The Terror Facing the Bahais

The threat of genocide hangs over the Bahais of Iran. Since 1979 more than 110 men and women, most of them leaders of the Bahai community, have been put to death. Hundreds have been jailed. Some have been abducted and never heard from again. Thousands have been made homeless. Retired government employees have lost their pensions. Teachers have been fired. Children have been denied public education and some have been kidnapped and placed in Muslim homes where they could be compelled to embrace Islam. Property has been confiscated. Bahai shrines have been demolished.

There are reasons to think that all of this is part of a systematic effort to force the four or five hundred thousand Iranian Bahais to recant their faith. Should the effort fail, tens or even hundreds of thousands could be massacred.

The West is largely unaware of the peril in which the Iranian Bahai community, in spite of its law-abiding and nonpolitical character, finds itself. Neither the fury of the mullahs nor the nature of the Bahai religion is well understood here. Thus a situation may arise in which mass murder could once again be committed without the world’s taking notice.

The Iranian revolution occurred under the banner of Islam. The crowds that challenged the monarchy in the streets were led by a coalition of Westernized intellectuals and the clergy, but it was the clergy who played the dominant role and fashioned the new regime. Therefore it is not surprising that the constitution of the Islamic Republic, its educational and social policies, its treatment of religious minorities and of women, and its view of the world beyond Iran’s borders should have been heavily influenced by the beliefs and attitudes of the radically conservative, activist elements among the mullahs.

Once in control of state power, the clergy initiated measures to turn Iran into the utopia of their dreams. In the clerical republic only the ayatollahs would think and decide, the rest would practice taqlid (imitation), walking in the footsteps of stern, turbaned gurus. In the clerical republic there would be no foreign influences, no Western literature or music, and even Persian classical poets tainted with free thought would be censored. Women would know their place; and religious minorities—Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews—would live, as they had lived for centuries, isolated, restricted, and disdained. Of course, in the clerical republic there would be no room for Bahais, hated as renegades and unprotected by the Koranic injunction to tolerate Christians and Jews.

The Shiite clergy’s hatred of the Bahai faith goes back to the very inception of the new religion. For a thousand years the majority of Shiites had waited for the advent of the twelfth Imam, descendant and successor of the Prophet Muhammad, who, according to tradition, had mysteriously disappeared in AH 260. A thousand lunar years later, in AH 1260 (AD 1844) a young merchant of Shiraz, Sayyid Ali Muhammad, proclaimed himself the Bab, the gate to the Hidden Imam. The Bab rapidly gained a number of devoted…

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