Hearing that the Nobel laureate and human rights campaigner Shirin Ebadi is launching her latest book in London has reminded me of the pride and hope I felt as an Iranian woman when in 2003 she became the first Iranian woman and, indeed, the first Muslim woman to receive the imprimatur of international moral leadership.
Lately though, hope — like human rights – has become a scarcer commodity for many of Iran’s citizens. This is particularly true for Iranians who, like myself, are members of the Baha”i’ faith. Last month six members of the informal leadership committee of Iran’s 300,000-strong Baha’i community were arrested. A seventh colleague has been detained since March. No word has been heard from them since their arrests. They are being held incommunicado with no access to lawyers and no contact with relatives. One of them, Jamaloddin Khanjani, is my uncle.
Recently, when the Friday prayer leader in Mashhad publicly called for the execution of these leaders, I and my co-religionists the world over, could not but recall the early years following the 1979 Iranian revolution when the entire membership of the elected Baha’is governing council, the National Spiritual Assembly, were abducted and never seen again. Eight of the nine successors were later also arrested and executed. The authorities’ violent suppression of the peaceful Baha’i community moved on to target those individuals who were most active at regional and municipal level. In June 1980 my own father, Yusuf Subhani was executed. His only crime was being a Baha’i.
What have my uncle and his colleagues done to provoke such treatment? According to Iranian officials they have been detained for “security reasons” yet the history of past persecution of the Baha”i’s demonstrates that if they are willing to recant their faith and embrace Islam, their so-called crimes against “national security” are instantly forgiven.
There is much scepticism around the ideals of universal human rights and the efficacy of international engagement. Yet a glance at Iran’s actions in the past three decades demonstrates that the authorities’ willingness to execute Baha’is coincidentally declined in tandem with greater levels of international condemnation of their human rights record through international diplomacy. It may be nai”ve to believe that diplomacy and public pressure can yield instant results or a comprehensive solution in short order, but peaceful and resolute scrutiny has had an impact before: Hamid Pourmand, a Christian convert, originally facing death for apostasy was later acquitted after concerted international action.
The western media’s often ethnocentric vision of Iran as a land of “mad mullahs” belies the sophistication and complexity of a land that is heir to an immense cultural heritage, as well as more open to ideas than its detractors give it credit for. Dr Ebadi is perhaps the most visible symbol of this cosmopolitan Iran.
Iran is not insensible to issues of rights. Indeed, its government champions the rights of Muslims who are victims of injustice throughout the world. The authorities in Tehran were particularly exercised over the issue of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad when they appeared in a Danish newspaper. Most of the Muslim world – and indeed, people of all faiths – would not hesitate to object to the defamation of a holy or revered figure. But the Iranian authorities sadly do not reciprocate with respect for the sanctities of others.
Recently 5,000 copies of a children’s picture-book entitled, The Deceitful Babak was posted as a “gift” to Iranian schoolchildren. This book is a slanderous, historically-inaccurate and distorted account of the life of the 19th century religious teacher known as the Bab, one of the two highly-revered Prophet-Founders of the Baha’i faith. This callous indifference to others sense of reverance extends even beyond death. Baha’i corpses have been dug up and their bones desecrated as part of a concerted programme to vandalise and destroy a number of Baha’i cemeteries. Precisely for what “security reasons” were these long-departed members of the Baha’i community responsible?
The tragedy of Iran’s obsessive witch-hunt against its largest non-Muslim religious minority is that the Baha’is cherish an abiding love for their country and have remained there — despite intense persecution — because they wish to contribute to its progress and prosperity. Iran is their homeland, and as the cradle of their faith and others, they extol it as a sacred land. Their steadfastness in the face of oppression, and the evidence of their goodwill towards their countrymen is gaining increasing recognition amongst ever greater numbers of Iranians at home and abroad. Muslim campaigners are openly calling for the Iranian government to respect the human rights of its Baha’i population.
In the face of the manifold cruelties that the Iranian government inflicts upon a religious community that it views with suspicion and enmity, more and more Muslims in Iran appear to be saying, “Not in my name!”
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