Editor’s Note: Today, Kayhan London, a most influential Persian-language newspaper outside Iran, published the following article. You can read the original Persian on Kayhan’s website.
By Koroush Agah-Kesheh
The detention for more than a year in Evin prison of the Iranian Bahá’í community’s seven-member ad hoc leadership committee has been widely reported. Their continuing imprisonment, without charge or access to any legal counsel, has resulted in expressions of concern and protest from all quarters – including governments, human rights activists, non-governmental organisations, influential personalities and ordinary citizens, among them countless Iranians.
An early morning sweep to arrest the entire leadership of Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority is dramatic enough to make headlines. But the imprisonment of the seven was just the latest development in a 30-year campaign by the Iranian authorities to eradicate its Bahá’í community. A secret 1991 memorandum, ratified by Iran’s Supreme Leader and released by the United Nations in 1993, outlined a comprehensive plan to block the development and progress of the Bahá’ís, denying them every opportunity to have an influence on Iranian society. Furthermore, the memorandum ominously requested that a “plan must be devised to confront and destroy their cultural roots outside the country.”
Creating a culture of hate
One aspect of the ongoing campaign of persecution against Iran’s 300,000 Bahá’ís, however, is less well reported. Since September 2005, the state-run Kayhan newspaper has published scores of articles degrading the community and its beliefs. Their intention: to arouse feelings of suspicion, distrust and hatred for the Bahá’ís among its readers. Kayhan’s articles – along with other publications being widely circulated in Iran – deliberately distort and denigrate Bahá’í doctrine and practices, falsify the lives of its revered founders and leaders, revive allegations against the Bahá’ís from historical documents long proven to be fakes, and manufacture memoirs of “former Bahá’ís” who have now “seen the light” and returned to the fold of Islam. All such articles represent Bahá’í beliefs in a manner designed to cause maximum offence to Muslims.
Such blatant hate speech is not limited to the press. In a recently reported case, a secondary school student who had corrected misinformation about her Bahá’í faith in a history class, and whose comments the teacher was unable to counter, was subjected to a presentation by a clergyman who attributed to the Bahá’ís such shameful immoral acts that the student could not even reveal to her mother what he had said. He concluded his remarks by stating that a “naked American lady” led the Bahá’ís.
The world media did not hesitate to cover the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper and the subsequent outbreaks of violence around the world. Yet nothing has been written about the 4000 copies of a children’s picture book entitled The Deceitful Babak, posted as a “gift” to Iranian schoolchildren. The book is a slanderous, historically distorted and deeply insulting account of the life of one of the Bahá’í faith’s prophetic figures, known as the Báb, depicting him as a half-witted village boy whose long exposure praying in the midday sun results in his making fanciful claims of prophethood, leading to his demise.
History demonstrates the dangers of such propaganda, directed at adults and children alike. During previous government campaigns of persecution against Bahá’ís, such as in 1955 and 1979, violence has been perpetuated initially by words, sermons and false pronouncements. “Words should be seen as a force with the potential of unleashing powerful energy, positive or negative,” political scientist Professor Eliz Sanasarian has written. “Name-calling and stereotypes, through repetition, become accepted as truth with ‘fully elaborated systems of concepts, beliefs and myths.'”
In such a culture, the hatred of an entire population can be stirred up by the relentless, systematic repetition of falsehoods, which become common credence as a result. When aroused citizens take violent action against their neighbours – whom they have been repeatedly told are traitors, corrupt or unclean – the offending authorities absolve themselves of responsibility by blaming the actions of the populace.
The dehumanizing effects of speech
The Bahá’ís’ Prophet-Founder Bahá’u’lláh himself was keenly aware of the effects of speech. “For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison,” he wrote. “Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century.” Certainly the calumnies against the Bahá’ís persistently pumped out to the Iranian people for more than 150 years have coloured the opinions of even the most liberal-minded of its citizens who have only recently begun to speak out in defence of their Bahá’í compatriots.
Dehumanizing a section of society is a deeply troubling development in any circumstances. In his theory that genocide is a process that develops through a number of stages, Gregory Stanton, President of Genocide Watch, argues that the first stage sees people categorized into distinctive groups based upon race, religion, nationality or ethnicity. They are then marked out from the rest of society, their otherness emphasized by forcing them to be branded, almost like cattle. Such an example was the yellow star that German Jews were made to wear under Nazi rule. The third stage is dehumanization. The victim’s humanity is denied, physical features are caricatured and cultural behaviour is mocked through graphic depictions, inflammatory speeches and the mass media. The economic and social problems of the country – and the world – are his fault.
The pattern has been repeated throughout history time and again. The “other” is vilified as an animal, a vermin, a pest, a disease or as practicing witchcraft. In Rwanda, the Tutsis were portrayed as cockroaches and snakes, and accused of eating vital organs. The Jews in Germany were, among other things, “poisonous mushrooms”, pigs and spiders.
“Humans who follow anything but Islam,” Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the powerful Guardian Council, has said, “are the same as those animals who wander about and commit corruption.” Bahá’ís in Iran have variously been labeled as “perverted instruments of Satan and the followers of the Devil and the superpowers and their agents.” They have been accused countless times of espionage. But when in human history has there ever been an entire community of spies in one country, numbering hundreds of thousands of people ranging in age from infants to the elderly?
Bahá’ís are labeled enemies of Islam who are “warring against God” and “spreading corruption on earth”. Yet the Bahá’í scriptures refer to Islam as “the blessed and luminous religion of God” and the Prophet Muhammad as “the refulgent lamp of supreme Prophethood,” “the Lord of creation” and “the Day-star of the world.”
The international headquarters of the Bahá’í Faith is today located within the borders of modern-day Israel. But how can Bahá’ís be described as “Zionists” when Bahá’u’lláh was banished by the Persian and Ottoman governments to the fortress-city of Akka in 1868, several decades before the Zionist movement began, and eighty years prior to the establishment of the state of Israel.
In an orchestrated programme of persecution, the Iranian authorities have persistently attempted to disguise the fact that their actions have been purely motived by religious prejudice and hatred. They have justified their campaigns against the Bahá’í community by asserting that theirs is not a religion but a political organisation. When they are not being branded as spies or agents for various imperialist or colonialist agendas, the Bahá’ís face persistent allegations of immorality, immodesty and indecency. Nothing could be further than the truth.
A dignified response
Iran’s Bahá’í community, however, is not dispirited, demoralized or downtrodden. Nor have they risen up to counter-attack their oppressors with force or any trace of bitterness. Rather they have calmly stated their case and called for their fundamental human rights with dignity and courtesy, winning the admiration of their compatriots, observers and, in some cases, even those who are obligated to oppress them under government policy. When Iran’s Prosecutor General recently made a statement that any kind of Bahá’í organization was illegal, the imprisoned seven leaders announced that they would immediately disband their committee and all others around the country as a gesture of goodwill towards their government. More than this, however they have increased their activities to serve Iranian society and contribute to the discourse on social change.
At the root of this unusual response to persecution has been a series of extraordinary letters of encouragement penned by the international Bahá’í leadership, the elected governing council known as the Universal House of Justice which, within its constitution, has a duty to defend and protect the worldwide Bahá’í community and emancipate it from the fetters of repression and persecution.
“In these difficult days laden with tribulation, we are with you in spirit, our hearts heavy at the injustice that continues to rain upon you,” the Universal House of Justice wrote on 9 September 2007 to Iran’s Bahá’í students, barred from entering higher education. “Recent events call to mind heart-rending episodes in the history of the Faith, of cruel deceptions wrought against your forebears. It is only appropriate that you strive to transcend the opposition against you with that same constructive resilience that characterized their response to the duplicity of their detractors. Peering beyond the distress of the difficulties assailing them, those heroic souls attempted to translate the Teachings of the new Faith into actions of spiritual and social development. This, too, is your work.”
Iran accuses Bahá’ís who render service to their young compatriots by offering classes teaching language skills and moral education as promoting anti-regime “propaganda”. “You, too, seek to render service to your homeland and to contribute to a renewal of civilization,” the Universal House of Justice told the students. “(Your forebears) responded to the inhumanity of their enemies with patience, calm, resignation, and contentment, choosing to meet deception with truthfulness and cruelty with good will towards all. You, too, demonstrate such noble qualities and, holding fast to these same principles, you belie the slander purveyed against your Faith, evoking the admiration of the fair-minded.”
The Universal House of Justice has directed the young Bahá’ís of Iran to strive for the regeneration of their country, with “an illumined conscience, with a world-embracing vision, with no partisan political agenda, and with due regard for law and order”.
“Service to others is the way. Let it be your watchword. Strive to work hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder, with your fellow citizens in your efforts to promote the common good,” they wrote.
Following the arrest of the seven leaders in 2008, the Universal House of Justice addressed another stirring letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran describing those detained as a group of the country’s “most faithful, obedient, capable and innocent citizens”. Their response to the arrests and an uncertain future should be to “attach no importance to the acts of oppression and cruelty meted out to you. Indeed, respond in the opposite manner. Focus your thoughts on being a source of good to everyone who crosses your path. Make every effort to serve your fellow citizens—heirs to a rich and humane culture—who themselves suffer from many an injustice. Eschew divisiveness and conflict, consort with all people with kindliness and sincerity, and engage your compatriots in discussions on matters that are of serious concern to them. May you convey to their hearts the hope, faith and confidence, already carried in yours, that the future of Iran is bright and the destiny of humankind glorious.”
Despite the dangerous repercussions a more overt response might provoke, the Universal House of Justice has nevertheless urged the Bahá’ís of Iran to step more boldly into the arena of social action and improve the lot of the underprivileged in their society, including realizing the principle of equality between men and women: “Many of your compatriots are eager to see the realization of the universal principle of the equality of men and women. They will no doubt welcome you to join them in learning how to promote, step by step, conditions that enable the women of Iran to overcome impediments blocking their progress and participate fully, as equals of men, in all areas of human endeavour,” they wrote in another communication.
“Undeterred by the voices which insist that you believe but in silence, as if belief and the expression of it can be separated, you are engaged, wisely and unobtrusively, in exchanging views with your friends on themes central to the progress of Iran and its glorification,” wrote the Universal House of Justice again in July 2008. “At a time when Iranian society is being torn apart by long-standing prejudices of religion, ethnicity, gender and class, the experience of your community for more than a century and a half can serve as an abundant source of insight to the people of that land. On the one hand, you have been able not only to withstand but also to reciprocate with loving kindness the most virulent form of religious prejudice, which has been perpetuated by the enemies of the Faith ever since its inception to distort public opinion. On the other, you have ceaselessly exerted effort to eliminate, both within your community and in your relations with others, prejudice of every kind.”
“Persevere, therefore, with diligence and steadfastness along this path of endeavour. As you do so, strive to perceive the nobility in every human being—rich or poor, man or woman, old or young, city dweller or villager, worker or employer, irrespective of ethnicity or religion. Help the poor and deprived. Attend to the needs of young people and foster in them confidence in the future so that they may prepare themselves adequately for service to humankind.”
They must eschew conflict and dissension, the Universal House of Justice informed the Iranian Bahá’ís in October 2008. They should avoid contest for worldly power. They do not aspire to overthrow governments, nor do they participate in the scheming of others to do so. To combat attempts to ferment conflict among the Bahá’ís by those who wished to undermine its unity, the Universal House of Justice urged the Iranian Bahá’ís to strengthen the ties uniting them. “Be at all times a source of encouragement and support to one another, and together seek after new avenues of service. In association with friends, neighbours and acquaintances, may you dispel the darkness of iniquity and tyranny with the light of love and fidelity.”
“Persevere with sincerity and earnestness to secure your rights through recourse to the law, and deal with those who oppress you with loving kindness, with patience and forbearance, and counter their insults with words of peace and affection. Continue to strive in the arena of service to your homeland, and through your participation in constructive discourse with your neighbours, co-workers, friends and acquaintances, play a decisive role in society’s progress,” the Bahá’ís of Iran were told in February 2009. A month later, the Universal House of Justice noted that the resolve and steadfastness they had demonstrated “in carrying forward your day-to-day affairs, in discharging your spiritual duties and in serving your country, together with the dignity you have manifested and the constructive resilience of spirit you have evinced in the face of countless hardships—these have won you widespread admiration.”
To respond in such a manner to the continuing onslaught of slanderous propaganda is remarkable. Equally unexpected has been the discovery that the majority of Iran’s citizens have not been found to view the Bahá’í community in the manner that the authorities portray them. As a result of the encouragement from their international leadership, and their exemplary response to virulent persecution, the Bahá’ís of Iran have discovered that a growing portion of the populace has been praising their courage, audacity, patience and steadfastness. They have been discovering that Bahá’í ideals resonate with those among their fellow citizens who also wish to see their country progress. Some of them are also suffering similar oppression – as students and academics, as journalists and social activists, as artists and poets, as progressive thinkers and proponents of women’s rights, and even as ordinary citizens.
In the midst of oppression aimed at their very eradication, the Bahá’ís are thinking about the contribution they can make to change society. Fundamental Bahá’í ideas – truthfulness, trustworthiness, the elimination of prejudice, the equality of the sexes – are being explored in conversations that are integral to the wider discourses of society from which the Bahá’ís are debarred. This is a community committed to social progress despite the fact that every measure is being taken to silence its voice. They are sharing insights they have gleaned from the Bahá’í teachings with their fellow countrymen, all the while recognizing that their own community-building efforts are still very much a ‘work in progress’ in need of the energetic application of minds and talents and constant refinement.
Far from being cowed by the forces of oppression leagued against them, the Bahá’ís have determined to stand proudly by their principles and, while obedient to the laws of their land, continue to live according to the teachings for which so many thousands of their forebears were willing to give their lives. They are refusing to let the dehumanizing impact of public propaganda against them result in their becoming the very embodiment of such allegations. In showing what they stand for, the Bahá’ís of Iran are demonstrating the falsity of the language of those who wish to see their progress blocked and influence diminished, if not eliminated completely.
[Source: Kayhan London at http://www.kayhanpublishing.uk.com/Pages/archive/announces/bahai_1265.pdf; Translation provided by External Affairs Office of the Baha’is of the United Kingdom]