(ASLAN MEDIA, 3 March 2011)
As the Iranian regime continues to tighten the noose of oppression around the throats of all its citizens, one group of Iranians is being singled out for particular brutality. Last month, as the Iranian government was cracking down on opposition protesters, seven members of the Iranian Bahá’í leadership, imprisoned in Iran’s notorious Evin prison since 2008, were quietly transferred to an even more restrictive and more brutal part of the prison. The two women in the group, Mrs. Fariba Kamalabadi and Mrs. Mahvash Sabet, were moved to Section 200 of the prison, an almost dungeon-like area reserved for the most dangerous and hardened criminals, while the five men, one of whom is 70 years old, were sent to special wing of Evin, known as Section 4, a crowded and closely monitored wing set aside for political prisoners.
The seven Bahá’í leaders are serving a ten-year prison sentence after being convicted of spying for Israel in a sham trial riddled with irregularities. But make no mistake; their true crime is their faith.
There are approximately 300,000 Bahá’í in Iran. Ever since its founding by the Iranian prophet known as Bahá’u’lláh (literally, the Glory of God) in the 19th century, the Bahá’í have been repeatedly oppressed by successive Iranian governments. The Shahs of Iran targeted the Bahá’í as unpatriotic and disloyal to the country because Bahá’u’lláh taught that all of humanity was a single race and that there should be no division between people along ethnic, religious, or national lines – an idea that could easily be interpreted as anti-nationalist. The religious institutions in Iran condemned the Bahá’í as heretics because the faith actually began as an offshoot of Shi’ism. But obviously things have gotten much worse for the Bahá’í since the revolution of 1979, created a religious state that does not tolerate any challenge – religious or political – to the state ideology.
The Bahá’í face harsh restrictions in the Islamic Republic of Iran. They are not recognized as an official religion and so do not share the same legal protections as Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. They are not allowed to obtain a university degree in the country, cannot work in government positions and do not have the same inheritance laws. There have also been reports of damage to Bahá’í cemeteries. The homes of Bahá’í families are often destroyed. Entire villages have been torched. As of 2010, more than 300 Bahá’í had been executed by the government, usually on trumped up charges of “spying for Israel,” or “desecrating Islam.” But as the Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi claims: “Their crime is that they are Bahá’í and they say they do not want to change their religion.” Indeed, Ebadi herself was arrested for having relationships with Bahá’í members.
This is an appaling situation that must be addressed by the international community. The Bahá’í are not “others” in Iran: they have been part of Iranian society now for more than a century. They have contributed to the progress and development of the country, from its first schools for girls, to the Bahá’í architect of the famous Azadi monument, Mr. Husayn Amanat. The Bahá’í have been compared to the proverbial canary in the coalmine for Iranian society. The injustices against them are a reflection of the oppression that has engulfed the nation. A litmus test for Iran’s progress in human rights would be if it were to respect the rights of its Bahá’ís, which would signal a willingness to respect the rights of all its citizens.
These times of change are times of danger and uncertainty, but also of creativity and opportunity. Let us seize the moment to play our part in supporting all those who struggle for human rights throughout the Middle East. To learn about how you can help the struggle of the Bahá’í community in Iran, go to www.bahai.us. Make your voice heard. From making new friends of a different background, to supporting human rights NGOs, to writing your Senator or member of Congress on the importance of the issue – each of us can play our part in supporting the spread of human rights at such a crucial time in such a critical part of the world.
Before Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri died “he issued a fatwa in favour of Bahais.”
By Reza Aslan, Author and Aslan Media Founder