[Professor Saeed Hanaee Kashani teaches English literature at Shaheed Beheshti University. For sake of clarity, it should be noted that friends in Iran have informed the present translator that the two Baha’is mentioned in this account are Hasan Momtaz and Shahrzad Ghanooni. The latter’s sister, Setareh, was also an exceptionally bright student at Tehran University and recently expelled for being a Baha’i.]
Last Monday, I was teaching a class at 8 o’clock in the morning. My students and I were reading aloud a text in English. Suddenly, I noticed that without having the text before them, two of my students were sitting politely with their hands crossed over their chests and just staring at me. I asked them, “Did you forget to bring the text with you to class?” One of them responded, “We have been expelled from the university and only came to bid you goodbye.”
Uncontrollably I asked them, “Why?” He responded, “What do you mean, ‘Why’? Are you asking why we’ve been expelled?” Perhaps he was surprised that I had asked such a question. He meant, “How could you not know?!” He wanted to explain further, but I stopped him and said, “Very well. It is not important.” I knew the reason for their dismissal. However, when I had seen them in class, I had thought that perhaps the issue had been resolved in an agreeable way. That is why I had been hesitant and had asked.
When the class had concluded, the one that was older came forward and said to me, “We have been expelled because we are Baha’is. I just wanted to say that the reason for our expulsion is due to our religious convictions and not due to any moral failings.”
One of them was a middle aged man, nearly bald and partially gray-haired. He appeared to be about 45 years old. The other was a female and about 20 years old, and she was my best student.
One or two weeks earlier, when I had received a letter from the university’s security office instructing me to prevent these two from attending my classes, I had imagined all sorts of reasons, except religion. I never thought that these two students were Baha’is. Truly, how could a person know such a thing?! You can’t discover a person’s religious convictions and beliefs by reading their facial expressions – unless someone had invented signs displaying their religion. That is why the first thought that had occurred to me was that perhaps they had seen these two speaking extensively with each other, or perhaps conjectured other things about their relationship. And perhaps these two had heard about such theories and did not wish to have a bad reputation.
I asked him, “Why were you expelled after two years? Did they not know that you were a Baha’i and only now have they discovered it? Had you concealed your religion from the authorities?”
He said, “No. I have been trying to get into a university for the last 25 years. In 2004, through his insistence on following the country’s Constitution, President Khatami and Mr. Mehrpour managed to secure our rights to attend institutions of higher education. But now, other forms of civil rights are available to us, except this one [i.e. attendance at colleges and universities].”
I was deeply puzzled. How is it possible that someone whose family are openly practicing Baha’is, and who lives in the midst of Muslims, and who for 12 years has studied in elementary and high school, is told when he reaches university that he is barred from further education?! How is it that a person can enter into wedlock, have children, pay taxes, serve in the military, fight in wars, but is not permitted to go to university?! Why should university be the thing that some people are not given the right to enter? And why after all these struggles, after appealing to the country’s Constitution, which finally won them the right to attend colleges, have they once again been suspended from this right?
In response to him, there was not much I could say, except to express my regrets.
A few days before this exchange, I had lunch with one of my friends and colleagues, a man who is deeply learned, devoted and is recognized as a distinguished figure. He said, “Other students in the department have come to me and asked that professors take a leading role in helping these two students.” It was this comment that made me realize that the problem that the two students had did not stem from some immoral behavior, but rather it was based on religion.
My friend continued, “I said to them that there was nothing we could do. Even under normal circumstances we are all under all sorts of pressures and attacks, and certain quarters call us by all sorts of names, such as secular, irreligious, etc, etc. That’s enough trouble for us, and we don’t need to be painted as Baha’i sympathizers too. This is an issue that should be resolved through Constitutional Law. 98% of the people have voted favorably for this Constitution and according to its text, only the recognized religions may enjoy civil rights. We cannot act against the explicit text of the Constitution.”
Hearing these words was deeply perplexing. Being agitated, I responded, “But the Constitution is not like that. It requires much interpretation. Was it not Ayatollah Khomeini who said in Paris that Marxists will enjoy every form of civil rights in an Islamic Republic, and that a head-cover was not necessary for women? Was it not Ayatollah Motahari who wanted to bring Marxist professors to the divinity school? Was it not Dr. Shariati who made the Qur’anic verse, “There is no compulsion in religion” [N.b. Qur’an 2:256], a slogan for his books? Was it not only recently that Ayatollah Montazeri defended the civil rights of the Baha’is? Have the Baha’i students who come to our colleges not studied for 12 years in elementary and high schools of the Islamic Republic? Are their lives and possessions not protected by law?”
My friend shook his head in affirmation and said, “Yes, Ayatollah Montazeri has recently defended them.” But he remained adamant that perhaps the Baha’i students had not identified their religion on the forms for the national college exam and that their true religion was discovered only now.
However, he did not wish to continue the discussion and I said no more.
All day, though, I was thinking that I should not procrastinate in what I had wanted to say about “religion and liberty”. Are religion and religious liberty not synonyms? How can we approach this question and discover an answer?
[Professor Kashani posted these reflections on Monday, 3 November 2008, at Fallosafah.org site, which is a site dedicated to “the Journals of M.S. Hanaee Kashani”, http://www.fallosafah.org/main/weblog/item_view.php?item_id=254&category_id. This journal entry appeared above in translation. Translated by Ahang Rabbani ]