‘Unclean’ — Iran’s Outcast Baha’i Minority
Anyone who has seen Schindler’s List will remember the scene when the film’s protagonist is temporarily detained for kissing a female Jewish work camp prisoner in a rare celebratory moment. This was a violation of the Nazi regime’s racial laws, based on theories asserting that Jewish “blood” or genes were harmful to society and, in a few instances, that Jews were even carriers of dangerous contamination.
Such pernicious theories are, of course, rejected by sound science and generally regarded today as a particularly extreme result of centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe. While the Nazi concepts targeted one’s race or ethnicity and stand alone in their brutal results, there are surprising similarities with concepts used in Iran today that instead target one’s beliefs.
Recently, a well-known Iranian journalist and former staunch supporter of the regime, Mohammad Nourizad, visited the home of a Baha’i family in Iran to express regret for the family’s plight. During the visit, he accepted a cup of tea from a 4-year-old Baha’i child and had himself photographed kissing the child’s feet.
The child’s parents, Kamran Rahimian and his wife, Faran Hessami, are imprisoned for having served as psychology instructors at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). BIHE was formed by the Baha’i community, the nation’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, in 1987 in response to the Iranian regime’s policy of excluding Baha’i youth from higher education. Nourizad’s words, together with the photo of him kissing the child’s feet, generated considerable discussion in Iran as the photo and story were spread via social media. Western news media picked up the story and saw it as an act of contrition on the part of Nourizad.
However, it is important to understand that, in the cultural context, it was much more than that.
I remember stories from the 1980s of Baha’i prisoners in Iran being led blindfolded between their cells and interrogation rooms. Sometimes, the prison guard, in order to avoid contact with the Baha’i, would hold one end of a pencil and tell the prisoner to hold the other end, so that he could guide the prisoner without having to touch him or her.
In an article published this year by a noted Iranian lawyer, Ms. Mehrangiz Kar, she recalled representing a Baha’i client who had provided her with documents. Kar was pleased that the judge presiding over the trial was young, formally trained in the law, well-groomed, and therefore, she surmised, likely to have less of a bias against Baha’is.
As the judge extended his hand to receive the documents, he suddenly stopped, asked whether the papers had come from the Baha’i client, withdrew his hand, reached for a tissue, and then received the documents, making sure they did not touch his skin.
The concept of ritual uncleanliness is an old one embedded in several major religious traditions, including Islam and Judaism. It is still accepted by many religious Iranian Muslims today. The Iranian Government has even taken legal steps to make sure that it applies to the occupations in which Baha’is may work. In a letter dated April 9, 2007, from the Public Places Supervision Office of the Public Intelligence and Security Force in the province of Tehran, addressed to the regional commanders of police and the heads of public intelligence and security forces, instructions were issued to prevent Baha’is from engaging in a wide range of businesses including “high-earning businesses.” The letter also prohibits Baha’is from receiving permits in 25 “sensitive business categories” and trades ranging from the tourist industry to computer sales, publishing, and a wide range of food businesses. With respect to the latter, the letter provides: “In accordance with the religious canons, work permits will not be issued to the followers of the perverse Bahaist sect in business categories related to Taharat [cleanliness] (1. catering at reception halls, 2. buffets and restaurants, 3. grocery shops, 4. kebab shops, 5. cafes, 6. protein [poultry] shops and supermarkets, 7. ice cream parlors, fruit juice and soft drinks shops, 8. pastry shops, 9. coffee shops.)” (italics added)
Hence, by visiting a Baha’i home, drinking tea from cups handled by his hosts, and kissing the feet of the “unclean” child, Nourizad was doing much more than expressing repentance. He was challenging the theological underpinnings in the minds of many of Iran’s citizens, especially its clerics, that the persecution of Baha’is and their marginalization in society is justified.
For many, even the mention of the word Baha’i has been a taboo. A 2011 documentary,Iranian Taboo, by a Muslim Iranian film-maker, Reza Allamehzadeh, openly addressed this taboo and its historical roots.
It is no coincidence that, in several media interviews, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rarely, if ever, mentioned the word “Baha’i” in response to questions about the persecution of the Baha’i community. Instead, he used terms such as “this group” when referring to them. Most recently, on July 29, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, re-issued a fatwa prohibiting socializing with the “misguided and deviant sect,” well-known terminology used to refer to the Baha’is.
During the last ten years, however, a number of factors have begun to erode this prejudice: the growing awareness, greatly assisted by the internet, of the Baha’i community’s peaceful nature; the wide circulation of a 2009 open letter addressed to the Baha’i community and signed by over 250 prominent Iranian intellectuals and artists, mainly in the diaspora, expressing “shame” for the manner in which Iran has treated its Baha’i minority; the regime’s unpopularity and lack of credibility, which has undermined its anti-Baha’i propaganda; Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi’s willingness to be the attorney for the imprisoned seven-person Baha’i leadership group; and the 2008 statement of the one-time official successor of Ayatollah Khomeini, the late Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, that Baha’is should be granted “citizens’ rights.”
Now, at a time when the state-sponsored persecution of the Baha’is has been increasing, Nourizad has boldly touched the core of the issue and challenged the deeply ingrained prejudice that Baha’is, merely by believing in a religion arising after Islam, are so degraded as to be “unclean.” Let us hope the future proves that Nourizad played a role in the dismantling of such a distorted and destructive construct of reality.
In the meantime, in such an environment, the West cannot permit the Iranian government’s recent “charm offensive” to lull it into complacency on human rights. It is noteworthy that no Baha’is were among the 11 prisoners of conscience released in September immediately preceding the visit of President Rouhani to the U.N. Nor has the Iranian government demonstrated any progress at solving the shooting death on August 24 of Ataollah Rezvani, a prominent Baha’i in the town of Bandar Abbas, who had been the recipient of repeated threats, both from officials of the Ministry of Intelligence and anonymous callers. A failure to seriously investigate would further entrench the view of many clerics that Baha’i blood is “mobah,” meaning it can be spilled with impunity, a status that, despite their own serious problems with persecution, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, as recognized religious minorities under Iran’s constitution, do not share with Baha’is.
Raids in October on 14 Baha’i homes in the city of Abadeh were followed by interrogations by government officials during which the occupants of the homes were urged to leave town or face possible knife attacks, supposedly, the officials asserted, from angry city residents ready to attack. Such actions belie statements of tolerance from President Rouhani and other senior officials and do not bode well for the immediate future of the Baha’i community. Some 115 Baha’is remain in prison in Iran — the highest level in about two decades — and at least an additional 430 are at risk of imprisonment with cases in the criminal justice system.
Over the coming months, policy makers would do well to consider that the sincerity of Iran’s intentions to improve its human rights image and to project itself as a responsible actor in the international community might most accurately be measured by its actions towards the Baha’is. The release of the 115 Baha’i prisoners would be a serious start. However, ultimately, the Baha’is will never be out of danger and their full rights as citizens will never be securely established until Iran’s clerical elite begin to follow Nourizad’s lead and publicly disavow theological concepts designating them as “unclean” and their blood as “mobah.” The application of civilized, universal standards, enshrined in international human rights treaties to which Iran is a signatory, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, demands nothing less.