SPOKANE, Washington — During the more than 200-year history of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’is have endured persecution from the Islamic government in Iran. The cruelty thrust upon the religious minority has not eased in recent years. Instead, it has become a more open, organized effort to deny the human rights of Iranian Baha’is. The peaceful response from the Baha’i community in Iran reflects the Baha’i religion’s teachings against prejudice. The Baha’i Faith centers on “the unity of the human race” and the responsibility of organized religion to bring justice, protection and equality to all the world’s people.
The Faith of the Iranian Baha’is
The Baha’i Faith came about in 1844 when the religion’s first prophet, the Báb, came forth with a spiritual revelation in Shiraz, Persia. The Báb and his successors, including the religion’s central prophet, Baha’u’llah, spoke of the Baha’i Faith as the newest iteration of an age-old world religion. Followers believe that is necessary to view all religions as one timeless effort to bring about positive change for humanity.
As Baha’is see it, their modern prophets came at a critical time to deliver a message of unity. The religion as a whole promotes equal access to education, the right to religious freedom and the equality of all people. Beginning as early as 1963, every fifth year, “the Bahá’í national administrative bodies around the world” elect nine leaders to constitute the Universal House of Justice and lead the Baha’i community. Each country has its own nine leaders who constitute the National Spiritual Assembly and advise and guide Local Assemblies.
History of Persecution
Persecution of Baha’is through time is an unfortunate and lasting characteristic of Baha’i history. Six years after the Báb’s revelation, the Islamic clergy and the government of Iran executed the Báb and murdered some 20,000 of his followers.
Persecution continues today in a more official form since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. In 1980, “all nine members of” Iran’s National Spiritual Assembly were abducted. In 1983, it became “a criminal offense” to organize as a leader of Baha’is and conduct Baha’i “community activities in Iran.” Prior to disbanding, the country’s National Spiritual Assembly pleaded for the rights of Iranian Baha’is before the Iranian government. For nearly 40 years now, Iranian Baha’is have lived without national leadership, facing constant danger.
Life for Iranian Baha’is
The Baha’i Faith is the largest religious minority in Iran, but the Islamic government has never formally recognized the Baha’is. The persecution of Baha’is is largely due to the perceived political threat posed to the Islamic state by another widely practiced religion. Iranian laws protect the human rights of religious minorities, except those that conspire against Islam. The Islamic State and state-sponsored media claim that the Iranian Baha’is are conspiring against Islam, supposedly justifying the violations against the minority group.
In direct opposition to the Baha’i belief that all religions are important components of a larger world religion, Iranian officials, religious leaders and the media position the Baha’is as a direct threat to the practice of Islam and the survival of Iran. Between 2019 and 2020, about 10,000 pieces of state-sanctioned propaganda against Baha’is circulated in Iran. The government bars Iranian Baha’is from responding to this hate speech despite their right to do so under the Iranian Press Law.
Censure has seeped down from political desks to media screens, manifesting itself in violence and discrimination against Iranian Baha’is. Tens of thousands of Baha’is risk multiple economic and cultural consequences for their religious beliefs such as expulsion from schools, closure of businesses, loss of employment, destruction of property and the desecration of holy sites and graves. Iran has arrested thousands of Baha’is and at least 200 Baha’i murder cases exist today. The killers often walk free, having committed a righteous act for the preservation of the Islamic state.
In 1993, the U.N. exposed 1991 directives from the Iranian government that sought to ensure the barring of the minority group from any educational, cultural and economic progress. These policies remain today, effectively barring Iranian Baha’is from their right to an education.
Peaceful Resistance with the BIHE
In 1987, Iranian Baha’is founded the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE) as a response to the exclusion of Baha’is from education in Iran. Approximately 1,500 students applied in the first year. By 1998, more than 150 faculty members provided quality education for around 900 students.
The institute seemed to be a relatively safe alternative for non-Islamic students until the fall of 1998 when Iranian government agents arrested 36 BIHE faculty members. The Baha’i set up a network of more than 45 private libraries in Baha’i homes so that students could access textbooks discreetly. Raids occurring in 1998 led to officials seizing some of these libraries along with many of the photocopiers used to distribute assignments.
The BIHE has adapted using today’s technology. Now, 955 staff members operate the hybrid online and in-person school. The school offers more than 1,050 classes in its associate, undergraduate or graduate programs. Despite ongoing persecution of the Baha’i, BIHE records an average of 1,000 applicants and accepts 450 new first-year students annually.
Although a number of Iranian Baha’is are still held back by Iran’s refusal to recognize the institution, BIHE graduates go on to study at 98 different international universities and colleges. In the face of ongoing human rights violations, the BIHE ensures Baha’i rights to education, equipping marginalized Baha’i people with the knowledge and tools to transform their lives and look to a brighter future.
– Angela Basinger