Wednesday 02 December 2015
Why Baha’is Must be Allowed to Spread the WordOn November 15, the Iranian government launched a fresh attack on Iran’s Baha’i religious minority, arresting 20 Baha’i people and forcing the closure of dozens of shops.
In Iran, Bahá’ís are denied a range of rights, including the right to higher education, and the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and expression. Although the repression of Baha’is dates back almost half a century, since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, it has been carried out and sanctioned by the state.
Justifications for this abuse of human rights dates back to the early days of the Islamic Republic. In September 1983, Seyyed Hussein Musavi-Tabrizi, the General Attorney of the Revolution, argued:
If a Bahá’í himself performs his religious acts in accordance with his own belief, such a man will not be bothered by us, provided he does not invite others to Bahá’ísm, does not teach, does not inform assemblies, does not give news to others, and has nothing to do with the administration. Not only do we not execute such people, we do not even imprison them.
The accusation of proselytism is enough justification for authorities to silence Baha’is. By restricting Baha’is’ right to freedom of religion, they argue, they are defending the right of the Muslim majority to be free from the intrusion of Baha’i beliefs.
Just as with the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is not absolute under international human rights laws. Article 18 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [the ICCPR] states that any limitation of the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs must be directly linked to a need to “protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”
Manifesting one’s religion can also be restricted if there is evidence of coercion. General Comment No. 22 on Article 18 of the ICCPR defines coercion as “the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to their religious beliefs and congregations, to recant their religion or belief or to convert.”
So unless an independent court of law can prove that an individual has either used coercion or has violated the rights of others, under international human rights law, proselytization is recognized as a right to freedom of religion. Consequently, even if one accepts the argument that Bahá'ís in Iran actually engage in proselytization, the severe restrictions the Iranian government places on the Bahai’s can still not be justified. But even when restrictions on a particular individual or community are allowed, these restrictions cannot be manifested as punishment, as set out by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion, Asma Jahangir: “While some of these acts [unethical conversion] may not enjoy protection under human rights law, they should not as a result necessarily be seen to constitute a criminal offence.”
The Experts’ View
Padideh Sabeti, an official Persian language spokesperson for the Baha’i International Community based in London, says that, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, state-sponsored media in Iran have systematically attacked Baha’is, widely disseminating misinformation about the religion and its followers and using accusations of coercive proselytization to justify its claims.
“The Baha’is, in the absence of access to any media in Iran, feel they should share their teachings and aims with the people of Iran to dispel any fabrications or misunderstandings created by the regime’s adverse propaganda, and to defend themselves,” she says, “so their compatriots know the truth about them and their beliefs and are able to judge for themselves.”
Erfan Sabeti, a sociologist specializing in religion, cites other examples to demonstrate that the Iranian government’s justification of crackdowns — and accusations of proselytization are common. “In one case, the judiciary ordered the closure of a firm under the justification that its Baha’i owner (and employer) was engaged in the proselytization of his employees because he paid them higher salaries when compared to other firms,” says Sabeti. “This is a ridiculous argument; since when has taking care of one’s employees’ financial needs been equivalent to proselytization? In another case, the authorities argued that Baha’is were not permitted to be buried in a Muslim cemetery, claiming that laying gravestones for Baha’is would be tantamount to proselytization.”
But it is not only human rights experts and sociologists who object to the treatment of the Baha’is: Many Islamic reformers argue that the Bahai’s’ expression and teaching of their religion — and even proselytization — is a necessary part of freedom of religion and expression.
Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari argues that proselytization is allowed in Islam, and that it is inaccurate to say that Islam forbids people from presenting their opinions and their faith to the public, whether through public addresses or publishing. Eshkevari further argues that Islamic jurists have said that people must choose their religion not by “imitation” but by choice and knowledge. This is only possible if non-Muslims have the freedom to propagate their religion, and if Muslims are free to listen to them.
Renowned Iranian scholar Abdolkarim Soroush also acknowledges that Islam allows for proselytization, reasoning that according to the principles of pluralism, equity and non-discrimination, all citizens are equal in all rights, including in the right to propagate their religion.
In his support of the rights of Baha’is, religious and philosophy scholar Arash Naraghi cites the Islamic belief that individuals have a right to be wrong. This is based on four principles: the idea of public space being the “common property” of all citizens, a traditional concept in both Shia and Sunni jurisprudence; that individuals have full control over their property; that, based on the Islamic principle of justice, all people enjoy equal rights to common property and can participate in the process of running and controlling this property; and that the principle of justice takes priority with respect to religion, so religion must be just — and therefore, justice should not be religious.
For Naraghi, in a diverse society, no one has the right to advocate laws and policies that can be justified on religious grounds only. Given this, individuals are required to recognize the right of others to be wrong. Even though he distinguishes between a tolerable wrong and intolerable wrong, Naraghi argues that only human rights – and not religion — should make this distinction.
If a law upheld under sharia contradicts the principle of justice, then that law cannot be valid any longer, and it should not be enforced. Therefore, if any aspect of sharia requires Muslims to enforce laws and policies that are only justifiable on purely religious grounds (for example, discrimination against religious minorities), then those items of sharia will be considered unjust and be devoid of any religious authority.
Philosophy of religion scholar Yaser Mirdamadi also argues that Muslims are ethically as well as religiously obliged to allow members of other religions to freely proselytize their religions. He argues that according to the Golden Rule (an ethical rule shared by all religions requiring one to treat others in a way that one wishes to be treated by others), if Muslims expect non-Muslims to allow them to proselytize their religion within non-Muslim communities, then Muslims should also allow non-Muslims to proselytize their religions among Muslim communities.
Persecution Driven by Fear
Baha’is are not the only group that suffer persecution because their religion is not approved by the Iranian government. Authorities also target the Gonabadi Dervishes and Sunni Muslims for following a different interpretation of Islam other than what is approved by the government. “Teaching the Faith [a term used by Baha’is] is strongly encouraged in the Baha’i scriptures,” says Bahai sociologist Erfan Sabeti. Baha’i scriptures, he says, emphasize “self-refinement,” encourage evangelism “through actions rather than words” — and therefore discourage “aggressive proselytization”— and prioritize the spread of social Baha’i principles, including “the equality of men and women, the establishment of universal peace, interfaith dialogue, the abolition of the clerical establishment, the eradication of extreme poverty and universal education, over seeking converts.”
Iranian authorities repeatedly subject Baha’is to isolation, threats and intimidation, Erfan Sabeti says, accusing them of coercive proselytization, but also charging them with treason and with threatening national security. “What lies beneath all these baseless accusations is the fact that the Iranian Shia Muslim clergy seeks to monopolize the religious economy. It is horrified by the prospect of Iranians embracing other religions, particularly the Baha’i faith. It exerts its utmost power to bar anyone from joining other religious communities.”
It might be the government’s fear of the Baha’is’ teachings — in particular, their belief in the abolition of the clerical establishment — that has led to the persecution of the Bahai’s. But this persistent misrepresentation of the Baha’i community has led to people outside the establishment to commit hate crimes against the Bahai’s too, vandalizing their houses and in some cases even physically attacking or killing Baha’i citizens. Though there is reason to believe many Iranians have changed their attitudes to Baha’is in recent years, the Islamic Republic has waged such a powerful, sustained campaign against the Bahai’s, that in many ways, up to now, it has had reasonable success in turning Bahai’s into enemies of the state.