Baha’is of Iran

Historian: Why the Iranian Government Insists the Baha'is are not a Religion

August 12, 2022
IranWire
8 min read
IranWire spoke to Moojan Momen, a historian and scholar of the Baha’i faith as well as of the community's persecution in Iran, on the way the wider Iranian public sees the crackdown, the dangers of worse to come, and why the Iranian government tries to deny that the Baha’i faith is a legitimate religion
IranWire spoke to Moojan Momen, a historian and scholar of the Baha’i faith as well as of the community's persecution in Iran, on the way the wider Iranian public sees the crackdown, the dangers of worse to come, and why the Iranian government tries to deny that the Baha’i faith is a legitimate religion
Dozens of Iranian and global supporters have spoken out in recent days against the new crackdown
Dozens of Iranian and global supporters have spoken out in recent days against the new crackdown

IranWire can report that now 128 Baha’is in Iran have now suffered specific acts of persecution in the past two weeks, with that number increasing almost every day. Baha’is have been variously imprisoned, arrested, endured raids on their residences or businesses, and yet again been denied access to higher education.

On August 2, in the village of Roshankouh, Mazandaran province, some 20 hectares of Baha'i owned land and property was seized and much of it bulldozed, while onlookers were pepper-sprayed and fired at to disperse them. Three former community leaders, Mahvash Sabet, Fariba Kamalabadi and Afif Naemi, have been rearrested after already having served an arbitrary decade in jail, and the Ministry of Intelligence has accused the Iranian Baha'i population in general of espionage, being agents of “colonialism” and "Israel", and of trying to “infiltrate kindergartens”.

Recently IranWire spoke to Moojan Momen, a historian and scholar of the Baha’i faith and their contemporary status in Iran, on the way the wider Iranian public regards the crackdown, as well as why it is happening from the Islamic Republic's point of view and what could be coming next.  The first half of this discussion was published earlier this week.

How does the Iranian public feel about the persecution of the Baha’is?

In a country where no one can take an opinion poll on the streets, it’s difficult to judge the state of public opinion about the Baha’is. But my guess is that the vast majority of Iranians do not support the actions of the Iranian government. They are driven by a small number of people who have extreme views, but who feel they are entitled to impose these views on the rest of the population. It’s similar to what’s gone on in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, lots of places where a small number of people feel they have the right to impose their religious views on an entire population.

But it’s difficult to say because we do not know the views of villagers in Iran, because no one goes and asks them, and no one can ask them without creating problems for themselves with the authorities. There’s no evidence that the people of Roshankouh were asking for the cleansing of their village, the so-called purification of their village; this was something that someone else outside the area decided that they needed to do. The villagers are probably horrified that this is being done in their name.

And with respect to the wider population of Iran, it’s difficult to know, because whenever any dissent erupts, it’s quickly put down, and certainly in the cities there’s a widespread disagreement with the government over their policies. But the government has been careful to separate the villages from the cities so that disaffection does not get into the villages. … The poorer parts of the cities may be more supportive of the government because it supplies them with food and other hand-outs. All you really see are the middle classes, and students and so on, who come out on to the streets and riot and protest.

But what one can say is that there has been an unprecedented outpouring of support for the Baha’is from the general Iranian population both inside and outside Iran on social media and in the form of statements made by various organizations. Individuals and organizations that have never previously expressed their disapproval of the persecution and their support for the Baha’is have now done so. This must be very disheartening for the Iranian government.

You have written in the past about “cultural” genocide or the danger of a “quiet” genocide of the Baha’is in Iran. Do recent events advance those dangers?

There are two separate concepts, one is physical genocide, the other is cultural genocide. The 1991 secret memorandum, a policy document signed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, talked about how to deal with the Baha’is by blocking their progress and development and it signalled a turning away from a drive for a physical genocide. The authorities realised that neither the Iranian population was up for it nor would it be stomached by the international community. The government has instead gone down the road of cultural genocide, which means trying to eliminate any vestige of the Baha’is from the country, which includes cleansing, removing sacred sites of the Baha’is, and trying to push the Baha’is into a cultural ghetto whereby they are isolated and suppressed because of lack of opportunities or ability to live normal lives.

And is the Iranian government succeeding in its aims?

The authorities have clearly succeeded in their aim of disrupting the Baha’i community, both in disrupting the community and the lives of individual Baha’is. But thus far the Baha’is have proved resilient against that pressure. We have not seen mass recantations of Baha’is – the Baha’is have remained resilient and have withstood the pressures. The latest developments may be a new attempt to ratchet up the pressure and to achieve the mass recantation that is the government’s ideal solution. Large numbers of Baha’is disavowing their faith would not involve killing people and would not be condemned by the outside world, while at the same time justifying the government’s claim that the Baha’i faith is not a religion at all, but a political movement.

What does the government insist the Baha’i faith is not a religion?

There are several reasons. One of them is the fact that, if the authorities allow that the Baha’i faith is a religion, and clearly historically a religion that came after Islam, then the logic of their own world view is that they should all become Baha’is because God has sent a new religion after Islam. That after all was the logic of Islam itself at its beginning.

The authorities also cannot allow that the Baha’i faith is a religion because, if they allow this, then the world view of Islamic clerics, and people who support them in Iranian society, will be threatened. This worldview is formed by popular religious rituals and performances, where 90% of what goes on in these passion plays revolves around the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein at Karbila, during Ashura, which is the holiest day of the year. Many other smaller similar holy days occur each month marking the suffering and martyrdom of the other Imams. All of these have become official holidays in Iran and are commemorated with weeping, moaning, self-flagellation and so on.

Shia Islam is a religion in which being persecuted, being martyred, and showing resilience to that, which is what the Imam Hussein showed, are the markers of true religion. But now in Iran there we have the Baha’is showing all of what the early Muslims showed, being persecuted, many being martyred after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and showing resilience, which in the Shia world is the mark of a true religion.

And so it becomes very difficult for the people at the top of the Iranian government because, under this logic, in the eyes of their public they could be seen as the instigators of persecution of a true religion. But if the Baha’is were a political movement, and not a religion, then it would be fine with the population to persecute them. But if they are a true religion, by virtue of their own world view, then the resilience of the Baha’is is a marker of their truth because it was a marker of the truth of the Shia Imams and is a part of Islamic history. It’s a desperately worrying situation for the clerics at the top because, the more they persecute the Baha’is, and the more the Baha’is are resilient, the more they are demonstrating the truth of the Baha’i faith.

The Baha’is describe the response of the community in Iran as “constructive resilience”. How do you describe this response?

Resilience is just resisting persecution and not recanting one’s faith. But this constructive aspect of it, going out and seeking other like-minded people in the population, well-meaning people to carry out actions for the wellbeing of others, such as literacy campaigns, helping the poor, helping after earthquakes and so on, all of which the Baha’is undertake with other like-minded people in society, all of this has a major impact in two ways.

The first is that the general population sees that all the lies they have been told about the Baha’is, about how evil the Baha’is are, by the government, are not true. I think the Iranian population has got to the point where they do not believe anything the government says. But now they see that the Baha’is are positive actors whose aims are to benefit society. The second is that, through this service to society, this is a way of the Baha’is breaking out of the cultural ghetto that the government is trying to confine them in. The government is trying to isolate them culturally. It may not be a geographical ghetto, but it’s a cultural ghetto, where it cuts off the Baha’is from everyone else by expelling them from universities, expelling them from work, cutting off their contacts with the rest of society but by going out and making links with link-minded groups then the Baha’is are breaking out of this cultural ghetto and nullifying the efforts of the government to isolate them from the rest of Iran.

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