A new faith in an ancient land
A new faith in an ancient land
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Iran refuses to let Baha'is teach or study at university. But they do teach. And they do study.
The Baha'i Institute for Higher Education is an informal university dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.
Experience now the story of how Iran's Baha'is created this icon of peaceful resistance.
All the races and religions are one. Men and women are equal. Violence must be abandoned for peace. Education is a universal right – and a universal responsibility.
Even today, these ideas are considered radical in many parts of the world. In 19th-century Iran, they provoked social upheaval when they were professed to be the core tenets of a new religion: the Baha’i faith.
The movement began in the 1840s, when a young merchant known as the Bab (the “Gate”) broke away from Islam and stirred a religious revival. After the Bab was executed in 1850, the movement was nearly quashed. But among the Bab’s most prominent disciples was the nobleman Baha’u’llah, who refused to be silenced even after the authorities imprisoned him.
In 1863, Baha’u’llah called for a new faith – one for all humanity. His message attracted thousands of followers across Iran, many of whom embraced his revelation that people should take responsibility for investigating spiritual and moral truth themselves and that the nations of the world must unite into one peaceful civilization. Yet many in Iran rejected Baha’u’llah’s religion and its challenges to the established order.
Shia Muslim clerics, called mullahs, held absolute religious authority in 19th-century Iran. Their interpretations of Islam were binding on all Muslim Iranians.
Baha’u’llah’s teachings were a direct challenge to this ruling clerical class. The highest-ranking clerics were the marjas, who were widely seen as the arbiters of truth and “objects of emulation.” Baha’u’llah said that human beings no longer needed an established clergy, which meant the marjas should no longer be followed without question. Baha’u’llah also said that prophets – Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad – were periodically sent by God to guide humanity, and that he himself was God’s latest messenger. The mullahs taught that Muhammad is the last of the prophets – the so-called “seal” on communications between God and humanity.
Baha’u’llah’s teachings also undermined the clerics’ political authority and income. The mullahs were closely allied with Iran’s political rulers, the tyrannical yet devoutly religious Qajar dynasty. Many clerics had begun to use their position to amass personal fortunes from the Shah and the princes who ruled Iran’s far-flung provinces.
Threatened, the mullahs encouraged religious fanatics to attack converts to the Baha’i faith. The Shah’s soldiers openly tortured and murdered Baha’is.
Born in 1817, Baha’u’llah was a child of privilege. His father had been a minister in the Shah’s court, and after his father’s death, Baha’u’llah could have assumed his father’s role. Instead, he chose to spend his fortune on serving the poor.
When Baha’u’llah learnt of the Bab’s teachings, he immediately pledged his loyalty and became a leading member of the movement. It was not an easy path. He was accused of heresy and theft of public funds and publicly beaten. Some claimed that he was working for the British or Russian governments, which were trying to gain influence over Central Asia. Baha’u’llah was even accused of attempting to assassinate the king, Naser al-Din Shah.
Charged with treason, in 1852 Baha’u’llah was thrown into Tehran’s Siyah-Chal (“Black Pit”) dungeon, where he was confined underground, in chains, for 4 months. When the authorities could find no proof that he had had any part in the assassination attempt, he was released. But they recognized Baha’u’llah posed a danger to Iran’s elite and banished him to Iraq, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. For the next 40 years, Baha’u'llah lived in exile, first in Iraq, later in Turkey, and finally in Palestine. He died in 1892, near the prison-city of Akka, on the Bay of Haifa.
Over the next century, millions of people around the world would come to call themselves Baha’is, and many of them would also face persecution.
Pioneers and reactionaries
Pioneers and reactionaries
For centuries, Iran was renowned for its arts and culture, but under the Qajar shahs, schooling had largely been confined to the mullahs’ religious teaching. As a result, Iranian society was falling behind the European powers. Several intellectuals and ministers pressed the new king, Mozzafar al-Din Shah, to reform the educational system to ensure Iran’s future. Much of the public wanted schooling for their children, too.
The clergy were divided over the issue. Conservative mullahs flatly opposed the calls to open new schools. Leading progressive clerics, including Mirza Sayyid Muhammad Tabataba’i, argued that if Iranians were educated, then they would no longer tolerate injustice – which they said was an essential component of Islamic belief.
To satisfy the demand for change, the Shah’s top minister, Mirza Ali Khan Amin Al-Daulih, recruited a reform-minded Muslim scholar, Haj Mirza Hasan Rushdiyyih, to establish Tehran’s first private elementary school in 1898. During the first term, 400 students enrolled; 50 were from poor families and received state assistance to attend.
For years, ever since he had learned that only 10 out of 1,000 people in the West were illiterate, Rushdiyyih had been campaigning to reform Iran’s schools. He was dismayed that in his country, once known for its scholarship, only 10 out of 1,000 could read. His school opened a new chapter in Iran’s history.
The Baha’is, with their emphasis on universal education and learning, joined the drive to improve Iranians’ education. A Baha’i school for boys opened in Tehran in 1899; later, the Baha’is’ groundbreaking Tarbiyat (“Education”) School, also in Tehran, was recognized by the government. Forty more Baha’i schools would open in the coming decades.
The lessons were secular and often noted for their excellence. Baha’i and Muslim teachers were employed, as well as foreign education experts. The schools adopted the official state curricula, but they also went further, offering extra classes in music, drama, and life skills.
Because the Baha’i schools were open to all, prominent Muslim Iranians also sent their children to them. Future government ministers, diplomats, and chiefs of industry were products of the Baha’i education experiment; so too was the last of the Iranian kings, Muhammad Reza Shah.
Although other groups – Christian missionaries, foreign organizations, and other minority religions – also had their own schools, the mullahs resented the Baha’is’ success. Since the founding of the Baha’i faith, Muslim clerics had derided the Baha’is as apostates whose “blood can be shed with impunity.” Baha’i schools were yet another affront to the clerics’ authority in Iranian society.
By the turn of the 20th century, the ruling Qajar dynasty had been weakened by poor governance, crippling foreign debt, and endemic corruption. To maintain his personal wealth, the king, Mozzafar al-Din Shah, had started granting special concessions over state contracts and territorial rights to the British and Russian governments. The economy buckled under the pressure of this sell-off of resources.
The Shah increased taxes in 1905 to try to stabilize the country’s finances. Merchants, political reformers, and even a number of clerics responded with demands for an elected parliament, an independent judiciary, a free press, and economic independence from the West. The Baha’is joined this constitutional revolution – the first of its kind in Asia.
Mass protests quickly erupted, and were met with violence. When some protestors took refuge in one of Tehran’s mosques, the Shah’s soldiers invaded the house of worship. Skirmishes broke out around the country and dozens of protestors were killed.
The Shah, who was growing old and weak, eventually relented. Elections were held for the first parliament, called the Majlis. On 31 December 1906, Mozzafar al-Din Shah signed Iran’s first constitution. He died five days later.
Nearly all Iranians celebrated this political watershed, but one community read the new constitution with concern. The charter recognized Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews as religious minorities deserving of protection, but the Baha’is were excluded. The new constitution laid the foundation for decades of discrimination against the Baha’is.
The new role for women
The new role for women
For the Baha’is, who believed in equality between men and women, teaching women and girls was the next step. Allowing girls outside of their homes was another test for the conservative mullahs, but the Baha’is found some allies, especially after the new, modern constitution was signed into law.
Iran’s first modern girls’ private school opened in Tehran in 1903, but it was to be short-lived. Scandalized by the development, a cleric issued a fatwa, or religious edict, stating that the school contravened Islamic teachings. The doors were closed after just four days. Three years later, a second school was opened; the building was destroyed. Finally, in 1909, a girls’ school opened in a private home and it thus survived the clerics’ condemnations. A second school was established by a Baha’i in 1911, followed a few months later by the Tarbiyat, which would become the leading Baha’i school for girls.
Many Iranian families acknowledged that the Tarbiyat in Tehran was one of the best schools in the country. Its students were known for their academic accomplishment and personal development.
The mullahs did not relent. They pressured the Qajar government to close the schools, spreading lies about the Baha’i schools’ teachings – for instance, that the schools planned to convert students.
After Baha’u’llah’s death, his son Abdul-Baha took charge of spreading the Baha’i faith. From the start, he wanted to share his father’s teachings with people around the world, particularly in Britain and America.
Attracted by the principles of human equality and oneness, a woman from Chicago called Susan Moody, who was also a doctor, was an early convert. In 1909, she traveled to Haifa to meet Abdul-Baha, who had encouraged her to resettle in Iran, at the age of 58, and to bring modern medicine to the country.
Iranians had little access to medical care. Devout Muslim women, who, Moody said, “would rather die than show their faces to a man,” received almost no care at all. Moody opened a clinic in her home and established the Sehat (“Health”) Hospital, one of the first modern hospitals in Tehran. Soon, she was working at the new Tarbiyat Girls’ School, training a generation of women to be teachers and nurses.
Another American convert, Lillian Kappes, joined Moody in Tehran to manage the Tarbiyat and pushed for its teachers to adopt American educational methods. After Kappes succumbed to typhoid in 1921, another American, Genevieve Coy, who was an expert in the education of intellectually gifted children, took over. When Moody died in 1934 in Iran, hundreds of Iranians attended her funeral. These women are part of the bedrock of early Baha’i contributions to Iran’s development.
These women are part of the bedrock of early Baha’i contributions to Iran’s development.
In 1921, Reza Khan, a general in the Persian-Cossack Brigade, seized control of Tehran in a coup. Four years later, the Majlis forced the Qajars off the throne and named Reza as the first shah of the new Pahlavi royal dynasty. He became known as Reza Shah.
The Tarbiyat Girls’ School played a key role in emancipating Iranian women, whether they were Baha’i, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian, or another faith – so said Furugh Zafar Bakhtiyari, the head of Iran’s Central Committee of Women, in 1932, though she herself was not a Baha’i. She believed that academic and moral education were needed, not just to provide basic skills such as literacy, but also to instill personal virtues and a feeling of civic duty. She asked that the Tarbiyat schools be expanded.
Bakhtiyari based her assessment on the accomplishments of the students coming up through the Baha’is’ schools. By the 1930s, Iranian Baha’i women had achieved a landmark – 100 percent literacy. At the time, only 40 percent of Iran’s women could read. The newly educated Iranian Baha’i women quickly began to make a mark on Iran. Many pursued professional careers.
Also in the 1930s, the Pahlavis supported the unveiling movement among Iranian women, making it mandatory for women to unveil in public The Baha’is, believing in the equality of men and women, were among the first to abandon this ancient custom.
Almost free to make a difference
Almost free to make a difference
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.
Trying their best to sabotage progress
Trying their best to sabotage progress
Less than a decade after becoming king, in 1934, Reza Shah closed the Baha’i schools. His stated reason was that the schools observed Baha’i holy days and that this violated state regulations. Policemen were sent to eject students and teachers from their classrooms. Signs were removed from buildings. The schools were kept under guard for days to keep people from returning.
The order hurt more than the Baha’i community. Many local officials charged with carrying out the Shah’s command were unhappy, because their own children attended the Baha’i schools, which were considered to be among the best in the country.
Increasingly, the Baha’is suffered other forms of harassment, depending on the political needs of the moment. The Shah gave the Baha’is space to practice their faith when he was strong and inclined to annoy the mullahs. But whenever he felt political pressure mounting, from the public or the clergy, he targeted the Baha’is. To appease the mullahs, Baha’i marriages were made illegitimate, several Baha’i cemeteries were expropriated, and from time to time Baha’i gatherings were disrupted or banned.
Reza Shah’s ambitions to create a modern, secular central government took precedence. The Baha’i community and other religious minorities became pawns in a game of political control between the Pahlavis and the mullahs.
Sulayman Berjis, a doctor and a Baha’i in Kashan, dedicated himself to treating the poor, and offered his services for free. His practice worried the local Shia clerics, who were convinced that Berjis wanted to convert his Muslim patients to the Baha’i faith. When they warned him in 1950 to leave Kashan or suffer the consequences, he refused.
The mullahs were infuriated. They slandered him. They said that he was not qualified to be a physician and that his certificate was fake. They accused him of raping his female patients. Still, Berjis refused to shut his clinic. He would not be bullied into leaving his home.
Later that year, a man came to the doctor’s home to let him know that a person in a distant neighborhood needed medical attention, but was too ill to travel to the clinic. True to his practice, Berjis went out to attend the unknown patient. It was a trap. A group of eight men surrounded him on the street and stabbed him 81 times before throwing his body from the rooftop of a house in the city.
The killers were sentenced to prison – but not for long. The mullahs managed to secure their early release and praised them as heroes. The Baha’is could not feel safe.
During the Second World War, Muhammad Reza Shah had succeeded his father as king after British and Russian forces invaded Iran. A coup in 1953 against Mohammad Mossadeq, a popular nationalist prime minister, severely weakened the Shah’s rule. Many Iranians believed the Shah had allowed Mossadeq to be removed by the British and American secret services.
To secure his position, the Shah chose a familiar tactic: placate the mullahs by loosening his restrictions on their interests. A clutch of firebrand clerics denounced the Baha’is as traitors and incited a new wave of anti-Baha’i activity. Muhammad Reza Shah said nothing.
Things came to a head during the holy month of Ramadan in 1955, when Sheikh Muhammad Taqi Falsafi, a leading mullah, urged his followers to attack the main Baha’i center in Tehran. The royal army, led by General Nader Batmanghelich, joined the growing mob. The Baha’is were forced out and the building, starting with its iconic dome, was torn to pieces.
Several Baha’is were murdered as anti-Baha’i emotions ran unchecked across Iran. The Majlis even considered banning the Baha’i faith and introducing extreme policies such as sentencing Baha’is to solitary confinement and confiscating their property. None of the measures were passed but they portended a dark future for Baha’is in Iran.
The clergy ends the monarchy
The clergy ends the monarchy
As early as 1953, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a revered and controversial cleric, was denouncing Muhammad Reza Shah and his Western, secular policies. According to Khomeini, it was the Baha’is’ influence over the Shah that caused him to support ideas such as the equality of men and women.
A decade later, on an Islamic holy day in 1963, Khomeini labeled the Shah a tyrant and a “wretched, miserable man.” In response, the Shah’s forces detained Khomeini, sparking 3 days of riots; at least 400 people were killed. Over the next year, more upheaval followed and Khomeini was forced to leave Iran for exile in Iraq and later France. The Islamic Revolution was under way.
The Ayatollah believed that Iran needed a new form of government that he called Velayateh Faqih – guardianship of the Islamic jurist – with himself as the leader. He waged his campaign against the Shah by smuggling audio cassettes of his sermons into Iran. Anti-government protests erupted again in 1978, after an article referred to Khomeini as an Indian-born reactionary, and the Shah’s forces killed still more of Khomeini’s supporters as part of the crackdown. People mourned the dead every 40 days, in keeping with Muslim tradition. On each 40th day, when they gathered together for religious ceremonies to mark the deaths, more violence broke out and more people were killed by the Shah’s forces.
The Shah declared martial law on 6 December 1978, yet despite the new restrictions, millions continued to go into the streets in protest. The country fell into chaos.
Knowing that he had lost control of Iran, Muhammad Reza fled Iran on 16 January 1979. Huge crowds chanted Shah raft, “The Shah has left,” when the news was announced.
On 1 February, Khomeini returned to Iran. Now, the crowds chanted Emad amad, “The Imam [the leader] has arrived.” The Islamic Republic was born.
Spies and saboteurs had infiltrated the Baha’i community for decades. Hojjatieh, a religious society established in 1953 by the charismatic cleric, Sheikh Mahmoud Halabi, made it a mission to argue against Baha’i teachings and to show Iranians that the Baha’i faith was a “fake cult.” More than 12,000 Muslims joined Hojjatieh to attack the Baha’i “threat.” Some Hojjatieh operatives posed as Baha’is to infiltrate the community, steal confidential documents, and spread disinformation about the Baha’is in Iranian society.
After the Islamic Revolution, Hojjatieh’s work was used for a more violent end. Many Hojjatieh members enlisted with the local komitehs, or revolutionary committees, or took positions in the new government; others joined the elite Revolutionary Guard.
The Islamic government thus knew that Hojjatieh had extensive intelligence about the Baha’is – membership lists for leadership bodies and the names of many prominent Baha’i individuals and organizations. The information would be used to hunt down and murder hundreds of innocent people.
The Baha’i community anticipated the coming storm and tried to find some shelter. A number of Baha’is reached out to influential figures in the Revolution, although they never managed to reach Khomeini himself. Foremost, the Baha’is attempted to reassure the revolutionaries that they were not interested in politics and had no grievance with the new Islamic Republic.
Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic, accepted the Baha’is’ reassurances, but his authority was limited by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was the country’s supreme leader. Banisadr could do nothing to help the Baha’is.
Few of the revolutionaries believed the Baha’is were innocent of the accusations levelled against them. Many officials in the new government held misconceptions about the Baha’is. They imagined the Baha’is were Zionists or spies for foreign powers. At the very least, they believed the Baha’is were morally corrupt. So, for the most part, the Baha’i interlocutors were not trusted and their efforts to appease the authorities failed.
The authorities wanted to make an example of those who failed to conform to Islam – and religious minorities like the Baha’is were the first target.
Years of purges and blood
Years of purges and blood
No one was safe. Ali Murad Davoudi, the philosopher and former member of the Iranian Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly, received many death threats. One 11 November 1979, he was abducted during a walk in the park, never to be seen again.
The revolutionaries also targeted Husayn Naji, another member of the nine-person National Spiritual Assembly. A group of men raided his home and arrested his wife. Naji appealed to Islamic officials, including the Ayatollah Khomeini, for his wife’s release. His pleas went unanswered.
Then, during a meeting in a private home on 21 August 1980, all nine members of the Baha’i assembly were abducted by agents from the Revolutionary Guards. The television broadcaster Houshang Mahmoudi was among those who disappeared. The families of the missing searched for months – but, like Davoudi, none of the nine would ever be seen again. Today, they are presumed dead.
In September, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Speaker of Iran’s parliament, publicly confirmed that the Baha’is had been arrested by the government. A month later he denied official involvement. No one has ever claimed responsibility for the kidnappings.
The Iranian Baha’is were not cowed in practicing their faith. They knew they must elect a new National Spiritual Assembly. But caution demanded different approaches to meeting. They regularly changed their meeting places and only four members were allowed to gather together at any time. But when the members met in plenary on 13 December 1981 to discuss pressing business, the authorities seized the opportunity to arrest the assembly members. No warrant was presented for their arrest. Eight members were taken. The ninth escaped only because she was in hospital on the day.
The eight Baha’i leaders were blindfolded and taken to a holding facility, where they were interrogated for two weeks. Over and over, the interrogators demanded that they name other Baha’is and recant their faith.
On 27 December, the questioning came to an end. All eight Baha’is were executed by the government. The meteorologist Zhinous Mahmoudi was one of those who were murdered. Western powers protested the murders, but the Islamic Republic claimed it was justified and that the Baha’is had been spies.
The Iranian authorities went on to execute more than 200 Baha’is, half of them from local elected assemblies, in these days of blood.
The Baha’i community was thrown into a state of shock. Thousands of Baha’is felt they had no choice but to flee Iran. Rahim Rahimian, a Baha’i businessman and father of two young boys, Keyvan and Kamran, decided to remain in Iran. He scrambled to find safe-houses for Baha’is in Tehran.
On 4 May 1983, the revolutionaries arrested Rahimian and sent him to Evin Prison, where hundreds of Baha’is, and thousands of other Iranians, were tortured and executed after the Revolution. Rahimian’s arm and teeth were broken during multiple beatings; his feet were whipped until they were swollen and bleeding. He was held at Evin for a year, during which he was allowed only five visits from his family. Every time the guards demanded that he convert to Islam, he refused. The Islamic Republic executed him in October 1984.
The United Nations, Amnesty International, many Western leaders, and the international media called for an end to the Islamic Republic’s brutal persecution, but the anti-Baha’i campaign continued unabated.
Fighting back with their minds
Fighting back with their minds
In 1991, a memorandum signed by Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for the government to block the progress of the Baha’is in Iranian society. Baha’is, along with thousands of other Iranians, were to be purged from public life.
Officials turned to the community lists, compiled first by the Hojjatieh and then by the Ministry of Intelligence, to identify Baha’is. The officials also used multiple-choice forms which required people to identify their religious affiliation, but which offered only the recognized religions of Islam, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity, because they knew that hiding one’s faith is against Baha’i teachings.
Baha’i academics were fired from teaching positions. Baha’i students were expelled from universities, and all Baha’i applicants were blocked from being admitted in the future. Since learning is at the heart of Baha’i teachings, the Baha’is were appalled when they realized that this was to be their life if they chose to stay in their homes in Iran.
Rather than acquiesce, the Baha’i community rose up in resistance against this devastating policy. They had a dangerous but life-affirming idea: they could start their own informal university. With the support of the full Iranian Baha’i community, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, or BIHE, was established in 1987.
That same year, in 1987, the BIHE held its first classes. Baha’i academics dismissed from their jobs gave their time and expertise to teach. Baha’i students tricked their way into state libraries to conduct research by borrowing friends’ ID cards. Baha’i families offered their homes to be used as classrooms. Still more volunteers traveled between teachers and students to collect and deliver coursework.
The BIHE attracted over 900 students in its first 10 years. More than 150 teachers joined the initiative, offering 10 complete degree programs. Tahereh Berjis, the niece of the murdered Baha’i Sulayman Berjis, joined the faculty in its early years to teach medicine. Many of Dr. Berjis’s relatives followed his example and devoted their lives to medicine and public service.
From the start, the BIHE wanted to ensure that Baha’i students were not shortchanged in their education. Standards were high. Students applying to the BIHE had to meet the same requirements demanded of students attending official state universities. Professors expected a high level of performance from their students, despite the restrictions imposed on their community and difficult personal circumstances.
Today, the BIHE receives over 1,000 applications for its 32 degrees each year – and its academic programs continue to gain global recognition.
Marjan Davoudi, the daughter of philosopher Ali Murad Davoudi, was a student at a state university in the early years of the Islamic Republic.
After Khamenei’s memorandum was published, the university dean called Marjan to his office to tell her she was going to be expelled. It was a crushing moment for Marjan, who broke down in tears but promised herself that she would never stop learning. To continue her studies, Marjan enrolled at BIHE, even before the university was granted academic accreditations.
Within a few years, exciting opportunities were emerging for BIHE students. In the 1990s, they were connected to experts around the world through the internet. A number of Western universities began to accept BIHE graduates into their programs. Indiana University in the United States was the first college to offer distance learning to BIHE students, including Marjan Davoudi. Marjan later went to the US, earning her PhD at Indiana University at the age of 37. Degree in hand, she became a BIHE teacher.
The Rahimian brothers, Keyvan and Kamran, also went to BIHE. Kamran went to Canada to complete his studies. When he finished his degree, his family urged him to stay in the West, but he felt it was his “moral duty” to return to Iran and teach the next generation of Baha’is.
The decision was a gamble. The Islamic authorities were growing discontented about the existence of the BIHE. The government refused to recognize BIHE degrees and many Baha’is continued to be barred from their chosen fields. But the BIHE pressed on.
The rise and fall of Ayatollah Gorbachev
The rise and fall of Ayatollah Gorbachev
A swing towards progressive thinking and reform of the Islamic Republic began on 23 May 1997 – the day Mohammad Khatami was elected president of Iran. Despite being granted less television airtime than his conservative opponent, he won in a landslide, with 70 percent of the vote on an 80 percent turnout. The election result was hailed as proof of a widespread desire for change among Iranians.
Immediately, Khatami promised reforms at home and a “dialogue among civilizations,” meaning, improved relations with the West. To signal the friendly attitude of his government, he agreed to an unprecedented interview on CNN with British-Iranian journalist Christiane Amanpour. With a warm smile, he said that he respected the “great American nation.”
Khatami also said that he believed in religious freedom. “Life,” he announced, “should hinge on three pillars: “religiosity, liberty and justice,” and these were the “aspirations of the Islamic Revolution.” However, the new president stayed silent about the rights of the Baha’is in Iran.
Still, many reform-minded Iranians, including the Baha’is, dared to cultivate new hopes for the future.
From the start, President Khatami – nicknamed “Ayatollah Gorbachev” for his reformist ideas – declared that the rule of law and a strong civil society were key to his vision for Iran. He removed restrictions on the press, and dozens of reformist newspapers began to appear and drew millions of readers. He called on all Iranians to join him by criticizing the performance of senior officials and demanding that they be accountable to the people. Khatami also declared that city councils would be elected for the first time in order to expand democratic participation to all levels of Iranian society.
Iran’s relations with several Western countries had been strained for years – by the 1979–1981 American hostage crisis, by the 1989 fatwa calling for the death of the British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie, and by the 1992 murder of four Iranian Kurds in Berlin. These and other issues had caused political rifts, but now Khatami began to restore diplomatic ties and reopen embassies around the world. Several Western missions also returned to Tehran.
Khatami and his policies proved popular at the polls. He was elected to his second term as president in 2001, and in the 2004 parliamentary election his reformist allies received the majority of votes.
Even the Baha’i community was affected by Khatami’s reforms: the section of university application forms asking for religious affiliation was deleted, allowing a number of Baha’i youth to be accepted to state universities for the first time in many years. But the taste of change soon turned sour.
In Iran, the office of president is not as powerful as the title suggests. Khatami was not in a position to reform Iran to his liking. To make matters worse, he faced critics on all sides. Radicals dismissed him as a regime insider and argued that the religious establishment would never allow meaningful change. Conservatives accused him of undermining the Islamic Republic.
Time and again, Khatami’s agenda was frustrated by elites in the clergy and intelligence services. He was hit by a series of crises. His allies were impeached, imprisoned, and beaten; political dissidents were murdered by shadowy agents; attempts to increase his powers, which were passed by the parliament, were overturned by the mullahs; and the judiciary found excuses to close the reformist newspapers. Thousands of university students – who he had long relied on for support – protested his repeated failure to push back against the conservative elements in the government.
The Baha’is soon discovered that Khatami’s promises were empty, not by design but by default. In September 1998, more than 500 homes that had served as classrooms for the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education were raided. Authorities confiscated teaching materials and arrested 36 faculty members. Khatami had not ordered the raid, but he had no way of stopping it.
The radicals strike back
The radicals strike back
President Khatami was pushing things too far. Ayatollah Khamenei needed a subservient figure to shore up his power and found his man in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative mayor of Tehran. After it was announced that Ahmadinejad had won the presidential election in 2005, reformists assumed that Khamenei and his allies had manipulated the votes. Yet, Ahmadinejad was popular with many poor and disenfranchised Iranians.
To bolster his base of support, the new president took advantage of the rising price of oil to lavish handouts on the poor. He appointed key allies to head the country’s cultural organizations and awarded lucrative contracts to former Revolutionary Guards officers. He adopted an aggressive tone toward the United States and Israel and increased Iran’s aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in Gaza. He also rapidly developed Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Dissidents, activists, and students were once again subject to harassment and jail. Many newspapers were shut down.
The conservative establishment also redoubled its pressure on Iran’s minorities. Baha’i students admitted to universities at the end of the Khatami presidency were expelled. In March 2006, a confidential Iranian document about the Baha’is was leaked to Asma Jahangir, the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. The information revealed in it was grim, but not surprising: it was now confirmed that Khamenei ordered law enforcement and intelligence agencies to identify Baha’is and monitor their activities.
The government-sponsored newspaper Kayhan, edited by one of Ayatollah Khamenei’s representatives, began a series of anti-Baha’i articles just four days after Ahmadinejad’s election. The usual accusations were all in evidence, including alleged complicity with Britain or Russia before the Second World War, support for Zionism, espionage for the West before and after the Islamic Revolution, and immoral conduct. In July 2006, a woman called Mahnaz Ra’ufi, claiming to be a former Baha’I, published more stories in Kayhan, including allegations that Baha’i institutions were driven by greed and were corrupt.
Films propagating misinformation about the Baha’is were broadcast on state television, their melodramatic imagery and music meant to fan hysteria among the Iranian public. Some said that the Baha’is tried to brainwash innocent Muslims in order to control them.
The hate speech had its intended effect. In Yazd province, a Baha’i cemetery was desecrated, its trees uprooted and its graves disinterred. Other acts of violence against the Baha’is in Yazd and elsewhere across Iran become more common.
With the government’s propaganda and monitoring on the rise, Iranian companies felt the pressure to dismiss Baha’i employees. Landlords started to refuse lease renewals to Baha’i-owned businesses. The authorities ordered Baha’i entrepreneurs to shut down their ventures. Some Baha’i business owners were threatened with death.
The authorities began to arrest large numbers of Baha’is, interrogating them and holding them for a time, before releasing them without charge. This pattern of “revolving door” arrests seemed specially designed to intimidate the Baha’i community into submission. More than 100 Baha’is were detained in the first year of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, with many more arrested over his full two terms in office.
All Baha’is were at risk: in 2006, 54 young men and women in Shiraz, who had been conducting a UNICEF-modeled education program cleared by the local authorities, were jailed. A number of those arrested were charged with spreading propaganda against the Islamic government.
Seven other Baha’is, members of the community’s ad hoc leadership group, were arrested in the spring of 2008 and held in Evin Prison for more than a year without charge. When they were finally brought to trial it was on trumped-up on charges ranging from espionage to “spreading corruption on earth”.
Keyvan Rahimian and his wife, Fereshteh, were among those arrested while Ahmadinejad was president. Both of them were released, but Keyvan would find himself in prison again just a few years later.
“Where is my vote?”
“Where is my vote?”
Green is more than a color. In Iran, green represents the Prophet Muhammad and the faith of Islam. So when Mir Hossein Mousavi, an artist and former prime minister, chose green as his presidential campaign color in June 2009, it was a bold statement: he wanted to take back the Islamic Republic.
Mousavi’s presidential campaign platform focused on repairing the damage of Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement of the economy, diplomatic relations, and human rights. He called for true social justice and freedom of expression. Young and educated Iranians flocked to Mousavi. He inspired optimism up and down the country.
Hundreds of thousands of supporters wearing green headbands, headscarves, armbands, and scarves, and waving green flags, rallied for Mousavi in Tehran. A young Baha’i woman, a photographer who wished to remain anonymous, recalled the hope in the days before the election. “We can change something,” she said, describing how people felt during the campaign. “Me, as a Baha’i, I was limited in everything in my life: education, work, everything you can imagine. But when someone gives you that hope that this might change, you begin to feel better. Everything is going to be better – everything is going to be good.”
A confidential poll conducted by the Ministry of Intelligence three weeks before the election put Mousavi ahead of Ahmadinejad. The government realized that Mousavi would likely win. But the official results, released on 13 June 2009, before counting was even finished, declared Ahmadinejad to be the winner by a landslide.
The Iranian people were outraged. Protesters took to the streets with green flags and placards. Mousavi addressed a rally of nearly 3 million disappointed supporters on 15 June. Their placards were painted with “Where is my vote?” in both Persian and English. The results were lambasted by the public as fraud.
The first peaceful protests tipped into chaos – helped by violence-minded dissidents as well as government agents provocateur and Basiji paramilitary groups. Dozens were killed in the course of the next few days.
The terror was palpable. “I went outside and there was a car on fire,” the young Baha’i woman remembered later. “I was scared. This was something I’d never seen before. I wanted to see more – to take photos. Everyone was so mad and there was this rage in their eyes. And then everyone was running. The Basijis launched teargas and we were trying to get away. The doors of the houses were opening so that the people inside could rescue those outside. A car stopped next to me, and the driver shouted, ‘Get in! Get in so I can save you!’ He didn’t care that I’m a girl, that I’m a Baha’i; he opened the door and he saved me.”
People around the world denounced the crackdown on the protesters. Reformists, activists, dissidents, students, and journalists were arrested in their hundreds by the Revolutionary Guard. Iranians from many backgrounds were accused of plotting with the foreign media to overthrow the government.
The authorities blamed everyone but itself for the violence. As had become typical, the government specifically targeted the Baha’i community, among others, when the time came to assign blame.
“It was midnight when five men came to my house,” the young Baha’i woman said. “They looked through everything, my drawers, my books, my closets, my parents’ room, the drawers and cabinets in the kitchen, the fridge. They told me to get dressed. ‘You have to come with us,’ they said. I didn’t know where I was going. They put a blindfold on me and I could just see feet, everyone’s feet; I saw a lot of combat boots.
“The night they arrested me, I was one of 10 Baha’is, and I could hear them – my cousin, my cousin’s wife, my friends. They started asking me questions about my life and about other people. We were there all night and they would come and shout; they wouldn’t let us sleep. They didn’t beat me. But I could hear them beating someone next to me. They asked me to write a letter saying, ‘I am a Baha’i, and the protests are my fault,’ that I protested against the Islamic Republic. ‘If you do that,’ they said, ‘we will let you go.’ I said no.”
Education is #NotACrime
Education is #NotACrime
After the seven Baha’i leaders were arrested in 2008, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi agreed to defend them against the Iranian regime’s charges. The government would close her Defenders of Human Rights Center in Tehran before the end of the year. Her defence was unsuccessful in the Revolutionary Court, and the Baha’is were each sentenced to 20 years in prison; but Ebadi’s stand on their behalf was a landmark.
In 2009, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who was Khomeini’s successor before falling out with the regime, became the highest-ranking Shia cleric to break the taboo on calling for an end to the persecution of the Baha’is. No one in Iran had publicly supported the Baha’is for decades – especially not a cleric. Though Montazeri was clear in saying he rejected Baha’i teachings, he insisted that Baha’is should have equal rights and be treated as full Iranian citizens.
More recently, another ayatollah, Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, bestowed a powerful symbolic gift upon the Baha’is. A skilled calligrapher, Ayatollah Tehrani rendered a passage of Baha’i writings in his own hand.
More and more Iranians stood up for the Baha’is – and more soon followed.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, struck back against the warmer attitude towards the Baha’is. He branded the Baha’i faith a “fake cult” and banned his followers from having any dealings with the community. Baha’i homes and businesses across the country were attacked by vigilantes. The government turned a blind eye to this harassment. The attacks were merely “spontaneous acts of anger by Muslims against infidels,” it said.
On 22 May 2011, officials from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence staged yet another raid on the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. As part of the raid, 30 homes were ransacked; families’ computers and books were confiscated, and 16 Baha’i educators were arrested and sent to Evin Prison. Among those imprisoned were the Rahimian brothers, Keyvan and Kamran, who left behind young children and their elderly mother. The brothers remain in Evin today.
New allies joined the Baha’is’ cause after the latest crackdown. Mohammad Maleki, who was president of Tehran University at the time of the revolution, paid a visit to the Rahimian family, telling them that no one should ever be denied the right to study because of their beliefs. When another former radical Islamist, Mohammad Nourizad, visited Kamran Rahimian’s son, Artin, he kissed the boy’s feet – a powerfully submissive gesture in Iranian culture – and apologized for the hardships suffered by the Baha’is.
It seems some Iranian Muslims are looking to create a new kind of Iran.
Education is not a crime. People around the world are telling the Iranian government that Baha’is must be allowed to attend university.
A documentary film released in 2014, To Light a Candle, produced by Maziar Bahari, tells the story of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. The film is a powerful account of the Baha’is and their peaceful resistance to oppression.
Let Iran know that you stand with the Baha’is in believing that education should never be a crime. Education is the birthright of all humanity.
Watch the documentary film To Light a Candle by Maziar Bahari to learn more.