Editor's note: In light of the continued detention of human rights activist Omid Alishenas, IranWire felt it was important to update and repost this article, originally published last year. IranWire readers can watch To Light a Candle here. Please use "omid" (without quotation marks) as the promo code to watch the film for free.
“To Light a Candle”, a powerful documentary about Baha’is in Iran, premiered at the Hackney Picturehouse in London on Friday September 12, 2014. The film, by IranWire founder and filmmaker Maziar Bahari, highlights the religious minority's determination to pursue further education despite the Islamic Republic’s sustained campaign of oppression against them. It played to a full house, and was followed by a panel discussion chaired by comedian Omid Djalili. Panelists included Bahari, human rights lawyer Payam Akhavan and a Baha’i student, who asked not to be named. During the event Bahari announced the start of Education Is Not A Crime, a new campaign to support the students of Baha’i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE).
The documentary tells the story of the country’s largest religious minority, and their unique form of peaceful resistance to decades of state-sponsored persecution following the 1979 Islamic revolution. Through a combination of compelling interviews, personal stories and dramatic archival footage – often smuggled out at great personal risk – the documentary explores how the Islamic authorities have systematically abused the Baha’is and prevented them from pursuing higher education. “To Light a Candle” highlights how the Baha’is have refused to accept the regime’s attempts to stifle their thirst for knowledge by setting up their own underground university, the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE).
“It’s a beautiful and simply told documentary that will hopefully draw attention to an issue that is in and out of the news only very sporadically,” says Omid Djalili, an award-winning British-Iranian comedian and actor. Djalilli, who comes from a Baha’i family that was persecuted by the Iranian authorities in the 19th century, says he found the documentary both extraordinary and highly emotional.
“Maziar dealt with the topic far better than any Baha’i could have done because we risk getting too emotional about the subject; the story needed a level-headed journalistic approach and that’s precisely what it got. My dream would be that the film gets shown in Iran but that’s almost impossible. In the meantime I wish BIHE graduates all the best for the future.”
BIHE was set up in 1987 and is now recognized by academic institutions around the globe. According to the official BIHE website, it offers Iranian Baha’is a choice of more than 1050 courses ranging from Persian Literature to Applied Chemistry and accepts an average of about 450 students every year. Much like other students in Iran, BIHE applicants must meet rigorous academic requirements and pass a national entrance exam to be accepted. But given that Baha’i students and teachers are forbidden from attending or teaching at regular universities in Iran, classes must be held in secret at peoples’ homes with the threat of arrest a part of daily life.
The Baha'i student on the panel, who asked not to be named, was born in Iran to a Baha’i family and was banned from going to one of Iran’s national universities. She joined the BIHE about 10 years ago. Having completed her undergraduate degree, she went on to further her studies at at UK university.
“I, like most Baha’i students, was discriminated against whilst growing up in Iran because I was seen as being different. Teachers would deliberately ask who was Baha’i in a classroom, which would immediately set us apart,” she explains. “ But BIHE allowed me to study freely and although classes were held at peoples’ homes, it worked relatively well. The whole Baha’i community has come together to make it a success. The only problem was that the campus is as vast as Tehran and without any public transport there was a lot of running around. Overall I think BIHE students have a greater motivation to learn than students elsewhere who have access to education without question.”
According to unofficial reports, Iran’s Supreme Council of Culture and Revolution has effectively called for the exclusion of members of the Baha’i faith from employment and opportunities for higher education. It has also called for the immediate removal of a Baha’i student at any point upon the revelation of their religious identity, including post registration or during the academic year.
The Baha’i faith was founded in 1844 by an Iranian called Bahá’u’lláh and is today one of the world’s fastest growing religions with more than five million followers; it is founded on the principle that humanity is made up of one single race and that therefore the world should be united in one global society.
Despite the peaceful nature of the Baha’i community, its people have faced constant persecution from the Iranian authorities, from public humiliation in the 19th century to the brutality of the late 1990s-early 2000s that saw hundreds of Baha’is imprisoned, tortured and executed.In recent years, and particularly since the Green Movement in 2009, Baha’i teachers and followers have continued to be arrested. Anti-Baha'i propaganda on Iran's state television depict them as a cult and a threat to Islamic society.
Payam Akhavan, an international human rights lawyer and one of the founders of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, explains that the plight of the Baha’is is a problem not just for the Baha’is themselves but the whole of Iranian society and that the Islamic Republic skillfully used them as scapegoats to validate their coming to power.
“In order to justify the widespread repression in Iranian society, an enemy needed to be constructed and this fell on the Baha’is,” says Akhavan. “And although slowly some ayatollahs are beginning to express solidarity with the Baha’is, they are still being abused. The conception of the Baha’is that the regime has put together is based on paranoia and hatred and has nothing to do with the reality of the Baha’i faith and community.”
In September 2012, three Baha’is, Faran Hesami, Kamran Rahimian and Kayvan Rahimian, were arrested for teaching at the BIHE. Faran and Kamran were sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and Kayvan to five years. Under Iranian law, if a prisoner has served a third of his sentence and maintained good behavior, that person can be conditionally released. However all three have been refused early release or even been granted a furlough to visit their families and children.
Maziar Bahari, who has produced a number of other documentaries on Iran and Iraq, including Forced Confessions, was Newsweek’s Iran reporter from 1998 to 2011. He says the Islamic authorities persecute the Baha’is because they fear them, but that Iranian society has come to accept them much more than in the past.
“Most young Iranians today have Baha’i friends, despite the fact the government continues to harass them and portray them in the same negative light. For me, and this is one of the reasons I wanted to make this documentary, the Baha’is are a barometer for what’s going on in Iran,” says Bahari. “If the country opens up a little, perhaps through a reformist government, the Baha’is are given certain freedoms. When society is more repressed, it’s the Baha’is who are the first victims. It amazes me that a nation that wants to be a nuclear power is afraid of a group that are peaceful and quiet.”
Bahari is now also launching an international "Education Is Not A Crime Day" on February 27 next year, hoping to raise awareness of the situation for Baha’is in Iran. On that day — and, he hopes, in years to come — Baha’i and non-Baha’i organizations will screen “To Light a Candle” around the world. An event, based in London and streamed live on YouTube, will accompany the launch. A website, educationisnotacrime.me, will be launched in October 2014.
Bahari says, "These sorts of international events, which focus on some of the key themes the documentary raises, are not only instrumental in drawing attention to the hardships the Baha’is have had to endure over many decades in Iran, they incite positive change. While Baha’is continue to be face injustice, and as long as Iranian authorities treat them as second-class citizens, much remains to be done."