The Persecution of the Baha’is of Iran, Why?

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While Baha’is have been oppressed in Iran during various periods since the birth of their religion in that country in the nineteenth century, the establishment of a Shi‘i theocracy after the 1979 Islamic Revolution began an era of intensified and systematic persecution for this community. Recent scholarship has convincingly suggested that the Islamic Republic regime has since coming into power waged a campaign of cultural genocide against the Baha’i community.[1]After providing a concise summary of the history of the persecution of the Baha’is of Iran and a short introduction of their beliefs, this article focuses on the ways in which scholars have analyzed the reasons behind these persecutions.

During the Qajar period (1789-1925), the persecution of Baha’is usually involved killing and murdering them, confiscating their properties, raiding and plundering their homes, and expelling them from their villages or towns. Near the end of the Qajar rule, Iran’s first constitution was drawn during the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911). The existence of Baha’is as a religious minority was not acknowledged in the constitution. It restricted recognized religious minorities to Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. By excluding Baha’is from the constitution, discrimination against them was institutionalized along with the introduction of law to Iran.

During the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1925-1941), except for a 1926 episode of mass killing in Jahrum in the province of Fars, there were no recorded mass physical attacks. The reign of his son Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-1979) witnessed ebbs and flows in the oppression of the Baha’i community—some bloody and violent, and one substantial period (c. 1959 -1976) with relative respite.[2] Throughout the Pahlavi period some level of discrimination, for example, official denial of governmental employment and practical societal non-existence, persisted. Anti-Baha’i forces were active, and anti-Baha’i polemics were published without Baha’is ever being allowed to publicly respond to any accusations levelled against them. During the first decade of the Islamic Republic, the clerical regime executed more than two hundred Baha’is, arrested and imprisoned several hundreds of them, confiscated Baha’i community properties, and expelled Baha’is from their jobs and university studies. While official executions that attracted international attention to the plight of Baha’is were discontinued after 1998, other forms of persecution, such as denial of educational and economic pressure, continued and at times intensified.[3] The regime has been concerned about interactions between Baha’is and Muslims and has shown particular intolerance to Baha’is informing Muslims of the tenets and teachings of their faith. High ranking clerics, including the Supreme Leader of the country, have issued fatwas (authoritative, advisory legal opinions) indicating Baha’is being najis (ritually unclean) and advising against interactions with them.

 

Who Are the Baha’is?

Baha’is are the followers of Mirza Husayn ‘Ali, known as Baha’u’llah (1817-1892), whom they believe—together with his forerunner Sayyid Ali Muhammad, known as the Bab (1819-1850)— inaugurated a new dispensation in world religions.[4] Baha’is believe the world needs a spiritual rejuvenation every thousand or so years through the appearance of a Manifestation of God, whose coming heralds a fundamental change in the world. The teachings of each Manifestation of God are in accordance with the ever-changing capacity of the society at the time. Ontologically, the Manifestations of God are all one and the same; Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, the Bab, and Baha’u’llah are all recognized as Manifestations of the same higher spiritual reality, and this spiritual reality intermediates between God and humankind. The Oneness of God, the Oneness of the Manifestations of God (hence, the oneness of the core of their religions), and the oneness of humankind form three of the fundamental principles of the Baha’i religion. The oneness of humankind is the pivot round which all other teachings of the Baha’i religion revolve. The realization of this essential oneness and creating consciousness about it are the goals of the Baha’i religion. Its social teachings include the equality of women and men, the eradication of all forms of prejudice, and the elimination of extreme poverty and wealth. There are no clerics in the Baha’i religion, and the affairs of the community are run by elected bodies at local, national and international levels. The global population of Baha’is is estimated to be around five million, approximately 300,000 of whom live in Iran.

 

Historians on the Causes of the Persecution of Baha’is in Iran

Even though the history of anti-Baha’ism in Iran in all its aspects is yet to be studied academically, in recent decades, historians of Iran have made some valuable contributions. Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi from the University of Toronto has shed light on the link between Islamism and anti-Baha’ism.[5] Dismissing theories of class conflict as inadequate for explaining the pattern of anti-Baha’i violence, Yale historian Abbas Amanat interprets this persecution as a “socio-cultural phenomenon.” The Baha’is, he argues, “were a sore point of non-conformity within a society seeking monolithic unanimity in the face of overwhelming threats from within and outside of its boundaries; a society fearful of losing its perceived ‘uniqueness’ as the Shi‘i ‘saved sect’.” The anti-Baha’i sentiments were, in Amanat’s analysis, “a doctrinally admissible ritual to forge a sense of collective ‘self’ versus an indigenous ‘other’ at a time when the alien ‘other’ was too intimidating and inaccessible to be viewed as an adversary.” The rejection of “the indigenous modernity of the Babi-Baha’i world view” was the corollary to “Shi‘i particularism,” a term Amanat uses to refer to the sense of “exclusive self” that Iranian Shi‘ism aims to construct “out of the fragile complex of the existing religious and social identities.”[6] Harvard historian Roy Mottahedeh has also developed a general theory explaining the treatment of Baha’is under different regimes before the Islamic Republic. Situating the conditions of Baha’is in the interplay between the clerics and the state in modern Iranian history, Mottahedeh suggests that in Iran,

“the Baha’is throughout most of their history were a pawn that…governments played in their complex game with the mullahs… [N]one of the governments was willing to surrender this pawn in a single move… Tolerating Baha’is was a way of showing mullahs who was boss. Correspondingly, allowing active persecution of the Baha’is was the low-cost pawn that could be sacrificed to the mullahs when the government was in trouble or in special need of mullah support.[7]

In investigating the roots of secular anti-Baha’ism in Iran, Houchang Chehabi, professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, proposes that Baha’i cosmopolitanism deeply rooted in the tenets of their religion stirs anti-Baha’i sentiment in many secular Iranians, mostly nationalists with xenophobic tendencies.[8] Reza Afshari, Professor of History and Human Rights at Pace University, focuses on anti-Baha’ism under the Islamic Republic. Proposing that political considerations and state expediencies alone do not fully explain the anti-Baha’i policies and actions in the Islamic Republic of Iran, as Baha’is did not present a challenge to the consolidation of the Islamic regime, Afshari suggests that such actions originated “in the clerics’ aversions, whose roots lay in a pre-modern religious prejudice” and “their dislike of a home-grown religious faith.”[9] He demonstrates that in post-revolutionary Iran, whenever the political factions have vied with one another for power, the persecution of Baha’is has increased.

This Author’s View on Reasons for the Persecution of Baha’is in Iran:

Why this persecution? The short answer is that most Shi‘i clerics in Iran consider the Baha’i religion heretical and feel threatened by it. Mainstream Islamic reading of a verse from the Qur’an (33:40)[10] makes Muslims believe the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood. Therefore, most Muslim clerics consider a religion appearing after Islam a mere heresy which must be uprooted. Many also feel threatened by it because the Baha’i cause attracted a large following in the nineteenth century, and its social teachings and fundamental tenets, such as the oneness of humankind, oneness of all religions, eradication of all forms of prejudice, and equality of men and women make it attractive to many today. Its lack of an ecclesiastical order and its rejection of clerics as needless is particularly unsettling to the Shi‘i clergy.  From this author’s point of view, at the heart of the persecution of the Baha’is of Iran lies a covert feeling of insecurity on the part of clerics who have enjoyed social influence and political power, both locally and nationally, for most of Iran’s history in the last one hundred and seventy years in general, and during the past forty-three years in particular. A key reason for the continuous and fierce persecution of Baha’is is the Islamic Republic’s fear of the propagation of the Baha’i teachings—insofar as it considers the Baha’i teachings a threat to its homogenizing tendencies, which advocate for a politicized Shi‘ism. In other words, the desire to suppress comes from a tacit awareness that if this rival, newer religion be allowed to present itself, it might win the hearts of many among the nation.

 

 

[1] See Moojan Momen (2019), “The Baha’i Community of Iran: Cultural Genocide and Resilience,” in Jeffrey Bachman (Ed.), Cultural Genocide: Law, Politics, and Global Manifestations (pp. 246-266). London, UK, Routledge.

[2] For an extensive discussion of this topic see Mina Yazdani (2017),“Towards a History of the Baha’i Community of Iran during the Reign of Mohammad Reza Shah,” Iran Namag 2, no.1 (Spring): 2-29.

[3] For an extensive discussion of the persecution of the Baha’is of Iran under the Islamic Republic and particularly in the past thirty years see Mina Yazdani (2018), “Quiet Strangulation: Islamic Republic’s Treatment of Baha’is since 1991,” Tiempo Devorado. Revista de Historia Actual. No. 2 (December): 156-181.

[4] The followers of the Bab who was executed in 1850 were known as Babis. For an academic study of the Bab and his early followers, see Abbas Amanat (1989), Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850, Ithca, NY: Cornell University press. Themajority, more than 90% of Babis, became Baha’is, i.e., the followers of Baha’u’llah.

[5] Mohammad Tavakoli-Targhi (2008), “Anti-Baha’ism and Islamism in Iran” (O. Ghaemmaghami, trans.), in Dominic Parviz Brookshaw and Sina B. Fazel (Eds.), The Baha’is of Iran: Socio-political studies (pp. 200-231). London, UK, Routledge.

[6] Abbas Amanat (2008), The historical roots of the persecution of Babis and Baha’is in Iran. In Dominic Parviz Brookshaw and Sina B. Fazel (Eds.), The Baha’is of Iran: Socio-political studies (pp.170-183). London, UK: Routledge. Quotes from 180-1.

[7] Roy Mottahedeh (2008), The mantle of the prophet, 2nd ed. Oxford, UK, Oneworld. pp. 238-239.

[8] Houshang Esfandyar Chehabi (2008), “Anatomy of prejudice: Reflections on secular anti-Bahaism in Iran,” in Dominic Parviz Brookshaw and Sina B. Fazel (Eds.), The Baha’is of Iran: Socio-political studies (pp.184-199), London, UK, Routledge.

[9] Reza Afshari (2008), “The discourse and practice of human rights violations of Iranian Baha’is in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” in Dominic Parviz Brookshaw and Sina B. Fazel (Eds.), The Baha’is of Iran: Socio-political studies (pp. 232-277), London, UK, Routledge.

[10] The verse has been translated as, “Muhammad is not the father of any man among you; rather, he is the Messenger of God and the Seal ofProphets. And God is knower of all things.” See Sayyid Husayn Nasr, et al. (Eds), (2015), The study Quran: A new translation and commentary (pp. 1031-32), New York, HarperOne.

 

 

 

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