Within the Baha’i community in the United States, we are encouraged by our National Spiritual Assembly to promote and bring awareness to a campaign called Education Under Fire (EUF). The campaign addresses the Iranian government’s denial of the right to education for ideological and religious reasons; which includes the Baha’is in Iran being denied their rights to education.
The Baha’is are among the largest religious minorities in Iran, constituting over 300,000 – 350,000 believers (International Religious Freedom Report – 2009). The Baha’is in Iran have been persecuted by the Iranian government ever since its inception during the 1800’s. Among the accusations they receive from the Iranian government include espionage against the Iranian government, apostates from Islam that undermines the security of Iran, supporters of the West and Israel, and treason. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, many Baha’is were executed and assassinated for their beliefs through the order of the King of Iran, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar and other clergy men in the country.
To explain the cause of such prosecutions and attacks lie on the Teachings and Writings of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith. Friedrich W. Affolter in “War Crimes, Genocide, & Crimes against Humanity” writes:
Bahá’u’lláh’s writings deal with a variety of themes that challenge long-cherished doctrines of Shí‘i‐Islam. In addition to making the ‘heretic’[sic] claim of being a ‘Manifestation of God,’ he suggested that school curricula should include ‘Western Sciences,’ that the nation states (Muslim and non-Muslim) should establish a world federal government, and that men and women were equal. Bahá’u’lláh also wrote that in this time and age, priests were no longer necessary for religious guidance. Humanity, he argued, had reached an age of maturity where it was incumbent upon every individual to search for God and truth independently. These principles did not only call into question the need for a priesthood, but also the entire Shí‘i ecclesiastical structure and the vast system of endowments, benefices and fees that sustained it. No surprise then that in the following decades until the overthrow of the Qájár dynasty in 1925, it was the mullas who instigated attacks against the Bahá’ís in cities or villages where the clerical establishment was particularly influential.
Present Iran and the Baha’is
Fast forward to 1979, after the Shah left Iran on January 16, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned on February 1, 1979 and started the process of creating a new government. During an interview before returning to Iran with Professor James Cockroft, Khomeini stated that Bahá’ís would not have religious freedom:
Cockroft: Will there be either religious or political freedom for the Bahá’ís under the Islamic government?
Khomeini: They are a political faction; they are harmful. They will not be accepted.
Cockroft: How about their freedom of religion– religious practice?
The answer was hard and clear. Since 1979 until present, the Baha’is in Iran face great difficulties and pressure against the tyrannical members of the government of Iran. Among the greatest outcries included the incident in Yazd (2004-2005), when the Baha’i community in Iran wrote a bold letter to the government of Iran, addressed to President Khatami, seeking an end to Baha’i-focused human rights and religious freedom abuses. The letter was attached with a document from the government of Iran that authorized law enforcement institutions to monitor and track all information relevant to the Baha’is in Iran (October 2009, 2005 Letter). The response by the Iranian government was barbaric and shameful. According to the Department of State, they described the situation as follows:
In 2004, for the first time, the Baha’i community wrote an open letter to the Government of the Islamic Republic, addressed to President Khatami, seeking an end to Baha’i-focused human rights and religious freedom abuses. Numerous anecdotal reports indicated a marked increase in government persecution of Baha’is after this letter. Much of this anti-Baha’i activity focused on Yazd, presumably due to Yazdi Baha’is having presented Yazd intelligence-security officials with a copy of the letter.
In late 2004 and January 2005, nine Baha’is in Yazd were arrested and briefly detained, and their homes searched and some possessions confiscated. On January 14, 2005, authorities summoned, questioned, and released another Yazd Baha’i, and four days later on January 18, four individuals came to his home and beat him with batons, inflicting severe injuries to his face, back, and arms. The same individuals, equipped with batons and communication devices, also attacked the home of another Baha’i later that day. On that same day, these same persons went to the home of a third Baha’i and attacked him with batons, causing serious head wounds. This third Baha’i was attacked again on January 25; on January 27 his shop was set on fire.
In February 2005, the Baha’i cemetery in Yazd was destroyed, with cars driven over the graves, tombstones smashed, and the remains of the interred left exposed. Two days later, a gravestone was removed and left in front of a Baha’is home, along with a threatening letter. The Baha’i community filed a complaint with authorities at the national level, but no action was taken. These events coincided with the launch of a campaign of defamation against the Baha’i faith in government-controlled media.
The following are the images of the incidents:
Education and Baha’is in Iran
Due to religious prosecution and abuse of freedom by the government of Iran, the Baha’is were denied access to exams that allow them to enter into universities. Some of the Baha’i youth and children in Iran are also denied access to education at their local schools. Given such conditions, the Baha’is of Iran sought an alternative means to education and established their own educational curriculum and program. Among such programs include BIHE, or Baha’i Institute of Higher Education, which aims in providing the Baha’is in Iran an opportunity to gain higher education. Despite the efforts by the Baha’is to lead a fruitful and positive life, the Iranian government were aware of such matter and initiated series of raids, arrests and attacks against facilities and individuals that supported or managed the BIHE program (Report of arrests of BIHE professors/instructors).
This is where Education Under Fire comes in. The program alone cannot help on influencing the government of Iran nor bring the needed comfort for the Baha’is of Iran. However, it brings awareness. It’s aim is to point to a reality that is not striking Baha’is alone, but other religious minorities in both Iran and other parts of the world. The initiative bore wonderful fruits of progress. Through the earliest days of the development of the initiative, a student from Harvard Graduate School of Education used this opportunity to shed light into the reality and difficulties that the Baha’is in Iran faced. As a result of EUF’s visit to the campus, Harvard Graduate School of Education formally agreed to accept BIHE credits! Other institutions followed suit (such as Boston University and Stanford University), too. In addition, the Dean of HGSE wrote a letter registering her disapproval to Iran’s ambassador to the UN.
Education Under Fire is the least we can do for those who are deprived of their right to education and freedom, yet it’s a potential medium to generate momentum for something great and bigger.