Basic Rights

Education is a Crime for Baha’is in Iran

Iran’s largest religious minority group is being denied access to its own future when the ayatollahs prevent Baha’is from going to school.

02.26.15 11:55 PM ET

Iranian security agents raided a number of Baha’i homes last week and arrested 16 people. The arrests were coordinated between three cities—Tehran, Isfahan and Kerman. In Isfahan at least, they were synchronized to strike multiple homes at the same time. It’s unclear who carried out the raids, but these attacks are usually the work of the Intelligence Ministry or the Revolutionary Guards.

The raids are the latest in a long-running and systematic campaign of violence against the Baha’is, Iran’s largest minority religion. As a member of the Baha’i Faith, I find it unbelievable and grotesque that such persecution continues and that there are absolutely no signs of change. Iranian Baha’is are regularly arrested, tortured and denied most basic rights, including the right to study at university.

A number of violent attacks have recently been carried out against Baha’is—including the murder of Ataollah Rezvani and the savage knife attack on Ghodratollah Moodi, a Baha’i leader in the Iranian town of Birjand, along with his family. The authorities, as usual, failed to pursue the perpetrators.

Baha’is frequently face the hysterical charge of “spreading corruption on earth” and various crimes against national security. Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights lawyer, has said that “religion-based discrimination is woven through many Iranian laws,” and although Iran’s Jewish, Christian and Sunni communities are also harassed, it’s the Baha’i community that faces consistent and systematic persecution. “The Baha’is are denied all citizens’ rights,” she has said.

The government denies that it targets the Baha’is. But in 2013 the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa in which he branded the Baha’is “deviants” and urged Iranian Muslims to avoid all contact with them. His fatwa was one more example of a persecution that began over a century ago.

The Baha’i faith was founded by an Iranian, Baha’u’llah (whose names translates as the Glory of God), in 1863. The religion now has more than five million followers around the world—at least 300,000 in Iran.

Baha’u’llah’s teachings on the equality of men and women, elimination of prejudice, non-violence, and universal education challenged the established Muslim clergy from the beginning. Tens of thousands of Baha’is were brutalized and murdered in the early years of the faith.

The last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, later tried to modernize the country and to grant almost equal rights to all Iranians regardless of ethnicity or religion. Many Baha’is prospered during this period and contributed to Iran’s progress. The famous Azadi Tower, Iran’s most iconic landmark and a building seen by millions around the world during the 2009 Green Movement protests, was built by a Baha’i architect in 1971.

But the Shah faced enormous pressure from Iran’s clergy. The clerics rejected much of the Shah’s modernization program, blaming in part the Baha’is, and they forced the Shah to eventually turn on the Baha’is to appease their demands. Baha’i schools were closed, meetings were disrupted, and marriages were dissolved.

The Shah fell in 1979 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the Islamic Revolution and took power in Iran. More than 200 Baha’is were executed in the early 1980s. Hundreds were tortured. The Baha’is were branded as spies for the “Zionists,” the Americans, and the British, and clerics encouraged violence against them. Propaganda against them began appearing the media—and continues to this day. For years the Baha’is have been called “enemies of God.”

Khomeini’s revolution also marked the start of expelling and barring the Baha’is from Iranian universities. The futures of thousands of young Baha’is were threatened as part of a policy to gradually strangle the Baha’i community to death.

In response, the Baha’is set up the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) in 1987. The BIHE began offering secret classes in peoples’ homes and by correspondence—it was the only way young Baha’is could study. But in 1998, and again in 2011, the authorities raided hundreds of homes that served as BIHE classrooms and confiscated books and computers used for teaching. Thirteen Baha’is are currently in jail for teaching and learning subjects as taboo as algebra, psychology and poetry.

This Friday, February 27, Andy Grammer, Justin Baldoni, and many other talented artists will join me at Education Is Not A Crime Live 2015 in Los Angeles. The event will be the highlight of a campaign started by the Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker, Maziar Bahari, himself formerly imprisoned in Iran, to raise awareness about the persecution of the Baha’is and their exclusion from higher education. Maziar’s latest documentary To Light a Candle, which tells the story of Iran’s Baha’is, is being screened at hundreds of locations around the world as part of this campaign.

I am thrilled to help expose the injustice taking place every day in Iran because I get to work with brave men and women working inside the country for the same cause. A young citizen journalist in the country, a Baha’i, recently interviewed three Iranian MPs on why the Baha’is are barred from university. “You Baha’is are hostile to Islam and we cannot allow the enemies of Islam into Islamic universities,” one said. “You get into universities and start to try to convert others.”

Iran is violating the most basic human rights of its Baha’i citizens; and, when young Baha’is aren’t allowed to study or enroll in school, it’s a crime.

But don’t take it from me. The leading light of Education Is Not A Crime, anti-apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said it best when he endorsed the campaign. “The Iranian government says that education is a crime for Baha’is,” he said. “But I want to tell you that we can change that—we can tell the government of Iran that banning the Baha’is or any other group from higher education is hurting Iran and the Iranian people. Our bitter experience of apartheid demonstrates that discrimination of all types hurts us all. Iran’s government is denying its own people the services of thousands of Baha’i engineers, doctors and artists who could help Iran, Iranians and the world.”

Please visit educationisnotacrime.me to join the campaign.