In Iran, followers of the Baha’i faith face discrimination, arrest and arbitrary detention, some have even been executed because of their religion. Although founded in 1863, the country’s constitution does not recognise and protect the Baha’i religion, putting the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority in the risk of human rights abuses.
On 30 September, Amnesty UK hosted a film and speaker event on the Baha’i minority in Iran and beyond. During the evening, attendees learnt about the human rights abuses suffered by followers of this particular faith and about the international obligations towards the rights and liberties of this religious community that Iran has to obey. Two brilliant speakers, Tahirih Danesh, a noted human rights researcher and advisor specialising in the rights of minorities in Iran and women’s issues in the Middle East and North Africa region, and Daniel Wheatley, Adjunct Professor at the Syracuse and Arcadia American universities and Senior Diplomatic Officer for the Baha’i community in the UK, helped us understand the context.
Referring to the discrimination experienced by Iranian Baha’is, Mr Wheatley stressed:
“It is an extraordinary and a very worrying incident where a community of people, who are entirely peaceful, [..] and contribute towards their society, face a multi-faceted, state sponsored, policy-enshrined persecution.”
Baha’is are denied access to certain professions. “A Baha’i cannot make you an ice cream, a Baha’i cannot serve you flowers. [..] Because if they put their hands in the water, the water and the flower become impure.”
And the regime has barred Baha’is from teaching and studying at universities.
Why all the discrimination?
So, why are members of this religious community persecuted so intensively?
Muslim institutions and clergy, both Sunni and Shia, consider Baha’is apostates from Islam. Their community has often been accused of being a “political movement” and sympathising with foreign enemies. During the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979), Baha’is enjoyed relative freedom. But since the cultural revolution, that followed the 1979 Revolution and took root in 1981, Baha’is have been targeted.
While the regime has persecuted other Iranians for their personal choices, such as being a leftist or an atheist, Baha’is have faced discrimination because of their faith, explained Tahirih Danesh.
Responding with Constructive Resilience
A Baha’i herself, Ms Danesh stressed that the Baha’i community has chosen to respond to the oppression through ‘constructive resilience’:
We document it, we act on it, and ask for accountability and transparency for every single act of abuse, harassment and violation. At the same time, we are going to learn from that process and ensure that others don’t suffer as we do, as much as possible.
And at the same time, they take an active part in the life of the Iranian society.
The Baha’is peaceful resistance is well illustrated by their response to the government’s ban on accessing universities. In 1987, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) was born. It was the result of the joint effort of fired professors, aiming to give young Baha’is a chance to pursue knowledge. Despite the governmental harassments and raids against the functioning of this institute, the Baha’is still teach and study. This story is brilliantly documented by Maziar Bahari in his film To Light a Candle that was screened on that night, as well.
Based on the success of the secret education system, the faith group encourages other ethnic and religious minorities in Iran and elsewhere, to take the good example and apply it in their communities, as well.
“Baha’is have always tried to be a cause of progress, development and advancement for the entire country and in fact, for the entire world,” says Ms Danesh. Some of the people who have been executed since the revolution were important scientists and thinkers of the global community. A good example is Jinous Nemat Mahmoudi, the woman who wrote the Atlas for Iran, which is still used in these days.
Looking to the future
Despite the hopes that the presidency of Hassan Rouhani would bring along changes and human rights reforms, the situation does not seem to be improving.
According to the last report from the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran “[..] Baha’i students faced discrimination in admission to the institutions of higher education 2014-2015 academic year.” He added that “Incitement against Baha’is also appeared to continue this past year.”
Recent developments such as the nuclear deal and the reopening of the British embassy in Iran suggest that we are entering a new period of diplomatic, cultural and economic engagement with Iran. Both guest speakers pointed out that in this new era it is worth asking why some of the most educated, talented and competent people in the country are not permitted to take part in the economic development of the country. And then seek to change that.
Please join us in urging the Iranian authorities not to persecute Bahai’s, but to respect their right to freedom of religion and to education by joining our Twitter action:
Krisztina Saroy is the country coordinator for Iran.
About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.