The ongoing trial of the seven Baha’i leaders in Iran and the escalating persecution of the Baha’i Faith in that country require an in-depth inquiry into the reasons for this persecution.
(Author’s Note: This article represents my personal views and should not be taken as representing the official views of the Baha’i Faith or any of its institutions. This article has not been reviewed by any Baha’i representative or institution. I recommend following the Baha’i principal of independent investigation of truth, and going to http://www.bahai.us the official site of the Baha’is of the United States, for basic information.)
With international outcry growing against the imprisonment and ongoing trial of seven Baha’is in Iran on trumped up charges, the title question seems obvious, but the question does not seem to get the kind of discussion it demands. I see descriptions of the persecution and calls for its end, but little discussion of why the Iranian state and religious authorities, as well as many everyday Iranians, have such animosity for Baha’is in particular.
Yes, I want you to speak out against the latest oppressive acts and contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and encourage them to keep the pressure on the Iranian government. The House and Senate have passed resolutions that condemn Iran’s human rights violations and calls on the government to free the seven as well as all other imprisoned Baha’is. But you can get all the information you need about that at http://iran.bahai.us.
I now return to my opening question: Why is Iran persecuting the Baha’is?
It is easy to answer, “Because they’re an undemocratic, intolerant theocracy that uses fear and hatred of minorities to stay in power.” That answer might make you feel good, sitting here in democratic, semi-secular America where Barack Obama is President, but it would also be simplistic and inaccurate on some points.
In a post written several months ago, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen discussed his recent visit to the Jewish community in the Iranian city of Isfahan. He described a community disturbed by constant official cries of “death to Israel,” but that otherwise goes about its business unmolested. Cohen, a Jew himself, praised the warmth with which he’s been treated during visits to Iran and criticized the “Mad Mullah” image of Iran.
“[t]he reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric,” Cohen wrote.
I have no wish to paint a caricature of Iran, either. Cohen’s experience tells us that Iran is a complex, diverse nation that is quite capable of tolerance toward some minorities, in spite of official rhetoric. The Iranian constitution specifically grants rights to Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians but considers Baha’is “unprotected infidels” with scarcely any rights, whom Iranians can even murder with impunity.
So what is it about the Baha’is?
To answer this question, it is necessary to frankly examine the central claims of the Baha’i Faith, and of all faiths – Islam, Christianity, Judaism and others. Such an examination is scary for any of us who pride ourselves on our belief in pluralism and embracing difference. We are likely to find ourselves, like Rodney King, crying out in the wilderness, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
If we actually take the claims of various religions seriously, if we truly accept that followers of different faiths actually believe what they say they believe, then we make it a lot harder to get along. The warm and fuzzy ecumenism of some Westerners rests upon not closely examining the conflicting claims of different denominations and faiths, or at least not bringing them up in mixed company.
Martin Luther risked torture and death and launched a centuries-long violent conflict because he believed some claims of the Catholic Church were wrong – not just wrong, but immoral and deserving vigorous opposition; and he believed God supported his position. Today, it’s easy enough for Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Jews, Baha’is, Muslims, etc. to break bread together and strategize about alleviating poverty or saving polar bears, because they all can find common ground for dealing with those issues without confronting each other’s conflicting claims.
The long, hideous history of religious conflict and persecution is also a history of conflicting claims. Such conflicting claims lead to mass murder, persecution and war precisely because they conflict. If I accept certain religious claims as true and originating from God, then I therefore reject other religious claims as untrue and originating from some other source. What I do in my relations with people who accept conflicting claims depends on what else my religion teaches, or the interpretations I pile on top of those teachings.
Taking a detour from Iran to the United States, we can see an example of what happens when we dodge competing claims. Recent efforts to find common ground between pro-choice and pro-life camps avoid mentioning the term abortion, which is a way of not examining conflicting claims, some of which are religiously based claims. If I accept the claim that the soul and the body unite at the moment of conception, thereby forming a sacred entity, then how I treat that entity will be very different than if I consider that entity just a clump of multiplying cells that becomes sacred, or at least acquires civil rights, at some later point in its development. Therefore, let’s dance around the conflict for the sake of our shaky “common ground.”
The majority of Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, as part of a complex chain of events that led to his crucifixion. The Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him – faced such fierce persecution that he temporarily fled to Abyssinia with his followers, and then later fled Mecca for Medina, and then only triumphed after a series of battles. Why?
Because of conflicting claims; not competing claims that can co-exist while vying for support, but conflicting claims, claims that cannot all be true at the same time.
When someone appears and claims to bring a new revelation from God, upheavals result, even though followers of existing religions have been eagerly awaiting both the revelation and the revealer. Much is at stake, socially, politically, culturally, economically, and spiritually. A new revelation threatens an entire way of life that has been passed down for centuries. Yes, the religious authorities face the end of their power and influence, and so always lead the resistance to a new prophet and a new revelation, but the common people don’t need that much persuasion to enter the fray. The people have a lot to lose, too, if the new claimant is right.
Thus, when Jesus appeared and appropriated the title “Son of Man,” which was one of the epithets for the expected Messiah, Jewish authorities rejected his claims, both because he did not meet long-established standards for authenticating his claim, and because widespread acceptance of his claims would destroy their power and privilege. Christianity has its own narrative of how Jesus did meet the qualifications for being the Messiah, which the Jews did not, or would not, in the Christian view, interpret correctly. That debate goes on today.
Rome in the early Christian era tolerated various religious groups that posed no threat to the social, cultural, political, economic and spiritual order, but Christianity posed a threat, because it was not simply another competing cult. Christianity asserted its claims superseded all other religious claims, and that those claims were not simply wrong but immoral and deserved annihilation. Before Constantine, periodic outbreaks of anti-Christian violence testified to how seriously non-Christians took the claims of Christianity. There were periods of relative quiet when Christian communities were able to function more or less openly, but in those early centuries, the threat of violent persecution was always there.
The coming of Muhammad and Islam is another case. In “Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources,” Martin Lings noted the anticipation among Arabia’s Christians and Jews of the coming of a prophet who would restore monotheistic worship and end the profanation of the Ka’aba by Arab idolatry.1 Once Muhammad appeared and made his claims, however, opposition arose from Jews and Christians, as well as pagans. Although the pagan Arabs had tolerated Jews and Christians in their midst, Muhammad’s declaration of Allah as the one God and his denunciation of idol worship permitted no such tolerance. The claims of Islam could not, and did not co-exist with paganism, as proven when the triumphant Prophet returned to Mecca and destroyed the idols surrounding the Ka’aba. Lings notes that some accounts have Muhammad ordering the erasure of pagan images inside the Ka’aba, but personally protecting an image of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
So, despite its superseding claims, Islam has practiced tolerance as a rule. The Prophet himself is said to have dictated a document granting rights to non-Muslims, which included protection of houses of worship. Moorish Spain had a flourishing Jewish community; Christian Spain expelled its Jews or forced them to convert.
Now we move to Iran in the mid-19th century. As in ancient Palestine and 6th century Arabia, the coming of a prophet was again in the air. Many Shi’ih Muslims were anticipating the appearance of the Qa’im (He Who Will Arise), viewed as the return of the Twelfth Imam, the last of a series of spiritual leaders beginning with Ali, the nephew and son-in-law of Muhammad. The Twelfth Imam had disappeared centuries earlier, and Shi’ah believe his return will then usher in the coming of the Mahdi, the figure who would vanquish evil and bring about The Last Day. Millennial expectations also ran high in the Christian world, as many, interpreting prophecies in the Book of Daniel, believed the Second Coming would occur in 1844. A group called The Millerites (later Seventh Day Adventists) sold all their possessions and moved to Palestine to encamp at the base of Mount Carmel in anticipation of meeting Jesus on his return.
As in the past, events didn’t transpire as anticipated. In Iran, a man who took the name of The Bab, or The Gate, proclaimed himself the Qa’im, and declared that his mission was to prepare the way for one greater than himself. Thousands, known as Babis, eagerly embraced his cause, but the majority of Iranians and the civil and religious authorities responded with arrests, persecution, torture and executions. The Bab was executed in 1850. An 1852 outbreak of anti-Babi violence featured savagery reminiscent of the gruesome killings of early Christian martyrs. Approximately 20,000 Babis were murdered. Outbreaks have continued to the present day, although mass violence has not reached such a fever pitch in recent years.
Following the Bab’s death, the man whom Baha’is know as Baha’u’llah, The Glory of God, took over the movement and faced continuing persecution and a series of exiles that eventually led him to Akka in Palestine. In Baha’u’llah’s chief claim, we can find the answer to the title question of this essay:
“Verily I say, this is the Day in which mankind can behold the Face, and hear the Voice, of the Promised One.”2
Baha’u’llah’s claim also comes with full understanding that many would reject it:
“Notwithstanding all the verses of the Qur’án, and the recognized traditions, which are all indicative of a new Faith, a new Law, and a new Revelation, this generation still waiteth in expectation of beholding the promised One who should uphold the Law of the Muhammadan Dispensation. The Jews and the Christians in like manner uphold the same contention.”3
Baha’u’llah’s claim, like those of Jesus and Muhammad and others, conflicts directly with eschatological dogma. Most Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the last revelation from God. They consider Muhammad “The Seal of the Prophets,” understood as ending the line of prophets. Anyone who then makes the claim to be another prophet, bringing another revelation, therefore conflicts irreconcilably with existing claims accepted and deeply believed by Muslims. It is important to emphasize here that Baha’is do not claim that Islam is any wrong, only that widely held interpretations of Islam made by fallible human beings are wrong.
If Baha’u’llah is right, then the mullahs are wrong, and entrenched religious, social, cultural, political and economic structures are threatened. Iran’s leaders understand this more fully, but the general populace gets the drift, with help from official propaganda against “the misguided Baha’i sect.”
So the seven Baha’is, along with others already in prison, face long prison terms and possible death for practicing their religion, that is, for practicing the Baha’i Faith, not just any non-Islamic religion. It is easy enough to look at a photo of this well-dressed, professional-looking group and say, “What threat could they possibly pose to anybody?” Indeed, the Baha’is mean nobody any harm, but the claim of Baha’u’llah, in which Baha’is believe, is a threat to the established order:
“The world’s equilibrium hath been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order. Mankind’s ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System — the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed.”4
Such disruptions of equilibrium are a pattern in human history. Jesus and Muhammad are two who created such disturbances, and the reaction against them was predictable and predicted: “And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.” (Matt. 10: 21-22).
It is unjust for the Iranian government to deprive Baha’is of equal rights and to slander and imprison them, and the government deserves every possible protest and condemnation. We won’t, however, fully grasp the nature of the situation in Iran, or understand other religiously based conflicts, unless we study the conflicting claims and come to terms with what is truly at stake. Those of us who think of ourselves as open-minded, progressive, liberal, pluralistic, etc., should, in other words, take religious belief as seriously as the Iranian government does.
- Lings, Martin. 1983. “Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources,” pp. 15-16. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.
- Baha’u’llah (Shoghi Effendi, tr.). 1983 edition. Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 10. Wilmette, IL: Baha’i Publishing Trust.
- Baha’u’llah (Shoghi Effendi, tr.) 1983 edition. “The Kitab-i-Iqan (The Book of Certitude,” p. 239. Wilmette, IL: Baha’i Publishing Trust.
- Gleanings, p. 136.