Editor’s Note: Following are notes from a talk by Prof. Michael Karlberg given at the Eastside Baha’i Center in Bellevue, Washington, on 27 June 2009, as part of a public program organized in support of the Baha’i prisoners in Iran. Prof Karlberg teaches at Western Washington University.
By Dr. Michael Karlberg
As you know, one year ago, seven Iranian Baha’is were arrested and imprisoned for the crime of believing that there is only one God; that all of the world’s great religions spring from this same Divine Source and have all contributed to humanity’s collective spiritual evolution; and that the most important spiritual lesson humanity is facing in this day is the need to recognize our unity and interdependence – across all of the lines that have historically divided us – so that we can create a new social order based on the principle of the oneness of humanity.
For holding these beliefs, these seven Baha’is that we are remembering tonight have been charged with the crime of “spreading corruption on earth” and they face possible execution. Over 200 Iranian Baha’is have been killed by the Iranian government since the revolution in 1979, as a result of similar charges. Many of us know the stories of some of these Baha’is. For instance, one story that stands out most of our memories is the story of Mona Mahmudnizhad, a 17-year old girl who was arrested 26 years ago this month, and was hung in the dead of night, after watching nine other Baha’i women being hung for the same crime – being a Baha’i.
But these persecutions trace back much deeper than the current regime in Iran. One hundred and fifty seven years ago, the founder of the Baha’i Faith – Baha’u’llah – who was the author of the beliefs for which those we are remembering tonight were persecuted, was himself arrested and thrown in a dark underground pit for four months to languish near death, and then sent into a forty year-long imprisonment and exile that would last until his death. One hundred and fifty nine years ago, the herald of the Baha’i Faith – the Bab – was likewise arrested, imprisoned, and executed by a firing squad of 750 riflemen, for proclaiming the birth of this Faith.
In the period from the execution of the Bab to the arrest of the seven Baha’i friends one year ago over twenty thousand believers have been killed in the most brutal and inhumane ways; many more have had their property plundered, their livelihoods taken from them, their gravesites desecrated, and their holy places destroyed. Baha’i students have been denied access to higher education. Baha’i children have been vilified in their schools. And all Iranian Baha’is have been systematically vilified from the pulpit and through the media.
It is no easy thing to be a Baha’i in Iran.
But I am not here today to solicit your pity on behalf of the Iranian Baha’is. I want to put their suffering in a larger context so that you can understand the purpose of this suffering – and why the Bahá’ís accept these hardships with patience and long-suffering.
As I’ve already mentioned, Baha’is believe in the oneness of humanity. But this concept of oneness is not merely a vague or naïve expression of idealism. It is a social reality that Baha’is all around the world are actively and intelligently working to create. Baha’is are working to create this reality through the moral and spiritual education of children, through the spiritual empowerment of adolescents, and through training processes that foster the capabilities for community service in youth and adults. Baha’is are working to create this reality through inclusive worship with people of all Faiths, through social action directed at the betterment of our society, through the construction of a new model of participatory governance that is unifying rather than divisive, and through attention to the underlying spiritual disciplines – such as prayer and meditation, fasting, and calling oneself to account each day – that are essential to processes of deep personal and social transformation.
If you step back and look at all of these processes as a whole, you can see that they constitute an approach to social change – or a model of social change – directed at bringing about the oneness of humanity.
Skeptics might ask: will it work? Ultimately, there is only one way to find out. The approach has to be tried. The experiment has to be run.
This is what the Baha’is are doing all over the world, in ever-growing numbers. They are engaged in a vast social experiment, testing the hypothesis that humanity can learn to live as one family, in a single social order, characterized by unity and justice. It will take many generations before any conclusions can be drawn about the success of this vast social experiment. But the early results, in my opinion, are promising. And the experiment warrants the attention of anyone interested in peace and social justice.
But what about those seven Baha’is languishing in an Iranian prison, who we are here tonight to remember? It might seem, on the surface that the experiment is not working so well for them. Clearly they are suffering deeply, and their lives are at great risk, just like so many Baha’is before them.
When I first began writing and speaking out about the Baha’is in Iran, and the suffering they are experiencing, some people asked me: Why don’t the Baha’is in Iran fight back? Why aren’t they willing to confront their oppressors by organizing politically? Or by engaging in acts of civil disobedience? And more recently, people might ask: Why are the Baha’is of Iran not taking to the streets in protest – like their fellow citizens this past week following the Iranian election? After all, there are over 300,000 Baha’is in Iran.
That’s a small army – if it was mobilized in opposition to the current regime.
To answer these questions, we need to look closer at the Baha’i approach to social change. The Baha’i approach to social change has one more element that needs to be carefully examined to fully understand what is going on.
If the goal of the Baha’i Faith is to bring about the oneness of humanity – to promote unity across all of the lines that have historically divided humans from one another – clearly this cannot be accomplished through methods that are divisive or adversarial, because the means would not be consistent with the ends. Therefore violent revolution is not an option for Baha’is. But neither is non-violent confrontation. Confrontation of any form is divisive and incompatible with the goal of unity.
Furthermore, the methods of non-violent confrontation were tried by others throughout the twentieth century. These methods led to some significant social advances, such as independence in India and advances in the field of civil rights in this country. But these methods have proven to be limited because the methods, in themselves, do not construct lasting alternatives to the oppressive systems they seek to replace. After the non-violent independence movement in India threw off the oppressive yoke of the British empire, the country descended into a sectarian bloodbath in which millions were killed and millions more were turned into refugees. After the non-violent civil rights movement in the US threw off the Jim Crow laws in the south, racism assumed more subtle expressions – even as the growing chasm between the richest and poorest people in this country created other forms of widespread oppression.
In this regard, while the methods of non-violent confrontation have led to some remarkable achievements, they are arguably reaching a point of diminishing returns, and it is unlikely that these methods alone can lead us to the world of unity and justice we seek.
In this context, Baha’is are pioneering a radical model of social change that is unifying rather than divisive, that focuses on constructing the framework of a new social order, and that works even in the face of violent oppression. If I could describe this model in one phrase, I would call it “constructive resilience” (note: this phrase was used by the Universal House of Justice in a letter to the Baha’i students deprived of access to higher education in Iran, dated 9 September 2007).
The model is constructive because all of the energy of the Baha’i community goes into constructing a new social order, rather than attacking or tearing down the old order or those who benefit from it. It is resilient because it has proven itself capable of withstanding the most violent opposition. The Baha’i community bends, but never breaks. It is like a palm tree that can withstand the hurricane winds that assail it from time to time, while the tree continues to grow, and thrive, and ultimately yield its fruit.
This model of constructive resilience is already proving itself to be remarkably effective. It enables the Baha’i community to survive its birth in Iran, in the face of immediate, brutal, and sustained violence directed against it. From those humble origins the community has now taken root in every nation on earth. Its steadily growing membership numbers in the millions and in its diversity, the international Baha’i community has become a microcosm of humanity.
With the Iranian revolution in 1979, a fresh wave of violent persecution was unleashed on the Baha’i community there. Since then the principled response of the Iranian Baha’i community has attracted the admiration of many Iranians. And it has denied the authorities any pretext with which to launch a much more violent, genocidal attack on the Bahá’ís.
Meanwhile, the worldwide Baha’i community has been inspired to new heights of achievement by the courageous and principled example of the Iranian Baha’is. This worldwide community has also been galvanized in support of their Iranian brothers and sisters and it has been able to shine a spotlight on the situation in Iran. As a result, governments and leaders of thought throughout the world have appealed for justice on behalf of the Baha’is of Iran. Countless resolutions of support have been passed by United Nations agencies, national governments, and international human rights organizations – and they have had a positive effect. A growing number of Iranian citizens outside and even inside Iran are also beginning to appeal for justice on behalf of the Baha’is – often at great personal risk.
Meanwhile, also inside Iran, every effort the government makes to eradicate the Baha’i community spurs the development of creative, constructive responses. For instance, when the authorities denied Baha’i students access to higher education, the Baha’i community created a decentralized virtual university. It operates in Baha’i living rooms across the country, and over the internet. Top faculty from inside Iran and around the world offer over a dozen university degrees that are recognized by prestigious graduate programs in many other countries.
This is constructive resilience. This is a force for progress that cannot be arrested and will not be denied. This is the big picture.
With this picture in mind, I want to turn our attention back to the seven friends in Iran who are languishing in prison, awaiting their sentence, with little hope of a fair trial.
These seven Baha’is are willing to pay the highest price of all – they are willing to sacrifice their own lives – for the cause of the oneness of humanity. But these sacrifices may no longer be necessary because humanity is arriving at a new stage in its collective development. All around the world, people of conscience are recognizing that injury to one means injury to all, and that justice must become the reigning principle of human affairs. In this regard, the oneness of humanity is fast becoming a universally accepted ideal.
The Baha’is in Iran have made tremendous sacrifices, for over 150 years, to advance this ideal. It is time for humanity to lift the burden of sacrifice from their shoulders. It is time for people everywhere to speak out with a unified voice and say: enough is enough.
These oppressions can no longer be tolerated – in any country, against any people.
Enough is enough.
So I urge all of you here to use every channel of communication and legitimate influence at your disposal to speak out. Speak out to your elected representatives and to your fellow citizens. Speak out through conversations, and emails, and letters, and the media. Speak out on behalf of our common humanity. Enough is enough.
Through their sacrifices, the Baha’is in Iran are offering humanity an opportunity to take the next step down the path toward unity and justice. It is time for humanity to move beyond the point of leaving persecuted and oppressed minorities to struggle in isolation for their own survival. It is time for all people of conscience, everywhere, to begin to speak out, with a unified voice, in support of the victims of oppression, everywhere. This is what the oneness of humanity looks like. This is where we are headed.
The Baha’is in Iran have made such painful sacrifices, for over 150 years, to bring about the reality of the oneness of humanity. It is time for humanity to lift the burden of sacrifice from their shoulders.
[Posted on Sunday, July 19, 2009, under the title, “Why do Bahais NOT go on strike or demonstrate?” at: http://hisoka7.blogspot.com/2009/07/why-do-bahais-not-go-on-strike-or.html.]