Multiple sectors of Iranian society—religious and ethnic minorities, dissidents and political activists, women and youth—have experienced, to one degree or another, their government’s discrimination and oppression. But, many experts and observers have increasingly begun to conclude, the case of the freedom of the Baha’is has a special significance in the struggles for achieving freedom and democracy in Iran—and across the entire Muslim world.
Professor Milani, the Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford, where he is the co-director of the Iran Democracy Project, states “Iran can’t become a democracy unless it has had a full reckoning with its Baha’i problem.”
This major issue of minority rights and tolerance for other Faiths, which has an important bearing on many Muslim societies and nations where the rights of religious minorities have suffered, crosses all borders in the Islamic world. With Kurds, with Christians, with the Yazidis, even with minority Muslim populations such as Sunnis or Shiites in many Muslim countries, the ugly history of oppression and dominance of one group over others stubbornly persists into the 21st Century.
The Baha’is of Iran (and Egypt, and several other Muslim countries) exemplify these challenges, not just because the persecutions they suffer are more severe than other groups, or because their peaceful community focuses on service to their fellow-citizens, or because they obey the government and don’t engage in subversive activities or partisan politics.
Instead, the Baha’i persecutions in Iran increasingly demonstrate to the world that only a complete end to the phenomenon of the scapegoating and persecution of this and all other minority communities will signal the maturation of the collective social life of the Iranian people. This has already begun to happen with many of Iran’s intellectuals and activists, who while advocating freedom for all, have traditionally closed their eyes to the violation of human rights of a few groups, in particular the Baha’is.
UCLA’s Dr. Saiedi identifies anti-Baha’i prejudice as the key to the failure of the 1979 Iranian revolution:
It was the presence of organized and pervasive anti-Baha’i sentiment in both the motivation for revolution and the dynamics of the revolutionary process that led to the emergence of a paradoxical situation in revolutionary Iran: the desire for democracy and freedom coincided with religious intolerance and racism; hence in the name of democracy a system of reaction and discrimination came to existence in Iran. “Why the Ideals of the Iranian Revolution were Condemned to Failure.” Iranian, March 27, 2009.
In the rest of the Middle East today, where many cities, villages, and neighborhoods have turned into battlefields, parallels to this situation abound. The entire region seems afflicted with never-ending turmoil. Why have the ideals of a just society which Muslims have always coveted so seldom materialized? Why are so many Muslims captives of tyrannical regimes in their homelands, and in exile marginalized and suspected? At many times in recent history, the region has witnessed various “Arab Spring” uprisings borne of people’s desire for freedom. But the replacements to the governmental systems of repression have, time and again, proved no more desirable than the ones they replaced.
The true teachings of Islam promote tolerance and brotherhood, both instrumental in the creation of the first universities of the world by the Muslims, and in the early Islamic efflorescence of arts and sciences. But what happened to the great Islamic civilization, whose achievements inspired the European Renaissance? Despite the countless brilliant minds and tireless individuals devoted to the progress of their lands, why do the peoples of the Muslim world live under such harsh conditions of social and economic deprivation and backwardness?
Just as Westerners learned lessons from the golden era of the Islamic civilization, Muslims also must closely examine and adopt some of the Western ways of conduct that have contributed to the creation of the West’s relatively free and prosperous nations. The most crucial of these involves an appreciation and tolerance for the diversity of race, ethnicity, and cultural background, and a peaceful, open and religiously pluralistic society:
To be tolerant of others, and to strive to live a harmonious life with them, does not necessitate abandoning one’s faith in Islam, because Islam is a faith of tolerance in essence. Muhammad was most considerate towards the Christians and the believers of other religions. But sadly, many of those who profess belief in him consider people of other religions as infidels.
If a system of thought causes pain and misery for humanity, we must abandon it. Some segments of Islamic societies are afflicted by a world-devouring extremism. This malady requires urgent attention. The extraneous, fanatical parts of a faith system have to be abandoned, no matter how holy some regard them. The main responsibility of this task falls on the shoulders of the moderate and liberal-minded Muslims, because the extremists have not been the sole culprits. A large number of moderate Muslims–who are quick to lash out against the discrimination the Muslim communities in the West experience—have remained silent, reluctant to speak, or sometimes even tacitly agreeing, when it comes to the minorities some Muslim countries openly discriminate against.
We must totally obliterate this intolerance and discrimination. Otherwise, the line that separates and singles out some groups for unequal treatment has a tendency to stretch. Like an unchecked line of fire, it does not content itself with only a few trees. It will consume the whole forest.
We must replace the horrible scourge of religious, ethnic and gender prejudices with a conviction in the nobility of every human being, and in everyone’s right to freedom and equality . Unless and until we achieve this laudable goal, we will not realize any lasting peace and prosperity, even by sacrificing thousands of lives to overthrow totalitarian regimes—only to see them replaced by similar ones.