Despite Grave Danger, Iran s Bahais Study at Underground University, May 21, 2003

Sitting in an austere Tehran living room, her clammy hands threatening to soil her answer sheet, Sahar R. knew that it was not the usual fear of academic failure that was causing her a bout of “examination nerves.”

It was the terror that security officials from unknown quarters of the Iranian government might swoop into the nondescript living room, where a small group of teenagers sat furiously scribbling their undergraduate tests in the early 1990s, that set her heart racing.

For if she was caught, the punishment was something the studious undergraduate preferred not to imagine. It could be a brief detention, a prolonged imprisonment, torture, even execution — one never quite knew in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and one was content not to find out.

As a member of the severely persecuted Bahai religion in Iran in the early 1990s, Sahar (her name has been changed to protect relatives who remain in Iran) knew she had precious few basic human rights.

Comprising Iran’s largest religious minority, Bahais, who believe in the equality of all faiths, are considered heretics by the Shiite Muslim authorities that came into power after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

With no official recognition in the Iranian constitution as a religious minority, the list of persecutions and intimidations against Bahais is extensive and has been the subject of frequent condemnations by international human rights groups.

But for Sahar — who was a sprightly 10-year-old when the revolution shook her country — the government ban on Bahais attending universities or receiving any sort of higher education seemed particularly unfair.

“I always knew I would not be able to attend university while I was in school,” Sahar said in a phone interview with from Boston, where the 32-year-old Iranian refugee works as a clinical social worker with trauma patients.

“But as I got older in my senior high school years, it really started to sink in,” she said. “All my Muslim friends were going to college and I couldn’t. They felt bad of course, but there was nothing they could do about it — to be even seen as supporting the Bahais was dangerous.”

But help arrived in the form of a clandestine underground “university” set up by the intrepid Bahai community, which has always placed a high emphasis on education.

An Underground University Is Born

Started on a small scale in 1987, the secretive BIHE (Bahai Institute of Higher Education) has been operating stealthily, under great duress, in Bahai living rooms, garages and offices across Iran.

In what has been called “an elaborate act of communal self-preservation,” the BIHE valiantly attempts to provide an education for the community’s deprived youth, bucking a state effort to prevent future generations of Bahais from reaching any positions of influence in Iran.

At grave risk to their lives, Bahai teachers, professionals and volunteers have cobbled together a complex system of administrative deception, offering a variety of subjects, disseminated mostly through smuggled course materials, photocopied and hand-delivered to students.

The peril of the undertaking was highlighted in 1998, when, under a massive government crackdown, security officials descended on more than 500 Bahai homes, confiscating teaching materials, textbooks, laboratory equipment, photocopying machines and computers and arresting about 36 BIHE faculty members across the country.

Help From Around the World

It was a crackdown that saw the Bahai diaspora — a well-organized and politically active group of an estimated 5 million members spread across more than 230 countries — pitch in their collective organizing skills to help restart the shattered university.

By the time the 1998 crackdowns occurred, Sahar had managed to make it to the United States as a political refugee and was completing her postgraduate studies in psychology at Boston University.

But with her mother and two younger brothers still in Tehran, she had to be cautious about the help she extended her alma mater back home.

“We conducted book drives at the end of semester, asking students here to donate their textbooks, but we had to be very careful about how we sent it,” she said. “We would send them two at a time — marked to different addresses — not to arouse suspicions.”

The collective effort worked and today, the BIHE is back on the job despite intermittent swoops, arrests and confiscations over the past few years.

A History of Persecution

The Bahai religion dates back to 1844, when a young Shiite Muslim named Bahaullah in what is now Iran announced his divine revelation of the spiritual unity of humanity and an equality of all faiths.Today, there are an estimated 300,000 adherents in Iran.

But while religious minorities such as Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians are officially recognized in the Islamic Republic of Iran and are granted official, if not actual, “equal rights,” Bahais are the non-people of Iran.

It’s an exclusion that comes with a host of subtle and often not-so-subtle persecutions ranging from an inability to practice their faith to a ban on any identifying structures on Bahai graves.

The principal reasons for the persecution, some experts say, are rooted in a narrow reading of theology. The fact that Bahai was founded in 19th-century Persia by a young Muslim is viewed by some as a challenge to Islam. Bahaullah’s teaching is seen in the Islamic state of Iran as an affront to the Prophet Mohammad, whose teachings, Muslims believe, were the last revelation.

Rolling Back to the Past?

The persecution of the Bahais has been harsh, but as with most human rights concerns in Iran, the situation for the Bahais goes through periods of ups and downs, dependent — and sometimes independent — of the swings in the country’s perennial tussle between reformist and conservative leaders.

By all accounts, the years following the 1979 revolution were the worst, with an estimated 200 Bahais executed, about 800 imprisoned and untold numbers of Bahai public service employees and university professors kicked out of their jobs.

But some experts warn that recent domestic and international political trends, such as the country’s inclusion in the U.S. “axis of evil,” threaten to roll back some of the fledgling human rights achievements in Iran.

“The past two years have been particularly worrisome,” said Elahi Sharifpour-Hicks of New York-based Human Rights Watch. “The reformists have suffered big losses and with the U.S. occupation in Iraq, the conservatives appear to be gaining the upper hand.”

A Serious Setback

Bahai rights in Iran received a serious setback earlier this year, when the U.N. Commission on Human Rights failed to adopt a resolution on the human rights situation in Iran. From 1982 to 2001, the commission has adopted resolutions on Iran featuring a special mention of the persecution of the country’s Bahai community.

A newly established “dialogue” between the European Union and Iranian officials on wide-ranging issues was cited as the reason the resolution was not approved.

But while acknowledging the importance of engaging in a dialogue with the Iranian government, Bani Dugal, principal representative of the Bahai International Community to the United Nations, said the talks should not preclude a resolution on Iran’s human rights track record.

The implications of the failure, she warned, were serious. “The reason we think the persecution, which was so intense in the 1980s, slowed down was because of international pressure on the Iranian government,” said Dugal. “We can see the positive effects of these resolutions through the years. It puts the Iranian government on notice.”

Talking to Tehran

With the United Nations apparently backing away from the plight of the Bahais, there is also little hope of help from the world’s sole remaining superpower.

While the United States has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis — when 52 Americans were taken hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran — there have been recent reports of talks between U.S. and Iranian officials in Geneva after the war in Afghanistan.

But during a visit to Lebanon last week, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami dismissed the talks as “nothing new” and stressed that Washington and Tehran continue to have “important and big” differences.

Certainly with issues such as Washington’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its alleged support for terrorist groups and the recent worries about Tehran tyring to influence the Shiites in neighboring Iraq, human rights is not expected to top the bilateral agenda.

“From what I understand, the talks have been somewhat exaggerated in the press,” said Shaul Bakash, a professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia who is a specialist on Iran. “And right now, while the U.S. does raise issues of human rights concerns, my own feeling is that this particular issue is only of secondary or tertiary importance.”

Missing Home

For their part, Bahai rights groups cite a rise in the number of short-term arrests and confiscations of Bahai properties as proof that the dialogue between the EU and the Iranian government has not been helpful for their community in Iran.

Within the past 12 months, Bahai rights groups say 23 Bahais across the country have been subjected to arbitrary arrests and short-term detentions, coupled with the confiscation of several Bahai properties.

According to Human Rights Watch’s Sharifpour-Hicks, a new pattern of low-key persecution involving short-term detentions, wherein detainees are suddenly released only to be arrested again, has made it exceedingly difficult for rights groups to monitor the situation and raise international alarm.

And in the latest attacks on the BIHE, Bahai groups say Iranian Revolutionary Guards in a number of cities and towns confiscated examination papers and books of students taking the university qualifying examinations last year.

Nearly a decade since she graduated from the BIHE, Sahar still remembers the extraordinary precautions they had to take during exam time.

“We were advised to be very cautious,” she recounts. “If we were arriving in cars, we could not park outside the house or the guards would be suspicious to see so many cars parked. If the exam was at 3 [p.m.] we had to start arriving much earlier so everyone wouldn’t arrive at once. The guards patrolled the streets all the time.”

But despite the trying times she endured, amazingly, Sahar says she misses the camaraderie of her old Tehran days.

“It was incredible to be part of such a wonderful group of people,” she said. “We had such spirit, such a sense of purpose. I spent some very special years of my life with that community. It’s very crucial for me. I miss it a lot.”

It’s an astonishing revelation from a woman who watched her family struggle after her father, a prominent Bahai community leader, disappeared in the infamous purges after the 1979 revolution.

But her soul, she says, still pines for the soil of her native country.

“I am Iranian,” she said simply. “I have become a U.S. citizen, but I do feel Iranian. As a Bahai, I believe all citizens of the world are all the same — they’re all human beings — but because of my experiences there, I feel my heart is there.”

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 30, -0001 at 12:00 AM, Central European Time (CET)