Resisting Persecution

The Bahá’í faith supports human rights and interactions with other religions, yet the believers have

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.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.