Blatant Religious Discrimination and Brutality in Iranian Education

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By Saeed Paivandi

Translation by Iran Press Watch

With the start of the new school year, once again, the media and social networks report on the continuing policy of banning Baha’i students from admission to schools and universities, or from continuing their studies.  All evidence shows that not only does the discrimination continue, but that some authorities have turned to overtly justifying these illegal efforts.

The new Minister of Education, in response to the banning of Baha’i students, wrote:  “If the students state that they are followers of religions other than the country’s official religions, and their action is considered a form of evangelizing their faith, they are banned from education.”

Following the negative impression created by these words, in another tweet he wrote:  “No one should be banned from the right to study for having a certain faith.  No one should have the right to an inquisition about beliefs in school.  These illegal sects should just not be promulgated in school.”  However, the evident contradiction in Mr. Minister’s words is that he forgets that school and university students have no option other than to reveal their religion, since the schools and universities ask them to identify their religion.  The problem is that if someone, in response to this simple question, states the truth, then this, in the Education Minister’s view, is considered to be promulgating their religion.  These words were spoken by the Education Minister, even though the Iranian educational system devotes 25% of their instruction time to promulgating the state religion, and in this respect Iran is one of the top three nations in the world.

The Endless Suffering of “Illegal” Religious Minorities

The issue of the deprivation and the endless suffering of Baha’i adolescents and youth has a historical background as old as Iran’s new educational system.  But since 1979 this anti-education and anti-humane phenomenon has taken a much more violent and cruel form.  Baha’i students must either hide their religious identity and, by telling a white lie, save their educational future from jeopardy, or by revealing their beliefs take the risk of being banned from both school and university.

The policy of discrimination and suppression of the followers of Baha’i Faith goes far beyond education, and encompasses all arenas of social life – they can be called third and fourth class citizens.  The inhumane restrictions imposed on Baha’is are a form of official apartheid, which encompasses the observance of religious rites and ordinances as well as access to education, athletic opportunities, civic activities, government employment and even burial of the deceased.  The multi-faceted brutality against this minority is rare in the world, and most resembles horrific medieval religious suppressions.

Education is a Natural Universal Right

International covenants in the areas of human rights and children’s rights clearly recognize education as a natural right of every human being.  This means that a country’s citizens of any religion, cultural identity or social status must enjoy the right to education without any prejudice.  This right belongs to all individuals as human beings and no person or law can take that away from anyone due to their religious or other beliefs, or racial or political excuses.

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right to education for all.  The second paragraph of the same article sets forth the purpose of education as the promotion of understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes that everyone regardless of race, color, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status is entitled to and covered by the rights and freedoms recommended in the Declaration.

According to Article 18, everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change their religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private, to manifest their religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.  Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child also emphasizes the right to education, and Article 10 of that Declaration stipulates the protection of children against religious discrimination.

Iran is one of the signatories of these charters and many other international covenants, which all clearly emphasize the right to education and freedom of religious beliefs.  The legal significance of this international commitment is that all Iranian citizens or persons living in Iran should also enjoy this natural right without any prejudice.

The Experience of Respect for the Rights of Minorities in Iran

Iran’s record in the area of recognizing the rights of religious minorities to a modern education goes back to the time of Mohammad Shah Qajar – that is almost 180 years ago – a lesser known period in Iran’s history, when religious freedom was recognized and religious missionaries (Christian and Jewish) were permitted to establish networks of special schools for religious minorities in Iran.  Many of these schools also accepted children from Muslim families, and this fine tradition of respect for religious beliefs turned into the reality of peaceful coexistence of the followers of various faiths alongside each other.

The Constitutional Revolution signified a transition from a society based on religious identity to the formation of a society with citizenship and national identity.  The education laws in Iran, such as the Education Constitution approved in 1911, or the 1943 law of universal education in Iran, recognize the right to education for all Iranians, including religious minorities.  The laws passed after 1979, including the Constitution, more or less take the same position on paper as well.

Symbolic Brutality Against Religious Minorities

In the view of a large group of the authorities in Iran, every government has the right to impose its desired religion and its tenets on all their people.  The government propaganda apparatus also continuously repeats this false proposition as if this is how things work in the entire world; as if other political systems also treated their citizens in the same way.  This false propaganda has also created the anti-democratic belief for a segment of public opinion in Iran that all governments represent a specific religion, and that to impose one religion in schools, universities and the public arena is a normal and natural matter.

It is for exactly this reason that sometimes the ultra-religious (Shi’ite) ideological positions of the education system and the discriminations imposed on the “legal” and “illegal” religious minorities or people without specific religious beliefs are less often discussed in the society.  In Iran, the recognized minorities (Sunnis, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians) are allowed to have their own schools.  But at the same time, minorities such as Baha’is are not recognized, and students who are not followers of any particular religion are forced to take religious education classes alongside the students in the Shi’ite schools.

The reality is that even granting the right to religious education to official minorities does not solve the problem of discrimination and religious imposition in the Iranian schools, because the Iranian education system does not limit widespread religious propaganda to the religious education classes; it is part of the syllabus for subjects such as history, Persian language and civic studies, and sometimes even scientific books devoted to Shi’ite religious subjects and propaganda.  As a result, non-Shi’ite students are forced to learn religious subjects which are different from their own beliefs in various forms in other lessons.  Besides schools subjects, the main part of compulsory or elective extra-curricular activities have a religious and political-ideological content.  Thus students, having no choice, endure a systematic, symbolic brutality in the religious education arena.

The Baha’i share of this discrimination and deprivation is not comparable to other religious minorities or dissident students.  Besides the overt and covert oppression and discrimination, text books or daily extra-curricular activities have a very hostile and negative attitude towards them.  Baha’is are openly subjected to insults and humiliation from the official pulpit, and are branded “unclean”, “anti-religion”, “infidels” and “foreign spies”.

In the history textbook for the 3rd grade in middle school, in 2012 (page 37), in a lesson entitled “imperialist sect-making”, it says:  “the governments of England and Russia were terrified of the unity among Muslims in Iran.  Therefore, they tried to cause division among the people and destroy their unity.  One of their divisive efforts was to support new made-up religions.  Among these false religions were Babism and Baha’ism.  First Siyyid Ali Muhammad the founder of the Babi sect claimed to be the Bab…. Siyyid Ali Muhammad the Bab’s claim caused great sedition, which was called the Bab’s Sedition, which established the Babi sect, which was supported by Russia and England.”  The author, after referring to the execution of Siyyid Ali Muhammad the Bab, refers to Mirza Husayn-Ali Nuri, and goes on to say:  “Mirza Husayn-Ali Nuri, who entitled himself Baha’u’llah, a while later declared himself to be a new prophet and established the Baha’i sect, which was also supported by England.”

Iran’s young generation has been educated by such literature and discourse, and may rarely have the opportunity to become acquainted with a non-ideologic, impartial, academic and objective history of events in Iran’s past, or to become accustomed to the culture and values of a multi-identity society.  On the other hand, what right and opportunity do Baha’i students, as the main victims of this attitude, have to defend themselves and tell their account of history?  Do they have any options other than to keep silent and hold back their inner ire which stems from this constant humiliation, or to forego education altogether?  They are the defenseless victims of this vengeful dialogue and institutional oppression and brutality of which very few are aware.

In the face of a conversation that is still stuck in the world of past centuries, which entertains the dream of a single-identity religious society, which does not accept the concept of citizenship and identity pluralism, and which is not able to let go of historic grudges and enmities, we must defend the right to education without prejudice for all, based on respect for other identities.  In a world in which universal citizenship and human rights, regardless of religious beliefs, gender, race, social status or lifestyle have become a fundamental principle, how can one differentiate individuals based on membership in a religious minority?

This universal right means that even asking about the religion of others can signify an inquisition of sorts and intrusion into their private affairs.  A religious government that cares about people’s religion, which views its citizens through the lens of religion and wants to know what religion everyone has, or which imposes a particular form of worship on them, is in effect instituting prejudice into the society based on religious identity and form of worship.

Iran’s experience is a clear example of the functioning of a closed religious government that divides people based on religion, and every day, for various excuses, it asks people about their religion, punishes them because of their religion, or demands them to worship in the way it wants.

Religious government in our age in effect means nothing other than declaring religious war on citizens who do not conform to government ideology.  In this cold war, the two sides do not have comparable power.  One is governing and enjoys power, enforces various forms of brutality in the name of religious law, or lawlessly against the “others”.  Their opponent, however, is the victim of blatant prejudice and structural brutality, and is deprived of the right to defend himself, because in this imbalanced and one-sided game the religious government and official institutions are both player and referee.


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