Thursday, April 12, 2012

Education Under Fire: The Plight of the Baha'i in Iran

Gary Fouse

On April 9, I attended a presentation at UC Irvine entitled, "Education Under Fire", which is the title of a documentary film describing the persecution of the Baha'i religious minority in Iran, a subject of which I have previously written. Briefly stated, the Baha'i faith was founded in Iran in the 19th century and is not recognized in Iran. It is considered as apostasy from Islam. Under the Islamic regime, Baha'i are actively persecuted by the government. They are subject to arrest and imprisonment for "treason". Their homes have been burned. Some have been hanged by the government. In addition, they are denied higher education.

Other smaller Baha'i communities in countries like Egypt and Iraq also suffer varying forms of discrimination.

The film we watched also focused on the efforts of Baha'i to educate their youth in the face of the ban on higher education. This resulted in 1987 in the establishment of the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE), a clandestine system of classes throughout the country, largely held in secret in members' homes with homework assignments literally being mailed in to special addresses in different cities and towns. Originally, the subjects were science and math, which branched out into sub-subjects and have now grown to other courses. More recently, with advanced technology, instruction is conducted largely online. Since the entire enterprise is clandestine, those who have completed the study have found that universities in other countries have no knowledge of BIHE. Thus, they do not recognize the credits for admission and further study. (Two departments in Harvard and Stanford have recently agreed to accept credits from BIHE. More on this later.)

I had not anticipated much of a crowd, but upon arriving at the hall, was surprised to find it packed with students and some faculty. The reason was that one of the panelists was a well-known comedic actor named Rainn Wilson (a Baha'i), who appears in a sit-com called, "The Office". (I must confess I had never heard of him or his show.) Also speaking on the panel was Ms. Nezanin Boniadi, an Iranian-born British actress, who is also active with Amnesty International. There was Ms. Safineh Tahmassebi, an Iranian Baha'i immigrant, now a US citizen, who teaches in the UCI Extension with yours truly. In addition, there was a young Baha'i student who himself had completed the BIHE course and spoke of his difficulty getting a US university medical school to accept his class credits.

At the conclusion of the film, Pastor David Woods from San Juan Capistrano spoke for a few minutes then introduced Wilson. Wilson spoke for a few minutes and described how he became active in the Baha'i cause. (As soon as Wilson finished, about 30 or so students got up and left.) Then a panel discussion ensued in which the moderator asked specific questions of each panelist. The topics basically reflected what was shown in the film as to the plight of the Baha'i-particularly in educating themselves. Wilson told a second-hand story told to him by an Iranian Baha'i recounting how as a student, a "cleric"  came to speak to the students one day and told them that "it would be OK if the students made sure there were no Baha'i in the school". That day, the Baha'i students were all chased home from school by other students who beat them and spit on them.

"It comes from the top on down", stated Wilson.

Here are some other items I noted down from the speakers and/or the film.

Under the Shah's regime prior to the revolution, Baha'i were persecuted, but to a lesser degree.

Some Muslim professors took the risk of teaching BIHE classes.

The Iranian government has actually carried out raids against the classes and arrested participants. The second such raid took place in May 2011.

Then there was time for question and answer. Myself and about 5-6 others stepped up to the microphone to ask questions. I asked the panelists whether they had received any support from American Muslim organizations like CAIR, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Islamic Society of North America or the Islamic Circle of North America, or if they had reached out to these organizations for support, moral or otherwise. I added that these organizations in no way were connected to the events in Iran, but that perhaps they could at least add a moral voice. (I am paraphrasing from memory.)

None of the panelists were aware of any such support or contact. One of them did state that certain Muslims headed human rights organizations which supported the Baha'i cause and mentioned one from an Iranian human rights organization. Wilson emphasized that this was about the actions of the Iranian government and not the one billion peace-loving Muslims in the world.

So what can be done? The panelists had some suggestions. For one, we can support the right of Baha'i to an education, a basic human right. I am enclosing below a link to the Education Under Fire website, where we can all sign a petition to the Iranian government. One may think that the Iranian government cares nothing for world opinion, but the panelists maintain that is not the case.

Second, we can support efforts to get US universities to accept BIHE course work for admissions. Most universities are not even aware of BIHE.

Of course, educating others about what is happening is crucial. You don't hear about this in the news media. If you write your elected represntatives, they need to be aware as well. Sadly, many are not.

Finally, I am adding Education Under Fire as a link to this site under, "Worthy of Our Support".

What is happening to the Baha'i in Iran is part of what is happening to religious minorities in varying degrees in many Islamic countries. It is happening to Baha'i and Coptic Christians in Egypt, Christians in Iraq, Christians in Pakistan, Christians and animists in Sudan, Jews in Yemen, and on and on. Mr Wilson pointed out that it doesn't mean that the one billion Muslims in the world are engaged in persecution of other religions. That is true. Yet, religious persecution is taking place on a large scale. It is also happening in Europe, where Jews are being assaulted, insulted and harassed by young male Muslim immigrants (as well as skin-heads and neo-Nazi types).  The Europeans have been unable or unwilling to deal with it, largely because they are loathe to name the main culprits. That is the crux of the problem, shall we say, the 800 pound gorilla in the back of the room. If you want to combat persecution, you have to be willing to name the perpetrators.

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