Human Rights

In Iran, Baha'is engage in "an elaborate act of communal self-preservation"

Government raids on 500 private homes and the arrest of some 30 faculty members seek to close the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education, a decentralized university that aimed to give Bahá’í students access to the education they have been otherwise denied.

TEHERAN, Iran - The raids were swift, efficient and well planned. Starting on 29 September 1998, agents of the Revolutionary Guard, in cooperation with government agencies such as the Ministry of Security and Information, spread out across the country in dozens of small groups.

By the time they were finished five days later, more than 30 people had been arrested, some 500 private homes had been invaded, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of books, furniture and equipment had been confiscated. One witness said some of the raiders were accompanied by film crews - evidence of the methodical nature of the attacks.

The aim of the raids was to shut down the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a unique effort by the Bahá'í community of Iran to provide a university education for its young people, who have been systematically excluded from colleges and universities in Iran for more than 18 years. Founded in 1987, the BIHE operated as an independent, full-fledged university with an enrollment of some 900 students, a faculty of more than 150 first-rate academics and instructors, and complete course offerings in ten subject areas.

Yet the BIHE was forced to operate in a highly circumspect and decentralized manner. Most of its classes were held in private homes throughout Iran and what little permanent infrastructure it had was composed of a handful of rented classrooms and laboratories scattered throughout the capitol.

It was, as The New York Times said, "an elaborate act of communal self-preservation" - a creative and wholly nonviolent response to systematic government-sponsored persecution that has been waged against Iran's 300,000 member Bahá'í community since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979 and that is based solely on religious intolerance.

"The materials confiscated were neither political nor religious, and the people arrested were not fighters or organizers," said The New York Times, in a 29 October 1998 article about the raids. "They were lecturers in subjects like accounting and dentistry; the materials seized were textbooks and laboratory equipment."

To informed observers, the arrests and confiscations are clearly part of a long-standing and centrally orchestrated campaign by Iranian authorities to deal with Iran's Bahá'í community "in such a way that their progress and development are blocked" - as stated in a secret 1991 Government memorandum instructing authorities how to deal with "the Bahá'í question."

"The goal of the government of Iran is to discontinue the [Bahá'í] University and silence this educational and spiritual movement," said one Bahá'í who was closely involved in the University's operation and did not wish to be named. "They claim that a Bahá'í has no right to develop and must not have higher education, so that the community may become degraded."

The actions against the BIHE likewise reflect a new and dangerous period for Iran's Bahá'í community, ushered in by the summary execution of Mr. Ruhu'llah Rawhani, a 52-year-old medical supplies salesman who was hanged in Mashhad on 21 July 1998 solely for religious reasons, and the subsequent confirmation of death sentences against two other Bahá'ís in Mashhad in September.

It would be incorrect to call the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education an "underground university," since its existence was well-known to the authorities from its earliest years. In fact, in 1996 Iranian authorities conducted raids against BIHE sites, confiscating records and equipment but not moving to shut down its operation.

In keeping with Bahá'í religious teachings on obedience to government, the Bahá'ís in Iran always answered questions forthrightly when asked about the Institute and any other activities. Nevertheless, in a climate where the government has outlawed the operation of their institutions, the Bahá'ís resorted to running an "open university" that was both highly dispersed and prudent in its operation.

Until the Government raids at the end of September 1998, the Institute offered Bachelor's degrees in ten subject areas: applied chemistry, biology, dental science, pharmacological science, civil engineering, computer science, psychology, law, literature and accounting. Within these subject areas, which were administered by five "departments," the Institute was able to offer more than 200 distinct courses each term. In the beginning, courses were based on correspondence lessons developed by Indiana University, which was one of the first institutions in the West to recognize the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education. Later on, course offerings were developed internally.

Teaching was done principally via correspondence, or, for specialized scientific and technical courses and in other special cases, in small-group classes that were usually held in private homes.

"At the beginning, the students did not even know the names of their professors," said one BIHE professor, who, like most others quoted in this article, wanted to remain anonymous out of fear for his safety and that of his relatives in Iran. "Even after three or four years, the students did not know the names of their professors. They had never seen them. Because it was very dangerous. If somebody knows the name of them, maybe they would tell their friends. So it was all correspondence at the beginning of this plan."

Over time, however, the Institute was able to establish a few laboratories, operated in privately owned commercial buildings in and around Teheran, for computer science, physics, dental science, pharmacology, applied chemistry and language study. The operations of these laboratories were kept prudently quiet, with students cautioned not to come and go in large groups that might give the authorities a reason to object.

An all-volunteer, unpaid faculty

At its peak, the Institute had more than 150 faculty members. Approximately 25 or 30 were professors who were fired from government-run universities after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Other faculty members included doctors, dentists, lawyers and engineers. The majority were educated in Iran, but a good number have degrees from universities in the West, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University, the University of California at Berkeley and the Sorbonne. None of the Bahá'í faculty members were paid for their time; all worked as volunteers.

"These youth are very precious people," said a faculty member, explaining why they were willing to take such risks, without monetary remuneration, to establish the Institute. "We all care about them. They have been through tests and trials and they had no hope. They have been deprived of many things so if there was any chance for us to get something better for them, we did it."

Each of the five departments drew not only on these volunteer professors for their academic expertise but also on a small and anonymous group of Bahá'í academics in North America, Europe and Australia who sent in the latest textbooks and research papers, occasionally made visits to Iran as guest lecturers, and otherwise provided instructional and technical support.

"The Bahá'í youth are all raised to want to study and become professionals," said one of the outsiders involved in supporting the Institute. "So to sit around and do nothing is a very serious psychological pressure. And before the Open University really got going, the youth were in a hopeless position." This man, who was born in Iran and still has family there, asked that his name not be used.

One former BIHE student, who also wished to remain anonymous, explained the difficulties of getting into a state-recognized university. "In Iran, you have to apply for an examination to go to college. If you are successful at your exam, you can go to university. There is a place [on the examination form] which asks, 'What is your religion?' It has items just for Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. And all of us [the Bahá'í students], we didn't write anything at that place. On the left side I just wrote 'Bahá'í.' So they don't let us take that examination. They didn't give us the entrance card to go to the examination hall. So we can't even take the exam."

High academic standards

Entrance examinations for the BIHE were required, and they established high standards. Of the roughly 1500 students who applied for admission in its first year of operation, 250 were accepted for the first semester of study. By 1996, a total of 600 students had enrolled in the Bahá'í Institute of Higher Education and were pursuing their studies, and by 1998 approximately 900 students were enrolled.

"There are a lot of the students in Iran who study because it is a sort of fighting, a sort of positive fighting, sort of like Gandhi," said one former student, who is now living outside of Iran. "If the authorities don't let you get an education, if they don't let you study, you want to show them that you can study."

Among the indications of the Institute's surprisingly high academic standards and instructional level was the success that a few of the graduates had in gaining admission to graduate schools outside Iran, including major universities in the United States and Canada. It should be noted, however, that some of the Institute's graduates and former students outside Iran have had a difficult time getting their credits recognized - a fact of life that stems directly from the Iranian Government's policy of blocking their access to education and its failure to recognize the Institute officially.

Complex administration

In its day-to-day operation the Institute functioned basically like a correspondence school, but with its own delivery service. In its early years, students and faculty sent homework assignments and lessons back and forth via the state-run postal system. But the packages often did not arrive and were assumed to have been intercepted as part of the Government's attempt to interfere with Bahá'í education.

Since professors could not deliver lectures openly, they prepared their own written notes and compiled text books for distribution to the students. Again, as noted above, some of these texts were based on the latest Western research. One student in civil engineering, for example, was studying the construction of earthquake proof earthen silos - and the Institute's overseas contacts were able to provide him with some of the latest research on this topic from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Our aim was to offer the best courses available in Iran," said a faculty member.

The entire operation relied heavily on the use of extensive photocopying, and one of the biggest blows in the recent raids was the confiscation of several large photocopying units.

The Institute system also featured a network of special depository libraries around the country. Numbering more than 45, these libraries existed in the private homes of Bahá'ís and enabled students in each district to obtain access to the necessary textbooks for the courses. Some of these libraries were seized in the recent raids.

Told to shut down

Over time, as Institute officials began to feel increasing confidence about their operation, they started to organize many group classes in addition to the independent study taking place in private homes. The Institute began to publish sophisticated course catalogues, listing not only course offerings but the qualifications of the faculty members. And through the international network of Bahá'í communities worldwide, the Institute began to establish the means by which its graduates might become fully recognized by other institutions of higher education outside Iran.

It is not clear to the Bahá'í community of Iran why the raids and confiscations were launched in late September. Those who were arrested were principally faculty members and administrators, and most have now been released. Yet at the time of their arrests, they were asked to sign a document declaring that the BIHE had ceased to exist as of 29 September and that they would no longer cooperate with it. The detainees all refused to sign any such declaration.

Iranian Government officials have not been forthcoming with explanations when asked about the actions. According to The New York Times, Iranian officials made no comment when asked about the raids and arrests.

However, a secret Government memorandum, drawn up by the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council in February 1991 and which was obtained and made public in 1993 by United Nations' Special Representative Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, who was then charged with investigating the human rights situation in Iran, provides a context for the raids. Signed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the memorandum established a subtle government policy aimed at essentially grinding the community into nonexistence by forcing Bahá'í children to have a strong Islamic education, pushing Bahá'í adults into the economic periphery and forcing them from all positions of power or influence, and requiring that Bahá'í youth "be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Bahá'ís."

Among other significant human rights conventions, Iran is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1966. Parties to this Covenant "recognize the right of everyone to education" and more specifically that "higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means."

"The exclusion of Bahá'ís from access to higher education in Iran certainly constitutes a gross violation of the Covenant," said Techeste Ahderom, the Bahá'í International Community's main representative to the United Nations. "These latest steps taken to shut down the Iranian Bahá'í community's creative and peaceful response only increases public outrage regarding the Iranian government's attempt to strangulate the Bahá'í community."