By Srbui Karapetian
For third-year bioengineering student Sattar Khoshkhoo, vice chair of the Baha’i Association, a student group at UCLA, the pursuit of higher education has come at a tremendous cost: departing from Iran, his homeland of 16 years, without any surety of return.
“My family left everything in Iran just so my sister and I could get an education,” he said.
His immigration to the United States has given him the opportunity to obtain a university degree, something that has been prohibited by the Iranian government to all the Baha’is in Iran because of their faith.
Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, more than 200 Baha’is have been executed on the grounds of their faith, said Latifeh Hagigi, professor of Persian language and literature in the department of Near Eastern languages and cultures. She had immigrated to the United States with her husband in 1974 to attend graduate school. However, the increased persecution of the Baha’is after the revolution made it very difficult for her to return to her motherland, she said.
And while the recent election cycle in Iran – and the possibility of a change in leadership – might have seemed to the global community a means of establishing human rights and equal treatment for the Baha’is in Iran, the Baha’is in the UCLA community assert that what is even more important than a change in governmental leadership is a shift in the Iranian societal perspective of the Baha’i Faith, something that is already underway.
Hagigi, a Baha’i herself, has already noted this change in the increased curiosity and understanding that accompanies the younger generation of Iranians.
“Now, the (younger generation) has become more interested to see what these Baha’is believe, why they are imprisoned, why they are executed,” she said. “They are questioning, they are becoming more motivated to find out.”
Still, even with this change in attitude that accompanies the generational shift in Iranian society, the Baha’i Faith has yet to be accepted in Iran and its followers, to be treated equally in society, she said.
Unlike Islam, which constitutes the religious majority in Iran, the Baha’i Faith does not believe that divine revelation ends with Muhammad, said Sahba Shayani, a second-year graduate student of Iranian studies and treasurer of the Baha’i Association.
Rather, the Baha’is believe in the principle of “progressive revelation,” which explains after a certain time period, God sends a new prophet to guide mankind and provide them with new teachings that reflect the needs of society with the changing times, Hagigi said.
Among these prophets were Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad – central figures in the independent world religions of today. The most recent of these messengers, who appeared in the mid-1800s, was Baha’u’llah, whose title means “the glory of God” in Arabic, Shayani said.
Baha’u’llah was among the many followers of the Bab, a Persian man who in 1844 revealed the coming of a divine messenger of God. After his religious teachings spread throughout Persia, the Muslim clergy arrested and executed the Bab and killed, imprisoned and tortured thousands of his followers, Shayani said.
Among these followers was Baha’u’llah, whose life was spared. Immediately after his release, however, he was exiled to Baghdad because he had continued to teach the Babi faith and gather many followers.
It was in Baghdad where Baha’u’llah declared himself as the divine messenger promised by the Bab and foretold by all the prophets of the past, Shayani said.
“He taught his followers about the unity and oneness of mankind,” he added.
Baha’u’llah was soon exiled to Constantinople, then Adrianople and finally to Acre, in present-day Israel, where he is buried, Shayani said. Following Baha’u’llah’s death, his son Abdu’lBahá helped to spread the Baha’i Faith around the world, Shayani added.
Today, the Baha’is make up a world community with more than 5 million adherents from countries across the globe and constitute the largest non-Muslim minority in Iran, Hagigi said.
At UCLA, Shayani and Khoshkhoo, along with the Baha’i Association Chair Shoghi Fareid, a third-year psychobiology student, practice the Baha’i Faith and use their religion as a means of doing humanitarian service in their local community.
“The Baha’i Association is based on the teachings of Baha’u’llah – the principles of equality between men and women, service to mankind, universal education, and the harmony of science and religion,” Fareid said.
The Baha’i Association recently participated in a rally for human rights, which took place on July 25 in Los Angeles. Additionally, the club organizes children’s classes that focus on moral and ethical principles, as well as junior youth groups that empower them to take on an active role as leaders in their community, Fareid said.
“We do not participate in partisan politics, but at the same time, it doesn’t mean we have to be passive about situations involving human rights,” Shayani said.
Rooted at the very base of the Baha’i Faith, then, is the belief that a global community transcends all religious, racial or ethnic bounds.
“We believe the world is one country, and all the people are citizens of this country,” Hagigi said. “It doesn’t matter what race we come from and what religious background, we are all one family.”
The Shiite government in Iran has branded the Baha’i Faith as heretical to Islam and has committed persecutions against its followers since the days of both the Bab and Baha’u’llah, Shayani said.
He said that his six-year stay in Iran, from the age of 4 to 10, was life-changing.
“I saw the ill treatment of the Baha’is much more closely than I would have had I observed it from (the U.S.),” he said.
“Baha’i children and youth have been persecuted in schools by their teachers, business owners have been harassed, many Baha’i holy places have been destroyed, and Baha’i cemeteries have been desecrated multiple times,” he added.
The Islamic Republic warns governmental agencies and the police not to give work permits to Baha’is and not to hire them in the public sector. And in the private sector, only low-paying jobs with no opportunities for a promotion are offered, Khoshkhoo said.
As of early 2008, seven of the national leaders of the Baha’is in Iran, who make up the Yaran, or the “Friends of Iran,” have been imprisoned in Tehran’s Evin Prison on charges of heresy and espionage for Israel, Hagigi said.
Incarcerated for more than a year, their trial date has been postponed several times, the latest of which is set for Tuesday, Shayani said.
Meanwhile, Abdolfattah Soltani, a member of the legal team that is to defend the community leaders, is also imprisoned, and Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, the senior member of the team, remains out of the country, according to the Baha’i World News Service Web site.
And while these persecutions against the Baha’is continue in Iran, as well as other countries like Egypt, Baha’is refuse to meddle in partisan politics, Hagigi said.
“We abide by the government. We are well-wishers of the government,” Shayani said. “We pray for them to have foresight and justice and to provide for the well-being of all people within their community.”
During June’s election cycle, “the Baha’is were not for one candidate or another,” Shayani said.
What they want is for the government to give them the human rights they deserve and treat everyone equally, he added.
Khoshkhoo’s family history stands testament to the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran since its initial inception in the 19th century.
He recollected the execution of his grandfather, carried out simply because of his faith, and his father’s imprisonment two years before he was born.
But he recollected such memories with a sense of understanding.
“The Baha’is consider Iran very dear to them,” he said. “So does my family.”
As Khoskhoo traced the history of the Baha’i Faith, he recalled that “the children of the people who caused so much pain and suffering have developed a positive attitude for the Baha’is.”
And again and again, the Baha’is have shown that patience is a virtue.
“By just following their principles of unity and peace and by doing what is right, a huge change has been made,” he adds.
With a bittersweet sense of optimism, he, Fareid and Shayani said that they envision the future of Iran to be a glorious one.
Despite their persecution and ill treatment, Shayani said, “Iran, in itself, is dear and important to all Baha’is around the world, because it is the cradle of our faith.”
And while many might believe that the Baha’is in Iran wish to leave their homeland, they are there to stay, Khoskhoo said.
Perhaps what is most enduring about the Baha’i Faith, then, can be condensed into Hagigi’s candid conclusion about the human race: “We are all human beings, we should love each other, because we are made of the same essence.”