Using faith to reinforce human rights of Bahá’ís in Iran

A few weeks ago, veteran human rights activist Larry Cox suggested that religion offers the human rights movement hope for renewal, greater legitimacy and impact. This, begs some important questions, however: which religion, whose religion, which human rights and in what part of the world? Elsewhere in openGlobalRights, Mukhtari, Ali and Fitzgibbon argue that Islam and human rights share a commitment to compassion, social justice and the fight against oppression and discrimination. When religion is used to violate human rights, however, how can we find common ground? 

I stress here that greater engagement of religions with human rights requires domestication and rootedness, rather than a shallow application of universal standards. Appeals for tolerance and equality are communicated best when based on a people’s accepted cultural and intellectual traditions. This is most urgent in cases of longstanding persecution of particular religious communities by government or social groups.

The persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran is one such case. With over 300,000 followers, the Bahá’ís are Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority. They have no legal protection or recognition as a minority, however, because unlike Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians, the Iranian constitution does not recognize their faith. For decades, they have been arbitrarily detained, executed, refused education and livelihood, intimidated, and demonized in the media. Hundreds were killed after the 1979 revolution. More than 130 Bahá’ís are currently in prison on false charges. Seven former religious leaders are serving 20-year jail terms. A 35-year-long history of intolerance has become systematized and institutionalized into a far reaching pattern of serious, government-instigated and government-perpetuated violations. The persecution of Bahá’ís is now a symbol of Iranian state oppression, of the routine targeting of activists, journalists, minorities, and of intellectuals.

At first glance, the case of Iran’s Bahá’ís seems to support the notion that religion should be kept, at best, to the fringes of rights discussions. Greater pragmatism, however, suggests otherwise. Since political and religious leaders in Iran have attempted to base 170 years of anti-Bahá’í sentiment on religious foundations, then the appeal to universal standards of human rights alone will not be sufficient to the realization of respectful coexistence. While universal standards have merit they may have insufficient resonance. In Iran, and elsewhere, the best access may prove to be the human rights appeal through the dominant sacred texts and values.

Recent statements by Shia clerics favoring coexistence with the Bahá’ís offer much room for hope. To the words of the much-revered and late Ayatollah Montazeri in 2008, and of Ayatollah al-Sadr in 2011, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani has recently added his own generous gift.

Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani is no stranger to calling for religious co-existence in Iran. Recently, however, he included a call to respect Iran’s Bahá’ís. In a statement released on 7 April 2014, Masoumi-Tehrani recalled that Iran’s history includes periods in which “different religions and denominations, with manifold beliefs and practices, enjoyed social interaction and tolerant coexistence.” The cleric bemoaned the loss of that tradition, noting the devastating undermining of “the right to be human,” the right to life, and human dignity. He described Iran’s current social reality as one of “religious apartheid.” 

As a gift to the Bahá’ís, Masoumi-Tehrani prepared calligraphic works of art, choosing a symbol of the Bahá’í Faith known as the Greatest Name – a representation of the conceptual relationship between God, His prophets and the world of creation – and a verse from the Bahá’í Holy writings. The fact that he chose the symbol and texts of the recipient and persecuted religious community, the Bahá’ís, goes some way towards underscoring his generosity.

This gesture’s intent is best captured by the Ayatollah’s own words: “I present this precious symbol-and expression of sympathy and care from me and on behalf of all my open-minded fellow citizens who respect others for their humanity and not for their religion or way of worship - to all the Bahá’ís of the world, particularly to the Bahá’ís of Iran who have suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice.”

Such religiously meaningful gestures by Ayatollahs Montazeri, al-Sadr and Masoumi-Tehrani serve to complement human rights efforts and offer a hope for greater legitimacy and impact.

Elsewhere on openGlobalRights, Pakistani sociologist Nida Kirmani argued that we must choose between a secular or religious approach to human rights. As Indian journalist Parsa states, the messages of equality and tolerance communicates best when offered through the prism of the country’s own cultural and intellectual traditions. These three Iranian Shiite Ayatollahs are a great example of this, as they have mobilized a religious understanding of human rights to respond to violations of rights. This is what Rabbi Ascherman was talking about when he told openGlobalRights about his own organization in Israel, Rabbis for Human Rights. 

Admittedly, the wide-ranging rights violations in Iran – for the Bahá’ís, and for all – calls for much more than a few gestures by a handful of maverick religious leaders. However, these appeals play a significant role in undermining Iran’s longstanding tendency to legitimize religiously motivated attacks on human rights. They foster a new tradition of inclusion to battle the ruling tradition of impunity. They may also prove a necessary precursor to the improvement of human rights in deeply religious, but also highly polarized, countries such as Iran.