Human Rights

Iran cracks down on efforts to provide higher education for Baha'i youth

In Brief: 
  • Iran has stepped up its crackdown on efforts by the Bahá’í community to educate its young people
  • In May, authorities raided numerous homes where volunteer faculty and staff provide young Bahá’ís with an informal university education, arresting many of them and then declaring their effort illegal
  • The Bahá’í International Community has issued an open letter to the Minister of Education, asking: “Why is the government so ruthless in the face of the earnestness of Bahá’í youth to obtain higher education?”
  • Around the world, governments, academicians and others have condemned Iran’s actions

For more than 30 years, the Iranian government has blocked young Bahá’ís from obtaining a university education. Shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Bahá’í students were banned from public and private colleges in Iran — and Bahá’í faculty members were fired.

In response, the Iranian Bahá’í community formed in 1987 the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), an informal university where classes were held mostly in people’s homes, taught by unemployed Bahá’í professors on a volunteer basis.

For the most part, the government has turned a blind eye to this effort, although authorities did try unsuccessfully in 1998 to close it down. The government, which was entirely aware of BIHE, seemed content to allow Bahá’ís a tiny space in which to educate their youth.

In recent months, however, the authorities have undertaken a renewed suppression of the BIHE, prompting international expressions of concern and offering new evidence of Iran’s seemingly endless disregard for human rights of any sort.

The new clampdown began in May, when the government without warning raided more than 30 Bahá’í homes where the Institute operated, arresting 14 faculty and staff.

In June, the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology declared that the BIHE was “illegal.” Then, in July, 11 of BIHE detainees were accused of “conspiracy against national security” and “conspiracy against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

“Bahá’ís have been banned from higher education for three decades,” said Diane Ala’i, the Bahá’í International Community’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva, in a press release in July. “And now, their own peaceful initiative — to meet a need created by the government’s own actions — is branded a conspiracy against the state.”

Government action against the BIHE continued through July and August. In all, around 80 Bahá’ís involved in the Institute’s activities have been detained and interrogated. Those questioned included not only faculty and staff but also students of the Institute.

In August, the Bahá’í International Community appealed directly to the Iranian government, issuing an open letter to Kamran Daneshjoo, the Minister of Science, Research, and Technology.

That five-page letter recounted the long history of government oppression aimed at young Bahá’ís seeking a university education. At its heart, the letter asked this question:

“Why is the government so ruthless in the face of the earnestness of Bahá’í youth to obtain higher education?”

The letter noted that the government has made it official policy since 1991 to “block” the “progress and development” of the entire Bahá’í community — including by expelling young Bahá’ís from universities should they manage to enroll — something that has happened to hundreds of Bahá’ís over the years.

It also described efforts in the latter part of the last decade to prevent Bahá’ís from enrolling through a series of deceptive tactics that offered Bahá’ís a chance to take the national university entrance examination, only to later list their results as “incomplete,” thus preventing enrollment.

“And now a fresh measure of tribulation has befallen the Bahá’ís, as they are subjected to harsh treatment in interrogations about their involvement with their informal efforts for the education of youth,” said the letter to Minister Daneshjoo.

“Individuals who assist with the educational program are threatened with imprisonment. Parents who host classes are notified that their homes will be expropriated if the classes continue. And students are warned against attending their classes and are instructed that they will never obtain a higher education so long as they do not abandon their faith and declare themselves to be Muslims.

“Individuals who assist with the educational program are threatened with imprisonment. Parents who host classes are notified that their homes will be expropriated if the classes continue. And students are warned against attending their classes and are instructed that they will never obtain a higher education so long as they do not abandon their faith and declare themselves to be Muslims.

— Bahá’í International Community

“Yet, when the representatives of your government are confronted with these facts in the international arena, they continue to maintain that no one is deprived of education in Iran on account of his or her religion. How regrettable that the representatives of the Islamic Republic repeatedly peddle such obvious falsehoods, further undermining your government’s credibility.

“When will the officials in Iran bring to an end the entrenched practice of saying one thing to Bahá’ís while offering a range of conflicting reassurances on the global stage?” said the letter.

International reaction

And, indeed, the reaction on the “global stage” has been rapid. Numerous governments and non-governmental organizations have issued expressions of concern since the renewed crackdown on BIHE in an outcry that has spanned the world, from Australia to Zambia.

In the United States, on 24 May, Senator Mark Kirk issued a strong condemnation of the BIHE arrests, calling for immediate action. “The Iranian dictators should not be allowed to trample their citizens’ basic human rights. I pledge to redouble our efforts in the Senate on behalf of the Iranian Bahá’í community and all citizens of Iran who yearn for human rights, freedom and democracy.”

In Austria, on 1 June, Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger described the restriction of access to education for young Bahá’ís as “unacceptable.”

In Brazil, on 2 June, Congressman Luiz Couto, former president of Brazil’s Human Rights and Minorities Commission, told the Brazilian National Congress, “The action of the authorities towards individuals associated with the BIHE demonstrate the clear intention of Iranian government to carry out their policy of the elimination of the Bahá’í community.”

In Germany, on 9 June, Christoph Strasser, Member of Parliament and spokesperson on human rights of the Social Democrats, addressed a letter of protest to the Iranian ambassador to Germany. “All humans have the right to education,” wrote Mr. Strasser. “With Bahá’ís being prohibited from studying at universities, your government is injuring fundamental human rights.”

In the United Kingdom, professors from Oxford, Cambridge and other leading universities in England wrote an open letter on 11 June, calling for academics, students and politicians to support the right of Bahá’ís to access higher education in Iran. “The authorities must be taught that human rights are universal,” they wrote to The Guardian newspaper. “Barring Bahá’ís from university exposes the government’s own ignorance.”

In Chile, on 15 June, the Senate unanimously asked President Sebastian Pinera to “strongly condemn” Iran for its “rigorous and systematic persecution of Bahá’ís.” The resolution specifically objected to the “unjust detention” of BIHE faculty and staff.

In Canada, on 21 June, Senator Mobina Jaffer — the first Muslim woman appointed to Canada’s upper house — informed the Senate that the attacks are “not only on the students and the faculty of the Bahá’í education institute, but on the cherished idea that education is the birthright of all.”

In Australia, on 28 June, Universities Australia — representing all 39 of the country’s universities — raised the issue with the Director-General of UNESCO. “Australian universities are united in their strong support for facilitating access to education for all, irrespective of religious faith,” the organization wrote.

In India, some 80 prominent citizens signed a petition to the Iranian Government calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the prisoners. “The consequences of this policy of disallowing the Bahá’í youth to have access to higher education will be detrimental not only for the Bahá’í community of Iran, but also for the nation as a whole,” they wrote.

And in Zambia, students at the University of Zambia in June launched a two-week long postcard campaign “in support of BIHE and the right to education.” The postcard depicted Zambian students on one side and, on the other, a message for Iran’s minister of science, research and technology stating “Bahá’ís should be able to enter universities as faculty and staff and as students who can get a degree.”

For updates on the situation of Bahá’ís in Iran, go to http://news.bahai.org

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