Ahmad Zeidabadi - 2008.05.26
The arrest of several leaders of the Bahai community in Iran was widely condemned outside Iran. Inside Iran, however, this issue has not met appropriate reaction between human rights activists and organizations. The reasons for this inappropriate response are complicated.
The first issue is the sensitivity of top Shia clerics to any kind of compassion or defense of Bahais. Some clerics accuse Bahais of “ertedad” (heresy) and call for their complete suppression. This is not limited to clerics supporting the regime. Therefore, whoever defends the Bahai community’s rights in Iran, will face the reaction of not just the government, but also clerics and charges of heresy, which is not something that one would be after.
The second issue is that since the inception of the Bahai faith, many stories have been spread about their belief system and relations to foreigners. These stories grew in size and content by the day. In any case, many people view the Bahai followers as a secretive community which has hidden powers and special ties to foreign countries, especially Israel, and thus fear getting close to them.
Under these conditions, it appears that that the Bahai community in Iran has become a serious issue for the government and even other parts of the Iranian society itself. Therefore, there are many reports that call for the suspension of Bahai rights while there also reports that accuse the group of striving to spread and advertise its faith.
I believe that the time has come for top Shia clerics and the Islamic Republic government to clarify their views on the Bahai community so that this does not turn into yet another unresolved problem for the Iranian society.
As far as I know, even the most traditional definition of “ertedad” (heresy) applies to a Muslim or Muslim-born who has changed his or her religion. Such a definition cannot apply to Bahai’s today, because they and their families were not Muslims to begin with, let alone changing their religion. About 150 years have passed since the inception of Bahai faith and if, a long time ago, people accused Bahai’s of leaving Islam and leaving the faith, that is not valid today.
In addition, even though “ertedad” is defined in religious texts, it is not mentioned in the constitution of the Islamic Republic. In any case, the Islamic Republic, with all its insistence on strict adherence to the Sharia (“Islamic law”), has voluntarily or by force shied away from handing down punishment for “mortadan” (people who commit heresy), for example, for Communists who changed religion. Even if it has punished a non-Muslim for his beliefs, it has insisted that the punishment has been for non-belief related matters, for instance national security crimes.
In recent years only one person was charged with “ertedad” (Dr. Hashem Aghajari) who was later acquitted of the charge under pressure from Iranian civil society. When the administration’s spokesperson accuses the arrested Bahai’s of security crimes, not ertedad, there is an obvious reason that even Ahmadinejad’s administration knows that “being a Bahai” cannot be a crime and punishable. If this point is clearly articulated by government organizations and Shia grand ayatollahs, a part of the problem will undoubtedly be solved.
The second issue that must be clarified by the Islamic Republic is whether the Islamic Republic recognizes the rights of Bahai’s, or whether the state officially endorses discrimination against some of its citizens on the basis of their beliefs. Undoubtedly, a clear answer to this question will clarify a host of other issues as well.
What I want to emphasize here is that Bahai’s, have rights equal to all other Iranians by virtue of having been born in this land, its national framework and live in it and therefore any discrimination against them on the basis of their beliefs undermines the fundamental principles of nation-statehood in modern times.
Even if Bahai leaders are arrested for reasons other than their beliefs, they must be given access to lawyers and enjoy a free and fair trial, like any other Iranian citizen.
I have to note that I personally regard sectarian propaganda against the Bahai’s to be against national and public interest of Iran and object the Iranian government for exerting pressure on the Bahai’s to suppress them. In the end, however, I suggest to the Bahai’s to reconsider their decision to promote their religion inside Iran, because of the hefty consequences that they may have to pay.
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