This research article – which is the 3rd of 5 separate parts to be published – 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. To read part 1, click here. Part 2 can read here.
Who are the Baha’is and What are the Baha’i Teachings?
In the mid-nineteenth century (1844) in Iran, a spiritually and ideologically revolutionary movement shook the religious and government establishment, when the Bab (meaning the Gate) announced that he was the Prophet expected by Shi’ite Muslims; very soon he had thousands of followers. At the time the government was in its most corrupt state. The Bab, the forerunner of the Baha’i Faith, called on people to live a virtuous life, and prepared them for the imminent coming of a second Prophet, greater than himself, who would fulfil the expectations of all past great religions. At the time all the attention and center of discussion was based on arguments drawn from the Qur’an and the Tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, in addition to individual interpretations of high ranking Mullahs, most of whom rejected the Bab’s claim. Eventually, through the combined forces of the clergy and the government, the Bab was executed in 1850.
But the Cause of the Bab never died. Baha’u’llah, the second Prophet foretold by the Bab, was also rejected by the Shi’ite clerics, and was exiled from Persia to Baghdad, where he publicly declared his Mission to the world in 1863. The Baha’i Faith, with its world embracing vision and message of peace and unity, has since spread and been established in more than 200 countries and territories. The sad part of the recent history of Iran is that, due to influential clerics and religious leaders at the time, they never allowed anyone to openly and fairly examine these new and revolutionary Teachings; that tradition continues today. You cannot judge a book by its cover; a tree must be judged by the fruit you can harvest from it. The Baha’i Faith should be judged and examined by assessing its teachings, as well as getting to know the contributions Baha’is are making towards reconciliation, education and the progress of the wider community. People’s actions and contributions towards the betterment of society are important, as contrasted with those who enter into the same old customary arguments, aiming to reject other people based on self-interpretation of worn-out ideas or traditional tales that cannot be trusted.
“The Bahá’í Faith upholds the unity of God, recognizes the unity of His Prophets, and inculcates the principle of the oneness and wholeness of the entire human race. It proclaims the necessity and the inevitability of the unification of mankind, asserts that it is gradually approaching, and claims that nothing short of the transmuting spirit of God, working through His chosen Mouthpiece in this day, can ultimately succeed in bringing it about. It, moreover, enjoins upon its followers the primary duty of an unfettered search after truth, condemns all manner of prejudice and superstition, declares the purpose of religion to be the promotion of amity and concord, proclaims its essential harmony with science, and recognizes it as the foremost agency for the pacification and the orderly progress of human society. It unequivocally maintains the principle of equal rights, opportunities and privileges for men and women, insists on compulsory education, eliminates extremes of poverty and wealth, abolishes the institution of priesthood, prohibits slavery, asceticism, mendicancy and monasticism, prescribes monogamy, discourages divorce, emphasizes the necessity of strict obedience to one’s government, exalts any work performed in the spirit of service to the level of worship, urges either the creation or the selection of an auxiliary international language, and delineates the outlines of those institutions that must establish and perpetuate the general peace of mankind.”
Today more than seven billion people live on our planet — and the vast majority continue to have a belief system. The World Fact book says that approximately nine out of ten of Earth’s seven billion people identify themselves as believers in one of the major world Faiths – Christians (32%); Muslims (23%); Hindus (15%); Buddhists (7%); and other (which includes Jews, Baha’is and Zoroastrians, and some indigenous beliefs — 11%). Another eleven percent of the world’s population describe themselves as non-religious
Since the inception of the Baha’i Faith in 1844, how many people have become Baha’is? And how many is the worldwide Baha’i population today? Most countries do not keep statistics on religion or require any religious designation in their records; many people in different parts of the world and from different cultures follow the Baha’i teachings without a formal declaration of belief; and births, deaths and new believers all mean that the actual number of Baha’is worldwide constantly fluctuates. Many estimates, however, “there are more than 5 million Baha’is in the world.”
Baha’is have had a longstanding association with the United Nations. Since 1948 the Baha’i International Community has been recognized as an international non-governmental organization (NGO) at the United Nations. The Baha’i International Community is a member of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, the World Faiths Development Dialogue, the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations, and many more. The Baha’i Faith has consultative status with the following organizations:
- United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF)
- United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)
- United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
- United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
- World Health Organization (WHO)
Education of Children and Youth a Top Priority for Baha’is:
Compulsory education of children and youth, especially girls, is a top priority for Baha’is. “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.”
Tireless efforts of the Baha’i Community in Iran, as early as the 1890s, resulted in the introduction of a modern education system by establishing the Tarbiyat schools. Tarbiyat Schools for boys were founded first, and by 1911 the ground-breaking Tarbiyat schools for girls had been established. Gradually these schools were established in major cities across the country.
Many highly educated Iranians, Baha’is and non-Baha’is alike, from 1900 to the 1930s, had some schooling connection with the Tarbiyat schools. Attention to education and a positive outcome was very obvious, By the mid-to-late 1970s, just prior to the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the Bahá’í community was perhaps the best educated group in Iran, with many of its members working as doctors, lawyers, engineers, educators, and other professionals at the top levels of society.
Unfortunately, due to interference and opposition from conservative clerics in 1934, all the Tarbiyat Schools were closed by the government. Comprehensive information and historical background on the Tarbiyat schools can be found at link  In the Reference section.
How and why The Baha’i Institute for Higher Education started in Iran (BIHE):
After the establishment of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary government in 1979, for a period of 30 months all Iranian universities and institutions of higher education were closed; in December 1982 they were reopened. With this reopening came a cultural revolution, which intiated wide spread higher education discrimination against Baha’is. The outcome was heartbreaking, and a total violation of human rights. Baha’i youth were not admitted to university or any other institutions of higher education. This gross violation of human rights and harsh discrimination included the dismissal of all Baha’i professors, lecturers and faculty members from Iranian universities.
“In 1987, after failed attempts to persuade the government to admit qualified Bahá’í students to Iranian universities, the Bahá’í community of Iran rallied its forces and expertise and established the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). Founded on the spirit of sacrifice and volunteerism, BIHE quickly grew to meet the pressing needs of its inherent community, and was soon able to provide its youth with a new means for access to higher education. Professors and researchers in Iran who had been discharged from their universities and colleges for no reason other than their membership of the Bahá’í faith dedicated themselves to the BIHE project that has evolved from a compensatory institution to a university with academic standards not only on par with the Iranian public university system, but also equalling the standards adopted by universities in the West.”
In 1991 a high-level memorandum, known as the Baha’i Question Memorandum, signed by the Iranian Supreme Leader, outlined a series of repressive measures to be taken against Baha’is to “block” their development and progress in all major areas, including expelling Baha’i students from universities and preventing Baha’i-led economic activities. It also provides conclusive evidence that the campaign against the Baha’is is definitely directed by top government authorities. Regarding educational policy, the document clearly states that “They [Baha’i students] must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Baha’is.”
The memorandum came to light in a 1993 report by UN Special Representative Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, who said the document came as “reliable information” just as his annual report on Iran to the UN Commission on Human Rights was being completed.
After initial establishment, enormous challenges and obstacles had to be overcome for the maintenance and growth of the BIHE. Baha’i homes were used as classrooms, especially given that online courses had some limitations. A strong and coordinated network of volunteers was needed to fulfil the needs of enrolled students across the country. To meet the examination deadlines of students, on many occasions volunteers and BIHE administrators had to drive across the country to deliver the study material to the students, as postal deliveries were not reliable in the country. On the other hand, the government made several attempts to bring this unique, peaceful and vital initiative to a halt, as the government wanted to block any progress of Baha’is in Iran. In 1998, government agents arrested at least 36 people after raiding more than 500 Baha’i homes, and confiscated much of the BIHE’s equipment and records. The raids drew considerable international condemnation. Similar attacks took place in 2001, 2002 and 2006
Another major attack on the BIHE took place on 21 May, 2011.
“The series of raids carried out on some 30 homes of Baha’is, who were offering education to young community members barred by the government from university, is the latest action in Iran’s ongoing policy to keep its largest non-Muslim religious minority on the margins of society.
“‘The Iranian authorities are clearly determined to make it impossible for the Baha’i community to educate its youth whose opportunities are blocked by the state,’ said Bani Dugal, Principal Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations.
“‘Denying people the right to education is a denial of their right to exist as free and productive human beings – and to make a contribution to their society,’ she said. Some 16 Baha’is were arrested on, or after, Saturday 21 May. One has since been released. Eight other Baha’is were interrogated by Intelligence Ministry officers and released afterwards.”
“The dedication and determination of the Baha’is in Iran has not allowed any vicious attack on their unique higher education system to stop them providing a high level university education to their youth who are unjustly deprived of entering university study in the country. The overwhelming achievements and results have been remarkable and praiseworthy. An average of 1,000 students apply to BIHE very year, BIHE offers over 1050 courses ranging from Persian literature to applied chemistry. More information is available on BIHE’s website.”
Affiliated Global Faculty (AGF) of the BIHE is another remarkable development that hundreds of dedicated university professors outside Iran, after witnessing that Baha’i youth have been banned from higher education, have happily accepted, to assist BIHE with online lecturing, research and consultation.
“Since 2005, the online component of BIHE has allowed a growing international body of volunteer university professors outside Iran, known as the Affiliated Global Faculty (AGF), to join efforts with their colleagues and assistants inside the country. The AGF comprises professors holding PhD degrees, who work and reside in North America, Europe, Australia, Africa, Latin America and Asia. Indeed, the diversity of the teaching staff is one of the unique and impressive features of this university.”
The following is an interview conducted by BBC news on January 18, 2017 with two BIHE students in relation to their further study:
“I remember the faces of all my friends who were coming from other cities in Iran, from far away,” Mona said to BBC. “It took them maybe 16-20 hours to get to Tehran. Their faces looked so tired. It was really hard. We had one class from 08:00 to 12:00 in the east of Tehran, and the second class from 14:00 to 18:00 on the west side – it was exhausting! Sometimes we didn’t have physical teachers, we had them over Skype, who were teaching us from the U.S. and Canada.” Travel time and logistics weren’t the only obstacles. Raids on their secret classrooms and arrests of many BIHE teachers were common.
Despite this, Shirin and Mona managed to graduate within a decade from each other, with their respective degrees. However, due to BIHE’s limitations and circumstances, they could not apply to do an Master’s or Doctorate at BIHE or any other Iranian universities. Neither could they look for employment where their skills could be used.
So they fled. Seeking better opportunities, Shirin went to the UK under a domestic labor visa scheme, while Mona escaped to New York via Austria, under an international religious refugee repatriation programme. Both were pleasantly surprised that their BIHE degrees were recognised by their universities of choice in the UK and in the U.S.
This allowed Shirin to get a place at Birmingham University, from which she has since graduated, and Mona to be able to complete her MA in Psychology at Columbia University. “It was more than a miracle – it was beyond expectation, beyond my wildest dream,” Shirin said to the BBC. “Till today, I feel it was the best reward I received for never compromising my faith.”
“It feels amazing, I can’t believe it’s all done and I’ll even have a graduation! When I graduated from the BIHE, they arrested all my teachers, Baha’i teachers. And we never had a graduation day,” said Mona.
BIHE’s perseverance and success has received praise for its non-violent and constructive form of resistance against oppression. It was only apt that the New York Times called BIHE “an elaborate act of communal self-preservation”. And as shown by Mona and Shirin, it’s more than just elaborate, it is courageous.
There are so many other human rights activists and people of good will around the world who are actively involved in supporting the right to university education for Baha’i youth in Iran. Maziar Bahari, who is an Iranian Canadian journalist and filmmaker, and a human rights victim who was incarcerated by the Iranian government from June 1998 to October 2009, was inspired to produce and direct the film “To Light a Candle” that provides a powerful account of the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran. The film sheds light on the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) and the way this unique university was established.
Maziar Bahari also initiated the “Not a Crime” and “Wall Murals” campaigns around the world, highlighting the concept that education should not be a crime for Baha’i educators and students in Iran.
“This whole campaign is about agency, about giving people the ability to express themselves and to learn from each other’s experiences,” Bahari said.
The restriction and discrimination against Baha’i students in higher education over the last 38 years is increasingly becoming a point of discussion among university students in Iran. They see this discriminatory action of the government as a gross violation of the human rights against a peace-loving community within Iranian society. On 2 June 2017, Iran Press Watch reported that “More than three thousand Iranian students from various universities are protesting educational restrictions imposed on Gonabadi Dervishes (another religious minority group) and Baha’is, demanding education equality for all religious and ethnic minorities”. A full report can be accessed through the following link.
[Edited by: Anton Clark and Jen Cowley]
- Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith. Call to the Nations, p. 12.
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 260.