The Bahá’í teachings are full of references to justice, legal order, universality, equality, human dignity and individual freedoms, as well as responsibilities, and the need to overcome prejudices of race, religion, nationality or sex. Though pre-dating the modern human rights era by a century, all the core ingredients are there for enthusiastic Bahá’í support for human rights.
Religions are most often criticized in human rights for restricting the role of women to the domestic sphere, drawing sharp distinctions between believers and non-believers, exaggerating their numbers and compelling membership through social stigmatization or even criminal penalties. In the Bahá’í writings the high station of motherhood is balanced with the recognition of a critical role for women in all arenas of human endeavour (science, diplomacy, agriculture and others); importance is attached to sincere dedication in faith and action, but ‘believers’ are warned of arrogant complacency; and both joining and leaving the Bahá’í community are quite simple affairs.
I’m often asked if I am a ‘practicing’ Bahá’í and find this an unusual question. That is because membership of the Bahá’í religion is contingent on belief in the special and divinely guided insights brought by its founder, Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892) and a commitment to realizing that vision in daily life. If I didn’t believe in it I would be quite free to assert that I was no longer a Bahá’í without risking my marriage and family life and cordial social interactions. In fact Bahá’í children are quite aware of this freedom to search individually for truth. Bahá’í membership is not contingent on race or parentage. Bahá’ís are quite free to marry those of other faiths, or none, and are even instructed in their ‘most holy book’ to consort cordially with all irrespective of belief.
Whilst these positions would seem to make the peaceful coexistence with Bahá’ís innocuous worldwide, history has unfortunately demonstrated a few contrary cases. Bahá’ís have faced persecution in a number of countries over the past 165 years – sometimes as part and parcel of wider political repression, and at times singled out on the grounds of their belief. The latter has been the case in Iran, the land of birth of the founders of both the Bahá’í faith and its precursor Bábí faith, but also where no recognition has ever been granted them under the various political regimes that have ruled.
This lack of recognition became established as a concerted programme of obliteration with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Whilst a pogrom against the Bahá´ís has thus far been averted – thanks most probably to the international outcry against their persecution – there have been a number of alarming trends in recent years that are jeopardizing their very existence as a community in Iran once again. Much has been recorded on the details of the massive human rights violations that are carried out against Bahá’ís in Iran, both individually and in attacks on their community, and even in government-orchestrated efforts to obliterate any trace of their short history in that land.
What I find almost beyond comprehension is how the Iranian Bahá’í community is living out Bahá’í ideals so heroically – of stoic and peaceful resistance against intolerable pressures on them to reject Bahá’u’lláh or lose their employment, lie about their individually-held beliefs or be denied tertiary education, repent or have their hard earned property or pension confiscated by the state, or even recant or die. Once this painful period is over, I look forward to examining this wonderful example of how a minority community under huge pressure of destruction by a concerted government-led ideology against them, maintains its identity, remains loving and positive towards its oppressors, stays active in service to Iranian society at large, and culturally and spiritually flourishes. It is a remarkable story.