Speech: Persecution of the Baha’i Minority in Iran

Wednesday 4 November 2009


Room ASP 5E – 3, European Parliament

 Dr Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, Senior Fellow, European Foundation for Democracy


First of all, allow me to say thank you to Ms. Verheyen and to Ms. Schaake and to my colleagues of EFD, especially to Ms. Bonazzi, for their efforts to make such a conference possible.
30 years ago today, a group of Islamist students and militants took over the American embassy and held 53 Americans hostage for 444 days. While those hostages were released, many Iranians remain captive to a regime they do not support and one that terrorises its own people and its neighbours.
Today, on the 4th of November, millions of Iranians will not simply be chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” – as they traditionally do – but also demanding freedom and an end to the persecution that many Iranians face on a daily basis.
Iranian society is deeply divided. There are those who remain ideologically committed, however misguided, to the theocracy in Iran and those who propagate its vision. Nevertheless, an enlightened segment is advocating for a future free of Islamism; one characterized by an open, pluralist society that respects the basic tenets of human rights and civil liberties.
Indeed, after 30 years of dictatorship a populist movement for freedom has emerged – as we witnessed this summer – and they are fighting for the rights of all citizens of Iran. It is a new fact, a significant, unique moment in Iranian history: Iranian intellectuals, leftists, royalists, secularists, and even some clerics and religious conservatives are unified in voice, demanding the freedom of the Baha’i.
Women, workers, teachers, students, the youth, many Iranians have learned that their freedom of conscience and of expression are not just rights specific to their communities, but the basic freedoms entitled to all Iranians.
Let me provide a few examples of elementary freedoms which do not exist in Iran today: women are not allowed to dress freely without a headscarf and a veil. Not to mention the issue of the inequality under Islamic law.
The youth are not free. Teachers are not free to teach what a free society means. And the workers have no rights to demand just wages peacefully.
Religious persecution is particularly acute. Jews, Christians, and especially the Baha’i lack the right to express their freedom of conscience and religion. The Baha’i sometimes do not have the right to bury their dead. A Baha’i, Behnam Rohanifard, who has a nice voice and sings only prayers in private rooms, was arrested in Yazd on 12 October 2009. He is still arrested by security forces for being a singer.
Before we come to our main issue today, let me say that I distress myself not only over the situation of the Baha’i, but that of the millions of Iranians who face danger every day.
But to return to today’s focus. Freedom of religion does not exist in Iran. While Christianity is becoming increasingly popular in Iran, and the church movement is growing, it must occur underground – out of sight from the Iranian government. Converts are considered apostates and face a really possibility of being executed. As many of you know, Islam prohibits its followers from converting to another faith. A new draft apostasy law, which would enshrine the death penalty as punishment for the act under official state law, is expected to be ratified this year. If so, the lives of hundreds of thousands will be in danger.
While liberal Muslims say that there is no compulsion in Islam, Islamic law prohibits Muslims from leaving the faith, because the Koran is considered the last word of God.
While the Islamic Republic of Iran is a nation rife with tragic stories of human rights violations and persecution, no case is more severe than that of the Baha’i; a faith-based community entrenched in the modern history of Iran that is facing a most dire and questionable future.
Founded in the mid-19th century in Iran, the Baha’i faith promotes messages of peace and unity among mankind. Yet the relatively short history of the religion is dominated by severe persecution at the hands of the numerous dynasties and regimes that have ruled Iran over the last 150 years.
From the outset, the Shi’a clerical establishment in Iran rejected the Baha’i faith as little more than a heretical manifestation that refused to recognise Mohammed as the last prophet. But Baha’i respect Islam as an historical religion, but believe that Baha’u’llah is a new manifestation of god. He is not the last manifestation of god, Baha’i speak of the principal of successive revelations. And they believe that the Baha’i religion could be the basis of a new world civilisation. Such a conception is a faith, a private believe of an individual or a community. But in a totalitarian state every dissenter can get sentenced as a criminal.
The Baha’i were frequently targets of violent outburst: more than 20,000 followers were killed in a series of pogroms in the late 1800s.
During the Pahlavi dynasty, the Shah frequently backed the anti-Baha’i movement in an effort to garner clerical support for his foreign and domestic policies. Community schools were closed, religious literature banned, and violence became a feature of everyday life for most followers.
The Islamic Revolution of 1979 installed a theocratic system of governance that is intolerant to all other religions, and the Baha’i have suffered greatly at the hands of the Ayatollahs state clerics. More than 200 Iranian Baha’i have been killed since 1979, a significant number executed by the regime merely because of their faith. Nearly 1000 have been arrested, while many more face daily economic and religious discrimination.
But the treatment of the Baha’i by the clerical regime in Iran is more sinister: it is a systematic repression aimed at eliminating the community from the annals of Iranian history.
Indeed, government documents support such an assertion. In 1991, the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council laid out a plan to restrict the education, employment, and cultural status of anyone who identifies publicly as a Baha’i, and to block the development of the community as a whole. The plan was endorsed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i. These documents were published by the UN and made public in 1993.
Other documents show the desire of the government to monitor the activities of all Baha’i. A 2007 letter to police forces throughout Iran called for the establishment of a ban on work permits for Baha’is in “sensitive business categories”, including the tourism industry, the press, and commerce. Also this document made public by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion.
The intention is clear: the Iranian regime seeks to isolate and strangle the Baha’i community until its existence is no longer viable.
Iran justifies its systematic persecution of the Baha’i through a series of conspiracy theories that recall familiar anti-Semitic themes. The Baha’i, they accuse, collaborated with the Shah’s oppressive security service, the SAVAK, are foreign agents of the Mossad, KGB, CIA, MI6, and... are behind most immoral behaviour in Iran –notably prostitution and adultery. The economic crisis? The Baha’i were, of course, responsible for that, as well as most other of Iran’s ills.
The Iranian newspaper Kayhan published even false blood libel accusation, that Baha’i murdered Muslims for rituals, propaganda which shall produce hate against Baha’i. Such conspiracy theories are known as false accusations against Jews.
The real motives for the regime’s persecution of the Baha’i are both religious and political. The religious motives, as mentioned, are grounded in the fact that the Baha’i do not believe Mohammad was the last prophet of god. The most political reason, perhaps, for the persecution of the Baha’i is that, as a religion of peace, they do not believe that there can be any legitimization for violent, militant Jihad.
Lastly, the Baha’i faith preaches pluralism and egalitarianism, which again conflicts with the Islamic Republic’s subjugation of religious and ethnic minorities, and women.
As such, this community of only 300,000 in a nation of over 70 million has consistently been the target of severe repression, a record that has led a growing group of Iranian intellectuals to proclaim: “As Iranian human beings, we are ashamed.”
Currently, seven leaders of the Iranian Baha’i community await trial for “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic”; false charges that have garnered international condemnation. The trial was once again delayed on 18 October, thus leaving them in legal purgatory; though reports now suggest that they will receive judgment in the near future.
The implications of their fate, and that of the entire Baha’i community, however, are significant and far-reaching. Freedom of religion is a foundation of the type of society many in the opposition seek to establish. Thus, as Iranian dissident Hamid Dabashi recently argued, their freedom is inextricably tied to freedom of Iranian society as a whole.
However, not defending the rights of the Baha’i will only empower Iran’s leadership, and leave the future of the community in great doubt.