Friday, March 27, 2009

The Baha’is reply to Ayatollah Najafabadi

Geoffery Cameron is a Foreign Policy Centre Research Associate and writes here in a personal capacity as a member of the Baha'i Community. This was first posted on his blog Jeune Street.

On February 11th, Iran’s Deputy Prosecutor-General announced charges against seven detained Baha’i leaders, which included “espionage for Israel, desecrating religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” The charges were made almost a year after the arbitrary detention of the seven, who were not permitted to see their families for months and have still not been provided access to a lawyer.

The Baha’i International Community has just sent a remarkable public reply to Ayatollah Najafabadi, systematically refuting claims that the Baha’i leaders or the community have transgressed the law.

What does the letter say?

The letter speaks truth to power. In a tone both polite and direct, it reviews the history of the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran before addressing the charges made against the seven Baha’is. The letter reiterates basic Baha’is beliefs and the record of the Baha’i community — both well known to the authorities in Iran — in the context of the charges:

In whatever country they reside, Bahá’ís strive to promote the welfare of society. They are enjoined to work alongside their compatriots in fostering fellowship and unity and in establishing peace and justice. They seek to uphold their own rights, as well as the rights of others, through whatever legal means are available to them, conducting themselves at all times with honesty and integrity. They eschew conflict and dissension. They avoid contest for worldly power.

The letter closes with a moving challenge to the Prosecutor General, to justify the accusations that the Baha’is are “manipulative” and “deceitful,” “dangerous” and “threatening” as more than blind prejudice:

Do you consider dangerous the efforts of a group of young people who, out of a sense of obligation to their fellow citizens, work with youngsters from families of little means to improve their mathematics and language skills and to develop their abilities to play a constructive part in the progress of their nation?

Is it a threat to society for Bahá’ís to discuss with their neighbors noble and high-minded ideals, reinforcing the conviction that the betterment of the world is to be achieved through pure and goodly deeds and through commendable and seemly conduct?

In what way is it manipulative for a couple to speak in the privacy of their home with a few friends confused by the portrayal of Bahá’ís in the mass media and to share with them the true nature of their beliefs, which revolve around such fundamental verities as the oneness of God and the oneness of humankind?

The letter calls for fairness in the judiciary’s treatment of the detained Baha’i leaders, “for the sanctity of Islam and the honour of Iran.”

Noteworthy aspects of the letter

Several aspects of the letter are worth noting:

1. It places the case of the Baha’is within the context of more general issues of law and governance in Iran. Najafabadi has justified the detention of the Baha’is on the grounds that basic freedoms outlined in the Constitution may be proscribed at the will of the government. This arbitrary approach to the application of law has implications for other persecuted groups in Iran by raising questions about the very integrity and fairness of the legal system. The case is fundamentally about the freedom of conscience in Iran, and its outcome will have implications far beyond the Baha’i community.

2. It notes that the government has been fully informed of the activities of the Baha’i community since the administration was banned in 1983. The sudden arrest and detention of the seven Baha’i leaders on the grounds that they were conducting secretive or illegal activities are, in this context, absurd. Those in government making slanderous accusations against the Baha’is have full knowledge of the beliefs and practices of the Baha’i community, which bear no relationship with claims that they are ‘dangerous’, ‘threatening’ or ‘manipulative’.

3. It repeatedly praises the Iranian people, drawing attention to the courage and commitment to justice shown by those who have stood in solidarity with their Baha’i peers and colleagues. The Iranian government has tacitly encouraged the informal Baha’i leadership in its activities in the past, such that they were said to protect the Baha’i community from a prejudiced and violent population. The letter responds by saying “our vision of the Iranian people does not correspond with the one projected by such officials.”

A bellwether for Iran

The case of the Baha’i leaders in Iran is a bellwether for the direction to be taken by the Iranian government in the coming years. Recent signs of escalation in the persecution of Baha’is, the detention of student activists, and clamping down on women’s rights advocates are indications that Iran is descending into an unstable authoritarian regime. The government is increasingly out of sync with the wishes of its people, and force, coercion and mass deception are the tools of a regime unsure of its popular support.

If Iran is to reverse course and begin to re-build its position as a stable government and credible member of the international community, the first step will be to extend basic citizenship rights to all of its citizens. This course of action has been endorsed by several senior clerics, and such a step would be a move toward the country’s maturation into a universally respected nation.

Iran possesses a long history of diversity and tolerance of religious diversity. In a theocratic state such as Iran, the protection of the freedom to believe is a key benchmark for fairness and equity in governance.

The case of the detained Baha’i leaders is a test case for Iran. Let us hope that it chooses the path of justice.

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