This research article – that will be published in 5 separate parts – is intended to explore the living story of a community and its members (the Baha’is in Iran) who have been able to demonstrate an incredible constructive resilience in the past 174 years under continued and severe persecution and discrimination, as well as violation of their fundamental human rights. It may sound very odd, but strangely enough this brutal persecution has intensified over the past 39 years. Many human rights organisations, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission, religious groups, activists, and people of goodwill around the world, have expressed their deep concern about the worsening situation of the Baha’i community in Iran, the largest independent non-Muslim religious minority. However, the lack of response and inaction from the Iranian Islamic government is a growing concern for all Baha’is around the world.
One may question the severity of the situation of the Baha’is in Iran as compared to much worse situations in some other parts of the world. While there are many examples of appalling human rights abuse the world over, the systematic nature of persecution of Baha’is in Iran over the past 174 years is a combination of an ongoing orchestrated hate crime by clerics of the Islamic regime and state sponsored persecution and discrimination. Both of these aim to eradicate the entire Baha’i community in Iran, its place of birth. It is a quiet genocide that should be stopped.
Many people will be rightly surprised to learn about “A living story of 174 years of constructive resilience” and the way Baha’is have responded to the persecution that has paralysed their daily activities in Iran. This phenomenon – the constructive resilience of Baha’is in Iran – could act as a good case study, considering that currently it appears that extreme violence and fundamentalism are on the rise, and the majority of people around the world are helplessly watching these sad situations unfold. At the same time, there are many people of good will who are trying to find a way out of this confusing and disturbing situation.
The living story of “174 years of constructive resilience of the Baha’is in Iran” is not only a rejection of the idea of “responding to violence with violence”’ it is also more elevated than non-violent resistance, as Baha’is is in Iran extend warm fellowship and cooperation to those who are willing to build ideas as part of a peaceful society. I love this statement from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it… Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate…. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”. 
The Baha’i community in Iran, under brutal persecution, discrimination and economic repression, has initiated many unique community building projects. At the same time, the Baha’i community has extended sincere friendship to its fellow citizens in order to work and cooperate with them in formulating various society-building activities. You may ask: what really inspires Baha’is who are living under such harsh conditions to have a positive outlook in their lives? Let us reflect on some of the Baha’i Writings and teachings that inspire them and provide direction about handling such situations.
What is the source of inspiration for Baha’is in Iran?
“Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship… Whatsoever hath led the children of men to shun one another, and hath caused dissensions and divisions amongst them, hath, through the revelation of these words, been nullified and abolished.” 
“Conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book. This is a decree of God in this Most Great Revelation. It is divinely preserved from annulment and is invested by Him with the splendour of His confirmation. Verily He is the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.”
“Baha’is must endeavour to consort in a friendly spirit with everyone, must follow moderation in their conduct, must have respect and consideration one for another and show loving-kindness and tender regard to all the peoples of the world. They must be patient and long-suffering, that they may grow to become the divine magnets of the Abhá Kingdom and acquire the dynamic power of the hosts of the realm on high.”
“We return to the phenomenal characteristics of speech. Content, volume, style, tact,
wisdom, timeliness are among the critical factors in determining the effects of speech for good or evil. Consequently, the friends need ever to be conscious of the significance of this activity which so distinguishes human beings from other forms of life, and they must exercise it judiciously. Their efforts at such discipline will give birth to an etiquette of expression worthy of the approaching maturity of the human race.”
Therefore, wherever Baha’is reside, society-building, avoiding any kind of violence and confrontation, and extending fellowship to everyone in order to build a peaceful society are part of their daily lives. Baha’is around the world are always seeking to find a dignified and practical way to build a better society and lovingly desire to cooperate with any like-minded people on this journey.
Why are Baha’is being persecuted in Iran?
Animosity and the spread of hatred by Shi’ite clerics against Baha’is in Iran has a long history. Since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century (1844) in Iran, followers of the Baha’i Faith have been targeted by many baseless and cruel accusations orchestrated by the clergy. Since 1979, with the establishment of an Islamic government in Iran, the persecution has intensified. Though international pressure on Iran has been increased to stop the violation of human rights against the largest independent religious minority in that country, the Iranian government and its agencies have been placing more economic pressure on Baha’is. Therefore, the persecution of Baha’is in Iran comes from all directions.
Concerning the historical context of the persecutions, Friedrich W. Affolter 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 Qajar 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”.
Roy Mottahedeh gives the following explanation: At least one scholar has described Bahá’ís in Iran prior to the Islamic Republic as “political pawns”. Government toleration of Bahá’ís being in accord with secular Western ideas of freedom of worship was “a way of showing mullahs who was boss.” Correspondingly, since the Bahá’ís were a relatively small minority and most Iranians followed traditional beliefs of Apostasy in Islam, when the government was politically weak and in need of clerical support, withdrawal of government protection to “allow active persecution of the Bahá’ís,” was a “low cost pawn that could be sacrificed to the mullahs“. Thus during the heyday of secular ruler Reza Shah, Bahá’ís were protected; while in 1955, when Reza Shah’s son, Muhammad Reza, needed clerical support for the Baghdad Pact and with the 1953 Iranian coup d’état only two years past, Bahá’ís were attacked.
The persecution and cruelty against Baha’is in Iran are responses to a variety of Baha’i teachings believed to be inconsistent with traditional Islamic belief ‒ and of course they do differ from Islam.
Considering the nature and length of the persecution of Baha’is in Iran, many people, including ordinary everyday Iranian citizens, are puzzled as to why the Baha’i Question is such a big concern for clerics and the Islamic government in Iran. Why are they so fearful of Baha’is that they have instituted an ongoing and massive anti-Baha’i propaganda mechanism? Why in this age of instant and borderless communication and connectivity, in which this profound statement “the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens“ is an undeniable reality, do Iranian officials and ruling clerics consider all non-Shi’ite people to be “others”? Not only are Baha’is considered to be an unclean, misguided sect, they are given much more denigrating titles by the ruling clerics. In my opinion it is inhumane to use such malicious and abusive language against a fellow citizen for no reason other than that the citizen has a different faith!
When did the persecution of Baha’is intensify in Iran?
In 1979, when the Iranian Islamic Revolution was established and fundamentalist Islamic leaders took control of the country, it was a turning point for intensive persecution against Baha’is. There was a sharp increase in the systematic campaign of state-sponsored persecution and incitement of hatred by clerics across the country.
In the early 1980s, more than 200 Baha’is, including elected members of Baha’i religious institutions, were executed, murdered or disappeared, thousands more were arrested, detained and interrogated, numerous historic and holy Baha’i places were destroyed, hundreds of Baha’i homes and properties were burned down or confiscated, hundreds of Baha’i-owned industrial and manufacturing factories were confiscated, many Baha’i cemeteries across the country were destroyed, tens of thousands of Baha’is were dismissed from government jobs, Baha’i youth were prevented from entering university or other higher education studies, and many restrictions were imposed by closing down Baha’i-owned businesses and farms.
Beginning in the early 1990s, the Iranian government shifted its focus in persecuting Baha’is to social, economic and cultural restrictions, with the aim of “blocking the development and progress of the Iranian Baha’i Community.” This shift in tactics was associated with an important high-level document, known as the Baha’i Question, signed and approved by the Iranian Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in 1991. It appears that the shift was a response to increased pressure from international communities, the United Nations, and many human rights activists because of gross human rights abuses by the government of Iran against Baha’is.
There was another important factor that forced the Iranian government to adopt a new tactic. That was the frustration and confusion of the government in dealing with Baha’is, and the way members of the Iranian Baha’i community were handling themselves. Baha’is in Iran, though they are living in an environment of hostile and discriminatory economic conditions, their youth are banned from higher education, there is no chance for them to obtain government employment, and they face the incitement of hatred against them by clerics, nevertheless through their unity of action, following a path of constructive resilience, extend genuine fellowship and respect towards all their fellow citizens. As a result, they have been able to demonstrate an exemplary way of life. Therefore, these new tactics of dealing with Baha’is are designed to eradicate the Baha’i community, and to hide human rights abuse against Baha’is from the international community and human rights organisations.
For example on October 31, 2014, less than a week after some 80 Baha’i shops were closed in Kerman Province, Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, had the temerity to say: “Baha’is enjoy all the privileges of any citizen in Iran.”
[Edited by: Anton Clark and Jen Cowley]
- Martin Luther King, Jr. – Peaceful Rivers, Wisdom for the Journey – http://peacefulrivers.homestate.com/peacepageking.html
- Baha’u’llah: Gleanings, p. 95.
- Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 221.
- Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, par. 194.1.
- From a letter dated 29 December 1988, written by the Universal House of Justice to the Baha’is of the United States.
- Friedrich W. Affolter in “War Crimes, Genocide, & Crimes against Humanity” 2005.
- Mottahedeh, Roy, The Mantle of the Prophet : Religion and Politics in Iran, One World, Oxford, 1985, 2000.
- A special report of the Baha’i International Community – October 2015, p 31.