Recently media coverage has highlighted the oppression of the Baha’I community under the Iranian government. Carlos Aguilar analyses this and discusses how the minority group is being coerced to provide its education through unconventional – yet necessary – means.
The article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that “Everyone has the right to education”. The Baha’i community not only recognizes education as a right but also as a duty, “Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone”. Maybe this is why the Iranian Government, signatory of the Declaration, decided to build up walls between Baha’is and education in Iran.
The Bahá’í faith is one of the youngest of the world’s religions. It was founded by Bahá’u’lláh in Iran in 1863, who according to them is the most recent Manifestation of God although not the last Messenger. There are about 6 million Bahá’ís in the world and they constitute Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority (approximately 300,000 members).
The Baha’i faith is based on certain ideas perhaps “inconvenient” or too progressive for the Iranian regime. For example, they accept all religions have true and valid origins. The Baha’i strongly believe in the equality of rights for men and women, the importance of social and economic equality, and perhaps the most “objectionable” of all, the dissolution of the clergy and its replacement with “Spiritual Assemblies”. If analysed, one can understand the Iranian Government (extremely linked to the Shi’a clergy) continuous harassment and explain its reasons for trying to avoid Baha’is development, especially regarding their education.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Baha’is have been systematically persecuted as a matter of government policy. During the first decade of this persecution, more than 200 Baha’is were killed (executed), hundreds were tortured or imprisoned, and tens of thousands lost jobs. Many lost other rights, including the access to education.
After the Islamic Revolution only those who identified themselves with one of the four religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism – recognized by the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, have the right to study. Thousands of teachers and students have been barred from higher education being fired or expelled.
This is why in 1987, Baha’I teachers, students and general volunteers joined forces to create the BIHE (Baha’i Institute of Higher Education), an informal school – nearly clandestine – meant to provide their community what the Government denies them – education.
Since the beginning, the BIHE has faced difficulties. Authorities have sought to close down the institute (among other efforts). Many students and teachers have been subject to arrests, raids, confiscation of school equipment and persecution. Many of its “campuses” have been shut down. In 2011, seven teachers were sentenced for up to 5 years of prison for their involvement with the BIHE.
However, in what the New York Times called an “elaborate act of communal self-preservation”, the BIHE has still remained intact. Despite being forced to operate under the radar in discreet locations. Often using private houses as “unofficial campuses” and sending education material vía post.
The telecommunications explosion in the 1990s allowed academics from all over the world to offer their services as tutors through the Baha’i Affiliated Global Faculty (AGF), a growing international body of top notch professors holding PhD degrees who give their time and expertise to the service of BIHE. These volunteers work and reside in North America, Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia and have been critical to the institutes development.
The BIHE, its volunteers in Iran and abroad, and the global supporters have led to many international universities recognising the BIHE degrees when graduates want to continue their studies elsewhere. This gives them the chance to go for a Masters or PhD degree in countries such as the United Kingdom.
The Baha’i situation has been flagged up by the United Nations. In March 2015, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Ahmed Shaheed, the special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, told the Human Rights Council that discrimination against minorities in Iran, including Baha’is, continues “unabated”.
The report says that “not a single recommendation that had been accepted by Iran with regards to the Iranian Baha’is has been implemented”, and that “the violations against them are now much more intense and severe”.
Although the Baha’i International Community and the UN have a close collaborative relationship, the Baha’i situation in Iran needs much more attention from the international community. The new Government led by President Rouhani is not substantially different from its predecessors regarding the Baha’is who still suffer the lack of many opportunities.
In 2014, the film To light a candle, a documentary by Maziar Bahari was released as part of the global campaign Education is not a crime. Both, the film and the campaign show the delicate presence of the Baha’i community in Iran and their fight against Government barriers not only to study but also to develop themselves.
Currently the BIHE continues growing with a staff size of 700 people, 37 programs (undergraduate and postgraduate) and growing number of partnerships with higher learning institutions from around the globe. However, their students, teachers and volunteers are still treated like criminals, when their only crime happens to be a peaceful fight for education.
Carlos Arturo Aguilar holds an MA in International Political Economy from the University of Sheffield. He is freelance researcher and writer. Carlos is particularly interested in security, migration, sustainable development, and education affairs.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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