From the Editor:
On March 5, 2009, the Universal House of Justice informed the Baha’is of Iran that the 7 members of the group of Yaran had, from their prison cells, decided to dissolve the national and local Baha’i administrative bodies which informally oversaw the social functions and collectively attended to the spiritual needs of a 300,000 strong religious community. This decision was in response to a recent letter by Iran’s Attorney General, Ayatollah Dorri Najafabadi, addressed to the Minister of Intelligence, in which these national and local groups had been declared illegal.
Ironically, Ayatollah Najafabadi called for the disbandment of a set of bodies which had, in effect, been molded through a process that had begun with an announcement made 25 years earlier by his predecessor. On August 29, 1983, Seyyed Hussein Musavi Tabrizi declared all Baha’i administrative activities illegal, thus requiring the dissolution of the National Spiritual Assembly of Iran, along with some 400 Local Assemblies which operated under its jurisdiction. This came as a shock to the Baha’is living in Iran, who witnessed the sudden dissolution of an administrative structure which had slowly and painstakingly evolved throughout the course of a century, and as part of an enterprise to create a worldwide religious community which operated, not under the paternalistic rule of religious clergy, but through the authority of a democratically elected administration.
The initial shock, however, was quickly absorbed. Soon, Baha’i families living close together in every district or neighborhood organized and began to hold their modest yet lively gatherings and feasts. The informal network created and maintained in this way not only helped to protect the community at a time of special hardship, but also operated to direct Baha’is towards those individuals who could help them meet their particular needs- from holding a marriage ceremony to sending a letter of introduction for a travelling Baha’i. Usually, these individuals were ex-members of dissolved Baha’i administrative bodies- people who knew how things used to be done when the official administrative bodies were still functioning and could now use their know-how and experience along with their extensive network of connections to help the other members of their communities cope with their special needs. Almost instinctively, these individuals became the nodes that connected the Baha’i community at every locality to those of other localities, thus creating a national network of informal relations through which the whole community managed to meet its needs.
But Baha’is were not the only ones who turned towards these individuals in the absence of their local and national spiritual assemblies. Not long after the dissolution of the Baha’i administrative bodies in Iran, the Islamic Republic’s intelligence officials realized that if they wanted to effectively control and limit the activities of the Baha’is they needed to establish close contact with the individuals who had moral, if not official, authority over their communities. In fact, they decided that they needed the unofficial network of relations that had grown around these individuals to become somewhat less informal and more clearly defined. For them, an openly defined hierarchy of authority was much easier to manage and control than a loosely defined web of relations.
This, in effect, encouraged the Iranian intelligence officials to enter a close dialogue with prominent members of the Iranian Baha’i community, which ultimately led to a clear definition of the structure and functions of the groups of individuals who, under the titles of Yaran and Khademin, until recently operated to organize and direct the affairs of the Baha’i Community at local and national levels. For twenty years, these groups attended to the needs and functions of the Iranian Baha’i Community, while their actions were closely watched, and regularly curbed, by the regime’s intelligence apparatus.
Now, however, the Attorney General has declared these very bodies illegal. The reason is not all that clear. Maybe the Islamic regime has concluded that these groups, despite all the limitations imposed upon them, have through the past two decades managed to function as effective alternatives for the very local and national bodies which it had attempted to destroy. Maybe the ruling officials are unhappy with the fact that the Baha’i community of Iran has managed to survive the hardships, and are just exploring other alternatives which might help them crush it. But, maybe the problem is that the Shi’a authorities are still unable to come to terms with the fact that a religious community can survive the tests of oppression, not by succumbing to the rule of an elite religious group, but by channeling the charismatic authority of its founders into an administrative order that is created, governed, and advanced by every individual member of that community.
One challenge, now, is for the international community to raise its voice to convince the ruling clergy to abandon its state of denial, acknowledge the legitimacy of alternative sources of religious authority, and confer upon the Baha’i community of Iran the right to assemble and maintain its sacred institutions – and to be officially and fully recognized.
However, given the experience of the past, we can realistically suppose that the Iranian clerical elite for the most part, committed as they are to their own dominance of the nation, will not voluntarily agree to allow freedom to a group — the Baha’is — whose central claim and continuing existence — without ever needing to say a word against the clergy — negates clerical assertions of their right to social hegemony (the so-called wilayat-e faqih doctrine which Khomeimi advanced to justify clerical rule).
We may therefore hope at best for a more likely goal — that international outcry could minimize the worst impulses of the most virulent members of the Iranian leadership, and save the lives of the incarcerated Yaran, perhaps even releasing them from prison with no more than a strong warning.
In the current state of social ferment in the Iranian nation, however, and given recent statements which have been reported in Iran Press Watch (the document “We Are Ashamed” and related statements), which suggest that there has been a significant raising of awareness among the Iranian intellectual elite of the longstanding injustices done to Baha’is in the country and that there is a need to express solidarity with their countrymen who have suffered greatly from the Islamic regime, it may be that now is also a time for Baha’is to reach out to these artists, scientists and human rights workers to find common ground on the need for social reform. Naturally, the Baha’i Faith strictly avoids anything which smacks of politics; yet the success of the small efforts at the level of local Baha’is to improve moral standards, to raise the level of social tolerance and to bring about social cohesion may be cases in which cooperation between Baha’is and other groups in order to address the crying needs of the Iranian people could be starting points for a new level of action to change society.
Ultimately, the only means by which the situation for the Baha’is, as well as for all other social groups oppressed by the current Islamicist regime, could be improved, would be by the gradual improvement in consciousness among the generality of the Iranian people of the need for common work for the greater good among all the social groups in Iran, both men and women together. The reason why the clergy so vehemently oppose contact between Baha’is and their neighbors is because putting into action Baha’i principles of mutual love and trust, of common activity for the greater good, would inevitably undermine their reactionary hold over the minds of the Iranian people.
The clergy’s efforts to maintain ignorance and intolerance among the Iranian people is destined to fail; humanity has attained a level of maturity at which such efforts cannot last in the long run. It is our hope that cooperation between the Baha’is and any other groups who see the need to awaken the minds of the Iranian people to mutual assistance for social improvement would be richly rewarded by the removal of the shackles which currently inhibit the true expression of the spirit of this great people.