By Dr. Majid Naficy
6. The Azalis and the Baha’is
At the age of 24, Ali-Muhammad Shirazi in 1844 declared himself to be the Bab, which means he was the gate to the Promised One of Islam. He later confirmed that indeed He was the Promised One himself. Shortly before His execution in 1850 in Tabriz, He named one of His followers, a 14-year-old youth named Mirza Yahya Nuri, to be His successor and gave him the title Subhi Azal.2
After the premiership of Amir Kabir, efforts to eradicate the Babis increased in intensity and many of them were compelled to leave their native land. In 1863, Mirza Husayn-Ali, known as Baha’u’llah, declared himself to be “He Whom God Shall Make Manifest”, Whose appearance was foretold by the Bab, and commenced inviting the Babis to accept His station. Baha’u’llah was a step-brother of Mirza Yahya (Subhi Azal) and was 13 years his senior. At the time, both brothers lived in Edirne, a town in the Ottoman Empire.
Mirza Yahya did not accept his brother’s claim and the differences between the two caused enmity and bloodshed among the Babis. Eventually, in order to alleviate the situation, the Ottoman government was forced to exile Yahya to Cyprus and Baha’u’llah to Palestine.
Edward Browne (1862-1929), an English scholar who visited both brothers, likened the differences between them to the enmity and bloodshed between Shiah and Sunni Islam or Trotsky and Stalin at the time of Bolshevism.3
The followers of Baha’u’llah proclaimed their mission to be for the entire world and quickly grew in numbers. However, the followers of the younger brother [Mirza Yahya], stayed in Iran to fight against the political system and to reduce the influence of the Qajar dynasty. Two of Mirza Yahya’s sons-in-Law, Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani and Shaykh Ahmad Ruhi, emerged at the forefront of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. They gave their life in this path in Tabriz. During the interval during which the Iranian Constitution was suspended, a grandson of Mirza Yahya by the name of Yahya Dawlatabadi4 and Ali-Akbar Dehkhuda were publishing the freedom-demanding newspaper Surush in Istanbul.
Today, Azalis who continue to call themselves Bayani, that is, followers of the book of the Bayan by the Bab, are a small minority community in Iran. Because of their practice of dissimulation, they hide their beliefs. By contrast, the followers of Baha’u’llah have their center in Haifa, enjoy worldwide recognition and number several million.
7. Dualistic Nature of Leftist Movements
During the 1970s, leftist intellectuals in Iran revisited the Bab’s movement and grew attracted to it as a social uprising against feudalism — they also admired the Azali thinkers during the Constitutional Revolt.5 However, as Iranian Marxists on one hand did not respect the necessary role of freedom of conscience, and on the other hand believed the fictitious rumors about Baha’i collaboration with the government during the premiership of Amir-Abbas Hoveyda (and the only evidence they had in this regard was that Parviz Sabeti held a position in SAVAK’s media department), they had a negative view of the Baha’is. This negative attitude increased, particularly after the revolution.
The leftist Tudeh party, which considered itself a main backer of the Islamic regime, started helping the fundamentalist clergy in their anti-Baha’i activities. As written by Reza Fani Yazdi, “Suddenly, in spring 1982, the Tudeh party sent a circular letter to all its regional offices throughout the country instructing that all Baha’is were to be expelled from its membership rolls.”6 The party was asked not only to expel the Baha’is, but also to expel any members who were against Khomeini’s government – and they were also asked to divulge the identity of any of the leftists who were anti-regime. Though the Tudeh party had played an important role in creating the new Islamic regime, it was not long after the revolution that they fell prey to the oppressive regime they had helped build.
On 11 February 1981, the Peykar Organization had arranged a demonstration in Tehran’s Enqelab Square to mark the anniversary of the revolution. I was identified by two medical students (previous supporters of the Tudeh Party) with whom I had used to go hiking at the time of the Shah. The Islamic security guards had turned a movie theatre into a centre for interrogating demonstrators. They seized me, and were dragging me to the interrogation center when I managed to escape with the help of a few friends who started fighting with the Islamic guards. When I made it home, I found my wife Izzat very worried; she had seen me captured, but had not seen my escape. It was only a few months later when I had to witness my wife leaving home and never coming back.
8. Appeal for Justice not Collective Shame
With 300,000 followers in Iran, the Baha’i community is the largest minority group after the Sunni sect of Islam. Nevertheless, Baha’is are deprived of all basic human and civil rights, including the freedom of belief, access to higher education, and employment in any government sector.
In a secret memorandum issued in 1991 and signed by [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and [President] Rafsanjani, the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council instructed all its lower bodies regarding the principle policy of the government towards Baha’is: “prevention of their progress and advancement” at all levels of society.7
This was also the policy of Khomeini before and after the revolution. While residing in Paris in the summer of 1978, Khomeini was interviewed by James Cockrof, a professor at Rutgers University. Khomeini was asked about his stance regarding the Baha’is and whether they would enjoy freedom of belief and action in an Islamic regime. Instead of a direct response, Khomeini stated, “Baha’ism is not a religion. It is a political party and a misguided sect”. The interviewer again asked if Baha’is would be allowed to practice their religious duties. Khomeini responded, “No”.8
In Khomeini’s terse responses, one can find two justifications for the Shiah fundamentalist’s suppression of the Baha’is. The first justification is that the Baha’i faith is not a religion, but a political party associated with the government of the Shah and colonialism, and which gives support to Israel. Therefore, the Baha’is should be suppressed for the sake of the country’s security. The second justification is that the Baha’is are condemned for apostasy. According to Article 5 of the Criminal Code regarding the “law of apostasy” presented to the Islamic Parliament in February 2008, apostates (which includes the Baha’is) will be sentenced to death if they are male, and life imprisonment if they are female.
The first justification mentioned above is based on collective punishment. That is, if a member of a group is alleged to have committed a crime, then all members of that group, whether male, female, elderly, or child, are guilty through association, and will be subject to punishment. The second justification is based on sheer disregard for human rights, freedom of belief and of the right to choose a religion or no religion. This justification has its roots in the dark mindset of the middle ages.
In both the above justifications, the right and individual responsibility is completely absent, and instead emphasis is placed on collective belief and group ideologies.
In contradistinction to the above, if we were to accept the principle that all humans, regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity, social status and religious belief, are equal before the law, and that they have natural rights to freedom of belief, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and such natural liberties, then the above two justifications for oppressing Baha’is and other minorities will have no foundation whatsoever. Therefore, it is necessary to recognize individual freedom in the country’s Constitution in order to open the door of justice to all Baha’is and other minorities.
This appeal for justice has two inseparable parts:
- Complete alignment of the country’s Constitution with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, which calls for the separation of religion and state
- Activities of the anti-Baha’i group Hojjatiyeh should be considered illegal and forced to end. All those who have been involved in the persecution of Baha’is and other minorities should be brought to justice in a court of law, in the presence of a just assembly and defense attorneys.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, the greatest shortcoming of the open letter to the Baha’i community of Iran titled “We are Ashamed” is that instead of demanding justice for the Baha’is (that is, insisting that freedom of belief must be enshrined in the Constitution and that anti-Baha’i groups be made illegal), it proposed a collective shame upon all Iranian intellectuals for allowing 150 years of oppression against the Baha’is. Instead of calling on people to accept human rights, this open letter has established its foundation on collective shame and group repentance.
Without a doubt, when it comes to human and civil rights, the Baha’is of Iran are the most deprived. As I have mentioned earlier, the test of Iranian broadmindedness must be measured by his sensitivity to the cruelty perpetrated against this group of our countrymen.
However, first, it is incorrect to accuse all intellectuals of “silence against crimes perpetrated against the Baha’is”. Each person is responsible for his own actions and not for the oversights of others, whether in the past or at the present. Second, feeling ashamed or guilty for wrongdoings committed in the past is a personal matter and should be sincerely communicated directly to the individuals or families adversely affected by the acts of oppression. As I wrote in my July 2006 article titled “Beh Azin and right of silence”, I clearly explained that asking individuals to feel ashamed or to repent publicly for their beliefs is an old method of religious inquisition, dating back to the reigns of dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Khomeini. The main objective of such practices is to undermine and destroy the individual’s self-worth.
A liberated and broadminded intellectual would instead defend the rights of individuals, and would not allow public pressure to curtail individual beliefs and actions. They would insist on personal responsibility and choice.
Public shaming and public confession is a method used by Franciscan monks in their inquisition period and employed in fanatical environments for the purpose of extracting acknowledgment and breaking down personal will. In a similar manner, party administrators in the Stalinist era or under Mao’s regime employed “self-critical sessions” which used such techniques, and Khomeini used them in his televised public “confessions”, or for group meetings in Evin prison.
I say no to the original sin of a group. I say no to metaphoric baptism by signing a letter that confesses to shame. We must fight for the freedom of belief and demand that anti-Baha’i activities be banned in Iran. Let everyone tell their own personal stories, and if one feels ashamed about keeping silent while crimes were committed, let him take personal responsibility and deal with it as he sees fit.
20 February 2009.
Notes by the author and translator:
 Dr. Naficy is mistaken in this regard. While the Bab consented to Baha’u’llah’s request for Mirza Yahya to be named a temporary head of the community, there is no evidence whatsoever that Mirza Yahya was named a successor. The title Subh Azal was not given by the Bab and was self-adopted by Mirza Yahya Nuri. [Translator]
 For an example of this discussion, refer to Edward Granville Browne, A Year Amongst the Persians, Cambridge University Press, 1927, pp. 559-62. In that book, Browne refers to the killing of seven Azalis in Akka by the followers of Baha’u’llah. [Author]
 Yahya Dawlatabadi is not related to Mirza Yahya Nuri; he is a son of Hadi Dawlatabadi, who was a preacher in Isfahan. While some have claimed that Hadi and then Yahya Dawlatabadi succeeed Mirza Yahya Nuri at the leadership of the Azali community, there is actually no documented evidence supporting this assertion. [Translator]
 For instance, see Muhammad-Reza Feshahi, Vapasin Junbesh Qurun Vusta’i: Akhbari, Usuli, Shaykhi and the Babi. Javidan Publications, Tehran, 1977. [Author]
 Reza Fani-Yazdi, “Baha’i-setizi Pish va Pas az Enqelab” [Anti-Baha’ism before and after the Revolution”, Iran-Emrooz, 6/11/2008, http://www.iran-emrooz.net/index.php?/politic/more/16159/ [Author]
 This document was uncovered by Reynaldo Pohl, the United Nations’ special representative on human rights in Iran, and published by him in his report of 1993: http://bic.org/assets/Pohl%20Iran%20report%20E.CN4.1993.41.pdf. The passage related to the instructions issued after a joint meeting of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, President of Iran, and the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council is on p. 55, paragraph 310. [Translator]
 See The Denial of Higher Education to the Baha’is of Iran, by Geoffrey Cameron. [Author]
[Published on Thursday, March 12, 2009, at http://fa.shahrvand.com/2008-07-14-20-49-09/2008-07-14-20-49-46/2284-2009-03-12-17-58-08. Translation by Iran Press Watch.]