A few weeks ago, a senior clergyman in Iran, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi Tehrani, did the unthinkable. He joined a gathering of human rights activists commemorating the sixth anniversary of the incarceration of the seven-person leadership group of the Baha’i community of Iran. Earlier, in April, Tehrani announced that he had created a calligraphic work from a passage from the sacred scriptures of the Baha’i Faith.
To acknowledge, let alone honor, Baha’i scriptures is unprecedented among Iran’s Shia clergy and, in the eyes of many clerics, amounts to blasphemy. Indeed, as recently as July 29 of last year, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, reissued a religious edict urging Iranians to avoid associating with members of the “deviant sect,” well-known terminology used to refer to the Baha’i Faith. Hence, joining the meeting of human rights activists added exponentially to the Ayatollah’s already stunningly bold creation of the calligraphic work.
From the inception of the Baha’i Faith in mid-19th century Iran, Baha’is have been viewed as heretics by most of Iran’s clergy. Since the Revolution, thousands of Baha’is have been imprisoned and over 200 executed for their religious beliefs. The Baha’i Faith, unlike Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity, is not a constitutionally recognized minority religion. According to a 1991 memorandum signed by the Supreme Leader, it is official policy that the “progress and development” of the Baha’i community be “blocked.” This has been accompanied by an incessant propaganda campaign to incite hatred towards Baha’is in Iran’s state-controlled media.
Recently, notable exceptions to the hostility towards Baha’is have begun to emerge among the clergy and conservatives. In 2008, the one-time designated successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri issued a statement saying that Baha’is have “the right of citizenship and to live in this country,” a significant concession from an extremely well-respected, highest-ranking clergyman. However, he cautiously prefaced this conclusion by asserting that Baha’is do not have a “heavenly book like those of Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians,” and therefore “in the constitution [of the Islamic Republic of Iran] are not considered one of the religious minorities.”
Last year, Mohammad Nourizad, a former prominent conservative figure in Iran’s establishment, who is now a well-known dissident, disregarded conservative taboos regarding ritual uncleanliness by sitting in a Baha’i home, accepting tea in cups handled by his Baha’i hosts, and apologizing to and kissing the feet of a Baha’i child whose parents are imprisoned for their faith.
Soon after, Dr. Mohammad Maleki, the former President of the University of Tehran, publicly apologized to a young Baha’i woman who had been barred from attending university due to her faith, and stated that Islam does not prevent anyone from learning.
While each of these figures recognized the rights of individual Baha’is as citizens of Iran, Ayatollah Tehrani’s action went one step further. Many of Iran’s clergy and hardliners have long denounced the Baha’i Faith as a treacherous political movement, rather than a religion. Tehrani, in creating calligraphy out of Baha’i scripture – something he has done with the Quran, the New Testament and the Torah – has implicitly recognized the Baha’i Faith as a religion. It would not be surprising if his action is met with allegations of blasphemy or worse, and if his physical safety is threatened.
The significance of Tehrani’s gesture has not gone unnoticed outside of Iran. Most notably, the assistant Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain, Imam Ibrahim Mogra, said the gesture gave him “hope and optimism for peace between Iranians, regardless of faith and ethnicity.”
As noted by Gissou Nia, the Executive Director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, awareness of the persecution of Baha’is has been growing in recent years, both inside and outside Iran. Iranians are increasingly expressing solidarity with their beleaguered Baha’i compatriots, and several human rights lawyers and activists have defended Baha’is at great risk to themselves.
Increased adoption of tolerant norms among clergy and conservatives will be critical if society-wide acceptance is to gain momentum. Tehrani offered his calligraphic work as a gift to the Baha’is of Iran, who he said “have suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice.” Hopefully, his action will come to be seen as a gift not just to the Baha’is but to all Iranians, leading the way along a path, initially ventured upon by Ayatollah Montazeri, on which Iran’s clergy and conservatives gradually accept Baha’is and all religious and ethnic minorities as equal citizens.