By Christopher Buck
A special conference on “Islam and Minorities” was held at the University of Victoria in British Columbia on May 2-3, 2003. Presenting papers at this conference were internationally-renowned Islamicists, among whom was Dr. Andrew Rippin, who read, in absentia, my paper, “Islam and Minorities: The Case of the Baha’is.” This invited paper was later published in Studies in Contemporary Islam 5.1–2 (Spring/Fall 2003): 83–106; Proceedings of the Twentieth Annual Conference of the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies (ACSIS); published June 2005.
This paper essentially presents an “Islamic” argument, by suggesting that it is in Islam’s enlightened self-interest to protect the rights of all religious minorities. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a special case because its anti-Baha’i policies are notorious and have been openly condemned by the international community for nearly a quarter of a century. This notoriety has, like the Salman Rushdie affair, resulted in much negative press for both Iran as a country and, more unfortunately, for Islam as a religion, even though Iran’s practice of Islam is peculiar to its own form of Shi‘a Islam.
“The Baha’i question” raises serious questions in the West over just how “tolerant” Islam really is. One may say that popular perceptions of Islam will increasingly be shaped by how Muslim countries treat their minorities, especially religious minorities. The “Baha’i question” has confronted the Islamic world with a “test case” by which Islam’s claims to religious tolerance will be vindicated, compromised, or reformed. Practically speaking, it will probably be the force of international law that ultimately constrains the application of Islamic restrictions on Baha’is, as has partially happened in Iran. Whether it is possible for an Islamic state to grant full rights to a religion that it fundamentally opposes and, thus, has the greatest difficulty in tolerating, the Baha’i question invites further discussion in the context of Islam and minorities.