Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is Directly Challenges Iran’s Human Rights Abuses

Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is Directly Challenges Iran’s Human Rights Abuses
by Payam Akhavan
In an unprecedented move, one of Iran’s senior clerics has directly challenged the Islamic Republic’s systematic abuseof the country’s Baha’i minority. Instead of inciting violence against the religious minority, as Iran’s leaders have done since the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani sent a message of support and inclusion to the Baha’is. On April 7th, he announced that he had a gift for the Baha’is, an intricate work of calligraphy citing one of the faith’s most important tenets.
Though Tehrani is an experienced calligrapher—he’s produced illuminations of the Koran, the Torah, the Psalms, the New Testament, and the Book of Ezra—this is the first work that could get him into big trouble with the Iranian authorities. Strictly speaking, the Islamic Republic would regard it as “blasphemous” or “deviant” and he could face prosecution.
The ayatollah’s gesture brings to mind other acts of resistance, courage and humanity. On September 28, 1943, a German diplomat secretly informed the Danish resistance that the Nazi occupying forces planned to deport Danish Jews to concentration camps. But the Danish people refused to cooperate. In a remarkable act of non-violent resistance against Nazi genocide, they provided hiding places for thousands of their Jewish compatriots in their homes and churches. Later fishermen smuggled them to neutral Sweden by sea. The Danes made it clear to the Nazi occupiers that there was no “Jewish question” in their country and that all Danish citizens were equal before the law. In rescuing the Jews, the Danes rescued their own humanity, and defined their place in history as a just people.
It is in this light that we must appreciate the extraordinary courage of Iran’s Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani. His gesture potentially has huge impact, as it brazenly defies the hateful ideology of the Islamic Republic against the Baha’i religious minority.
Tehrani’s work of calligraphy is an inscription central to the Baha’i faith: “consort with all religions with amity and concord”. He explained that his gift is “a reminder of the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful coexistence, of cooperation and mutual support, and of avoidance [of] hatred, enmity and blind religious prejudice.” During his April 7th announcement, he said he deeply regretted that Baha’i “have suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice”, offering his artwork as “an expression of sympathy and care from me and on behalf of all my open-minded fellow citizens”.
Redefining What it Means to be Iranian
In defying the Islamic Republic’s long-standing policy of dehumanizing Iranian Baha’is as “heretics” belonging to a “wayward sect” beyond the protection of the regime’s interpretation of Sharia law, Ayatollah Tehrani has become the transcendent ayatollah, rising above hatred and cowardice and calling for equality and humanity to be placed at the center of spiritual practice, irrespective of faith.
The gesture and his words also redefine what it means to be Iranian, and, for many, is a step towards the better future Iranians seek, whether secular or religious. The fact that prominent clerics face persecution and imprisonment in an Islamic Republic speaks volumes about the difference between divine transcendence as a humanizing force on the one hand, and religious fanaticism as an instrument of political control on the other.
Ayatollah Tehrani has added his voice to the chorus of prominent Iranians that no longer want to live in a country where their national identity is defined by hating others. Among other notable Islamic clerics, the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri and Mohsen Kadivar have also called for the equal rights of Iranian Baha’is. Mohammad Nourizad, formerly a prominent figure in Iran’s conservative establishment, had the courage to kiss the feet of a 4-year-old Baha’i boy whose parents are both imprisoned because of their religious beliefs, and to apologize “on behalf of all of those who, in these Islamic years, have made you and your [fellow Baha’is] face injustice”. The human rights champion Nasrin Sotoudeh has declared that “no peace-loving Iranian” pursues hatred and that “the rights of religious minorities is a public demand.”  Like Ayatollah Tehrani, these noble voices offer a vision of a future in which Iranians can reclaim their shared humanity as heirs to a rich civilization, a future where Iran might become a leader among nations rather than a pariah.
The Enemy Within
Throughout its 170-year existence, the Baha’i faith has served as all-purpose scapegoat, an imaginary enemy that is the source of every conceivable evil in the world. Hatred of and violence against Baha’ism has been a convenient instrument of authoritarianism, a distraction from the real needs of the Iranian people to build a progressive and just society.
But by refusing to accept this state of affairs, by contributing to the emancipation of Iran’s persecuted Baha’is, Ayatollah Tehrani and others are also helping all Iranian people escape ignorance and fanaticism.
Under the shadow of the nuclear issue, this struggle for the soul of a nation cannot be disregarded, especially when those that stand up against hatred become targets of retaliation and need the support of the international community.
The Baha’is of Iran have long been the canary in the mine as far as human rights are concerned.  Their treatment is the litmus test of the direction the leadership intends to take the country. It is heroic acts against oppression, like Ayatollah Tehrani’s, that tell those in power that, just as the Danish people refused to accept that there was a “Jewish question” in their midst, there is no “Baha’i question” in Iran. It tells those in power that Iranians want to be remembered in history as a just people.
Payam Akhavan is Professor of International Law at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and Co-Founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre

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