By James Gilman for Mcgill
McGill University has been at the centre of a number of allegations made by the official media of the Islamic Republic of Iran this year.
The Islamic Republic News Agency, the Iranian government’s official state media outlet, published a pair of articles earlier this year attacking Nobel Prize-winning lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi.
The IRNA also targeted Ebadi’s daughter, who is a former McGill LL.M. student, McGill law professor Payam Akhavan, and the McGill Association for Bahá’í Studies, a Students` Society club. Ebadi, her daughter, and Akhavan have all been the targets of threats for their opposition to certain policies of the Iranian government.
The first IRNA article, published on August 7, claimed that one of Shirin Ebadi’s two daughters had converted to the Bahá’í Faith-a crime in the Islamic Republic, where conversion from Islam can be punished by death. However, the article did not say which daughter purportedly converted, nor did it go into much detail.
The following day, the IRNA published a longer piece expanding on its claims. The allegations were picked up by other pro-government media, including the hard-line newspaper Kayhan, the editor of which is appointed directly by the country’s Supreme Leader.
Iran has been a theocracy since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Shia Islam is the official religion, and the highest state authority is the Supreme Leader-currently Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i.
The August 8 article, entitled “Shirin Ebadi: Trapped in the net of Bahá’ísm”, made claims about Ebadi, who was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights work in Iran, and her family’s links to the Bahá’í Faith, Iran’s largest religious minority, which is not recognized by the Iranian constitution.
The article attacked Ebadi’s links to the Bahá’í Faith and accused her of seeking support from the West. It also criticized Ebadi for defending homosexuals, appearing without the Islamic headscarf abroad, questioning Islamic punishments, and “defending CIA agents.”
The IRNA claimed that Akhavan, who is a Bahá’í, converted Ebadi’s daughter Nargess Tavassolian to the Bahá’í Faith while she was studying at McGill.
“Nargess Tavassolian converted to Bahá’ísm in 2007 under the direction of Payam Akhavan and started her activities in the Association for Bahá’í Studies,” the article stated.
Akhavan, a former UN war crimes prosecutor, supervised Tavassolian’s thesis on “inhuman punishments and the possibilities for their reform in Iran.”
“On Friday, August 8, IRNA came out with an article which specifically stated my name as the daughter who had converted to the Bahá’í [Faith],” Tavassolian, who graduated this summer, told the Tribune in an email. “It also claimed that because I had not responded to the previous article in IRNA within 24 hours, I was acknowledging my conversion to the Bahá’í [Faith].”
A charge of this sort is serious. Conversion out of Islam is considered apostasy in Iran, and conversion to the Bahá’í Faith carries with it an added stigma. Iran’s ruling clergy considers the Bahá’í Faith a heretical sect, and it is not recognized as a legitimate religious minority by the constitution.
“Bahá’ís in Iran have been the target of very widespread persecution and prosecution since the revolution,” said Hadi Ghaemi, coordinator of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “There’s great sensitivity towards Bahá’ísm [in Iran], and there is much cultural bias and attempts [by the regime] to portray them in a wrong light for the general population.”
The significance of the IRNA’s allegations is not lost on Tavassolian.
“The capital punishment for conversion from Islam to the Bahá’í [Faith] is death in Iran,” she said. “I believe the government wanted to scare my mother with this scenario.”
A well-informed source?
The allegations came after Ebadi offered to represent seven Bahá’í community leaders that were arrested in Iran earlier this year and accused of spying for Israel.
“Because of the fact that she accepted this file, I think they began to try to portray her as an agent of Bahá’í foreign interests,” said Akhavan. “And, of course, in the sort of demonology of the Islamic Republic, the Bahá’ís are there to basically destroy the Islamic Republic and to pave the way for the Zionist-American agenda.”
In April, Ebadi announced that she had been receiving death threats expressing anger with her human rights campaigning and warning her against making speeches abroad. Ebadi has been the victim of threats for years, but the most recent death threats accused her of “serving the foreigners and the Bahá’ís.” Many of the threats have been made by a shadowy organization calling itself the “The Association of Anti-Bahá’ís.”
The August 8 IRNA article repeatedly cites a “well-informed source” whose identity is not given.
“The level of detail that is included in the IRNA article clearly shows that they’ve spent months doing research, to the point where they know the thesis subject of my student,” said Akhavan. “The article itself indicates that there’s a ‘well-informed source.’ Well, where is that well-informed source, if not right here at the university?”
Tavassolian did not comment specifically on the source, but said that one McGill student has been the subject of suspicion among some students.
Tactics of intimidation
When the articles attacking Ebadi were published by the IRNA and Kayhan, a number of prominent organizations and individuals publicly expressed concerns for her safety.
“It was a very strange attack, and it was an attack really designed to put Shirin Ebadi in danger,” said Gerald Filson, the director of external affairs of the Bahá’í Community of Canada. “[She] said that she would defend our leadership that’s in prison, and that took a lot of courage on her part. She had in the past been much quieter about it, but it was a very bold thing to do, and that’s why these articles came out.”
Abdol-Karim Lahiji, the president of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, pointed out the parallels between the regime’s treatment of Ebadi and other dissidents in the past in an interview with the reformist news website Rooz Online.
He told Rooz that because of these similarities, he was now concerned about Ebadi’s life, as the tactics being used against her are similar to those used by government groups to target Iranian dissidents in the past.
Ghaemi also expressed concern for Ebadi, saying that it was worrying to see the regime’s mouthpiece repeating and sanctioning the threats against her.
Ebadi herself has claimed that the regime is providing its supporters with justification for her assassination.
“Those who disagree with my work and the principles that I stand for will use any method to engage in character assassination against me, and thus prepare the groundwork for my physical assassination,” she said in an interview with Rooz.
The threats have also extended to Tavassolian, with Ebadi being warned that “even your daughter is involved. So we will kill her, so you understand” in a message received earlier this year.
“A badge of honour”
Akhavan has also been the subject of the regime’s aggression, although he stressed that he has received many messages of support from the Iranian community.
“There are a handful of messages which I’ve received which have ranged from sort of insults-basically calling me a traitor, saying that I’m a traitor to the Iranian people, to the Islamic Republic-all the way to what I would consider to be threats of physical harm,” he said.
The IRNA article referred to Akhavan as a CIA agent whose aim is to bring down the regime.
Akhavan is a co-founder of the New Haven, Connecticut-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre. He has published numerous articles on human rights and international law in leading journals, and has been a strong critic of the Iranian regime’s human rights record.
“[The regime is] sensitive to Professor Akhavan because he is also a well-known international human rights lawyer, and they hope that through this association they would undermine and silence Shirin Ebadi and her family,” said Ghaemi.
According to Akhavan, the IRNA and Kayhan publishing these articles suggested that many of the threats he and Ebadi had received were probably the work of the Iranian government.
“In a sense, it’s a badge of honour to be the target of such a regime, because it shows that you’re beginning to have an effect-you’re beginning to bother them,” said Akhavan. “They’re intimidated because they know that if this project of exposing the truth of the crimes that have been committed … becomes a matter of common knowledge, and if there are international measures to hold these people individually accountable, that it could seriously threaten their grip on power.”
The Association for Bahá’í Studies
The IRNA also attacked the Association for Bahá’í Studies at McGill University, McGill’s branch of a continent-wide academic organisation. The IRNA article linked Tavassolian with the McGill club.
The article claimed that McGill is one of the most prominent centres for Bahá’ísm in North America, and that it is a centre of “Bahá’í subversion.”
ABS Vice-President External Nadim Roberts, U3 political science, argued that the claims about McGill and the ABS are completely false.
“These accusations all fall into the same agenda the current government of Iran has for persecuting Bahá’ís in Iran, and trying to defame and slander any who have relations with them,” said Roberts. “There is nothing about the McGill ABS that is different from any other chapter across Canada or the United States. The McGill Bahá’í community is by no significant means larger or more active than any other ABS.”
According to its website, the ABS “is an organisation founded to promote academic inquiry into religious, ethical and moral responses to the social crises threatening our society,” with an emphasis “on the teachings, history and philosophy of the Bahá’í Faith.”
Karrie Hammond-Collins, U1 arts and science, and a member of the ABS, said she found the accusations against the organization and Akhavan ridiculous.
“Obviously Dr. Akhavan isn’t a CIA agent and he’s not converting people at McGill,” she said. “And I think that point is the most important thing, because in the Bahá’í Faith we are forbidden to proselytise.”
“A litmus test for human rights”
According to many observers, the Iranian government has cracked down on dissidents, human rights, and religious minorities since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, his rise fueled by an entrenchment of power by hard-liners within the regime.
“From the time Ahmadinejad comes into power-and Ahmadinejad is just a sort of facade of the regime, it’s the Supreme Leader and his cohorts that are really in power-you see increasing arrests of dissidents, of student movements, labour union leaders, human rights activists, women’s rights activists [in addition to arrests of Bahá’ís],” said Akhavan.
According to Akhavan, many human rights activists, such as Ebadi and Lahiji, now see the case of the Bahá’ís as “a litmus test for human rights in Iran” because of the Bahá’ís’ lack of constitutional protection and the increase in persecution seen in recent years.
“It’s really sad that [the regime] wastes so much of their time in persecuting a particular minority,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations. “So rather than unifying its community, they’re creating dissension and hatred, and creating disunity in a sense.”
Yet, according to Akhavan, the length the Iranian regime goes in attacking someone like Nargess, or someone like him, is a sign of the problems it faces.
“It is simply another reflection of their own desperation- that the only thing they can offer their people is hate-mongering and paranoia, rather than prosperity, freedom, and hope for the future,” he said.