Baha’is in Iran endure unjust persecution

Iran was front and center in the news this summer. The aftermath of the June 12 national elections put the Islamic Republic’s dismal human rights practices in the international spotlight. Prior to the election debacle, when most Americans thought of Iran they were reminded of the anti-Semitic speeches by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the government’s nuclear ambitions, its duplicitous and destabilizing machinations in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East, and its use of oil as a coercive geopolitical bargaining chip.

The aforementioned features of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy are unacceptable and dangerous, and have been scrutinized extensively by Western media and governments. But until the recent farce of an election and the subsequent outburst of protest on the part of a beleaguered and stifled Iranian populace, the theocracy’s domestic persecutions and injustices were not examined and brought to light to a sufficient degree by the outside world.

Now, the world has seen the cruelty, barbarism and backwardness of a regime that has a distinguished record of paranoia, mismanagement, hypocrisy and corruption. Since the revolution that toppled the Shah in 1979, one group in particular has borne the brunt of the regime’s prejudice and hostility. As the largest religious minority in Iran, numbering some 300,000 people, the Baha’i group members in Iran have suffered a disproportionate share of the scapegoating that has become a hallmark of the Islamic Republic.

According to the regime, the Baha’is — whose core beliefs include noninvolvement in politics, respect for one’s government, a commitment to the elimination of all forms of prejudice, equality for women and men and the oneness of God — are spies for Israel, the United States and Britain. The regime claims the Baha’is are campaigning for the downfall of the Iranian government and the moral fiber of the Iranian public. Each of these claims is not only patently false and fabricated, but outrageous considering what the Baha’i faith stands for.

Prior to the 1979 revolution, the Baha’is formed a significant proportion of the professional class (far higher than the less than 1 percent of the general population indicated) and made lasting contributions to the progress of the Iranian nation.

Then, in a bout of bigoted and ignorant fury, the Islamic revolutionaries and extremists who formed the current regime launched a devastating and systematic persecution of the innocent Baha’i community. More than 200 prominent Baha’is were executed, thousands more were imprisoned and tortured without due process and tens of thousands were fired from their jobs or had their pensions suspended.

To this day, Baha’is are not allowed to pursue a university education and some are expelled from high school. The Iranian Baha’i community, both nationally and locally, is not allowed to hold meetings, commemorate Baha’i holidays, own or rent Baha’i centers or have any sort of organized administrative structure. Perhaps most devastating, dozens of priceless Baha’i historical sites, properties and shrines have been destroyed and taken by the government since 1979. Essentially, the regime has systematically attempted to destroy the historical and cultural roots of the Baha’i community.

Encouragingly, the international community and individual national governments, led by the UN General Assembly, the US Congress and the British Parliament, have issued numerous resolutions and condemnations of the Iranian government’s persecution of the Baha’is and other religious minorities, expressing “deep concern at serious human rights violations” in Iran.

Until June’s “election” and the chaotic aftermath, the Baha’is, along with Israel and America, had served as the convenient scapegoats for Iran’s pressing domestic problems — including anemic economic growth, high drug addiction and prostitution rates, income inequality and socioeconomic stratification. Now that there is a critical mass of people in Iran who are demanding accountability and freedom of thought from its government, it is extremely difficult for the leadership within the Islamic Republic to distract the general population by blaming the Baha’is and the United States for the internal upheavals fracturing the country.

That, however, won’t stop them from trying. Currently, the seven-member group (five men and two women) known as the “Friends in Iran,” who unofficially helped administer the affairs of the Iranian Baha’i community, have been held for well over a year in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison; their trial has been postponed multiple times.

Because of the unprecedented attention given to Iran’s human rights record in the post-election period, American and European news organizations are finally paying due attention to this absurdity masquerading as legal process.

The events of this summer amply illustrated that the extremists running Iran are not only a threat to other countries in the Middle East and beyond, but that they are also a constant and pernicious insult to their own people. They have relegated a nation — with a rich history and civilization, tremendous oil and mineral wealth, and the most educated and entrepreneurial population in the entire region — to international and economic isolation, economic and social stagnation, and a toxic trauma to the national psyche as a result of their Orwellian rule.

In the end, however, as history has demonstrated countless times, tyrants and authoritarians are eventually vanquished and discarded. So while persecution of Iranian Baha’is and other helpless citizens continues unabated, I tell my brothers and sisters in Iran to hang in there, know that there are millions of people around the world who are pulling for them and, most importantly, to always remember that injustice is unsustainable.

Riaz Dini is a graduate student studying dentistry.