Human Rights

In Toronto, a high-level academic conference explores "othering" of Iranian Baha'is

In Brief: 
  • Top-level Iranian scholars from around the world gathered at the University of Toronto for a conference on the persecution of Iranian Bahá’ís
  • The event examined how the ‘othering’ of Bahá’ís has become a mechanism to legitimize the state and create political-religious ideology
  • Presentations ranged from early efforts to vilify Bahá’ís as colonialist agents to modern propaganda that falsely characterizes Bahá’ís as cultish

TORONTO — Iranian scholars, many from globally prominent universities, gathered in early July for an academic conference on the persecution of Iran’s Bahá’ís.

Titled “Intellectual Othering and the Bahá’í Question in Iran,” and held at the University of Toronto, the conference examined how Iranian authorities have sought to exclude Bahá’ís from social, political, cultural, and intellectual life by portraying them as outsiders in their own land — a process known as “othering.”

The event, held from 1-3 July 2011, was the first major academic conference at a top-ranked university to focus on the persecution of Iran’s Bahá’ís in any context.

“This conference is not a Bahá’í studies conference,” said its chief organizer, Mohamad Tavakoli. “It is an effort to understand the use of repression in the history of modern Iran and how the ‘othering’ of Bahá’ís has become a mechanism of mass mobilization for the legitimization of the state and for the creation of political-religious ideology.”

Dr. Tavakoli — a well-known scholar on Iran and the Middle East at the University of Toronto — said the idea for the conference came from his own research into the degree to which various Iranian groups had used anti-Bahá’í rhetoric and made a scapegoat of Bahá’ís to gain political power, both in the past and the present.

Within this framework, the talks and papers were presented by scholars from diverse religious backgrounds, including atheism, Bahá’í, Christianity, humanism, Islam and Judaism. The talks ranged across a wide territory: from early efforts to vilify Bahá’ís by painting them as colonialist agents of the British and Russians, to the use of modern propaganda techniques that, for example, falsely characterize Iranian Bahá’ís as part of a cult that uses “brainwashing” techniques to steal away Muslim children.

One presentation described how memoirs and oral histories by clerics have been used to demonize Bahá’ís since the 1979 Revolution. These memoirs, said Shahram Kholdi — a PhD candidate from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom — represent a large pool of literature, largely unexamined in the West, which has been used to create a revisionist narrative of the founding of the Islamic Republic, aimed at the faithful.

Attacking Bahá’ís — often using indirect language — is a frequent theme of these memoirs, said Mr. Kholdi. “Bahá’ís are often portrayed as foreign agents,” he said, explaining that Bahá’ís are described as part of an external force behind the oppressive measures of the Pahlavi regime. “So they use Bahá’ís to legitimize their own revolutionary history.”

Politicians also frequently used pogroms against Bahá’ís for political reasons, said Homa Katouzian, a professor of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, who examined a 1924 incident where an anti-Bahá’í demonstration led to the assassination of the American vice consul in Iran. Bahá’ís were “a particularly soft target,” he said.

Historical parallels

Several speakers made comparisons between the oppression of Iranian Bahá’ís under the Islamic Republic and other historical efforts to portray a particular religious or ethnic group as outsiders — something that has often led to wider pogroms or worse.

The father of Rhoda Howard-Hassmann — a professor of international human rights at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada — was a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany. Professor Howard-Hassmann said the descriptions she heard at the conference about abuses directed against Bahá’ís were all too familiar.

“The talk of the desecration of graves, the conspiracy theories, ...the accusation that they are a cult that is stealing children — these are all characteristics of extreme retribution, if not pre-genocide. This is a political phenomenon, caused by a regime and its manipulation of political beliefs. It is not something that simply exists among the people,” she said.

In his talk, Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, a professor of Persian studies at the University of Maryland, examined the destruction of Bahá’í holy places and properties in Iran. He recounted a long list of Bahá’í sites that have been destroyed — from village Bahá’í centers in the late 19th century to the House of the Báb, one of the most sacred Bahá’í sites in the world, which was razed by mobs incited by Muslim clerics shortly after the Islamic Revolution.

Professor Karimi-Hakkak compared such demolitions to attacks on other major religious sites, such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, saying that their purpose was often to assert the power of the majority over the minority, and to place the minority in the category of the “other.”

When a Shiite believer destroys buildings or graves, he said “they demonstrate that religious minorities must obey them and they have no power to protect their holy sites or their revered graves.”

The relevance of the “Bahá’í question” to larger issues of religious intolerance and political repression worldwide was also explored, as participants considered what lessons can be learned from the Bahá’í experience.

Several contributors said they believed that the Bahá’í case now exemplifies the increasing oppression that is being felt by all Iranians, especially since the crackdown that followed the 2009 presidential election. This has led many ordinary Iranians to sympathize and identify with Bahá’ís, they said.

“I think the atrocities committed against the Bahá’ís are being intuitively registered,” said Reza Afshari, a professor of history at Pace University in New York. “This has led to a growing recognition that human rights do matter and that their violations are by-products of the country’s authoritarian rule and intolerance culture, mediated by the Shiite mullahs’ direct intrusions into the realms of national politics.”

Ramin Jahanbegloo — a professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, who himself spent four months in prison in the Islamic Republic of Iran — spoke about the importance of including a discussion of the Bahá’í question in any future effort at national reconciliation.

Noted Iranian human rights lawyer Abdol-Karim Lahidji spoke about the need for greater respect for human rights in Iran — and the need to grant Bahá’ís full rights of citizenship.

“Freedom of conscience, freedom of belief, freedom of religion — and not to believe in any religion — has to be recognized,” he said. “If other people’s rights are violated, you have to defend them too. This is the struggle of every single one of us.”