation of the Iranian stratagem to express national resistance through intellectual and spiritual dissent. When the Iranian nation was brutally annexed after battle of Qadisiyya in 636 AD, Iranians adhered to the Shi'ite Islam as being the true followers of House of Hashim instead of the House of Banu Ummiyah, which was more representative of the Arab dark ages.

The Shi'ite leaning of Iran may be perceived to be religiously motivated but instead it was a bold political move to exhibit its open revulsion of the Umayyad dynasty, support of Banu Hashim was rejection of infected Arabism of Umayyads. Even under occupation Iranians revolted and accepted Banu Hashim as their saviours. The support of the underdog instead of powerful is the sign of virtuous nation Iranian amply displayed that unquestionably. Intellectual dissension has been a omnipresent feature of Iran since the birth of its native philosophy.

Allama Iqbal Lahori, whose works on Islamic civilisation and philosophy were pioneering, noted in his book "The Development of Metaphysics in Persia" of how Iran gave birth to eschatological thought, its evolution into Zoroastrianism and the tremendous influence of the distinct strain of Iranian-Zoroastrian thought in the formation of Shi'ite Islam. He refers to the Bahai faith and in his own words, "But all the various lines of Persian thought once more find a synthesis in that great religious movement of modern Persia - Babism Bahaism - which began as a Shia sect with Mirza Ali Muhammad Bab of Shiraz and became less and less in Islamic character with the progress of orthodox persecutions..."

Bahai revelation may have needed the rich intellectual and spiritual tradition of Iran; indeed in more primeval regions the religion would have withered. The principles of the faith are an echo of the charter of the rights of nations and peoples, laid down by Cyrus the Great 2,500 years, which instituted tolerance and acceptance of diverse cultures & beliefs as a permanent feature of the Persian Empire.

The hushed stance of the descendents of the Cyrus the great is disgusting as well as disconcerting. Iranians or the Persians trace their roots to Cyrus (580-529 BC) who was the first Achaemenian Emperor. Cyrus was upright, a great leader of men, generous and benevolent. The Hellenes, whom he conquered, regarded him as 'Law-giver' and the Jews as 'the anointed of the Lord'.

Prof. Richard Frye of Harvard said (in The Heritage of Persia, p10-151): "In the victories of the Persians... what was different was the new policy of reconciliation and together with this was the prime aim of Cyrus to establish a pax Achaemenica ... If one were to assess the achievements of the Achaemenid Persians, surely the concept of One World, ... the fusion of peoples and cultures in one 'Oecumen' was one of their important legacies."

He founded Persia by uniting the two original Iranian Tribes- the Medes and the Persians. Although he was known to be a great conqueror, who at one point controlled one of the greatest Empires ever seen, he is best remembered for his unprecedented tolerance and magnanimous attitude towards those he defeated.

Sadly nearly 2,529 years after Cyrus Iran finds itself in the clutches of intolerance and dogmatic rigidity, Iran and Iranians categorically do not deserve this. Acceptance of Bahais within the society will be a fulfilment of the dreams of Cyrus. Reconciliation and tolerance should be the basis of the modern Iranian nation even if it remains fixed to its religious moorings.

Contrary to charges that they are the 'bastard children' of British colonialism, aiming to destroy Shi'ite Islam, the fact of the matter is that the Bahais were the last bastions of Iranian culture who moved on to embrace global culture, their ascension from a medieval society to the most modern of thoughts is incredible and amazing if anything else. It was like evolving from the Palaeolithic Age to the Cyber age, the Bahais of Iran advocated ideas that were revolutionary, even from western standards, such as a federalised earth and the equality of gender. The Bahai faith is the pinnacle of Iranian institutions and will be the foremost legacy of Iran to the globe.

The ideal of an egalitarian society where the prejudice of colour, race and belief will be shunned and a new call of oneness of mankind becomes the cardinal goal of mankind looks premature even now. In medieval Iran of the 19th century how could a man, descending partly from aristocracy and partly from Babism, have coined the new world order of collective progress is beyond the scope of many great modern thinkers.

The vision of future held by members of the Bahai community, however little it may be understood as yet by the majority of the planet's inhabitants, refutes the idea of encroaching darkness; the Bahai vision is, in contrast, one of great promise. The Bahai vision amongst the contemporary revolutionary thoughts is marking the last and highest stage in the stupendous evolution of man's collective life on this planet.

The emergence of a world community, the consciousness of world citizenship, the founding of a world civilization and culture...should, by their very nature, be regarded, as far as this planetary life is concerned, as the furthermost limits and the cutting edge in the organization of human society, this is the vertical limit and Iranians can be proud of the fact that such a global visionary as Bahaullah was born in Tehran. He will be considered as one of the greatest visionary of the 19th century and Iranians should definitely take pride in that.

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