On Thursday, January 19th, 2012, Concordia University hosted a panel presentation addressing the case of the Iranian Bahá’í community. Under the Islamic Republic, the Iranian Bahá’í community has been consistently persecuted and is denied access to university by law. The presenters at the panel were Dr. Frank Chalk, expert in genocide studies, Dr. Payam Akhavan, international lawyer and associate professor at McGill University, and filmmaker/activist Nika Khanjani. The following day, the presentation continued with Canada’s premiere screening of Education Under Fire, a documentary about the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education, an underground university in Iran. An open-letter to the academic community written by Nobel Peace Prize laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and José Ramos-Horta, President of East Timor, has since added to the Education Under Fire campaign.
The Bahá’í faith, which spread to Iran in 1863, accepts the divine revelations of several prophets, including Moses, Jesus Christ, and Muhammad, and believes in God’s plan for the gradual establishment of peace, unity, and justice. Upholding the principles of unity and equality, Bahá’ís view humanity as a single race that should be united as a global community. Members of the Bahá’í faith number 6 million worldwide, with approximately 300,000 members in Iran.
Broad persecution of the Bahá’í community in Iran goes back to the religion’s beginnings in the country, but persecution of the Bahá’ís has been systematic since the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran stipulates that “Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities”, thereby excluding the Bahá’í, as well as many other minorities from any legal recognition. Bahá’í is depicted by authorities as a “man-made”, anti-Islamic religion, and believers are denied access to university based solely on their religious identity. On university application forms, where the student’s religion is asked, “Bahá’í” is not an available option.
After failed attempts by the Bahá’í community to get its students admitted into Iranian universities, the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) was established in 1987. In many cases, professors join the BIHE after they have been laid off by Iranian universities because of their faith. The BIHE initially offered courses via correspondence, but eventually lectures started taking place in hidden places, such as private homes and basements, sometimes hours away from the city. In recent years, the BIHE has been able to offer an increasing amount of courses online. However, there have also been numerous raids on this underground university, followed by arrests and confiscations of school equipment. In October 2011, seven educators were arrested and sentenced to 4 to 5 years of imprisonment.
Dr. Frank Chalk began the panel discussion by illustrating how the treatment of Bahá’ís in Iran fits into the broader historical pattern of persecution. Drawing from past cases of mass atrocities (in Armenia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and the Holocaust), Dr. Chalk argued that when looking at the demonizing of the Bahá’ís in Iran today, several indicators of a potential future genocide are present. Expressing deep concern for the future of the Bahá’í community, Dr. Chalk suggested that the international community be prepared to intervene in order to avoid the systematic annihilation of the Iranian Bahá’ís. Yet, it seems unlikely that the Iranian regime would escalate persecution to such a scale when it is already facing strong international pressure regarding its nuclear ambitions.
Dr. Payam Akhavan placed the case of Bahá’í persecution in Iran within the broader context of change in the Middle East. The revolution of 1979 in Tehran was based on the promise of a romantic return to “traditional” values. But today, the romance is over: whereas the mosque used to be associated with freedom of expression, it is now a symbol of state power, associated with a modern, authoritarian regime. Dr. Akhavan argued that it is not just ethnic and religious minorities, but Iranian society as a whole, which is the victim of a political culture’s hateful imposition of a single religious identity and exclusion of all others. Following this argument, Dr. Akhavan proposed a more optimistic view: change is inevitable in the context of widespread social frustration. What remains to be seen is whether such change will come about peacefully. It seems certain, though, that the Bahá’í will play an active role in such a change.
The documentary Education under Fire, which was co-sponsored by Amnesty International, is a collection of testimonies of former BIHE students who were able to enter Western graduate schools. One of the students explained that every act of discrimination against the Bahá’í community reinforces their conviction that they are the victims of ignorance.
The Bahá’í’s deepest wish is to play an active role in Iranian society as fully recognized citizens. The Iranian regime is not persecuting the Bahá’ís for the sake of combating heresy. What it fears is knowledge. Western governments would do well to open their universities to BIHE students, as well as urge the Iranian government to recognize the BIHE. Promoting the education of Iranians, however difficult it may seem, could prove to be an effective weapon in undermining the Islamic republic for the benefit of Iranian society as a whole.
– William Debost
Click here for more information on discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities in Iran.