For Iran’s Rouhani, the Human Rights of Baha’is Are the Ultimate Test of Reform

In Iran, Baha’is are regularly imprisoned and even executed for practicing their faith.

Hassan Rouhani’s speech at the United Nations on Tuesday signaled the possibility of a thaw in relations between Iran and the United States. Indeed, President Rouhani has been diligently trying to improve Iran’s image abroad by, for instance, reaching out to the Jewish community over social media and to Americans through an NBC interview and a Washington Post op-ed. At the same time, he has fostered hope for reform at home by freeing political prisoners and promising greater freedoms for Iran’s young and restive population.

But if President Rouhani is truly serious about repairing Iran’s image in the world and living up to his promises for greater rights, he must address the proverbial third rail in Iranian politics: the horrific human rights abuses aimed at Iran’s small yet historic Baha’i community.

The Baha’i faith teaches that all of the world’s religions are the result of an unbroken line of divine messengers sent by God to different peoples at different times. The Baha’i believe that the prophet Baha’u’llah, who founded the faith in the 19th century, is merely the most recent in this prophetic chain and that his revelation is universal. This belief, coupled with the fact that the Baha’i began as an offshoot of Shiah Islam, has opened the faithful to horrific attacks from conservative Muslims — and Shiah, in particular — who deem the religion to be nothing more than a heretical form of Islam.

Persecution of Iran’s Baha’is did not begin with the Islamic Republic, of course. Due to their professional training and educational backgrounds, Baha’is were well-represented in Iran’s professional classes throughout the 20th century, but they have always lacked social and political security. The Shahs of Iran regularly allowed for campaigns of public violence and abuse targeting the Baha’i faithful, either as a way of assuaging conservative parts of the Shia religious establishment or because the faith’s universalist ethos contradicted the Shahs’ attempts at fostering a firm sense of Iranian nationalism.

However, the repression of Iran’s Baha’i community reached fever pitch with the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Iran’s constitution recognizes the religious legitimacy of Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews, but not the Baha’i. Although there are only an estimated 300,000 Baha’i left in Iran, they face a long list of judicial, religious, economic and social abuses. Baha’is are regularly imprisoned and even executed for practicing their faith. Baha’i owned businesses and factories are routinely closed down and taken over by government authorities as part of what human rights advocates say is an attempt to destroy the community’s economic life. Baha’i students are not allowed to attend university in Iran, and crimes against the Baha’i are rarely punished.

Although some Shiite clerics have issued fatwas urging respect for the human rights of Baha’is and recognition of their faith, and the leaders of Iran’s reformist Green movement have made attempts to bring the human rights of Baha’is within the broader umbrella of political and social reforms they are advocating, the situation for Iran’s Baha’i community has only worsened in recent years. In fact, Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameni, has issued a fatwa calling the Baha’i apostates from Islam.

This situation cannot be allowed to continue. As Iran’s present leadership attempts to make bold moves, both domestically and globally, to normalize Iran’s relations with the world and reform the Islamic Republic within, the foundational rights of the Baha’i community will be the most powerful test of how genuinely committed he is to truly expanding human rights and social openness in Iran.

The world is watching.

Reza Aslan is founder of Aslan Media and author most recently of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” Michael Brooks is the host of INTERSECTION on Aslan Media and a Producer for the Majority Report.

Image via Υπουργείο Εξωτερικών.

  • FactChecker1979

    This is a very important view that Mr. Aslan shares, and it is a shame that the Obama administration has largely dropped the United States’ focus on religious persecution, not only in Iran but throughout the world. Hopefully the President’s administration follows this op-ed, as well as the work done by several members of Congress such as Rep. Wolf and Sen. Kaine.

    However, Mr. Aslan has one key error in the above statement. The Baha’i Faith is not an “offshoot of Shiah Islam” as he states, but rather an independent world religion. Baha’i is an “offshoot” of Islam the same way that Christianity would be an “offshoot” of the Jewish Faith, or Islam of Christianity. Each continued the previous Faith’s spirit, while adding more through revelation (as accepted by their adherents, of course). But to belittle any of these Faiths by calling them an “offshoot” of another is an oversight that Mr. Aslan has made.

  • leibowde84

    Islam most definitely is an “off-shoot” of Judaism. They are the other side of Abraham’s descendants. “Allah” is the God of Abraham (as “allah” merely is the Arabic word for “God” or “Deity”). Further, Islam thinks of Mary and Jesus as prophets of God. They have a lot more in common than meets the eye.

  • leibowde84

    I agree though, any leader who singles out any religious group for persecution and unfair treatment should not be treated as a friend of the United States in any way. That is one principle worth fighting for. This is the 21st century for crying out loud!

  • TheJillyBean

    Although it would be convenient to think of Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i faith as offshoots or sects of pre-existing religions, they are in fact independent religions with their own prophets. An offshoot would require belief in and only belief in the same prophet, not a new one. Although all of these religions have a fluid line of the same core principles, all have their own prophets and new revelations that inform the future of those faiths from inception.

  • Liz Kauai

    Baha’is see all religions as emanating from the same God. Like chapters in One Book, rather than separate books… and the Divine Teachers, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, The Bab and Baha’u’llah as deliverers of one Truth according to the capacities of humankind at the times they came.
    It is ironic that the only world religion outside of Islam that reveres Muhammad as a Messenger from God is the Baha’i Faith.
    God Bless!

  • Joe535

    For USA’s recent presidents, Bush and Obama upholding the rights of Americans in Police State legislation, such as,Patriot Act, Military Commissions Act and others too many to mention are the test of reform if they can be condemned and repealed.

  • leibowde84

    “An offshoot would require belief in and only belief in the same prophet, not a new one.”

    I’m sorry, but your definition of the word term “off-shoot” is not accurate.

    An “off-shoot” is merely defined as “Something that branches out or derives its existence or origin from a particular source.” I don’t know where you got your restrictions from, but they don’t apply to the term at hand.

    Islam is an “off-shoot” of Judaism because it derives from the same origin … Abraham and the God of Abraham. Christianity is an “off-shoot” of Judaism in that Jesus was born and died a Jew and practiced Jewish traditions, living a Jewish life. So, by simple logic, one can assume that, since Islam originated from the same person and deity as Judaism, and Christianity derived from Judaism as well, it can be easily said that Islam is an off-shoot of Christianity.

    There is no requirement for belief or non-belief … simply origin.

  • David Dahl

    Bahai is a marketing scam not a religion. The closest thing to it in American terms are the Moonies and the Church of Scientology.

  • Ian Walters

    The point of the article is to highlight the issue of human rights in Iran, and the authors should be thanked for their contribution to the topic. The other discussions, valid or not, are not relevant to the theme of the article, and could be discussed in other venues. Tact and wisdom is required not to discourage such authors from making further contributions in future.

  • ThomasBaum

    In the article, it is written, “In fact, Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameni, has issued a fatwa calling the Baha’i apostates from Islam.”

    a person who forsakes his religion, cause, party, etc.

    If the fatwa were just to say what it says is one thing but for the fatwa to be used as justification for the mistreatment of others than that is completely wrong.

    In any place that there are some who do not have freedom of conscience (religion, belief, whatever) than none have freedom of conscience.

  • cgadbois

    Are you going to keep copying and pasting the same idiotic statement in every Baha’i-related post? Because the grownups in the room are getting tired of your antics.

  • amor825

    Thank you for this article, Mr. Aslan. Maybe you do not know it, but you are a Baha’i in thought. God bless you.

  • amor825

    I meant both writers.

  • amor825

    @David: What are the Baha’is selling since it is a marketing scam? Some people are just comfortable in their ignorance and would rather cast aspersions than investigate the truth.

  • Erich Hartmann

    This kind of reform needs much more time to take place in Iran as a country with 98% Muslims. The Bahaiat was first introduced nearly 2 centuries ago in Iran. Unfortunately the Bahais were always faced to discrimination in a religious society of Iran. During the Pahlavi, they experienced more freedom mainly because the government was a secular government based on national identity of Iranians rather than religious identity of Shia Islam. Currently the society, not the government, the society is experiencing Islamic Protestantism. This is absolutely unique among all Muslim countries. Comparing to Egypt, two years ago in the first free election in all history of Egypt, people elected the religious Muslim brotherhood. In recent history of Iran,although the election is not free to elect anyone you want, but whenever there was a relatively free election, the most reformist or moderate people were elected. Reach to the optimum result in making a society based on national identity and democratic values, requires long time of gradual changes. I think expecting Rouhani to make the optimum society right away is not a reasonable expectation. He came into power by two major promises. 1- Improving economic condition which could consists of the reaching an agreement with the west and 2- Going to the direction of more political freedom. These things can not happen all of a sudden.

  • GuoDaXia

    Sorry, David, but you seem to be very ignorant of the facts.
    Would suggest reading a bit more from independent sources about the principles and the historic background of this religion, you will see the Baha’i Faith is very peaceful, the main purpose of which is to live as one family, as one country. Is it a crime or something to be punished for?

  • Fl Sab

    I don’t trust any word which comes out of their mouth.
    Word needs deeds to back it up.
    Why Islamic? Just Republic of Iran.

  • trulyrebster

    President Rouhani’s speech at the UN is hopefully the start of a new era in which the government of Iran treats all it’s citizens with dignity and respect and affords them civil rights regardless of their religious or ideological differences. The Iranian government denies it’s largest religious minority, the Baha’i community, basic human rights including practicing their religion.
    It is by the Iranian governments treatment of all it’s citizens including the Baha’is that the words of President Rouhani will be judged.

  • Audrey Kemp

    Baha’i organizations take NO money from anyone who is not a Baha’i. It is law. No marketing. People become Baha’i when they believe in the teachings of Baha’u’llah. Anyone who becomes a Baha’i is under NO obligation to contribute money. Any contributions are strictly private and have NO effect on social status, ability to offer service to the community or receiving services from the institutions of the Faith. Social status for material wealth is discouraged, rather, Baha’is are expected to continually pursue education and offer humanitarian service through whatever profession they feel called to perform. Baha’u’llah says that work done in the spirit of service to mankind is worship. The word “scam” applies to the opposite of these directives. Learn and be at peace.

  • lihuelu

    All of a sudden? These senseless and baseless persecutions have been going on for over 150 years! Enough! Release these innocent prisoners immediately!

  • barry from adelaide

    As with many religions, the Bahai Faith includes men claiming to have knowledge of the future, through supernatural means – their prophets.

    Like the followers of Nostradamus, the Bahais claim that their prophets predicted the world wars, the rise and fall of communism, and many other events.

    Strange then, that these prophets did not predict that Persia/Iran was an unsafe place to establish a new religion, so that a less oppressive location could be chosen, and much pain and suffering avoided.

  • acheapmom

    So sorry for the Baha’i community. A test of a country’s tolerance indeed…is how they treat peaceful persons of faith. Iran…not doing so good.

  • Michael Franck

    Michael, I love the work you do on and your interview with Reza was fascinating. Despite the human rights abuses that affect the Baha’i population, I feel any step towards formal relations with Iran is a good step. The human rights violations in China, Israel, and many others has not stopped the U.S. government from having diplomatic relations with them. Let’s not close the door to diplomacy now that it is within our grasp.

  • TheJillyBean

    If you don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah that is in Jewish teachings, then I suppose it would be more convenient to think of it as an offshoot rather than the prophecy fulfilled. I guess it all depends on how your religious leaders have shaped thought, because if they accept that one has replaced another, their job would be made redundant.

  • Chamin Djalali Taslimi

    If you dot have a full and complete knowledge of a matter , tou can always complete your information , then your opinon changes , this an information age, io easy to find.I encourage you to delve a Little bit into the subject , it will benefit you and others. Have a nice day .

  • Matt Douglas

    No, the other points are necessary as issues do not exist in a vacuum. Rouhani’s main platform statement was economic reform. When a nation’s economy is doing well, people are less likely to blame it on an innocent spacegoat. And how many times as “human rights” been used as an excuse to invade another country, creating far more death and destruction to innocent people than the supposed human rights violations ever did?

  • barry from adelaide

    Thank you for your thoughtful response Chamin. In your very polite way, you have told me that I don’t know what I am talking about, and that I should have done some basic online research before commenting.

    I dont claim a full and complete knowledge of the Bahai Faith, or any other religion, but I have done some reading and have spoken to Bahai friends and even attended some Bahai meetings, so I do claim to have delved into the subject a little bit.

    I have misgivings about anyone who claims to have knowledge of future events, by supernatural means.

  • barry from adelaide

    Thank you for your thoughtful response Chamin. In your very polite way, you have told me that I don’t know what I am talking about, and that I have been too lazy to do some basic online research.

    I dont claim a full and complete knowledge of the Bahai faith or any other religion, but I have done some reading, and have spoken at length with Bahai friends and even attended Bahai meetings, so I will say that I have delved a little bit into the subject.

    I am fascinated by the shortcomings and vagaries of religious prophecy generally. I find it incomprehensible that anyone would believe a man who claims to have knowledge of events that have not yet occurred, and that the knowledge came to him by supernatural means.

  • terry1845

    It is always good to challenge those who claim esoteric knowledge of things in this physical universe Yet I have more faith in these as you would say men who claim to have supernatural knowledge than let sy for sake of argument the US Dow Jones Stock Market… but I wonder what your response would have been if you were one of those investors of Lehman Brothers at the beginning of 2008 were “set for life” but at the end of October of that year were destitute and poor… I remember reading a warning Bahá’u’lláh issued to one of his detractors…. You might have herd of him Napoleon III….???

    Now if your inquiry is genuine than answers will come to you indue time….

    If not then I wish you good fortune in your future endeavors…. Ciao…

  • AK Bear

    If Rouhani pushes this, he’s as good as dead. The really pious followers of the so called “prophet” won’t tolerate it. For them there is only Allah, there is no room for other approaches. Mohammed himself showed them the way by killing everyone who stood against the weird cult he cooked up when he had a heat stroke.

    Also, theologically speaking, the Baha’i “faith” is just another monotheist nonsense completely pissing onto the polytheists and those who don’t even have gods, like, most famously, the Buddhists.

  • AK Bear

    You can’t foresee the future. It’s not possible. There are too many variables, aka every person ever making an infinite number of decisions.

    Anyone can warn about the stock market. Just one look into history will show you that, if I’d warn now about a collapse of the US stock market, it will eventually be true, because it has happened before.

    Also Napoleon III was emperor of France a couple of years ago (to put it mildly) and has absolutely nothing to do with the US stock market.

  • Jeanne Farr

    I agree with you that Iran needs to improve their economic condition and to move in the direction of political freedom. But I do not think that allowing Baha’is full human rights today will interfere with that process.

  • AK Bear

    With all the sharia crazed lunatics trying to take over all those countries, do you actually think that the same sharia crazed lunatics in Iran will allow Rouhani to reform anything?

    Heck, for all we know he’s lying. His religion even authorizes him to lie to infidels if it helps islam.

  • AK Bear

    But they’re not innocent. Not under islamic law. Under islamic law they’re guilty of not following allah. And not following allah is a crime worse than rape or murder, which is why, under islamic law, leaving islam is punishable by death and so called “infidels” cannot be equal citizens.

  • AK Bear

    Which god? Currently we have an effective infinite number of gods. Funny how that works with polytheist systems.

  • AK Bear

    The fatwa is enough. If they’re apostates under isamic law, which applies to Iran, then they can even be killed. It’s perfectly legal in islam.

    And that’s the thing. If Rouhani doesn’t dance to Khameni’s whistle, then he’ll one day wake up and find himself a head length shorter. It’s the mullahs who run the country. The “president” is a figure head without any actual power.

  • NothingnessIsGreaterThanBelief

    HI AK Bear, It seems you’re only familiar with the basic introduction to the Baha’i Faith as presented in some literature targeting Christians and Muslims in the Western and Middle Eastern world. The time has come to unveil the Baha’u’llah’s cause with words that are sweet, honeyed, and magnetic. The relativism that Baha’u’llah teaches equally applies to the Nothingness of Buddhism or Mysticism and Sufism as it does to traditional Judaic and Islamic monotheism. Both world views are said to be correct and true.

  • NothingnessIsGreaterThanBelief

    Barry, the Baha’i teachings as taught by Baha’u’llah — unlike traditional religions like Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism — does not endorse or encourage supernaturalism. In fact, the Baha’i claims that Baha’u’llah is that Promised One of all religions and peoples, puts the Baha’i Cause beyond the limitations that Traditional Religions. Baha’u’llah claims that This Cause is the Cause of Him Who was the Author of all religions.

  • NothingnessIsGreaterThanBelief

    This God of the people of the world is a construct of human imagination and fancy. The time has come for the peoples to awaken from their slumber and play their part in our collective and glorious destiny – This Day is the Day of Felicity and Joy, the Day of Living and Immortality. In This Day He has Appeared towards whom the people of good will throughout the centuries and millennia have inclined their hearts, He of whom the seers and poets for countless generations have expressed their vision, and for Whose coming the sacred scriptures of mankind have constantly held the promise: Baha’u’llah

  • NothingnessIsGreaterThanBelief

    AK Bear,

    Faith is a transitional state of man. Faith is only a Seed that is destined to break up and give way to the growth and rise of a majestic Tree. That which is greater than Faith is the condition of Certitude. Certitude knows no logic and no reason – certitude is free of both love and hate. In Certitude the impossible is realized, the weak are victorious, the blind are seeing, the deaf hear, and the motionless are transformed to the speed of light.

  • NothingnessIsGreaterThanBelief

    I am the Trumpet-Blast of Baha ! I have appeared to Unveil His Beauty amongst mankind !

  • JnthTWt

    Unfortunately, Islam’s founder made his judgment emphatic:
    Bukhari 84,57 “…according to the statement of ALLAH’S APOSTLE ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, THEN KILL HIM.’
    83,17 Allah’s Apostle said, “THE BLOOD OF A MUSLIM…cannot be shed EXCEPT…THE ONE WHO REVERTS FROM ISLAM (apostate) and leaves the Muslims”

    Clearly, until these statements are unequivocally rejected, Muslims and others considered “apostates” will have their lives threatened.

  • Diana Gail Maddock

    It is amazing that so many who have not closely investigated the Baha’i faith have such strong and wrong interpretations. I was a Baha’i for several years while living in the suburbs of Chicago and was able to visit the Baha’i Temple in the suburbs. The Baha’i Faith is closer to unifying mankind than any other religion I have encountered. Am I still a Baha’i? I no longer am registered within a Baha’i community. I missed my traditional Christian church/teachings, and have simply returned to them as my primary religion. In my heart I am also, and always will be, a Baha’i. This is not a conflict. It is a unifying acceptance of two Messiahs who walked the earth and said basically the exact same things: world unity and unity of all people.

  • NothingnessIsGreaterThanBelief

    I am the Maid of Heaven, the Offspring begotten by the Spirit of Bahá. My habitation is the Mansion of His Name, the All-Glorious. Before the Concourse on high I was adorned with the ornament of His names. I was wrapt within the veil of an inviolable security, and lay hidden from the eyes of men. Methinks that I heard a Voice of divine and incomparable sweetness, proceeding from the right hand of the God of Mercy, and lo, the whole Paradise stirred and trembled before Me, in its longing to hear its accents, and gaze on the beauty of Him that uttered them.

  • truthnotlies

    I think most articles in regards to the Bahai faith where their freedoms are oppressed are interesting…as they point out the obvious seditious behavior of those looking to gain footing for their own cause. In regards to Napoleon III I’m sure he just realized Bahuallah was just another Charlatan like the many others roaming the world in the time creating their own religions.

  • truthnotlies

    As does Netenyahu’s!!!!!!!

  • Anoosheh

    I am greatly thankful to Dr. Aslan for this article on human’s right violation in Iran.
    Dr. Aslan is a brilliant scholar. He deserves to be a Baha’i. If he chooses one day to accept this religion as his religion, he will be one of the most appreciative one of this new faith.
    And dear David Please Please educate yourself about the Baha’i Faith for your sake and for God’s sake.

  • Anoosheh

    Human Right. Sorry!

  • Anoosheh

    I am greatly thankful to Dr. Aslan for this article on human right violation in Iran.
    Dr. Aslan is a brilliant scholar. He deserves to be a Baha’i. If he chooses one day to accept this religion as his religion, he will be one of the most appreciative one of this new faith.
    And dear David Please Please educate yourself about the Baha’i Faith for your sake and God’s sake.