Terror in the Name of God

I would like to argue in these brief thoughts that the on-going persecution of Baha’is in Iran illustrates what must be faced in our quest for a conversible, multi-religious world. Our globally imbricated world will not achieve a peaceful unity if the world religions declare that their  faith is final, the last revelation to a suffering and embittered humankind. World unity, the fundamental perquisite of world peace, requires a new perception of how, and in what sense, all religions could inhabit common ground without conflict with each other.

Michael Karlberg (2010) has written an insightful article (“Constructive resilience: the Baha’i response to oppression”) that argues that the Baha’i community in Iran has been subjected to recurrent “waves of hostile propaganda and censorship social ostracism and exclusivism, denial of education, denial of employment, denial of due process before the law, property looting and destruction, government seizure of individual and collective assets, arson, incitements to mob violence, arbitrary arrests and imprisonments, physical and psychological torture, death threats, execution, and disappearances—all calculated to extinguish the community” (pp. 222-223).

The forerunner to the revelation of Baha’u’llah, the Bab (the gate) was murdered by a firing squad of 750 riflemen in 1850. 20,000 of his early followers were put to death in the most evil and hideous ways (such as cutting the flesh and inserting candles in the incisions). One of the most significant accounts of the persecution of Baha’is in Iran was published by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, A faith denied: the persecution of the Baha’is of Iran [December 2006]). A shocking document, it details Baha’i persecution from the Faith’s early history in the mid-nineteenth century, the Ramada Riots of 1955, the 1977 general unrest and mob attacks to the post-revolutionary, on-going persecution of Baha’is.

For an Islamic fundamentalist such as Ayotollah Khomeini (who had detested Baha’is since the 1940s), Iran was a sacred land, cradling the true interpretation of Islam and discarding the claims and significance of other forms of Islam (such as Sunnism) and world religions. For Khomeini and the Shi’ite clergy, the Baha’is were dangerous heretics, a kind of fifth column acting on behalf of external enemies like Israel. He even called them the “Baha’i Jews.” They were the despicable, evil other that were cordoned off to reinforce the purity of the Islamic state. The Iranian authorities in the post-1979 period used the “full range of state coercive force” against the Baha’is. This full-blown hatred resulted in the execution of over two hundred democratically elected leaders of the Baha’i community, the imprisonment of thousands of others, many thousands lost their jobs, were denied pensions, even forced to repay past pensions and salaries, expelled from schools and universities, denied healthcare and had their personal property ransacked and their grave and holy sites defiled.

The depth of the depravity of the treatment of Baha’is and radical breach of human rights (Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression) is revealed in many cases where the family members of executed victims were forced to repay the Iranian government the cost of the bullets used in executions. The Khomeini regime even hanged a young girl of 16, called Mona, for educating children in her home (her story is an integral part of Baha’i legend). The Shi’ite clerics cannot accept the possibility of a post-Islamic religion. The revelation of Mohammed is sealed and final. The world has raised its voice through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries at this specific manifestation of terror in the name of God. Still, the persecutions persist to our day.

This bitter reality reveals the depths of resistance of a powerful state religion to permit the minority religion the right to even exist. Since 2005, 860 Baha’is have been arrested, 275 have spent time in prison, 1000s have been denied access to higher education, 950 suffered from economic suppression of their businesses, and 20,000 anti-Baha’i propaganda articles and reports have been published. (Baha’i International Community: Situation of Baha’is in Iran. Current situation: September 19, 2017).  The movement of history towards a justly ordered word cannot occur if some world religions barricade themselves behind a fabricated eternal dogma and engage in holy war against perceived enemies, political and religious.

A great Christian theologian like Hans Kung (Christianity and World Religions, Paths pf Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism (1985) wonders: “If religion is so complicating, so difficult, why deal with it? Why not be content with casual recourse or wilful reversion to non-or anti-religious arguments derived from Enlightenment era understandings of secular reasoning? (p. 443). Our argument is that a “culture of human rights and dialogue” requires transformative action within religious communities, where necessary, so that those with deeply held beliefs can enable all faiths to stand on common ground and, thus, are not excluded from reasonable public discourse.

Baha’i theologian Michael Souris (The station and claims of Baha’u’llah (1997) in a thoughtful chapter on “Religious claims and inter-faith relations” sets out the three major sources of conflict in inter-faith relations: prejudice, misunderstandings of scripture and miscommunications. These factors trigger “conflicts originating with superiority claims” (p. 15). The first, prejudice tends to find reasons to “exalt one’s self over others because of ignorance, fear, ambition, arrogance, and other spiritual inadequacies” (ibid.). Souris perceives religious prejudice (like sexism and racism) as a “spiritual illness that needs to be healed through education, prayer, and the cultivation of spiritual qualities” (ibid.).

Unlike prejudice, misunderstanding of Scriptures are more of an “intellectual problem that can be overcome with the help of study and education” (ibid.). But he also thinks that prejudice can shut down our capacity for compassion, thus blocking reaching out to diverse peoples. However, “purity of thought” can “cause a person to search the Scriptures for an understanding that best reflects God’s love and compassion” (ibid.). The final source of conflict, miscommunications, has two possible sources: poorly expressed beliefs and insensitivity to “other people’s feelings and beliefs” (p. 16).

Payam Akhavan (In search of a better world: a human rights odyssey [2017]) argues that living in a multicultural world requires a sophisticated understanding of the many layers of our identity. Akhavan says that we must be willing to “genuinely listen to the stories of those who are foreign to us.” But we must not be sentimental in our reflections. Some people slide into sloppy comfortability with celebrating diversity by claiming that human rights are “conditioned by cultural context.” But Payam comments pointedly that if we reject universality of judgment, should we then “respect torture, intolerance, and misogyny as expressions of diversity?”

To be sure, there may well be “genuine differences of opinion among and within cultures,” but when “claims of religious exceptionalism are invoked by authoritarian rulers, they must be treated with great suspicion.” In 1983, as “tens of thousands were executed to consolidate Khomeini’s totalitarian theocracy, an Iranian diplomat rebuked those who didn’t seem to understand that the Islamic Republic recognized only “God” as supreme authority and only “Islamic law” as authoritative legal tradition. Payam names this move as a “cynical slight of hand”—now the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, the diplomat alleged, could be rejected because it didn’t “accord with the system of values recognized by the Islamic Republic of Iran.”  Almighty God had become the Almighty State.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.