I am a Baha’i. That is to say, I am a member a religion less than two centuries old called the Baha’i Faith. Our calendar consists of 19 months of 19 days, and one of these months is dedicated to fasting. This month, in fact. The experience is enriching, and the eager curiosity and openness that those around me have toward my religious tradition is all the more enriching. Yet while I find myself enjoying the fast in a school and country dedicated to religious tolerance, I lament the distinct lack of religious freedom experienced by my fellow Baha’is in Iran.
Recently, Baha’is attempting to enroll in universities have been expelled when the schools learn of their religion. This act, though reprehensible, may seem relatively minor compared to other atrocities taking place in the world today. But placed within the history of Baha’i persecution in Iran, the move is the most recent in an attempt to quash the religion while maintaining the guise of respectability in the international community.
The Baha’i Faith has faced recurring persecutions in Iran since its inception. At different times in the history of Iran, many Baha’is have been tortured and killed, the property of others has been taken away, and institutions for administration have been outlawed. After the new regime took power in 1979, a new round of persecutions began. This trend is all the stranger given the fact that the Baha’i Faith advocates peaceful resolution to conflict and advocates obedience to one’s government. Faced with these persecutions, the international Baha’i community arose in solidarity with their Iranian cohorts and brought the matter before the international community. With pressure from the United Nations, the killings of Baha’is stopped.
More recent efforts aim to repress the religion by shutting the doors to education. In order to give the Baha’i youth access to university education, the Iranian Baha’i community established the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education in 1987. Called “an elaborate act of communal self-preservation” by The New York Times, these schools were shut down, and the Iranian government imprisoned some of the teachers. More recently, students attempting to take the national examination for entry into universities were instructed to fill out a form with a field for their religion. As the Baha’i Faith was not an option, the students were faced with the choice of repudiating their religion or enrolling in university. Facing more international pressure, the Iranian government removed this field last year, and Baha’is were able to take the entrance exam, and thus enroll in universities.
Now this most recent news makes clear the fact that this move was intended to relieve the international scrutiny, not to allow Baha’is to be educated. A government document from 1991 that recently surfaced detailed the means the government intended to take to extinguish the religion without attracting international attention. It determines that the government should not expel the Baha’is from Iran, nor arrest them without reason, but instead should deal with them “in such a way that their progress and development are blocked.” While affording them a living, the document calls for the denial of university-level education to people who identify themselves as Baha’is, calls for the rejection of employment, and suggests Baha’is should be made to enroll, whenever possible, “in schools which have a strong and imposing religious ideology.”
This document demonstrates a remarkable awareness of how the international community acts, and betrays a cold, calculating method. Carefully avoiding outright physical persecution, the document calls for manipulation of education and government to make the situation as unlivable as possible for the Baha’is. As international law recognizes education as a human right, this is indeed a reprehensible act. Once again, the international Baha’i community is calling on the United Nations to act on the systematic repression of a religion. To be clear, although Baha’is are the largest religious minority in Iran, other groups face prejudice as well — not to mention the fact that other ethnic and religious groups face extremely harsh physical persecution. What behooves us to act on the Baha’i situation? The Baha’is have distinguished themselves by refusing to take armed resistance against a repressive regime. More importantly, they have routinely appealed to the international community for legal support. This approach to the crises allows for international negotiation and diplomacy. The more these currents and methods are used, the more precedent is set for their effective implementation.
The case of the Baha’is in Iran reminds us that we must sharpen our wits when dealing with repressive regimes, lest they take our trust as naivete and use our good intent against those they repress. We must use the avenues of international diplomacy to remind Iran that what they are doing is wrong, so that these avenues can become well worn, and can be more easily used for future issues. This would benefit all minorities worldwide, not only Baha’is.
Dariush Nothaft is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.