Baha’is Need Justice! (Part 3 – final segment)

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By Dr. Majid Naficy

6. The Azalis and the Baha’is

At the age of 24, Ali-Muhammad Shirazi in 1844 declared himself to be the Bab, which means he was the gate to the Promised One of Islam. He later confirmed that indeed He was the Promised One himself. Shortly before His execution in 1850 in Tabriz, He named one of His followers, a 14-year-old youth named Mirza Yahya Nuri, to be His successor and gave him the title Subhi Azal.204397de604716b34

After the premiership of Amir Kabir, efforts to eradicate the Babis increased in intensity and many of them were compelled to leave their native land. In 1863, Mirza Husayn-Ali, known as Baha’u’llah, declared himself to be “He Whom God Shall Make Manifest”, Whose appearance was foretold by the Bab, and commenced inviting the Babis to accept His station. Baha’u’llah was a step-brother of Mirza Yahya (Subhi Azal) and was 13 years his senior. At the time, both brothers lived in Edirne, a town in the Ottoman Empire.

Mirza Yahya did not accept his brother’s claim and the differences between the two caused enmity and bloodshed among the Babis. Eventually, in order to alleviate the situation, the Ottoman government was forced to exile Yahya to Cyprus and Baha’u’llah to Palestine.

Edward Browne (1862-1929), an English scholar who visited both brothers, likened the differences between them to the enmity and bloodshed between Shiah and Sunni Islam or Trotsky and Stalin at the time of Bolshevism.3

The followers of Baha’u’llah proclaimed their mission to be for the entire world and quickly grew in numbers. However, the followers of the younger brother [Mirza Yahya], stayed in Iran to fight against the political system and to reduce the influence of the Qajar dynasty. Two of Mirza Yahya’s sons-in-Law, Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani and Shaykh Ahmad Ruhi, emerged at the forefront of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. They gave their life in this path in Tabriz. During the interval during which the Iranian Constitution was suspended, a grandson of Mirza Yahya by the name of Yahya Dawlatabadi4 and Ali-Akbar Dehkhuda were publishing the freedom-demanding newspaper Surush in Istanbul.

Today, Azalis who continue to call themselves Bayani, that is, followers of the book of the Bayan by the Bab, are a small minority community in Iran. Because of their practice of dissimulation, they hide their beliefs. By contrast, the followers of Baha’u’llah have their center in Haifa, enjoy worldwide recognition and number several million.

7. Dualistic Nature of Leftist Movements

During the 1970s, leftist intellectuals in Iran revisited the Bab’s movement and grew attracted to it as a social uprising against feudalism — they also admired the Azali thinkers during the Constitutional Revolt.5 However, as Iranian Marxists on one hand did not respect the necessary role of freedom of conscience, and on the other hand believed the fictitious rumors about Baha’i collaboration with the government during the premiership of Amir-Abbas Hoveyda (and the only evidence they had in this regard was that Parviz Sabeti held a position in SAVAK’s media department), they had a negative view of the Baha’is. This negative attitude increased, particularly after the revolution.

The leftist Tudeh party, which considered itself a main backer of the Islamic regime, started helping the fundamentalist clergy in their anti-Baha’i activities. As written by Reza Fani Yazdi, “Suddenly, in spring 1982, the Tudeh party sent a circular letter to all its regional offices throughout the country instructing that all Baha’is were to be expelled from its membership rolls.”6 The party was asked not only to expel the Baha’is, but also to expel any members who were against Khomeini’s government – and they were also asked to divulge the identity of any of the leftists who were anti-regime. Though the Tudeh party had played an important role in creating the new Islamic regime, it was not long after the revolution that they fell prey to the oppressive regime they had helped build.

On 11 February 1981, the Peykar Organization had arranged a demonstration in Tehran’s Enqelab Square to mark the anniversary of the revolution. I was identified by two medical students (previous supporters of the Tudeh Party) with whom I had used to go hiking at the time of the Shah. The Islamic security guards had turned a movie theatre into a centre for interrogating demonstrators. They seized me, and were dragging me to the interrogation center when I managed to escape with the help of a few friends who started fighting with the Islamic guards. When I made it home, I found my wife Izzat very worried; she had seen me captured, but had not seen my escape. It was only a few months later when I had to witness my wife leaving home and never coming back.

8. Appeal for Justice not Collective Shame

With 300,000 followers in Iran, the Baha’i community is the largest minority group after the Sunni sect of Islam. Nevertheless, Baha’is are deprived of all basic human and civil rights, including the freedom of belief, access to higher education, and employment in any government sector.

In a secret memorandum issued in 1991 and signed by [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and [President] Rafsanjani, the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council instructed all its lower bodies regarding the principle policy of the government towards Baha’is: “prevention of their progress and advancement” at all levels of society.7

This was also the policy of Khomeini before and after the revolution. While residing in Paris in the summer of 1978, Khomeini was interviewed by James Cockrof, a professor at Rutgers University. Khomeini was asked about his stance regarding the Baha’is and whether they would enjoy freedom of belief and action in an Islamic regime. Instead of a direct response, Khomeini stated, “Baha’ism is not a religion. It is a political party and a misguided sect”. The interviewer again asked if Baha’is would be allowed to practice their religious duties. Khomeini responded, “No”.8

In Khomeini’s terse responses, one can find two justifications for the Shiah fundamentalist’s suppression of the Baha’is. The first justification is that the Baha’i faith is not a religion, but a political party associated with the government of the Shah and colonialism, and which gives support to Israel. Therefore, the Baha’is should be suppressed for the sake of the country’s security. The second justification is that the Baha’is are condemned for apostasy. According to Article 5 of the Criminal Code regarding the “law of apostasy” presented to the Islamic Parliament in February 2008, apostates (which includes the Baha’is) will be sentenced to death if they are male, and life imprisonment if they are female.

The first justification mentioned above is based on collective punishment. That is, if a member of a group is alleged to have committed a crime, then all members of that group, whether male, female, elderly, or child, are guilty through association, and will be subject to punishment. The second justification is based on sheer disregard for human rights, freedom of belief and of the right to choose a religion or no religion. This justification has its roots in the dark mindset of the middle ages.

In both the above justifications, the right and individual responsibility is completely absent, and instead emphasis is placed on collective belief and group ideologies.

In contradistinction to the above, if we were to accept the principle that all humans, regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity, social status and religious belief, are equal before the law, and that they have natural rights to freedom of belief, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and such natural liberties, then the above two justifications for oppressing Baha’is and other minorities will have no foundation whatsoever. Therefore, it is necessary to recognize individual freedom in the country’s Constitution in order to open the door of justice to all Baha’is and other minorities.

This appeal for justice has two inseparable parts:

  1. Complete alignment of the country’s Constitution with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, which calls for the separation of religion and state
  2. Activities of the anti-Baha’i group Hojjatiyeh should be considered illegal and forced to end. All those who have been involved in the persecution of Baha’is and other minorities should be brought to justice in a court of law, in the presence of a just assembly and defense attorneys.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, the greatest shortcoming of the open letter to the Baha’i community of Iran titled “We are Ashamed” is that instead of demanding justice for the Baha’is (that is, insisting that freedom of belief must be enshrined in the Constitution and that anti-Baha’i groups be made illegal), it proposed a collective shame upon all Iranian intellectuals for allowing 150 years of oppression against the Baha’is. Instead of calling on people to accept human rights, this open letter has established its foundation on collective shame and group repentance.

Without a doubt, when it comes to human and civil rights, the Baha’is of Iran are the most deprived. As I have mentioned earlier, the test of Iranian broadmindedness must be measured by his sensitivity to the cruelty perpetrated against this group of our countrymen.

However, first, it is incorrect to accuse all intellectuals of “silence against crimes perpetrated against the Baha’is”. Each person is responsible for his own actions and not for the oversights of others, whether in the past or at the present. Second, feeling ashamed or guilty for wrongdoings committed in the past is a personal matter and should be sincerely communicated directly to the individuals or families adversely affected by the acts of oppression. As I wrote in my July 2006 article titled “Beh Azin and right of silence”, I clearly explained that asking individuals to feel ashamed or to repent publicly for their beliefs is an old method of religious inquisition, dating back to the reigns of dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Khomeini. The main objective of such practices is to undermine and destroy the individual’s self-worth.

A liberated and broadminded intellectual would instead defend the rights of individuals, and would not allow public pressure to curtail individual beliefs and actions. They would insist on personal responsibility and choice.

Public shaming and public confession is a method used by Franciscan monks in their inquisition period and employed in fanatical environments for the purpose of extracting acknowledgment and breaking down personal will. In a similar manner, party administrators in the Stalinist era or under Mao’s regime employed “self-critical sessions” which used such techniques, and Khomeini used them in his televised public “confessions”, or for group meetings in Evin prison.

I say no to the original sin of a group. I say no to metaphoric baptism by signing a letter that confesses to shame. We must fight for the freedom of belief and demand that anti-Baha’i activities be banned in Iran. Let everyone tell their own personal stories, and if one feels ashamed about keeping silent while crimes were committed, let him take personal responsibility and deal with it as he sees fit.

20 February 2009.

Notes by the author and translator:

[2] Dr. Naficy is mistaken in this regard. While the Bab consented to Baha’u’llah’s request for Mirza Yahya to be named a temporary head of the community, there is no evidence whatsoever that Mirza Yahya was named a successor. The title Subh Azal was not given by the Bab and was self-adopted by Mirza Yahya Nuri. [Translator]

[3] For an example of this discussion, refer to Edward Granville Browne, A Year Amongst the Persians, Cambridge University Press, 1927, pp. 559-62. In that book, Browne refers to the killing of seven Azalis in Akka by the followers of Baha’u’llah. [Author]

[4] Yahya Dawlatabadi is not related to Mirza Yahya Nuri; he is a son of Hadi Dawlatabadi, who was a preacher in Isfahan. While some have claimed that Hadi and then Yahya Dawlatabadi succeeed Mirza Yahya Nuri at the leadership of the Azali community, there is actually no documented evidence supporting this assertion. [Translator]

[5] For instance, see Muhammad-Reza Feshahi, Vapasin Junbesh Qurun Vusta’i: Akhbari, Usuli, Shaykhi and the Babi. Javidan Publications, Tehran, 1977. [Author]

[6] Reza Fani-Yazdi, “Baha’i-setizi Pish va Pas az Enqelab” [Anti-Baha’ism before and after the Revolution”, Iran-Emrooz, 6/11/2008, http://www.iran-emrooz.net/index.php?/politic/more/16159/ [Author]

[7] This document was uncovered by Reynaldo Pohl, the United Nations’ special representative on human rights in Iran, and published by him in his report of 1993: http://bic.org/assets/Pohl%20Iran%20report%20E.CN4.1993.41.pdf. The passage related to the instructions issued after a joint meeting of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, President of Iran, and the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council is on p. 55, paragraph 310. [Translator]

[8] See The Denial of Higher Education to the Baha’is of Iran, by Geoffrey Cameron. [Author]

[Published on Thursday, March 12, 2009, at http://fa.shahrvand.com/2008-07-14-20-49-09/2008-07-14-20-49-46/2284-2009-03-12-17-58-08. Translation by Iran Press Watch.]

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8 Responses

  1. Ali

    April 10, 2009 10:08 pm

    Even I, who am relatively new to all this noticed the inaccurate information in this last part of Dr. Nafisi’s letter regarding the Azal. He listed no reference to back up his assertions and repeated the “Islamic clergy” lines that I had even been told by the Mollahs that I know. But I liked his article and hope that he writes more but with documented facts other than the “clergy” media. I remember reading the Tudeh party statement he is referring to. It was just as absurd then as it is now. That’s my opinion. Some may agree and some may not. But any Iranian who had joined the SAVAK party or Tudeh party or Leftists party by taking that step had actually withdrawn themselves from any other party or movement that they
    belonged to. Even in the United States one can’t be a registered republican and a registered democrat at the same time. They need to choose one when it’s time to vote. And in Iran the voting is done by walking out and leaving.

    I admired Dr Nafisi’s courage to put his convictions in writing. Hopefuly hundreds of Iranian intelectuals will sign his letter too so that even more minds can be pollinated back into life.

    Reply
  2. LizKauai

    April 11, 2009 5:44 am

    Again, many thanks, Dr. Naficy, for sharing your personal history and observations. This is truly the age of Light and how wonderfully does information travel on it from place to place, from heart to heart.
    Aloha!

    Reply
  3. Roya

    April 11, 2009 2:16 pm

    This must be an Iranian “thing”. If a member of a family makes something of himself or herself, the other member(s) who chose to do nothing with their lives somehow feel they are entitled to the success of the party that made something of themselves. And when they don’t get what they expect, they back bite and bad mouth the family member that has achieved success. Sort of black mailing.

    My father’s brother is the same way. He chose to spend his life chanting slogans in the streets and following Mollah directives instead of educating himself or his family. He turned against my father multiple times and even tried to have him arrested and put in jail so he could show his power. Now that the bankruptcy of the Mollah ideology has sunk into his thick head and he has found that he had wasted his life, he is back again using my father’s good name to trick people into trusting him and wants to be on good terms with us. I’m not Baha’i but my father who is not Baha’i either always calls his brother “Azal.” Now that I read this article I understand why every time my uncle came to visit us, my father would tell us “aamadeh beshin keh Azal dareh miyad inja” (get ready that Azal is coming here). Then as now my father always helps him out but “uncle Azal” is never happy. He even calls himself the elder of our family and he tells us that my father has told him that when he dies, we should turn to my uncle for guidance and moral values:-)

    Reply
  4. Mohammad

    April 11, 2009 11:10 pm

    HELLO TO ALL:
    AS AN ELDERLY MOSLEM WHO ONCE UPON A TIME, LIKE MANY OTHERS, HAS BEEN ALLURED BY THE TUDEH PARTY, AND BECAME ITS MEMBER, I WOULD LIKE TO DESIGN MY OWN “INDIVIDUAL” LETTER AND TITLE IT: “I AM ASHAMED TO HAVE BEEN A TUDEIEE”. TUDEIEES AND OTHER BRANCHES OF IRANIAN LEFTISM WERE THE ONES WHO GAVE KHOMEINI HIS POWER AND TURNED IRAN INTO WHAT IT IS TODAY. WHAT WERE WE THINKING: THAT KHOMEINI WILL GIVE US GOLD MEDALS? “KOOR KHOONDEH BOODEEM”.
    EVEN THOUGH I APPRECIATE MR. NAFICI’S GOOD INTENTIONS FOR PROMOTING HUMAN RIGHTS BY SUGGESTING INSTITUTIONALIZATION OF CIVIL RIGHTS FOR THE BAHA’I RELIGION AND OTHER MINORITIES, I THINK THAT HE IS GOING A LITTLE AHEAD OF HIMSELF. I MANAGED TO READ THE WE-ARE-ASHAMED LETTER. I DO NOT AGREE WITH MR. NAFICI’S ANALYSIS THAT IT IS LILKE A KHOMEINI GROUP CONFESSION/REPENTANCE OR BRAINWASHING BY COMMUNIST GUIRELLAS THRU CREATING GUILT FEELINGS. I THINK THE REAL POINT IS MISSED BY MR. NAFICI: THAT WE, THE MAJORITY MOSLEM POPULATION IN IRAN, FOR THE PAST 100 AND SO YEARS HAVE KEPT BLIND EYES TO THE PLIGHT OF THE OPPRESSED. MR. NAFICI, I THINK SHAME , IN THIS CONTEXT, IS AN APPROPRIATE EMOTION. I BELIEVE SHAMELESSNESS IS ONE OF THE MALADIES OF TODAY’S WORLD, A SOCIAL DISEASE.
    NONETHELESS, I RESPECT MR. NAFICI’S VIEW, THOUGH I DISAGREE WITH IT. I THINK THE WE-ARE-ASHAMED LETTER CAN LEAD TO FURTHER STEPS IN LINE WITH WHAT MR. NAFICI HAS IN MIND. YOUR SUGGESTIONS, SIR, SHOULD BE THE FUTURE STEPS. WE, THE NON-BAHA’I IRANIANS ARE STILL TOO CONFUSED ABOUT WHAT THIS MOVEMENT IS. WE HAVE BEEN BRAINWASHED BY MOLLAHS FOR TOO LONG. IT TAKES SOME TIME BEFORE WE CAN GET TO WHERE YOU ARE SUGGESTING.
    RESPECTFULLY,
    M.

    Reply
  5. Mark Obenauer

    April 11, 2009 11:59 pm

    My understanding is that true shame also translates into actions to rectify a problem. From my experience, I have felt some sort of closure when I have apologized to someone and the apology was accepted. I feel the letter written by Iranian intellectuals was an act of human kindness. I believe in God, and in my World-view, I can’t help but suspect or believe that there is smiling and hosannas both in Heaven and in this earthly plane. If I were ever to meet one of the signatories of the We are Ashamed letter, I would warmly shake this person’s hand and say that “all is forgiven” both as a prayer and an affirmation to that person.

    Reply
  6. Mark Obenauer

    April 12, 2009 5:44 pm

    Mohammad:

    There is so much confusion whenever a new religion is Revealed. The Prophet Muhammad went through so much antagonism and persecution from followers of Moses and Jesus and idolaters. I have read an English rendition of the Holy Quran and there is an entire description of how Prophets were persecuted when they Revealed a religion. There are Prophets that are non-existent in the Judeo-Christian tradition such as Hud. In the Western countries, some more conservative Christian elements consider formerly Christian individuals who convert to religions that were birthed after or before Christianity as apostates. So a person converting to Islam or the Baha’i’ Faith is viewed as an apostate. There was a time in Western history when people who were from a Protestant Christian sect or weren’t Christian or were persecuted (ie the Inquisition). Western civilization has been through the throws of a Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment since that time, so individuals who are perceived as apostates are no longer persecuted though the prejudice is still evident. People have been killed because of their religion in our societies, but this is rare because of secular civil laws protecting minorities, and the worst that can happen is a person losing employment. But then there are appeals under civil rights laws. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that I am going to hell, and in slight sarcasm each time I tell the person saying this that I will be in good company.

    Reply
  7. sb

    April 13, 2009 3:26 pm

    Having read all three parts of this essay and this entire comment thread, I think that we are reaching a historical threshold to a better age in which everyone is willing to understand someone he/she used to abhor.

    There are many, many Iranians in my business and many more
    living in this part of the country. It used to be I risked a certain faint condescension or at times, real disgust by mentioning my Baha’i identity. Sometimes I mentioned it because it explained who I am. Other times I mentioned it to create awareness. Thank God it appears that I no longer have to do the latter.

    Everybody had be something else to become something better, something more tolerant.

    To achieve unity, we have to listen to each other, we have to suspend judgment, realizing that no one group has a special purchase on suffering in Iran. Every viewpoint is valid and meaningful.

    As mature people one of the most important things we can do is to overlook the faults of one another. The rarest phrase in any language is: “I am sorry.”
    Second rarest is “I was wrong.” I submit that we have to be able to say these things in order to save the world for our children.

    The endless recitation of blame and shame is not what will ultimately bring us together. The desire to know and understand each other will bring us to together for the sake of our children. Baha’is need justice because the world needs justice.

    Reply

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