Imagine, if you will, being a minority in a country that is being subjected to relentless brutalization by a tyrannical, totalitarian government. In this country, the media is controlled by the government and produces a never-ending stream of articles, newspaper reports, and programmes that call you traitors to your country and accuse you of conspiring with foreign powers to accumulate wealth at the expense of the misery of the ordinary people of the country. Even darker accusations claim that you kidnap and kill children to use their blood in secret ceremonies. These lies are maintained by influential members of society, and falsified stories from “Research Institutes” concocted by the government give false legitimacy to these lies, with no opportunity for your community or anyone else to expose the fact that these are all misrepresentations, distortions, and lies. Your community is helpless against expropriation, looting, and physical attacks since corrupt police and judicial systems side against you in criminal and civil cases, which leaves you defenceless and vulnerable to unlawful arrests on vague charges. Your children are bullied in the streets, humiliated by their teachers at school, and turned away from university. You cannot find employment, as all public and private companies are forbidden from employing you under pain of penalties, nor can you obtain the necessary license to start your own business.
No, I am not describing to you the plight of the Jewish community in Nazi Germany eighty years ago. Nor am I drawing for you an imaginary dystopia. These things are real occurrences going on in the world today, and what I have portrayed is everyday life for members of the Iranian Baha’i community for the past forty years. Baha’is are the largest non-Muslim religious community in Iran, numbering perhaps some 300,000, and they have been subjected to this level of persecution ever since Islamic Revolution occurred there in 1979.
So why is the government of Iran so hostile to a large minority of its own citizens? Why is it systematically depriving them of their basic human rights, such as the right to education, the right to earn a living, the right to obtain justice in the legal system, or the right to fair treatment from police and other government officials? From the early beginnings of the Baha’i Faith in Iran over 160 years ago, most of the Muslim religious establishment has been intensely hostile toward the new religion, preaching to the mob to kill Baha’is at every opportunity. The murderous intentions of the religious leadership were initially to some extent held in check by the government. But since 1979, the government of Iran is now run by the Muslim religious leaders, and they possess the power to do whatever like to the Baha’i community.
But why do the Iranian government and the Islamic religious establishment choose to target the Baha’is with so much hatred? The answer is complex, but it boils down to three primary reasons:
- The Muslim religious establishment hates the Baha’is because they contradict its worldview. These Iranian Islamic clerics are trying to go backwards to a world that existed 1400 years ago, which they consider to be the ideal society. On the other hand, the central figures of the Baha’i Faith fully accept aspects of modernity, such as equality for women and men, human rights, democracy, universal modern education, and they have a global vision of a peaceful, united world – all of which Islamic clerics have various problems with.
- The Islamic clerics fear the popularity of the Baha’i teachings among Iranians. They worry that the loss of their own congregations will also result in decline of their income, prestige, and power.
- The Islamic clerics realize that if they allow the fact that a valid religion has come into world after Islam, the logic of their worldview would demand that they become believers in the new religion.
The Muslim clerical establishment’s primary aim for persecuting the Baha’is has been to pressure them into recanting their faith and become Muslims. This would justify their allegations that the Baha’i Faith is not a religion at all, but rather is a British/Russian/American/Zionist conspiracy to bring down Islam and Iran. This primary aim has not materialized. The resilience of the Baha’i community has resulted in almost no recantations. This is a great problem for the Islamic religious establishment in Iran. The predominant form of Islam in Iran is Shi`i Islam (of the Twelver variety), which has always glorified martyrdoms and persecution, regarding them both as the hallmark of truth. As such, the resilience of the Baha’i community has caused the Islamic religious leaders great embarrassment, since by their own criteria and as a central marker of their worldview, the resilience is the hallmark of the truth of the Baha’i position.
The strategy of the Islamic leaders in Iran has changed to a policy of cultural genocide of the Baha’i community as they seek to erase the Baha’i culture of Iran. This is an inversion of the usual pattern of cultural genocide. The typical pattern, like with what happened to native peoples in Australia and most of the Americas, is for a government to undertake cultural genocide of a traditional culture, while representing its actions as being necessary to bring about progress and modernity. In Iran, we have a minority being persecuted because it represents a modernity and a global vision that is feared and resisted by the government and religious leadership of the country.
But when the primary strategy of the Islamic republic failed, they turned, in 1991, to the alternative strategy of cultural genocide. The official government decree that launched the new strategy said that “the Government’s treatment of them [Baha’is] shall be such that their progress and development shall be blocked” and “employment shall be refused to persons identifying themselves as Baha’is.” In regard to their children, the decree states that they should be assigned to school “with a strong religious ideology” that would seek to convert them, and “when a student is known to be a Baha’i, he shall be expelled from university.” And more generally, “their religious activities and teaching shall be confronted by means of other religious activities and teaching, cultural responses and propaganda.” The government’s “Islamic Propaganda Organization, shall establish special sections to counter the religious activities and teachings of the Baha’is,” and even the Baha’is outside Iran were not to be spared in the plan for cultural genocide as the government decreed that “a plan shall be formulated to combat and destroy the cultural roots which this group has outside the country.” This government decree was leaked to the United Nation’s special representative on human rights in Iran and published in his report in 1992.
But the government’s campaign for the cultural eradication of the Baha’i community in Iran did not stop there. It was accompanied by a tsunami of black propaganda generated by government’s so-called “Research Institutes” and published in the Iranian media, all of which are controlled by the government. The Baha’is were accused of being anti-Islamic and anti-Iranian. For example, the Baha’is were said to be promoting such concepts as an increased social role for women in order to weaken Islam. History was rewritten to blame the Baha’is for every set back the nation had suffered over the previous century. But perhaps what was worse than these was the attempt to paint the Baha’is as inherently evil. For instance, the same “blood libel” propaganda which, in the Middle Ages, had accused Jews of kidnapping children and killing them for rituals was made against the Baha’is. Of course, no opportunity was given to the Baha’is or to anyone else to call out the obvious absurdity of this, and as a result, black propaganda continues in the present day with the hope that a lie told often enough will eventually be believed. The aim of all this is to justify the government’s campaign to obliterate the Baha’i community in Iran.
The attack on Baha’i culture has been further carried out through a systematic effort to obliterate all cultural traces of the Baha’is in Iran. Baha’is who played a prominent role in the progress of Iran are written out of the histories (or the fact that they were Baha’is is removed entirely). Baha’i commemorations of holy days and other community meetings are prohibited. All Baha’i community property is confiscated, Baha’i holy places are destroyed, and Baha’i cemeteries are confiscated and destroyed — not even the Baha’i dead can have peace in the Iran of today! The Baha’i Faith has no professional religious leaders but rather elected lay councils. All the members of the national Baha’i council and many members of local councils were arrested and executed, and the entire Baha’i administrative structure was disbanded. When the Baha’i community set up an institution to educate its young people who had all been excluded from university, the government arrested the teachers and raided the premises (often private homes) where classes were being held, trying unsuccessfully to close down this institution. The Baha’is responded by shifting most of the teaching to online courses offered by professors outside Iran.
Another aspect of cultural genocide, which may be considered to be a form of “ethnic cleansing,” involves forcibly relocating Baha’i villages or part of villages where Baha’is had lived for generations in peace and sometimes demolishing Baha’i homes. This happened in the village of Roshankuh a few weeks ago. The aim is that no trace of the Baha’i presence in these village remains.
Rather than allowing itself to be ground down into a state of passive victimhood, the Baha’i community has firmly resisted all the attempts of the government to eliminate it from the country. Based on Baha’i principles of social action, they have sought to respond to the actions of the Iranian government in a non-violent, non-confrontational manner, seeking ways of collaborating with others to form alliances for alternative constructive social action; for example, the Baha’i organized a literacy campaign among the poor, which the Baha’i youth of Shiraz launched with the help of other young people in Shiraz in 2006. These links with the members of the general population have helped the Baha’is break out of the “cultural ghettos” into which the Iranian government has been trying to force them. The reaction of the Baha’i community to cultural genocide has been described as “constructive resilience”.
In summary, the Iranian Baha’is have been subjected to a systematic and sustained programme by the Iranian government to eliminate the Baha’i community from Iran. This campaign calls not only for a physical elimination of the community by forcing them to recant their beliefs, but also a cultural genocide by removing from Iran every trace of their cultural presence. The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s totalitarian regime has employed every means at their disposal, including vituperative media campaigns, barring Baha’is from higher education, ethnic cleansing, continuous harassments, arrests, imprisonments, exclusion from earning a livelihood, and removing every cultural vestige of the Baha’i community. While this regime has been destructive, they have thus far not succeeded in destroying the resilience and dignity of the Baha’i community.
Commission on Human Rights (United Nations), forty-ninth session. Final Report on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran by the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights, Mr. Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, pursuant to Commission resolution 1992/67 of 4 March 1992 (Document E/CN.4/1993/41, 28 January 1993), 55, para. 310-11; documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G93/104/51/pdf/G9310451.pdf (accessed 30 Sep 2022)
Karlberg, Michael. “Constructive Resilience: The Baha’i Response to Oppression,” Peace and Change 35, no. 2 (April 2010), 222–57, Available at www.researchgate.net/publication/227748438_Constructive_Resilience_The_Baha%27i_Response_to_Oppression (accessed 30 Sep 2022)
Momen, Moojan. “The Baha’i community of Iran: Cultural genocide and resilience”. In Jeffrey Bachman (ed.), Cultural Genocide: Law, Politics, and Global Manifestations, London: Routledge, 2019, pp. 246-266.
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