Wednesday, May 20, 2009

After so much loss, should they be punished too?

Baha’is in Iran have been having a rough time. Imprisonment, house raids, business closures, denial of education, accusations of treason. Plus the history of executions keeps visions of much worse on the minds of those concerned. Updates on the situation can be found at the Baha’i World News Service. The Muslim Network for Baha’i Rights is also a good source.

As the Baha’i community asks the wider world to speak up on behalf of Iranian Baha’is, to draw attention to these persecutions and pressure the Iranian government to end them, some scrutiny is due as well to the responses of the Baha’i institutions. Baquia at Baha’i Rants has been directing attention to the role the Universal House of Justice has played in keeping these Baha’is in harms way.

I am dumbfounded that as the storms slowly and systematically gathered, the Baha’is of Iran were instructed to stay and to endure. My prayers and thoughts go to them and their loved ones. I’m praying not only for their safety but also for the miracle that the UHJ/ITC will see the light and start to encourage and help them evacuate to safety.
This is a subject Baquia has returned to episodically for some time, and I realized a couple of months ago that I had accepted his report without having seen the evidence myself. So I asked him about it in the comments section of an earlier post. Here is his reply:
What I've said before is that in contrast to the policy which was enacted after the '79 Iranian revolution, Baha'is are strongly discouraged from leaving Iran and encouraged to stay in Iran. Outside Baha'is are also discouraged from traveling to Iran, not because of any perceived danger to themselves, but because the UHJ believes that they may influence Baha'is inside Iran to want to leave.

The source of this is the publicly available letters that have been written to Baha'is inside Iran and Iranian believers outside Iran. As well, it is self-evident by the PR campaign to pressure the IRI to stop persecuting Baha'is but the lack of any attempt to mobilize the same assistance that was extended to Baha'is leaving Iran (back in '79 and onwards). Today, Baha'is that decide to leave Iran (and yes, there are many) are on their own, receiving no assistance whatsoever from the institutions - in contrast to the immediate aftermath of the revolution.

For example, Douglas Martin, before becoming a UHJ member, was one of the Baha'is who was hand-picked to be extremely active in meeting with government officials and helping Baha'is that had escaped Iran to find new homes in free Western countries. Today, no such person or any institution has taken up such activities.

I confess it makes me a tad nervous to see the words “self-evident” when talking of such a serious accusation. But a visiting friend brought me a couple of recent issues of the American Baha’i and one contained a letter from the Universal House of Justice, dated February 9, 2009, addressed to the Baha’is in Iran. I suspect this is the sort of thing Baquia is referring to. Leaving is never mentioned, but neither is staying—because staying is absolutely assumed.
Remain confident that your steadfastness in the face of countless struggles and your sacrifices to advance the interests of your country will not be forgotten by your compatriots and will be rewarded by God. Strive, then, with constancy and steadfastness, with joy and radiance, to fullfil your spiritual obligations. In all matters extend support and encouragement to one another and spare no effort in strengthening the foundations of unity within your community. Persevere with sincerity and earnestness to secure your rights through recourse to the law, and deal with those who oppress you with loving kindness, with patience and forbearance, and counter their insults with words of peace and affection. Continue to strive in the arena of service to your homeland, and through your participation in constructive discourse with your neighbours, co-workers, friends and acquaintances, play a decisive role in society’s progress. Thus will you behold the portals of Divine assistance wide open and witness the bestowals of God descend upon you in abundance.
So…I think Baquia is right, though I would still like to see the case laid out—Sen McGlinn style—with copious quotes, links, and references.

However, the historical response of Baha’i institutions to Iranian Baha’is who sought freedom from persecution needs re-examination as well. The following passage from Juan Cole’s The Baha’i Faith in America as Panopticon, 1963-1997, suggests a grim history too.
The next large-scale event involved the immigration to the U.S. from 1978 through the mid-1980s of some 12,000 Iranian Baha’is fleeing persecution at the hands of the Khomeinist government in Iran. The American rank and file responded to these events with active campaigns on behalf of their beleaguered Iranian co-religionists and enhanced monetary offerings. The House of Justice in Haifa, however, took a different approach. At first it was reluctant to abandon its quietism in order to protest the persecutions. Moreover, it offered no support to Iranian Baha’is attempting to flee, and even punished many who succeeded, on the grounds that they could only have gotten out by denying their faith. In many instances it refused to certify such Baha’is as members, preventing them from being granted asylum and thereby putting them in severe difficulty and sometimes even danger. The U.S. N.S.A. also took this hard line, refusing to welcome large numbers of the escapees into the U.S. community. House of Justice member Ali Nakhjavani vocally and sternly defended these policies on trips to the U.S. The House of Justice did come to support the U.S. N.S.A. in its policy of putting pressure on the Iranian government through cooperation with human rights organizations, though it sometimes continued to balk at certifying escapees as Baha’is.

The paragraph is a bit confused, and some of Cole’s statements here are too general to be conclusive—for me anyway. On the main point, though, he gives more detail in his article “Race, Immorality and Money in the American Bahai Community: Impeaching the Los Angeles Spiritual Assembly.”

The Baha’i authorities also adopted from 1983 a punitive approach to any Baha’is who escaped from Iran through the Tehran airport, since it was known that they could only have gotten visas to fly out by claiming to be Muslims.  These were disfellowshipped for at least a year upon their arrival in the U.S. in 1983-1986 (the term was even longer in the late 1980s), and many so punished for preserving their lives became disaffected and fell away from the religion.  The Universal House of Justice in Haifa felt that allowing such paper apostasies as a means of fleeing Iran might lead to a fatal weakening of Baha’i identity, and had to be strictly sanctioned.  (Escapees across the Baluchi desert into Pakistan were more acceptable, even though they had broken the law to cross the border without a visa).  Henderson and the U.S. NSA had zealously pursued punitive measures toward those who flew out of the airport, rather as if the Jewish rabbis in the early 1940s should have rigidly excommunicated any Jew who eluded Hitler by pretending to be a Catholic.  The Los Angeles LSA was notorious for overlooking these apostasies under duress and recognizing escapees as Baha’is in good standing (provided two other Baha’is could vouch for their membership in the community), so that it was ironic that it should be berated by Henderson for mistreating the Iranian Baha’is.
Lest anyone think this is accusation without evidence, I offer two letters from the Universal House of Justice on the subject, one in full, the other excerpted.

Letter of the Universal House of Justice 8 July 1985

Department of the Secretariat
To the National Spiritual Assemblies of
Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States

Dear Baha'i Friends:

The Universal House of Justice recently received a letter from the non-Baha'i husband of a Baha'i questioning the justice of the removal of administrative rights from Baha'is who deny their faith in order to leave Iran by official routes. Since this question has arisen from time to time in discussions with representatives of other organizations who are interested in the plight of Baha'i refugees, the House of Justice felt that it might be helpful to you to have the following extracts from the reply to this enquirer.

"It was the approved practice for many years for Baha'is to leave blank the space for religion on official forms in Iran. This was not a denial of their religion, it was merely a tacit refusal to state it. In recent times, however, the authorities refused to accept forms made out in blank, and would deny passports and exit visas to anyone who entered ‘Baha'i' in the appropriate spaces. In order to get such documents a Baha'i would either have to enter ‘Muslim' (or one of the other recognized religions) on the forms or would have to employ an agent to do it for him. This thus became a conscious act by the Baha'i to deny his faith, and the National Spiritual Assembly of Iran at that point warned all the believers that such an action was unacceptable.

"It was permissible in Shi'ih Islam for believers to deny their faith in order to escape persecution. since the time of Baha'u'llah such an action has been forbidden for Baha'is. We do not defend our Faith by the sword, as was permissible in Islam, but Baha'is have always held to the principle that when challenged they should ‘stand up and be counted', as the modern expression is, and not purchase their safety by denying that which is most important to them in this world and the next. The principle is well known to the Iranian Baha'is and is upheld by the overwhelming majority of them when the penalty is martyrdom.

"Those Baha'is who have left Iran by official routes since the governmental regulations changed have made a conscious choice. While the majority of their fellow-believers have preferred to face all manner of difficulties, rather than deny their faith, these people have chosen to make this denial rather than face whatever problems were before them. They have left Iran freely, with the permission of the authorities as Muslims. They have chosen freedom and comparative ease at the cost of giving away their faith, and have got what they wanted. Some, however, once they are free, want to have their membership in the Baha'i community back again. The attitude of the Baha'i institutions in refusing to immediately readmit them should not be regarded as a vindictive punishment. These institutions are simply saying: ‘You have shown the insincerity of your belief by denying it for your personal advantage, we are not going to readmit you to the Baha'i community until we have some confidence that you are sincerely repentant of such an act. In the meantime you can abide by the choice you yourself have made.'

"If any Baha'i finds that he does not believe in the Faith, he is free to leave it., and no stigma at all attaches to such an action. what is shameful in Baha'i eyes is for a person who still believes to deny that belief for his own advantage.

"When a former Baha'i approaches the authorities abroad for assistance, claiming to be a Baha'i, the institutions of the Faith are obligated to those authorities to give a truthful reply, namely that the person concerned was a Baha'i in Iran but, in order to be able to leave the country through an official route, renounced his faith and stated he was a Muslim or a follower of some other religion. This reply is usually sufficient to indicate that the person was in danger in Iran and is in need of consideration by the authorities."
And...from a letter from the Universal House of Justice 3 July 1985, Department of the Secretariat, to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States:
In reply to your letter of 13 June concerning the restoration of administrative rights for those who left Iran with official exit permits, the Universal House of Justice has requested us to convey the following guidance on its behalf…

…Those who have recanted their faith in order to come out of Iran should not receive the impression that after the passage of a year, by simply writing a letter of regret, they would be automatically admitted into the Baha'i community…One of the reasons why the House of Justice is so particular about these cases is that it does not wish any person to be under the false impression that anyone can use the Faith for his own personal convenience whenever it suits his self-interest. The believers who have denied their faith in order to leave Iran should realize that they have betrayed the many steadfast Baha'is who, at the cost of their lives, have steadfastly refused to recant their faith.
These letters, plus one more from the US NSA can be found in their entirety at

As far as I can tell, the Universal House of Justice does not recognize as legitimate any means of exit for Iranian Baha’is and so they do not encourage them to leave or support them in leaving. The idea that a Baha’i must fess up to their Baha’i-ness regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the consequences and cannot “pass” even in the most paper-thin way as a Christian or a Muslim is one of those ideas I simply accepted as a Baha’i, on other people’s authority, without knowing scripturally where it came from. Obviously the Universal House of Justice affirms it, and I believe Shoghi Effendi did too. But I don’t really feel like digging up that quote just now. What interests me at the moment is the statement that this has been the case “since the time of Baha’u’llah,” which implies that Baha’u’llah himself instituted it. Personally, I was quite surprised when I read the following in Denis MacEoin’s article, “From Babism to Baha’ism: Problems of Militancy, Quietism, and Conflation in the Construction of a Religion:”
In Baha' Allah's writings, hikma seems to operate as a codeword for taqiyya, the concealment of faith in times of danger permitted by Shi'i law.[53] He writes, for example, that 'it is not permitted for anyone to confess to this cause before the faces of the unbelievers and opponents. He must conceal the beauty of the cause, lest the eyes of the untrustworthy fall on him'.[54] He commands his followers not to seek martyrdom,[55] and in one place even writes that it has actually been forbidden to give up one's life in this way.[56]  [page 227]
The relevant foot notes can be found in the original.

Recanting of faith and betrayal of steadfast Baha’is? Or guarding the beauty of the cause from the eyes of the untrustworthy? I can imagine a decent reply: Concealment is acceptable but claiming to be something else is not. Okay. (Though, that means only the mildly untrustworthy could be thwarted.)

But, even if Baha’is are obligated under all circumstances to name their faith if a government requires the information, does it really follow that those who don’t fulfill this obligation should be punished? I’m deliberately keeping my own analysis in this post to a minimum. I want to hear: what do other people think of this?

I don’t know if this punishment is being applied now. I suspect not. I hope not. As Baquia said, plenty of Iranian Baha’is are getting out. Some are smuggled out. Others are leaving by official routes, commonly taking the train to Turkey.

But Turkey is only a way station. These refugees must find asylum elsewhere. They must move, seek new work, new places to live, start new lives. How do they do it? What help do they receive? Baquia says, “Today no such person or any institution has taking up such activities.” I think he meant no such Baha’i institution, but others are taking up the work, at least to some extent. I talked to a friend whose small community has five newly arrived Iranian Baha’is. “The amazing thing,” he says, “is that they’ve all been brought here by Catholic Charities—brought them here, found them a place to live, helped them find work.”

Another friend tells me there are lots of newly arrived Iranians in her community as well. “And they’re different,” she says, not like the other Iranian Baha’is she knows. “Different?” I ask. “Yeah,” she says. “Ordinary.” They’re not affluent professionals.

Are Iranian Baha’is in the US primarily affluent and professional, because they were the ones who could afford to get out? I don’t have any sociological data on Iranian Baha’is, inside or outside of Iran. But I am ashamed to realize I accepted that story for years without asking: If it is true, why didn't the community do anything to address the disparity? I apparently accepted that only the privileged can buy freedom.


Anonymous said...

There is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. If the Baha'is did not deny their faith in their hearts, then merely saying it with their lips should not constitute what is in their hearts.

The Qur'an says that a person can deny their faith with their lips to preserve their life, so long as they don't deny it in their heart. This is because life is considered to be sacred, and God is understanding and compassionate to someone who just wanted to preserve their life.

The Baha'i institutions are too fanatical about the letter of the law in this case. Do they not consider the possible reasons why someone might deny their faith with their lips at times? What if they have a spouse who depends on them, children who depend on them, etc? Who will take care of them if he/she is dead? Sure, the person gets to keep their dignity. But does that mean their entire family should suffer on account of their zeal? Thoughts like that should be at least considered.

I understand that words and feelings should be united in most cases, but there has got to be leeway in special circumstances.

In Muslim history, there was a false Prophet named Musaylimah in southern Arabia who was claiming that half the earth belonged to Muhammad and the other half to himself. He was a fanatic, and dazzled his followers with magic tricks and terrible imitations of the Qur'anic style. One day, two Muslims were at his camp and Musaylimah asked them if they believed he was a prophet alongside with Muhammad. One said he was "deaf" upon the question, and was executed. The other said that he did accept the man as a prophet, and Musaylimah let him go.

Upon returning, Muhammad said the one man was firm in his faith and died as a martyr, and the other took God's "concession" and just told the man what he wanted to hear.

Priscilla said...


Thank you much for your thoughtful comment. It is great to read a Muslim take on the subject. Yes, I agree whole heartedly.


Anonymous said...

How disgusting. If a Bahai under threat of death can have their voting rights removed by a cold lifeless instution like the Bahai adminstrative order, then what chance does anyone who is gay, a free thinker, a feminist or just a non-conformist have a chance to ever be welcome in the Bahai community? So much for unity in diversity!

Baquia said...

Priscilla, you are correct to ask for proof of what I claim. I have no problem with that.

There is a specific letter, I think written in 2004, to the Iranian believers outside of Iran which discouraged them from traveling to Iran. The UHJ was reacting to all these Californified Baha'is who were heading back with gucci shoes, prada handbags and the latest ipods, tempting the Iranian Baha'is to leave Iran. I've tried to find this letter since you asked me for evidence but to date I haven't been able to find it among my files. I'll keep looking though.

Second, the Persian believers (especially those inside Iran) have an ultra sensitivity when it comes to the UHJ. Knowing this, the UHJ couches their guidance in extra soft language because they know that even a hint will be taken as a command. Whereas the UHJ needs to beat the European believers upside the head with a plank to get their attention, the slightest touch receives immediate and unquestioning obedience from the Iranian Baha'is.

My point in saying this is not to criticise them for deifying the UHJ beyond their stated status or to chastise the Western Baha'is for being too aloof. But rather that the House knows this and carefully calibrates their messages accordingly.

Therefore, if you are looking for some kind of black and white language, for example, to be silly, something like: "Stay in Iran, don't you even think about leaving and seeking asylum in a decent place!"

Then you are setting yourself up for disappointment. You have to read in between the lines and pay as much attention to what isn't being said and what isn't being done, than to what is said and done.

Priscilla said...

Thank you, Baquia. Yes, implied meaning is certainly socially quite real. And I think the UHJ can be slippery that way.

Anonymous said...

I'm an ex-bahai, after 30 years.

A close (former) bahai friend's elderly parents (descended from babis in shiraz) left iran several years ago to travel to australia, spain and the usa for months, without much problem. one of the parents was in bahai leadership back in the 60s/70s (had a special assignment from the uhj in regard to preservation of historical relics), until the revolution, then after the revolution was in prison, tortured, etc. for 10 years.

why did such formerly persecuted bahais so easily leave iran on a temporary basis to visit family outside iran for several months, then go back to iran? the reason for going back: to support an adult bahai daughter that grew up after the revolution, and married a muslim.

maybe if bahais have family that are married to muslims, things are easier for them?

does that sound weird?

(I'm just puzzling, speculating.)

Anonymous said...

I'm an ex-bahai, so this seems so tragic. why suffer for such a weak theology? on the other hand, the symbolism of bahais opposing the cultural rot of the totalitarian system in iran should be applauded.

it is even more tragic that the iranian bahais aren't defending something more worthy and decent than a broken, dysfunctional bahai system.


Anonymous said...

ex-bahai 30 years, again.

(forgot to say before that MSL is awesome.)

at some point, I guess in the
1980s, bahais began to collectively "not care" about things. it was all about bureaucracy ("systems").

at that time, I knew, and supported, some of the bahai subversives/dissidents/critics. I've always been a non-conformist, neither left, nor right, neither bohemian, nor bourgeois.

maybe I was distracted by all the fighting that went on between the "liberals" and "conservatives" during the 80s/90s (L.A. study group, dialog magazine, talisman, etc.), and didn't notice in the midst of all the passion and power struggles, that people stopped having a sense of basic human decency, and stopped caring about other people.

that is the ultimate tragedy of bahai for me, it has become "just" another institutional entity in a world of dehumanized bureaucracies run by people with "control issues".

bahai claims to be the source of spiritual healing for the world, but can't even heal itself.

that makes the tragedy of iranians staying there and suffering even more profound: they probably don't even know that the religion they think they are part of is actually a figment of their imagination, a husk of what it should have been.

Anonymous said...

bahai like every other religion is hypocritical...they all preach love and tolerance yet practice hatred and divisiveness.

believe in god or do not need organized religion to live a kind, loving, spiritual life. just treat others as you want to be treated yourself...with kindness, respect and love.

my husband is a bahai who escaped iran after the revolution. he was raised to believe in sacrificing his life for the the religion. then learned the religious organization would do nothing to save his live. he was also disturbed by the sexist and homophobic beliefs of the religion. when he questioned these hypocrisies...he was told to not ask such questions....just follow what the leaders say...ridiculous....just like every other world religion(except maybe the unitarians)

Anonymous said...

I find it disappointing that members of the Baha'i Faith first cry foul over the persecution of a small few of their members, while millions are persecuted and neglected in conditions far worse than Iran.

It is all the same kind of terrible, but you'd think they would emphasize the rest of humanity as much as they did their own.