Sunday, March 18, 2012

Suffering in the centuries... still we face the future

I think it useful to spend some time contextualizing what the history of the persecution of the Baha'is in Iran compares with in other circumstances and what the Baha'i response has been.

As onerous as the treatment of Baha'is has been in Iran it fails to rise to some of the worst atrocities human memory alas can take note of. From the ongoing genocidal events in the Congo and recently in Rwanda, to the well known Holocaust of Jews in Eastern Europe, to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during WWI, the devastation of the First Nations of the Americas - the mind wearies of such hugely sad events. These things transcend the outward treatment of the Baha'is in any circumstances. Thousand of Baha'is lost their lives in Persia in it's early decades of existence there but the situations were not systematic enough, pervasive or persistent enough to kill that many people and while some villages or towns had Baha'is driven out it did not rise to a whole region of what we might call, today, ethnic cleansing, as much as some may have hoped for it. This is not to say it wasn't tried. There are terrible tales of the suffering.

During the days of the Babi and Baha'is Faiths - which are inseparably linked - during such events our reactions were to send letters, walk into prisons, walk to firing squads, walk to whatever means of death was pushed on us. We counted only on God and the virtues that transcend time and place in the heart. We did not gather arms, we did not seek to shame leaders of government, or take sides in political squabbles seeking to advance the rightful treatment of Baha'is by siding with one side against another. Mind you we had opportunity to do so as well as the occasional overture from one side or another to seek to intercede on our behalf which would have resulted in a political agenda being advanced under the guise of helping our situation. We only sought fairness and peace and only in the earliest circumstances did we gather in self-defense. “You have demonstrated (it has been said to the Baha'is of Iran) in the example of your lives that the proper response to oppression is neither to succumb in resignation nor to take on the characteristics of the oppressor. The victim of oppression can transcend it through an inner strength that shields the soul from bitterness and hatred and which sustains consistent, principled action.”

An example of historical persecution in another case, it seems plain to me, outstrips what Baha'is in Iran have suffered after its earliest days, and still the Baha'is sought a standard of conduct to appear completely outside the machinations of political agendas. The events of the Soviet Union were far more heart straightening than things in Iran since the 19th century. The atheistic government systematically and viciously disrupted, deported Baha'is one family member from another or filled mass graves with our bodies on occasion.1, 2 The government was so implacable that standing up for the defense of the community from inside the system through perfectly legal means only earned more arrests and disappearances. They only stopped when they couldn't find any more Baha'is. Such was the case from the 1930s through the 1980s. But with the release of central control social and legal situations changed and Baha'is began to self-assemble into communities and begin to establish and enact the kinds of priorities the Baha'is have sought to do around the world. In some places the communities continue to flourish while in others reactionary governments comfortable with totalitarian control have reinstated some of the same rules on minority religions that existed previously for all - in fact the closer you get to Iran the more stringent the rules have been. But we can drink tea. Through all of this the Baha'is accepted the legal requirements forced on us - what was confiscated was given up, what was illegal to do we stopped doing, guarding only what was in our hearts and minds but acting with a rectitude of conduct that echo the accomplishments of the spiritual fortitude to seek independence in India or the nonviolent African-American Civil Rights movement but rising to a refinement unparalleled in eschewing partisanship and showing radiant acquiescence in the face of brutality. No government is our enemy, no religion, no people. "My object is none other than the betterment of the world and the tranquillity of its peoples. The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established. This unity can never be achieved so long as the counsels which the Pen of the Most High hath revealed are suffered to pass unheeded." Given the opportunity to petition for change or speak to issues of society for the benefit of all we do. The object has been to note virtue and self-effacement.

As time has gone on there has been a broadening of international standards of conduct as historically most countries have done things too unfair to their minorities. Indeed I doubt any country has a radiant history of how it has treated its minorities. In all the history I know of there are only a couple of examples of real success in how minorities were treated. The first - and unquestionably to me the best - was when the (probably) Zoroastrian Cyrus the Great of ancient Persia took the enslaved Jews and others and not only freed them from Babylon but mandated they return to their home lands and rebuild their temples. A command that succeeding Kings of Persia saw through.3 For more on Cyrus see ** Alas the Zoroastrians did not live up to that standard in succeeding centuries but this remarkable set of actions has been immortalized in historical and religious writings to shine down on us to this day. The other example is the Islamic "golden age" when leaders of thought and peoples of all kinds were able to gather and live and prosper under a Muslim based system of government and society unlike anything we see around the world today. During such times towering intellects, mystics, poets, traders, doctors, engineers and artists of many kinds were more often rewarded than perhaps anywhere in the world before or since. I do not know the full cultural circumstances of the time - what Muslim schools of jurisprudence, what policies of government and religion commonly espoused, what relationships across peoples and lands existed, I do not know what made those times so successful for minorities and the majority. But it is worthy of note and awareness and appreciation in the West as it should be to the East. However, past glory cannot be regained by seeking to hold up the visible triumphs of the past because they were fermented by living hearts presently engaged with the life we have at hand. It is the spirit of the age that matters. An outmoded idea will fail to inspire the vitality of life necessary to accomplish coherent change. Something has to wake us up.

But turning our attention to the modern age again I was saying that international standards of conduct have begun to be known and agreed to. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva conventions and Hague Courts come to mind. Alas that they came after a century of punishing death of far too many. And even before they were widely promulgated there were circumstances where Baha'is had to deal with other forms of legal marginalization. Two come to mind - one was out of Morocco and the other across central Africa. In Morocco in 1962 Baha'is were noted publicly and the familiar reactions took place to the point that a handful of Baha'is were jailed and eventually sentenced to death for their belief. But a new dynamic entered the stage. World opinion mattered. The King of Morocco traveled to speak to the UN and while in the States had opportunity to appear on US TV. At the same time early harbingers of these international legal standards started to use diplomatic channels and public opinion about such circumstances. Only when private contacts failed and the penalties chosen became clear did the Baha'is make the situation public. The outcry got the attention of the TV producers in the US and the King was taken to task for the treatment of the Baha'is live on the air. The Baha'is were initially found guilty of being members of an illegal religion but things changed and they were released. While the Baha'is there do not enjoy substantial freedom they are not the objects of anything more the polemics published in newspapers, so far, since then. The other example was in the mid 1970s when various Saharan governments leveraged their economic muscle by giving financial aid with conditions like making the Baha'i Faith illegal in their sub-Saharan neighbors with the outward cry of fears of secret agendas against the common good. The Baha'i response to such concerns of the governments was to patiently show our true purpose in society and to prove our faithfulness amidst much suspicion such that by the later 1980s we were successful in all cases at having these restrictions lifted and all of this without any public campaign though sometimes murderous death very painful to behold came upon us.

But now these laws and international standards are here and attempts of people of good will are promulgated through various agencies to try to live up to them. And, through well worn habits, Baha'is have ample evidence to make claims about our treatment. Not that it's been easy or always successful. In Egypt hadith-based standards of laws had not only made the religion illegal but required Baha'is to either convert or lie in order to receive payment for work or when seeking medical treatment when the government required identity cards that listed religion and forbade the Baha'i Faith from being listed or from having the box blank. This was eventually overturned through legal redress thanks to the stalwart Muslim lawyers who systematically came to the aid of the Baha'is. But things are not all good. The Arab Spring's arrival in Egypt has not seen the extension of this brief new standard. Indeed again newspapers cover political parties announcing polemics calling for our systematic disenfranchisement.

Walls could be filled with stories of the suffering of Baha'is and are. (page can be slow to load.... there is so much to load just in the last 30 odd years, and hasn't been updated since 2010.) Above I said that the persecution in the 19th century was not "systematic enough, pervasive or persistent enough". Experts and agencies raise the warning alarms of genocidal intentions because of the secret policies and outward policies. Experts and agencies raise the warning alarms of genocidal intentions in the government of Iran.(4, 5, 6, 7.) Indeed it is not through lack of trying that the Baha'is have not been done away with. The Baha'is in Iran are too numerous to be ignored. The balance seems to be in the wind. But even the self-confessed have sometimes sought to mend their ways. Still some do not credit we exist as a religion.(9, 10, 10)

It is with these examples I think it prudent to see what is going on in Iran, and what the Baha'i institutional and community response has been. Public awareness has been engaged and Iranians responding outside and inside of Iran has been heartwarming in their eagerness to be aware of and publicly decry the treatment we have been faced with. Moslem Iranians inside Iran helped us homeschool universities when we were kicked out of public ones. Moslem, Christian and Jewish academics, theologians and philosophers from around the world echoed again and again. People who from their religious heritages _they_ see as the very application of the ideals of their religion to this case. From Indian to Brazil leaders of thought have taken up the cause. Prison mates lauded their conduct and gained strength from Baha'is in prison. Moved by the reality of hearts Muslims and others used their creativity, steadfastness, and eagerness for the Baha'is to live without such persecution. Lawyer after lawyer after lawyer stood up for us when we could not stand up for ourselves. They did this out of their *own* sense of what was right. Though it does not immediately redress the suffering of the imprisoned and martyred at least joins our calls for peace and fairness in common cause. Even in facebook and it's progenitor on the web and cousin sites stand as unique efforts - more than a century of suffering has not seen such outcry about how we are treated as we have seen in the last few years.

Thank you.

To the people of Iran and all countries who have stood up in their private lives to defend and find common cause with the Baha'is, a special note and prayer for blessing upon you from our hearts. And to the lawyers who have tried to stand up for us our heartfelt care and prayers. Your efforts will be remembered for many years to come. They seem to harken back to a bygone age. God bless you. Failure is no limit to your tireless efforts. May your families one day come to know the virtue of your efforts if they lack any understanding of what you have stood out publicly to do.

And to the people of Iran in general. Know this. Despite circumstances as are too easy to delineate know clearly that we pray for your safety, your health, your honor and that peace rules the day and the drums of war silenced. Too high a price may come from such eventualities. If it be something human hands make happen please God it will be without any hint of agenda from the Baha'is. We seek to live in peace and justice whomever is given the authority of a nation. We care less which regime is in power than any regime that lives with Godly virtues all have been informed of through the religious gifts of the ages God has given every people.


His Holiness Muhammad


Blessed King Cyrus