Iran: Holy Terror

Moslem zealots wage a deadly war against Baha’i heresies

UNTIL, THE ISLAMIC Revolution of 1979 Z’eheydoon Samali was the director of public welfare for a city in southern Iran. His wife, Shahla, worked for the welfare bureau as a psychologist. Both are Baha’is. When the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, the Samalis, and more than sixty other Baha’is in public service in their city, received an ultimatum from the new government: if they wanted to keep their jobs, they must publicly renounce their religion. All but a handful refused. “It would have been a lie to deny my faith,” says Z’eheydoon, who, with his wife and three children, arrived in the United States last summer after a harrowing escape from Iran. “I wasn’t a particularly strong person, and I regretted losing my job after fifteen years of service, but I couldn’t reject my faith to keep it.”

According to radical Shi’ites, who were seeking to resurrect early Islam through a spiritualized politics of purification, the humanistic Baha’i faith combines the taint of alleged heresy with liberal values that are also anathema to Moslem fundamentalists. “The Iranian nation . . . cannot tolerate the perverted Baha’is, who are instruments of Satan and followers of the Devil and of the superpowers and their agents,” HojjatolIslam Qazai, the religious judge and president of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, declared in February of 1983. Iran’s 300,000 Baha’is made an easy target for fundamentalist zealotry. Many were prominent in business and the professions. They also rejected violence, and thus would not resist efforts to destroy them.

For three years the Samalis drew on their savings in attempts to run a succession of small, unobtrusive businesses, and they watched helplessly as official harassment of their fellow Baha’is steadily increased. In 1983 Z’eheydoon was arrested. “Twenty-two men surrounded our home,” Shahla recalls. “They never identified themselves, and at first I thought they were robbers. Then I realized they were Revolutionary Guards sent by the government. They ransacked everything, and then forced us to sign a paper saying that no damage had been done. You can’t ask what the charges are. They have the right to just shoot you down.” Z’eheydoon was put on the floor of a car and driven to prison. During the next thirteen days he was interrogated twenty-one times. “They tied my hands behind my back and put my face to the wall,” he says. “Someone walked back and forth behind me. He kept trying to make me say that the Baha’is were sending money to Israel to subvert the Iranian government and that the Baha’is were working with the Pinochet government in Chile—things like that. I would tell him that the Baha’is were a spiritual community and not a political party, but he kept trying to put words in my mouth. When I gave an answer he didn’t like, he would kick me so that my head hit the wall and bounced back, and then he would shout at me, ‘Stand still.’ In the end I was so exhausted that I didn’t know what I was agreeing to.” Z’eheydoon was released after two weeks but kept under constant surveillance. When a new wave of arrests of Baha’is began, three months later, he decided to flee to Tehran. “Half an hour after his plane left, I saw Revolutionary Guards circulating his photograph,”Shahla says.

Z’eheydoon was virtually penniless when he arrived in the capital, but eventually he found a job in a paint factory. Two and a half months later an accidental fire almost took his life. “You now have to declare your religion when you apply for admission to a hospital in Iran,” he says. “Fortunately, I was in a coma and couldn’t speak. If they had known I was a Baha’i, they wouldn’t have let me in and I would have died.”Although Z’eheydoon eventually recovered, one of his eyes was severely damaged, and he was placed on a two-year waiting list for a cornea transplant. One day shortly before the operation was to be performed, he let slip to one of his doctors that he was a Baha’i. Soon afterward he received a notice from the hospital’s Islamic Committee. It read: “Since Mr. Samali has personally confessed his connection with the Zionist Baha’i faction, the cornea graft is not to be performed for religious reasons.” Z’eheydoon says, “They told me that they would never take a Moslem cornea and put it in a Baha’i eye.”

THE SAMALIS’ experience is not unusual. According to reports from Baha’i refugees, the approximately 270,000 Baha’is who remain in the country (and make up one percent of its population) have been subjected to a campaign of institutionalized discrimination, repression, and violence that has already brought all formal Baha’i religious and social activity to a halt, and has impoverished what was one of the most culturally advanced groups in pre-revolutionary Iran. Baha’i representatives in the United States say that approximately 200 Iranian Baha’is have been executed, that many thousands have been arrested and tortured, and that an average of 750 were in prison at any given time — at least until last December, when two thirds of those who were then in prison began unexpectedly to be released. Nearly all the dead have been condemned, without due process, for such “crimes” as organizing Baha’i spiritual meetings or sending contributions to the Baha’i world center, in Haifa, Israel. The dead include virtually all the national leadership of the faith and also many members of the Local Spiritual Assemblies, small elective committees that, in the absence of a priesthood, organize Baha’i social and educational programs. A Shiraz newspaper reported the execution of one Baha’i this way:

By order of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and with the approval of the Supreme Judicial Council, a criminal Zionist agent who was an active member of the misguided Baha’i group, Zia’ullah Ahrari, the son of Jalal, 38 years old, was judged as a corrupt and seditious person on earth and a fighter against God and was sentenced to death. The death sentence on the said individual was carried out.

The said executed individual, who had been an active member of the misguided Baha’i group, blatantly admitted that he had been a member of the Baha’i administration in the areas of pioneering and assistance since 1355 [1976] and that, in a regional convention, he had asked for a loan to establish a Local Spiritual Assembly.

He had done his utmost to oppose the Islamic holy laws, and was not even walling to recant his religion.

Baha’is have been deprived of the most elementary protection of the law. In early 1986 a Tehran court rided that a Moslem driver who had killed a Baha’i pedestrian was free of any obligation to pay damages to the victim’s family, because the person he killed was “an unprotected infidel.”Especially during the first years of the Revolution, mobs led by rabble-rousing mullahs roamed with impunity from village to village attacking the homes of Baha’is, burning their crops, and killing their livestock. In one incident an elderly Baha’i farmer and his wife were set afire and burned to death. In another a herdsman’s sheep were torn to pieces before his eyes. Elsewhere 130 Baha’i villagers were held for three days in an open field without food or water while they were pressured to recant their faith. Since the government expropriated Baha’i cemeteries, in 1981, Baha’is have been obliged to pay officials up to $1,000 for permission to bury their dead. Baha’i students have been dismissed from all Iranian universities and most secondary schools. Baha’i shrines have been razed. The major Baha’i banking institution, Nawnahalan, has been confiscated, wiping out the life savings of 150,000 Baha’i investors. Baha’i hospitals and welfare organizations have been taken over by the government and use of them denied to the Baha’i community. The private property of thousands of Baha’is—homes, businesses, automobiles, personal effects— has been arbitrarily confiscated by the order of Islamic courts and by the independent action of units of Revolutionary Guards. Baha’i homes may be entered and searched at will and without redress.

In late 1978 official committees were set up throughout Iran for the explicit purpose of identifying and purging Baha’is from all levels of public administration and from many private companies, as well. A typical directive, from the Ministry of Oil to its employees, called upon all “martyr-fostering people to report . . . the names of all people who have in any way been associated with the misguided Baha’i group.” A communique from the Ministry of Labor declared that “the courts are bound to withhold the issuance of any judgment in favor of dismissed employees . . . whose membership in the misguided Baha’i group . . . has been ascertained and proved.” Over the past seven years more than 11,000 Baha’is working in government jobs have been summarily fired, for no reason other than their religion. An administrative regulation dating from the Shah’s regime states that only followers of recognized religions, which include Christianity and Judaism in addition to Islam, are allowed to “receive payments from the Islamic Treasury.” The pensions of thousands of Baha’is were automatically cut off, and many were ordered to repay the pensions or salaries they had received for years. Some who were too poor to remit their pensions were jailed for non-payment.

The systematic segregation of Baha’is, which is left to the discretion of employers and local administrators, has become commonplace. A former university chemistry instructor was officially banned from entering her laboratory or touching her equipment. “The door was literally closed in my face,” she recalls. “They told me they didn’t want anything contaminated by my hands.” Baha’i doctors and nurses have been fired from understaffed hospitals rather than be allowed to tend sick Moslems. A letter from the Islamic Committee of the Alyaf Company, which manufactures thread for textiles, informed its Baha’i employees, “In accordance with the beloved Islamic regulations and in the light of frequent protests from some dear colleagues regarding the cafeteria, a separate eating place has been assigned to you. However, in order to partake of the cafeteria food, you must bring your own dishes.” Even in prison Baha’is are often kept apart from Moslems, and sometimes assigned separate plates, glasses, and bed sheets so that Moslems will not be offended by their touch.

Manouchehr Derakhshani, the director of the Iran-American Affairs Office of the Baha’i Community of the United States, whose headquarters are in Wilmette, Illinois, says, “They have not systematically set out to kill every Baha’i, but they are clearly trying to crush the Baha’is in ways that will not attract much attention abroad. They can’t afford a massacre. But if they can destroy the Baha’i identity without that, they will have accomplished their purpose just as well.”

BAHA’IS TODAY NUMBER about 3.8 million, including about 100,000 in the United States, and they reside in more than 160 countries. The religion was established in the mid-nineteenth century by Baha’u’llah, a Persian prophet who preached the unity of all nations and races, the abolition of extremes of wealth and poverty, universal education, the equality of men and women, belief in an “unfettered search for truth,” and a willingness to embrace modern science. Baha’is regard as sacred the holy scriptures of most world religions, including the Koran.

The Baha’i faith offended orthodox Moslems with its belief that the line of prophets which includes Moses and Jesus did not end with Mohammed but included Baha’u’llah and prophets in ages yet to come. By implication it struck at the roots of Islam’s claim to be the perfect culmination of revealed religion.

“The Baha’i faith’s belief in free choice and in the importance of each individual’s understanding God in his own way ran against much of Iranian Islam’s stress on obedience to authority,” says Farhad Kazemi, an expatriate Iranian who is the chairman of the politics department at New York University. “The Baha’i faith also posed a threat to Moslem hegemony by attracting adherents from almost every class of society. Its rejection of hierarchy and priesthood, moreover, threatened the hegemony of the Shi’ite mullahs.” As a result the Baha’i faith was persecuted almost from its inception, in 1844. During the next fifty years 20,000 Baha’is died at the hands of Shi’ite fanatics. Baha’u’llah was eventually exiled to Ottoman-controlled Palestine, where he died a prisoner in 1892. At his instruction the Universal House of Justice, an elected council that oversees worldwide Baha’i affairs, was established in nearby Haifa.

The status of the Baha’is during the regime of the late Shah was ambiguous. Although Baha’i literature could not legally be published, Baha’is were able to avoid persecution largely through their ability to adapt to modern technology and management. By the 1970s the rate of literacy among Baha’is was 80 percent, more than double that among other Iranians. “At a time when the country was expanding, the Baha’is had the skills that were needed and they did quite well,” Kazemi says. “Without repression the Baha’is possibly would have increased in number even more.”

Iranian officials maintain that since the Baha’i faith is not recognized as a religion, the problems of the Baha’is in Iran cannot be termed “religious persecution.” Most Iranian Baha’is are descended from converts from Islam; orthodox Shi’ites regard Baha’ism as no more than a Moslem heresy. According to Islamic law, the punishment for heresy is death, and the Iranians appear to consider themselves lenient in not always imposing it. “It would be illegal to recognize as a religion any sect which is not recognized in the Koran,” Javad Zarif, a political adviser to the Iran Mission to the United Nations, says. “Some Baha’is have been tried and convicted of certain crimes, and they have received the appropriate punishment. But no one in the history of the Islamic Republic has ever been punished or executed solely on the basis of his religion.” The regime professes not to consider its expulsion of Baha’is from administrative positions a punitive act. “The appointment of a non-Moslem to a high office in a country where ninety-eight percent of the people are Moslem was greatly resented by the public,” Zarif says. “Every country has qualifications for entering the civil service; one of ours is religion.”The regime justifies other measures that have been taken against the Baha’is by portraying the religious minority as a threat to public morality and national security.

The Iranian government claims the Baha’i faith was founded by czarist spies, taken over by the British Empire, and then used by Israel and the United States as a “tool” to “sow division” in the Moslem world. A government pamphlet produced to counter Baha’i charges of persecution accuses the Baha’is of “propagation of corruption, prostitution, and sin in the Iranian community,” economic exploitation of Iran under the Shah, providing “economic and moral assistance to international Zionism,” and “direct participation in most of the shah’s crimes, slaughter and torture of Muslims, and the management of the dead shah’s hellish SAVAK.”

“Since their inception the Baha’is have followed the explicit orders of foreign powers,”Zarif asserts. “Members of their Spiritual Assemblies were trying to create shortages of essential goods. The Shah’s Prime Minister, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, was a Baha’i, and his government destroyed our agriculture and economy. The head of the secret police was a Baha’i. The Minister of Education was a Baha’i, and her goal was to immoralize our whole system of education.”

The charges leveled against the Baha’is rest almost exclusively on a mixture of deliberate falsehood and ignorance of the Baha’is’ actual beliefs. “The politics of the Baha’i are the politics of unity,” Gerald Knight, the Baha’i representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, in Geneva, says. “Baha’is are permitted to take any administrative position other than one that leads them into even potentially divisive situations.” Baha’i ethics require absolute obedience to civil government, a principle that was essential to the faith’s survival after the pogroms of the nineteenth century. “No matter what the Iranians do, the Baha’is will not pick up arms against them,” Knight says. Such scruples have, however, put many Baha’i draftees in the cruelly ironic position of defending the Khomeini regime in the Iran-Iraq war. “We believe that obedience to government is necessary for the protection of society,” Derakhshani, of the Baha’i Community of the United States, says. “Even if a government is against the Baha’is, that does not absolve us of obedience to our own principles. To reject military service would lead us into political struggle, which our faith rejects.”

Allegations of “prostitution” arise from the fact that Baha’i marriages are not recognized by Islamic law; therefore, in Shi’ite eyes, Baha’i couples are technically adulterous. Although Prime Minister Hoveyda’s family was Baha’i, his father was expelled from the religion for engaging in partisan political activities. Hoveyda himself was raised a Moslem. Baha’i spokesmen vigorously deny that either any SAVAK officials or the Minister of Education were members of their faith.

THE IRANIAN GOVERNMENT maintains that Baha’is in Iran are living “a normal and ordinary life.” Baha’i refugees without exception, however, say otherwise. “You never know what will happen,” says a thirty-two-year-old Baha’i engineer who spent ten months in prison without formal charges, and whose father and brother were condemned to death by Islamic courts. “Things will be quiet for a while. Then all of a sudden there are arrests and people disappear. You go to visit your relatives in prison. One time they’re okay. The next time they have no teeth. When you’re arrested yourself, you never know if you’ll leave prison alive.” Baha’is who retain property are subject to its instant and arbitrary confiscation. Although some schools have turned a blind eye to the presence of Baha’i students, the education of tens of thousands of young Baha’is has been disrupted or aborted by discrimination. “There are no more formal Baha’i activities in Iran,” Derakhshani says. “Baha’is are not allowed to gather together. They can’t even conduct marriages.”

Countless Baha’i families have been stripped of their livelihood, and many former professionals have been forced into marginal occupations. Even these often depend on a Baha’i’s managing to keep his religion secret. “In Tehran you now have to prove you’re a Moslem just to get a taxi-driver’s license,” says an urbane doctor who drove a cab after he was fired from his position at a hospital. When Z’eheydoon and Shahla Samali lost their jobs with the government, they used their savings to open a small shop selling music cassettes. They lost all their stock, however, when the regime banned music as “un-Islamic.” The Samalis then scraped together money to open a shop that sold photographic supplies. “Then fanatics in the local merchants’ association got our trading license revoked because we were Baha’is,” Z’eheydoon says.

Baha’i representatives estimate that approximately 30,000 Baha’is have fled Iran, mostly in the months immediately following the Islamic Revolution. The outflow slowed to a trickle when the Khomeini regime ceased issuing exit visas to Baha’is, in the early 1980s. In recent years about a thousand Baha’is a year have managed to escape across Iran’s borders, usually into Pakistan, where about 1,200 are currently being supported by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The largest number of Baha’is fleeing Iran have settled in the United States, which has recently granted them refugee status as victims of religious persecution. Statistics are hard to come by, since many Baha’is have been admitted as relatives of American citizens rather than as refugees per se; informed estimates suggest, however, that 6,000 to 10,000 Baha’i refugees have entered the United States since late 1978. Significant numbers have also been admitted to Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

The Samalis, like most refugees, had to hire professional smugglers to guide them across the border. On their first attempt to escape Iran the car in which they were traveling with their three small children and four other Baha’is was fired upon and halted by Revolutionary Guards who had pursued them into Pakistan. All the Baha’is were then blindfolded and taken back across the border into Iran, where they were jailed for eight days with common criminals and drug addicts. “They took all the valuables we had left, including the children’s rings and bracelets,” Z’eheydoon says. The Samalis were released when relatives agreed to pay a fine of 400,000 tumans ($5,700). “By that time we didn’t care anymore whether we were caught, or shot, or killed,” Z’eheydoon says. “We just couldn’t bear staying in Iran any longer.” The Samalis found other smugglers to guide them, and in the spring of last year they tried once again to cross into Pakistan. This time they succeeded, though they arrived with only the clothes they wore and two cups and a spoon.

Most refugees spend about a year in Pakistan waiting for admittance to other countries. Because of Z’eheydoon’s crippling eye injury and his need for medical treatment, the Samalis’ application for immigration to the United States was processed quickly. The UNHCR furnished them with airline tickets, the cost of which the Samalis are determined to repay. They now live in a northern New Jersey community. Hampered by their lack of English and Z’eheydoon’s injury, the Samalis rely emotionally and to a small extent financially on fellow Baha’is and various groups that support refugees. Shahla is currently looking for work, while Z’eheydoon is undergoing extensive job training. They are still numbed by what they experienced during the last six years of their life in Iran. “We didn’t know how to function in freedom,” Z’eheydoon says. “The children were so frightened that they would jump and huddle at the sound of a car’s horn.”

MOST BAHA’IS REGARD their persecution as a tragic part of the world’s evolution toward a more just and benign society. “It might appear that we are the victims,” a young woman who escaped to Canada says. “But what is happening to us cannot last forever. I feel pity for those who were so cruel to me. The real victims are Islam and the Moslems.” Many Baha’is, choosing not to flee, have accepted their fate with remarkable serenity. “My brother talked about dying, and he knew he might be killed,” recalls a businessman who left Iran in 1981, and whose brother was later executed by Revolutionary Guards. “He said that if he were arrested, then at least he would have an opportunity to tell the story of our faith to the mullahs.”

Random mob violence against Baha’is has increased. “The attacks are more and more often made by ordinary people, because they know they aren’t going to be punished for it by the authorities,” says Mary Hardy, a spokesperson for the Baha’i International Community in New York. Although official executions appear to be taking place less frequently than they did a few years ago, the Iranian government has shown no sign of reining in its broader program of harassing the Baha’is. Iran has explicitly repudiated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which it and most other nations are signatories, and which bans summary execution, torture, and the denial of freedom of religion.

“We are therefore committed to the Islamic law and nothing else,” Said Rajaei-Khorassani, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, stated in a speech to the world body. “In our view, international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . . . remain valid only to the extent that they are consistent with Islam. . . .

“The Declaration of Human Rights is a document which represents secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition by a very small group of people. It is a self-contradictory document and therefore cannot be implemented by the Moslems even if they wanted to implement it. We therefore should not waste any time on it. . . . Of course we violate what must be violated without any hesitation.”

“In the future, the policy of the Islamic Republic will continue,” Zarif says. “We shall not allow anyone to violate our laws or disturb the fabric of our society. The Baha’is will not be exempt from justice.” Indeed, the Baha’is serve a convenient political purpose in Iran. They provide a focal point for overlapping fantasies of Zionist and imperialist conspiracy, and thus unify divergent fundamentalist factions around a common hatred. In the event of an economic collapse in Iran or a decisive setback in the war against Iraq, the Baha’is could be further exploited as a scapegoat to deflect popular frustration from the government. A danger persists, however, that the currents of radical fundamentalism flowing throughout the Islamic world may carry anti-Baha’i propaganda and persecution to countries where Baha’is have lived in comparative peace until now.

Through diplomatic channels a number of Western governments have protested the persecution of the Baha’is; none, however, has had any influence with the Khomeini regime. The Baha’is have placed their hopes mainly on the United Nations, which they regard as a concrete expression of their own internationalist ideals. “The only thing that can help the Baha’is is the moral support of the outside world,” Derakhshani says. In both 1985 and 1986 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights appointed a special investigator to report on conditions in the Islamic Republic. Iran has so far refused even to permit either investigator to enter the country. In response to lobbying, mostly by Western nations, a slim majority of the United Nations General Assembly in 1985 passed a resolution that expressed its “concern” over the human-rights situation in Iran, the first time the assembly had ever so cited a Moslem state. A similar resolution was passed, again by a slim majority, during the assembly’s 1986 session, although few observers anticipate that it will have much effect on Iran.

“All we can do is to try to bring the Baha’i problem to public attention,” says an American official who closely monitors events in Iran. “We can’t go in and get these people out of Iran. If the killing gets worse, I don’t think we’ll be able to stop it.”

—Fergus M. Bordewich