Baha’is, Superstitionism and the Iranian Identity (Part 1)

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mirrorcrackedBy Aram Anahid

Until recently, whenever the word “Baha’i” was mentioned in Iran it was simply to reinforce the claim that the members of the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority were foreign agents.  During the past few years, however, the Baha’i religion has increasingly been linked to an altogether new subject: superstitionism.  Increasingly, Baha’i teachings are ridiculed as naïve and irrational, are linked to rising superstition in present-day Iran, or are alleged to be part of an ongoing 160-year-old plot by Western Imperialists aimed at spreading Millennialistic opiates in the form of foolish beliefs and practices.  The rapidly increasing speed with which such news and analysis are turning up suggests that Iranian anti-Baha’i propaganda is entering a new phase.

Today, the unfortunate fact that everything bad happening in Iran has to be, somehow, glued to Baha’is isn’t much of a surprise.  Seven decades ago, when the Baha’is of Iran were first accused of espionage, they responded with astonishment.  Until then, they had constantly been accused of corruption, blasphemy, and atheism but not of being Russian or English spies.  During the course of the Iranian constitutional revolution and its aftermath, however, Iranian society had become increasingly skeptical of the negative role played by foreign powers, and had decided that its problems were rooted, not in atheism, but in imperialism.  This gave rise to new, often grossly illogical, conspiracy theories, many of which implicated Baha’is.  Thus, the old enemies were redefined to suit the new understanding.  It took some time before Baha’is came to realize that anti-Baha’ism has indeed gone through a paradigm shift and was now defining its self-confessed enemy, the Baha’i Faith, as a foreign conspiracy against Iran and Islam.[1]

Baha’i writers, who were often prominent scholars of Islam and adept at defending their beliefs from within the framework of Shi’ite thought, now faced accusations that, in practice, rendered all their knowledge of the Qur’an and the traditions of Shi’ite Islam useless.  Gradually, however, they began to adapt, and to respond, to the new allegations.  Unfortunately, Iranian public opinion had already found satisfactory and reached consensus upon the assumption that Baha’is were involved with foreign powers.  In fact, even those individuals who took pride in their liberal values and thoughts, and who chose not to shun Baha’i acquaintances, were often unwilling to abandon this assumption, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  Indeed, the claims put forth from within the new anti-Baha’i paradigm were almost non-falsifiable.  Every argument presented by Baha’i scholars against these claims would serve as further evidence that the whole scam was carefully being directed by foreign masterminds.  Every conviction demonstrated by the followers of the Faith would reinforce the claim that the whole show had so shrewdly been unfolded that even its main actors, the Baha’is, seemed convinced that theirs was an authentic religion.

What, ultimately, may have heralded the demise of the conspiracy paradigm, ironically, is its unfalsifiability.  The paradigm proved so convenient that it was soon exploited by everybody to attack everybody.  The Islamic regime, in particular, has made ample use of the paradigm since its very inception 30 years ago to attack opposition groups, critics, intellectuals, and finally, in the course of recent events, the general public.  The result has been a gradual corrosion of the whole paradigm, and the emergence of a common sense of identification among the victims of these attacks.  Hopefully, this can in time signal the end of the era of conspiracism and a move towards a reality-oriented understanding of history.  Today, most Iranian intellectuals, as well as many well-educated middleclass individuals, are no longer willing to succumb to extravagant conspiracy theories.  For anti-Baha’i propagandists, this implies that the old spy stories will no longer be effective.

Thus, in practice, we are gradually shifting towards a new paradigm.  Once again, the shift is precipitated by the immediate experience of Iranians.  During the past few years a faction within the Iranian regime has come under attack for its strict adherence to an illogical, wishful, and even superstitious worldview.  Stories abound about government officials’ self-professed communications with the Hidden Imam, about their intimate conversations, in front of the incredulous eyes of astonished onlookers, with an invisible and inaudible Mahdi, about their preparations for His imminent advent, or even about their speculations regarding the His future war plans.  If true, these stories are indeed disturbing.  What, however, may be even more distressing for the long-wronged members of the Baha’i Faith in Iran is the fact that some critics are now using terms such as “New Babists” to refer to the members of the above faction, and are actively drawing parallels and exploring the possible links between their worldview and those of the Babi-Baha’i religions.

These critics can be divided to two groups.  First are those who have chosen an anti-religious stance, who ridicule Shi’ite beliefs, and believe that Shi’a millennialism is best understood as a socio-cultural disorder.  For them, both the advent of the Babi and Baha’i religions in the 19th century, and the rise to power of Iran’s president Ahmadinejad are the outcomes of a deep-rooted malaise of Iranian society.  Others choose a strictly Shi’ite stance; they insist that the Hidden Imam was indeed born in the year 255 A.H. and that He still lives among us, but they paradoxically argue that belief in His imminent return or in the possibility of direct contact with Him is simple superstition.  In any case, both groups proceed to conclude that what is now going on in Iran, and what happened some 160 years ago, are both expressions of religious superstitionism.  What they have all chosen to ignore is the fact that, unlike what we are witnessing in Iran today, the 19th century Babi-Baha’i movement was based, not on the assumption of the factual validity of seemingly irrational Islamic/Shi’ite traditions, but on a totally new understanding of the symbolic significance of those traditions.

(to be continued …)

Endnotes:

[1] Mohammad Tavakoli-Targhi; “Anti-Baha’ism and Islamism in Iran, 1941-1955”, http://www.iranpresswatch.org/post/4531

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5 Responses

  1. Brett Zamir

    September 24, 2009 1:44 am

    What a welcome development! Being accused of superstition is something that can be reasonably debated as well as bring further attention to the Faith’s actual teachings.

    As ‘Abdu’l-Baha stated, “…in this age the peoples of the world need the arguments of reason.”

    Of course, even rational arguments, whether presented to a secular or religious audience, do not guarantee they will break through dogmas, but that is at least true everywhere in the world, and a challenge which is only reasonable for Baha’is to need to rise to… Of course, it would help if the State itself wasn’t promoting these ideas against a minority that cannot publicly make its case known, but then again, for those who know the current regime for what it is, such accusations should only spark further curiosity to learn about the Faith’s teachings more deeply…

    Reply
  2. Pavel Rizek

    September 24, 2009 5:16 am

    Brilliant analysis of the psycho-historical dimensions of Baha’i persecution in Iran. Underlying the apparently shifting paradigms of persecution, one might observe, is a constant, deep-rooted, irrational hatred for Baha’is, instigated by high-powered clerics and trickling down to all–conservative and ostensibly liberal alike–serving as a precondition for the abuse of Baha’is, in whatever form, in Iran’s socio-political culture of the last 160 years. One might say then, that it’s in the observable demise of the legitimacy of the clerical elites (and with it, everything they stand for), to which which we can trace the slowly changing tide of public opinion in favor of the Baha’is. A point which the article touches upon.

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  3. sb

    September 24, 2009 1:59 pm

    If Baha’i teachings are ridiculed in Iran as “naïve and irrational” how does one define speaking to an “invisible and inaudible Mahdi” about “future war plans?” ‘Abdul Baha taught us that all things are progressive, even human understanding. Baha’is believe The Great Event of the Age, the actual appearance of the Mahdi, occurred in Iran during the nineteenth century. The Teachings of this Faith are available at http://reference.bahai.org/en where LACK of superstitious belief is widely apparent. Thank goodness understanding of these peaceful Teachings continues to advance across the world.

    Reply
  4. Tom Armistead

    September 26, 2009 2:31 pm

    “Most of the people in Persia are steeped in deception and idle fancy. How great the difference between the condition of these people and the station of such valiant souls as have passed beyond the sea of names and pitched their tents upon the shores of the ocean of detachment….People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs.” (Words of Paradise, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 57)

    Reply

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