Editor’s Note: Hojjatoleslam Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari (b.1950) is an Iranian cleric, researcher, journalist and reformist. He has been described as “an active supporter of the revolution” who became “an outspoken and influential critic of the current Iranian version of theocracy”. He spent seven years in prison after having been convicted in the Special Court for the Clergy for a number of charges including “insulting Islamic sanctities”. As a result of his conviction, he was de-frocked. Prior to his arrest, Eshkevari was the Director of the Ali Shariati Research Centre and contributing editor of the newspaper Iran-e Farda, which was banned in April 2000. Mr. Eshkevari has written several articles in support of human and civil rights of the Iranian Baha’i community, which Iran Press Watch will bring to the attention of its readers in translation. The present article (which appears below in translation) had the title, “Hounding the Baha’is and followers of other religious groups from historical religious and Islamic Constitution perspective” in Persian.
by Hojjatoleslam Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari
Recently, a statement titled “We are Ashamed” was published, addressing the Baha’i community of Iran. About 270 writers, researchers, journalists, actors and actresses, and intellectuals residing outside Iran put their signatures on this statement. Anyone, even those least familiar with the contemporary history of Iran (from the time of the Qajar dynasty to present time), knows that this undertaking has immense importance and implications. It is a turning point for numerous reasons, especially with respect to the yearning for freedom, equality, or to sum it up,” human rights”.
The bitter reality is, from its inception as a religious phenomena, in 19th century Iran, followers of the Babi [forerunner of the Baha’is] and Baha’i religions have been continuously subjected to condemnation and persecution by the Muslim society of Iran. There have been bloody confrontations by Muslims and by governmental authorities in different parts of Iran. This coercion continues in different shapes and forms to date.
Historically speaking, there is not much room for discussion and argument as to why there has been suppression and why Baha’is have been subjected to atrocities. Since the beginning of human history, there have always been confrontations between the followers of new and old religions. It could be said that even now there exist confrontations between new and old religious groups. This trend is only a historical reality, it has nothing to do with which group is right or wrong, whether the truth lies with the followers of the new religion or with the ones attached to old belief systems and rituals. The same differences have existed between the messengers of God and the followers of different religions of their time. Also, in the internal history of all the old religions (Zoroastrians, Judaism, Christianity and Islam), there have been harsh confrontations between sects within the same religion and, to a lesser degree, between devout followers who have different viewpoints. For example, consider the relentless and bloody attacks on Protestants by Catholics, and the cruelties inflicted on Catholics by Protestants from the 16th to the 18th century, and massacres by both sides all over Europe. It is said that in the St. Barthelme Paris battle, about 30,000 Protestants were slaughtered.
The issue is that the followers of the prevailing religion label heterodox thinkers who exit their religion as heretics and apostates and ultimately consider them as enemies of God, enemies of their prophet, and enemies of their legitimate devout governing bodies. They are under the impression that, as a religious obligation and to attain God and His messenger’s salvation, it is their responsibility to protect their faith. This is the logic behind the harsh confrontation of religious rulers of different eras with the apostates of their time. It should be noted that at the beginning the issue is only religious, but later on, especially when the dissenting group completely branches out and separates from the existing religion, numerous political, economical and even personal and group egotistic factors play a crucial and decisive role in prolonging the violence.
If we look at the Baha’is of Iran from a historical perspective, their mistreatment is clearly the repetition of what has happened a thousand times throughout the history of Iran, the world, and Islam. Shortly after its growth and expansion, combined with political, social, and cultural factors, the struggles and complexities between the ruling religious groups and the Baha’is increased.
From the start of the Babi movement, over 150 years ago, we have experienced a lot of social, cultural and political changes; moreover we have initiated and put behind us two big social and political revolutions. It is surprising that in this long period, with respect to human rights and civil rights, the “Baha’i issue” has not only remained unresolved, but has become even more complicated and even more grievous in recent years. The important matter is that in the long periods of human and civil rights discussions, the rights of the followers of the Baha’i faith have been completely overlooked. There has been a silence and ambiguity as if a religion by the name of Baha’i faith did not exist in Iran and a considerable number of followers of this religion did not live alongside other citizens in our homeland.
The silence on the part of Muslims is somewhat understandable, but this intentional and unintentional silence is also noticeable among non-religious groups, such as secular humanists, democrats, freedom fighters, and irreligious leftists. In all the talks and writings of the freedom fighters and justice seekers from the pre-constitutional revolution to date, there has been almost no mention of Iranian Baha’is and their civil rights. In the Constitution not only is there no mention of them, but their role in political and social change is undermined. At that time, even being a Babi (forerunners of Baha’is) was equivalent to being guilty of being an “enemy of the people”. In the Islamic revolution of 1979, and in the Islamic Constitution, the silence is even heavier.
The main reason, or one of the main reasons for this silence is that the “Baha’i issue” has been taboo; no one has dared to approach the Baha’i faith and openly discuss it. It is surprising that in the Islamic regime, non-religious and anti-religious persons have been victims of the same taboos and oppressive atmosphere.
Because of the ongoing, wide-scale boycott and censorship, few researchers have taken the liberty to study Baha’i ideologies and to familiarize the public with Baha’i beliefs, ideas, spiritual and social laws, an accurate history of their faith and of its followers. Hardly any researchers have been free from religious and political quarrels and pre-judgments, in order that they could mention who the Baha’is are, what they offer and what role they play in shaping the contemporary history of Iran. For this reason, even today, neither the general public nor researchers have accurate information about Baha’is and their convictions. Accurate and trustworthy documentation about the Baha’is is rare or nonexistent in Iran.
On the contrary – the immense volumes of anti-Baha’i writings that are available are often worthless, void of substance, non-scientific and laden with blind religious discrimination and prejudice. The same boycott and censorship imposed upon Baha’i ideas has in general harmed the free flow of information and research findings. In any case, the emergence of the Baha’i faith in Iran at the time of the Qajar Dynasty is a part of our history. Neutral, scientific research and an overall understanding of the Baha’i faith is integral to a thorough understanding of the general, religious, and social history of our land.
Now is the time to forgo this boycott and censorship. It is mainly the responsibility of broadminded people and researchers to investigate Baha’i ideologies and to end this void and poverty of accurate information. It is the ethical and the humanitarian duty of open-minded free thinkers, democrats, freedom fighters and human rights activists, to defend and endeavor to restore the lost rights of the Baha’is. Similarly, it is their responsibility to uphold the rights of all other Iranian residents, irrespective of their religion, convictions, political and social views. The foundation of democracy and liberty is based on the equality of human beings, meaning that the innate and natural human rights of any Iranian living in any geographical part of the country is equal to the right of any other Iranian. Based on this logic no one is considered more Iranian than any other. On the surface, we have accepted this reasoning since the time of the Constitutional Revolution, but in reality, we are living in an era before the Constitutional Revolution.
It seems that in our culture, our main quandary is due to religious beliefs. There is a lot of room for argument and discussion in this area which I can’t get into at this time. I only make a suggestion to the theologians and the learned, to ponder and issue laws based on the duty to act rationally and to follow the guidelines within the framework of the general Islamic laws and wholesome religious principals. I request a response to my question: “Assume the first generation of the Baha’is were considered heretics: why, and based on what rationale, should the next generations until the day of resurrection be called heretics?” Is the religious ruling for the Baha’is any different from the ruling for Muslims converting to Christianity or Judaism? I believe it does not make any difference whether one is converting to a religion recognized by Islamic rulers (Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians) or not. When someone strays from Islam, he is exiting Islam, whether the conversion is to any religion or to no religion.
Today we are living in a world whose foundation of social interaction is based upon the equality of human beings. No citizen may be deprived of his civil rights because of his beliefs, convictions, race, religion or any other differentiating factor. At one time Sheikh Fazlollah Noori said, “in Islam the foundation is based on discrimination and not on equality”. Are our theologians upholding the same belief after the passage of a century? If that is the case, what is the meaning of the claim “Islam values human beings”, and is a “just religion”?
 Sheikh Fazlollah Noori was a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric in Iran during the late 19th and early 20th century who fought against the Iranian Constitutional Revolution and was executed for treason as a result. Today he is considered a martyr in the fight against democracy by Islamic conservatives in Iran.
[Posted on July 9, 2009, at Roozonline. Translation by Iran Press Watch.]