On 2 November international civil society alliance Civicus hosted an event that showcased the persecution faced by the Baha’i people by the Islamic theocracy in Iran. The event hosted IranWire citizen journalist Saleem Vaillancourt, Wits University law professor Salim Nakhjavani and director of the office of public affairs of the Baha’i community in South Africa, Peter Mputle. It featured a showing of the IranWire documentary The Cost Of Discrimination which parallels the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran with apartheid in South Africa. The panellists then discussed South Africa’s role in defending the Baha’is and in promoting human rights. The Daily Vox explains.
Who the Baha’i people are
The Baha’i follow the teachings of religious messenger Bahá’u’lláh whose teachings include principles of essential oneness of humankind, the elimination of prejudice, the unity of all religions, the equality of women and men, the centrality of justice, the importance of education, and the true life as the life of the soul.
The Baha’i faith also does not bestow power upon a single priest or a clergy but rather supports an independent search for truth Mputle explains. “In the Baha’i faith, instead of clergy we have structures like a national spiritual assembly of nine members who are voted in every year and administers the affairs of the Baha’is in the country. There is a local spiritual assembly that works in the same way,” he said.
Although the Baha’i faith originated in Iran, there are Baha’is all over the world. There are also many African Baha’is. Kampala, in Uganda, has a Baha’i House of Worship. In South Africa, there are around 5000 Baha’is and the community is growing, Mputle said.
The struggles of the Baha’i in Iran
The Iranian government others it’s Baha’i community. The Baha’i are not recognised by the Iranian constitution even though it is Iran’s largest minority religion. Other minority religions like the Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian faiths are contained within the constitution. And this is just the beginning of the ways the Baha’i are discriminated against.
More than 200 Baha’is were killed after Iran’s 1979 Revolution. Hundreds of others have been unjustly jailed and tortured. Today over a hundred Baha’is languish in Iranian jails where they’re deprived of their most basic rights as Iranian citizens. The Baha’is are barred from teaching or studying at Iranian universities and even many employment opportunities are not available to them. Baha’i cemeteries have been destroyed and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has seized properties from Baha’i families.
The Cost of Discrimination suggests that there are similarities between Iran’s persecution of the Baha’is and apartheid. The scale differs because the Iranian Baha’is are a minority not a majority. However, the way the ruling class maintains control at all costs, the way it denies the Baha’is access to education and other rights, and enforces its will through detentions and violence, giving religious reasons for its actions, is similar to apartheid in South Africa.
The Iranian government uses similar structures to apartheid, Vaillancourt said. For example, religious discrimination, legal and constitutional exclusion as well as intimidation, arrests, violence, coercion, defamation, and the persecution against Baha’is. It also blocks the purpose and development of the Baha’is.
Nakhjavani, a member of the South African Baha’i community and helped make The Cost Of Discrimination, said there is a dichotomy between the Iranian constitution and the lived experience of the Iranians. “The Iranian constitution begins with a statement of high-minded ideals founded on principles of the nobility of the soul. It promises all sorts of fundamental rights and the idea that all people are created equal. But what does that mean for an Iranian woman? What does that look like for a Baha’i?” he said.
Why the Baha’i are so persecuted
Generally Baha’i teachings don’t work for a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy, Vaillancourt said. “The Iranian regime is a self-professed theocracy which entrenches power in the hands of clergy,” Vaillancourt said. But besides the Baha’i belief in an independent search for truth, there is it’s belief in the equality of men and women and it’s emphasis on knowledge all threatens the state. “These are things that challenge any government that has a stake in limiting access to its people,” Vaillancourt said.
The government also makes life difficult for any minority like Sunnis Muslims (Iran is a Shia theocracy), members of other minority religions, activists and human rights workers, he said.
The Baha’is resistance
“The Baha’is approach is characterised by scholars not as resistance but constructive resilience,” Nakhjavani said. This means the community puts in place approaches which build the resilience of the community by contributing to the betterment of the society – no matter how oppressive the society may be to them at the time. It is this expression that started the Baha’i universities in Iran.
As a journalist, Vaillancourt said he sees the Iranian society transforming. “More and more think the rights of all must be respected,” he said. Vaillancourt said a number of people have spoken up in support of the Baha’is from human rights lawyers, to journalists, clerks and even ayatollahs.
Why South Africans should care
Vaillancourt said IranWire made the documentary The Cost of Discrimination because South Africa of all countries, has “an acute understanding of what it means to be denied, discriminated against and have their progress blocked. “South Africa has a special role to play in warning the world of the cost of discriminating against a whole part of it’s society; not just the economic costs but the social costs and spiritual costs,” he added.
South Africans understand the way the principle of ubuntu applies very well, Nakhjavani said. “When it comes to dealing with this system of oppression South Africans are wealthy. They’re wealthy in experience and knowledge and learning,” he said. He said South Africans have a duty to share this knowledge.
What can South Africans do to further the cause of the Baha’is in Iran?
The South African government has a good relationship with the Iranian government. “They are in a position to encourage Iran to abide by it’s human rights obligations in a way that western governments are not,” Vaillancourt said.
The Baha’is do not believe in going against the government, Mputle said. “We believe in consultation. We need to engage with the South African government to respond to the atrocities of the Baha’is in Iran without breaking relationships with the Iranian government,” he said.
Mputle said as South Africans, we need to raise our voices against the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran. He said we need to write about it, speak about it and ask relevant institutions like the civil society to continue engaging government.
IranWire made three documentaries highlighting the persecution of Baha’is by the Iranian government. You can watch To Light a Candle, Changing the World, One Wall at a Time, and The Cost of Discrimination here.