Iranian President-elect Hasan Rouhani at a June 17 news conference in Tehran. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP )
Hassan Rouhani’s speech at the United Nations on Tuesday signaled the possibility of a thaw in relations between Iran and the United States. Indeed, President Rouhani has been diligently trying to improve Iran’s image abroad by, for instance, reaching out to the Jewish community over social media and to Americans through an NBC interview and a Washington Post op-ed. At the same time, he has fostered hope for reform at home by freeing political prisoners and promising greater freedoms for Iran’s young and restive population.
But if President Rouhani is truly serious about repairing Iran’s image in the world and living up to his promises for greater rights, he must address the proverbial third rail in Iranian politics: the horrific human rights abuses aimed at Iran’s small yet historic Baha’i community.
The Baha’i faith teaches that all of the world’s religions are the result of an unbroken line of divine messengers sent by God to different peoples at different times. The Baha’i believe that the prophet Baha’u’llah, who founded the faith in the 19th century, is merely the most recent in this prophetic chain and that his revelation is universal. This belief, coupled with the fact that the Baha’i began as an offshoot of Shiah Islam, has opened the faithful to horrific attacks from conservative Muslims — and Shiah, in particular — who deem the religion to be nothing more than a heretical form of Islam.
Persecution of Iran’s Baha’is did not begin with the Islamic Republic, of course. Due to their professional training and educational backgrounds, Baha’is were well-represented in Iran’s professional classes throughout the 20th century, but they have always lacked social and political security. The Shahs of Iran regularly allowed for campaigns of public violence and abuse targeting the Baha’i faithful, either as a way of assuaging conservative parts of the Shia religious establishment or because the faith’s universalist ethos contradicted the Shahs’ attempts at fostering a firm sense of Iranian nationalism.
However, the repression of Iran’s Baha’i community reached fever pitch with the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Iran’s constitution recognizes the religious legitimacy of Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews, but not the Baha’i. Although there are only an estimated 300,000 Baha’i left in Iran, they face a long list of judicial, religious, economic and social abuses. Baha’is are regularly imprisoned and even executed for practicing their faith. Baha’i owned businesses and factories are routinely closed down and taken over by government authorities as part of what human rights advocates say is an attempt to destroy the community’s economic life. Baha’i students are not allowed to attend university in Iran, and crimes against the Baha’i are rarely punished.
Although some Shiite clerics have issued fatwas urging respect for the human rights of Baha’is and recognition of their faith, and the leaders of Iran’s reformist Green movement have made attempts to bring the human rights of Baha’is within the broader umbrella of political and social reforms they are advocating, the situation for Iran’s Baha’i community has only worsened in recent years. In fact, Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameni, has issued a fatwa calling the Baha’i apostates from Islam.
This situation cannot be allowed to continue. As Iran’s present leadership attempts to make bold moves, both domestically and globally, to normalize Iran’s relations with the world and reform the Islamic Republic within, the foundational rights of the Baha’i community will be the most powerful test of how genuinely committed he is to truly expanding human rights and social openness in Iran.
The world is watching.
Reza Aslan is founder of Aslan Media and author most recently of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” Michael Brooks is the host of INTERSECTION on Aslan Media and a Producer for the Majority Report.