As a military officer who had seized the throne from the last Qajar king, Reza Shah saw the Shia clergy as a barrier to his rule. The clerics and the Qajars had been allies, but he had no guarantee that they would support him or his desire to modernize Iran. The new shah tried to emulate the ancient Persian kings by granting an equal status to all Iranians, regardless of ethnicity and religion, partly to help dilute the influence of the mullahs.
To this end, he granted the Baha’is almost the same rights as other Iranians. The Baha’is could practice their faith and maintain their own schools, and many Baha’is prospered under the Pahlavi dynasty.
Nevertheless, the Baha’i faith was still not legally recognized by the government – and certainly not by Iran’s Shia clergy. So while Iranian Baha’is could not be persecuted without the king’s censure, the lack of real legal protection left them vulnerable. The clergy used this to its advantage.
The mullahs resented Reza Shah’s secular attitude and his disdain for their authority, and ultimately forced him, and especially his son and successor, Muhammad Reza Shah, to abandon the Baha’is.
Like his father before him, Muhammad Reza Shah had come to the throne with ambitious plans for modernizing Iran. He wanted his reforms to sweep across the country’s institutions, infrastructure, and culture. Many Baha’is played an active role in this wave of change, contributing in the fields of business, science, literature, and the arts, as well as education.
Among the leading Baha’is helping to reshape Iranian society were entrepreneur Habib Sabet, who brought television and Pepsi to Iran in the 1960s. The movie director Houshang Mahmoudi was a Baha’i; he was one of Iran’s first TV broadcasters, well known for developing programs specifically for children. Houshang’s wife, Zhinous Mahmoudi, was one of Iran’s first meteorologists, and the first woman to head the Iranian Meteorological Organization.
In 1971, for the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire, the Azadi Tower was built in Azadi Square, also known as Freedom Square. It was designed by a young Baha’i named Hossein Amanat. The monument (which was originally called the Shahyad, or the “Memorial of the Kings”) became the most globally recognized icon of modern Iran and represented to many the country’s capacity to blend past with future.
The country’s image was changing rapidly – too rapidly for some.
The eminent philosopher Ali Murad Davoudi, born in 1922 in a small Azerbaijani village, was a Baha’i. He spent time in France early in his career, and among his major contributions to Iranian academic life are his translations into Persian of original French philosophical texts. His focus on Aristotle and Descartes helped to extend the appeal and relevance of ancient and Western philosophers to Iranian society.
As chair of the philosophy department at Tehran University and secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly, the governing body of Iran’s Baha’is, Davoudi was among the many Baha’i intellectuals who helped shape modern Iran. But his prominence as a Baha’i made him a target. It made his family a target, too.
Davoudi had five children, two sons and three daughters, one of whom is called Marjan. At her state-run school, Marjan’s theology teacher recognized her surname and asked uncomfortable questions about her father. Davoudi's work in Iran was not appreciated by everyone.
In 1979, he would suffer the same end as many other Baha’is.