[by Sohrab Ahmari, 25 May 2011] Last winter, just as the first flowers of the Arab Spring were blooming, I was busy co-editing a compilation of essays by Mideast dissidents. It was an inspiring experience. Written in the period between 2005 and 2010, the essays seemed remarkably prescient in light of the events unfolding in places like Tunis, Cairo, Manama, Daraa and Benghazi. Here were dozens of young men and women from across the region sharing their dreams of a free tomorrow — back when entrenched dictatorship still seemed a permanent feature of Arab life.
Editing essays from my own native Iran — where the region’s most repressive regime violently crushed a similar uprising just two years before — was more painful. And none more so than a piece penned by a young Iranian who identifies herself only as “T.T.” so as not jeopardize her already precarious personal safety.
T.T. is a member of Iran’s Baha’i minority. Founded in 19th century Persia, the Baha’i faith proclaims all world religions equally divine. Since that time, the Baha’i have been persecuted in Iran and throughout the Middle East. The current Iranian regime feels particularly threatened by the religion, both because its prophets came after Muhammad (regarded by Islamic theology as God’s last prophet) and because some of its holy sites are located in modern-day Israel.
Discrimination against Iranian Baha’i is enshrined in the Islamic Republic’s constitution and laws. Convinced that it is a “political movement” designed to undermine Islam, the mullahs have withheld official recognition from Baha’ism. Baha’i leaders are frequently harassed and arbitrarily detained. The Baha’i are also denied access to Iran’s higher education system — the cruelest aspect of the regime’s treatment of a community that places a high premium on education.
T.T.’s essay deals with the impact of this vicious policy on young Iranian Baha’i like herself. She describes the bitter disappointment she felt as a middle-schooler after placing first in an Arabic language olympiad — only to be barred from the next, nationwide round. T.T. also recounts how a third-grade teacher expelled her sister merely for being a Baha’i (another teacher eventually accepted her after she won a regional science competition).
The most heart-wrenching moment in the essay comes when “Zhinus,” an older family friend and a diligent student, is issued a rare admission card to the national university entrance examination — but then must watch as the exam monitor shreds her card before her eyes.
Protected by anonymity, T.T. challenges Iran’s clerical rulers directly: “Why shouldn’t a Baha’i study? What have people of my faith done to deserve such treatment? Why should a faith that regards all human beings as equal and calls for everyone to love one another, deserve this?” She closes her essay by sharing her dream of continuing her education against all odds.
T.T.’s dream just became even less likely to be realized than it was when she wrote the essay. Over the weekend, Iranian authorities executed a coordinated raid on the private homes of 30 leaders associated with the Baha’i institute for higher education (BIHE). Quietly established by the community, BIHE meets the needs of young Baha’i otherwise barred from college by offering distance and online education courses. (A physical “campus,” comprised of dozens of private homes serving as lecture halls and administrative facilities, was shut down by the regime in the early 2000s.)
While its degrees have not been internationally accredited, many BIHE graduates have gone on to successfully complete graduate programs at top Western universities, thanks to both the academic rigor of their private education network and lobbying by Baha’i communities in Europe and North America. But even this small modicum of opportunity for the Baha’i of Iran was apparently too much for the paranoid mullahs, who are now accusing BIHE administrators of using their network for “spying” against Iran.
Their true motivation, of course, has been to slowly and silently erase a minority faith that — in its emphasis on pluralism and interfaith solidarity — shames their theocratic tyranny. Yet the clerics efforts will likely prove futile in the long term, both because Iran’s Muslim majority has caught on to their divide-and-rule tactics and because the Baha’i have proven themselves resilient in the face of enormous repression. As T.T. writes in her essay, “where there is faith, hope never dies.”