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Campaign seeks to shed light on persecuted Baha’is

March 11, 2015
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Iran makes the headlines every day. But in all those stories you’ve read in the newspaper or seen on TV, have you heard any mention of the country’s religious minority — the Baha’is? I’m guessing not.

On March 2, the Baha’i student group at UT organized a screening of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari‘s documentary “To Light a Candle,” which chronicles the persecution of Iranian Baha’is and their incredible resilience. The film shows how Iran’s Shia Muslim leaders deny Baha’is access to higher education unless they recant their faith. Instead, Baha’is risk their lives to attend their own underground university system, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. Students and teachers are regularly arrested, detained, and tortured. And the ripple effects are devastating, particularly when one considers the children whose parents are imprisoned.

The international campaign Education Is Not a Crime seeks to illuminate these human rights violations and pressure Iran to stop the persecution.

A campaign is sorely needed. It’s scandalous that we don’t know more about the plight of Iran’s 350,000 Baha’is who have suffered greatly since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. As much as Iran dominates the news (nuclear talks, funding of terrorists, etc.), we don’t see much coverage of these people’s lives.

My friend Khotan Shahbazi-Harmon moderated the panel discussion following the film screening at the Texas Student Union. She lost her father to the murderous regime not long after the revolution and said she is tired of having to call attention to the nightmare in her home country. How on earth is this still necessary 36 years later?

I wish I had the answer.

I wrote a column about the event. It’s published in Austin American-Statesman (behind a pay wall). I’m pasting the original, uncut version below.

I also highly recommend you see the documentary, which  is both heartbreaking and hopeful. Check out the trailer. 

Original column:

The news from Iran is troubling to say the least. Are the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations misguided? Is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meddling in our affairs?

Hidden from the headlines and punditry of recent news cycles are the lives of ordinary Iranians. But their experiences demand our attention. On March 2, some 200 people gathered the University of Texas at Austin to illuminate the plight of Iran’s estimated 350,000 Baha’is who are denied, among other rights, access to higher education.

As part of the international campaign Education Is Not a Crime, members of the Austin Baha’i community and UT’s Baha’i student group organized a screening and discussion of “To Light a Candle,” a documentary made by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari.

The campaign has all the modern trappings— a slick website, celebrity endorsement, video messages and calls to tweet world leaders, including Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the people I spoke to at the screening say they’re determined to go beyond hashtag activism. They believe Iran’s regime cares about world opinion, that with enough pressure, leaders will bend.

It’s hard to fathom that kind of hope.

“To Light a Candle” chronicles decades of merciless abuse of Baha’is — and their staggering resilience. When Spiritual Assembly leaders were rounded up and executed in the 1980s, they elected new leaders. When they were barred from the Iranian university system, they created their own, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE).

I attended the screening and served as a panelist for the discussion that followed. The content of the film wasn’t shocking to me. I had covered the Baha’i community as a reporter and heard the stories of imprisonment, torture and executions. And I teach about persecution of Baha’is in my Journalism & Religion class at UT.

But, as all good documentaries do, “To Light a Candle” provoked questions that suddenly felt fresh and urgent: Why does Baha’i suffering exist largely in the dark? Why do the mullahs find this religion so threatening? And why on earth would anyone stay in such a hostile place?

As religions go, the Baha’i faith, founded in mid-19th-century Iran by a prophet called Bahá’u’lláh, is relatively new and ostensibly innocuous. Baha’is believe in progressive revelation, the idea that God sent a series of divine messengers (Krishna, Jesus, Muhammad, etc.), each building upon the revelations of the earlier prophets. Followers eschew partisan politics, promote gender and racial equality and require the education of children.

But to the Shia Muslim establishment, the claim that God sent a prophet after Muhammad is anathema. Iranian clerics and government officials contend the Baha’i faith is not a religion at all but a political dissident group, an enemy to Iran and Islam.

The Iranian government bars Baha’is from higher education unless they renounce their beliefs (which the Baha’i faith forbids). The other option for young people is to go underground and, at great risk, earn a degree they may never be able to use publicly.

Thousands enroll in BIHE, taking courses online and in private homes. Many of the professors are themselves graduates of the institute. Some teach from other countries, including the U.S.

The instructors who attended the event in Austin spoke proudly of their students’ eagerness to learn. An audience member shared that after earning his bachelor’s degree from BIHE, he was able to pursue a master’s at UT.

But students and their teachers are considered criminals in Iran. They are regularly arrested, tortured and detained without official charges or legal representation.

Of all the Iranian government’s abuses Baha’is have described to me over the years, the denial of education seems to be the most disquieting.

Their commitment to scholarship is not a secular ideal but a religious one. In the Baha’i faith, universal education is compulsory. The prophet Bahá’u’lláh said: “Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.”

Time after time in the documentary, we learned of Baha’is who had the opportunity to flee their home country but chose to stay and continue to study and teach with BIHE. They felt an obligation to “help Iranian society.”

A particularly heartbreaking case is the Rahimian family. In the 1980s, teenagers Kayvan and Kamran Rahimian saw their father Rahim sent to prison, tortured (his tormentors were particularly fond of flogging the soles of his feet) and later executed. Now fathers themselves, Kayvan and Kamran share a prison cell because of their teaching. Kayvan’s wife died of cancer a few years ago. Kamran’s wife, also an educator, is serving her own sentence. The children are growing up without parents.

During the panel discussion after the screening, the moderator Khotan Shahbazi-Harmon, whose own father was executed after the Islamic Revolution, asked for my gut reaction to the film.

I answered bluntly: “I don’t understand why they stayed. No country is worth that. No faith is worth that.”

It seemed unfair that the Baha’i faith, which has been under siege since its inception, could have a rule against recanting — even to save one’s life.

Bijan Masumian, a wise and soft-spoken Austin researcher, explained that Baha’is are connected to the people who came before them and to those who will follow. The rule reminds them that they are called to think outside their own circle, their own family, and to consider the whole of humanity.

He added: “You cannot eradicate a religious belief system by persecution. The harder you push, the more resilient they become.”

At the end of the Q&A section, a man with a white mustache raised his hand. “I know of a way we can help,” he said quietly. “Light a candle, no matter how big or how small. There is no darkness — only the absence of light.”

One of the panelists leaned over to me and whispered, “That’s Baha’i theology 101.”

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