By AIDA GHAJAR
A schoolmaster in Iran has hit the headlines after making discriminatory comments on Twitter claiming that Baha’is, the country’s largest minority religion, do not have the right to education.
The comments follow a recent statement made by Iran’s Supreme Leader that indirectly called for vigilante action against Baha’is from within the education sector, leading to fears that the Baha’i community could face an increase in discrimination and attacks.
Faridodin Haddad Adel, who is related by marriage to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, runs a high school for boys, part of an elite, multi-branch franchise of educational institutions. The Farhang (“Culture”) schools specialize in humanities and literature.
On June 27, Haddad asked his Twitter followers to recommend top students who might benefit from enrolling at his school. He was particularly interested in hearing about boys who were currently studying at schools with below average academic records.
But when someone tweeted back to ask Haddad if the invitation could be extended to students from underprivileged parts of the country or people from the Baha’is faith, Haddad’s seemingly generous spirit changed. “Farhang has two branches in [the disadvantaged province of] Sistan,” he responded, but tweeted that the school would never accept Baha’is. “We have not fallen so low as to give service to the [English] Queen’s servants. How dare you to ask such a question?”
Someone else tweeted the point that children do not choose their own religion. “Why shouldn’t they be educated to…choose for themselves?”
But Haddad showed little patience for the idea of Baha’is being innocent. They “grow up, go to school and [then] harm the religion, the country and the revolution,” he posted.
Hundreds of people went on to Twitter to give their response, and many of them widened the argument to discuss Haddad’s influence more generally. Former students tweeted about their experiences at his school. In response to his invitation to underprivileged students, a Twitter user named Sheida Maleki warned that top humanities students should stay away from the high school if they wanted their “humanity” to stay intact. Maleki was a third-grade student at the Farhang High School for girls in 2004 and says ever since she left she has been trying to forget about how the teachers behaved. Other former students complained that the school tried hard to “brainwash” students. Thousands of people re-tweeted the comments and memories.
Cultural Warriors and Cultural Enemies
The uproar follows a recent call from Iran’s Supreme Leader for people working within education and culture — as he puts it, “cultural warriors” — to be proactive and “Fire at Will!” against the “cultural enemies” of the Islamic Republic. He emphasized that “one of the main and most effective trenches” was in schools, and specifically in the management of schools, where people could have a “promising” impact. Haddad seems to have embraced the leader’s challenge.
Haddad is the oldest son of the conservative former speaker of parliament and the brother of Ayatollah Khamenei’s daughter-in-law, and, as the recent Twitter scuffle demonstrates, subscribes to the view that Baha’is have no place in Iranian society, a prejudice that has blighted the country since the religion was founded there in the late 1800s.
In particular, Iranian leaders have targeted the Baha’i community’s embrace of education and contributing to society. Immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Baha’is were among the first group of professors to be expelled from universities. Then, in early 1983, Baha’is were banned from higher education as well. In early 1991, the High Council of the Cultural Revolution passed this ban into law. “Once proven to be Baha’is,” the law read, “students are banned from universities, whether they are registering or are already students.”
In response, the Baha’is founded the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), an underground university that today conducts a significant amount of its teaching online. When BIHE first started, Islamic Republic authorities mostly ignored it, but in 1998, security agents raided hundreds of Baha’i homes, made a string of arrests and confiscated books, computers and laboratory equipment. Since then, the pressure has been constant, and Baha’is are banned from registering at universities. If they manage to enroll by not revealing their background and then are discovered, they face expulsion.
Contrary to some expectations, when Hassan Rouhani was elected as president in 2013, the situation did not improve. In fact, in some cases, the persecution against the Baha’is has intensified. In the last five years, at least 30 Baha’i students have been expelled from universities and thousands have been barred from enrollment.
In 2016, the IranWire-affiliated campaign Education is Not a Crime was launched to fight education discrimination against Baha’is in Iran.
این قدر هنوز حقیر نشدیم که به خدام ملکه سرویس بدیم! چطور بخودتون جرات پرسیدن چنین سوالی دادین؟
اما فرهنگ ۲ شعبه در سیستان دارد https://t.co/B2lkTy09Kw
— فریدالدین حدادعادل (@faridhaddadadel) June 28, 2017
“Wash Your Hands!”
Lower levels of education are still open to Baha’is, but in the summer of 2013, Ayatollah Khamenei added a level of segregation in schools too. When asked what should be done if Muslim and Baha’i students use the same sanitary facilities such as soap or drinking fountains, or if a Baha’i shook the hand of a Muslim child, the ayatollah issued the following fatwa: “All followers of the devious Baha’i sect are unclean [untouchable] and in case of [physical] contact with them…the obligatory measures for cleansing must be taken.”
Since the revolution, this extreme religious position that charges Baha’is with being “deviant” and “unclean” has been used to justify or even encourage people who have physically attacked or murdered Baha’is. Activists have suggested that some of these murders have been organized with the support of figures within the regime. Often, perpetrators of the crimes believe they have the blessing of the Shia Muslim religion and the state. More often than not, the murder of Baha’is is treated with silence and those responsible escape punishment.
Today, Farhang High School has dozens of branches across Iran. It was founded in 1992 by Faridodin’s father Gholamali Haddad Adel, a member of the High Council of the Cultural Revolution and the Expediency Council. The school’s goal was to teach humanities from an “Iranian” and “Islamic” angle. Today Faridodin Haddad Adel is the headmaster of its branch for boys in Tehran. The roster of the franchise reads like a who’s who of the Haddad family and their relatives, plus a few from the Khamenei family too. Faridodin Haddad Adel’s mother Effat Mahroozadeh is the headmistress of the branch for girls, where the Supreme Leader’s daughter Boshra Khamenei and his daughter-in-law Zahra Haddad Adel both teach. Faridodin’s wife Fatemeh Davoudi and his other sister Bentolhoda also have positions in the school franchise.
In an interview with the paper Hamshahri Javan, Faridodin Haddad Adel said that his school’s aim was to enroll “pious” students. He provided a list of names, very familiar to most Iranians, of graduates of the school. In another interview, he proudly stated that both officials from Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group have paid visits to the school.
Prior to the recent Twitter notoriety, Faridodin Haddad Adel made a name for himself elsewhere in the media. He was a leading figure at the weekly Panjareh (“Window”), a key hardliner media outlet for analysis, and was a member of the policy-making council at Mehr News Agency, as well as having stints with other publications. He also heads the political science department at Imam Sadegh University in Tehran. He is often called a “master’s son,” and is said to be on his way to becoming a “master”.
In the years since his sister married Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, Faridodin Haddad Adel’s role in Iranian politics has become more prominent. He is currently a member of the central council of Society of Path-Seekers of the Islamic Revolution, a principlist political group founded in 2008 that has its own parliamentary faction. “Our political views are very close,” he said about his ties with Mojtaba Khamenei. “His views and point of view are completely in line with those of the Supreme Leader…Whenever the Leader orders something, he does his duty.”
If Haddad’s tweets are anything to go by, his beliefs, values and behavior also seem to be in line with the wishes of the Supreme Leader. The ayatollah’s recent incitement for his cultural warriors to “Fire at Will!” could signal a new spate of anti-Baha’i activity in the country. Haddad, a cultural warrior to his core, has now “fired at will.” The wording of his rant against the Baha’is might have been a spur-of-the-moment response, but the intent behind it is certain to have the blessings of the Supreme Leader. After all, his comments voiced hatred against the Baha’is and, therefore, they were “clean.”