Canada can't ignore Iran's persecution of the Baha'i community

Concern has raised in recent weeks as the Baha’i religious community is targeted once again by the Iranian government. Here’s why there should be international outcry.

This briefing is by James Samimi Farr, a graduate student at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. He works as a Media Researcher and Officer for the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs. Write us at newsletterthebell@gmail.com

VAFA WAS 14 WHEN HE TOLD ME, smiling, as though it were a joke. One of his teachers asked him to get up in front of the class and say he was a Baha’i. She then put his hand in the jamb of a door and slammed it. Holakou told me about the disappointment he felt when, despite scoring at the very top of his entrance exams, the Ministry of Education insisted over and over again that his application was “incomplete.” My mother-in-law, Samira, still cries as she tells me about her father, Kamran, who was executed in 1981, his grave later paved over to make room for a parking lot. For Iranian Baha’is, stories like these are just below the surface of their everyday composure, humming maddeningly like white noise in an empty room. So when I heard about what happened to the Baha’is in the small farming village of Ivel, I was not surprised. I was just sad. 

Recently, The Globe and Mail reported on an open letter signed by 40 prominent Canadian judges and lawyers, as well as former prime minister Brian Mulroney, condemning “an alarming new chapter” in the persecution of the Baha’i religious community by the Iranian government. The letter was written in response to two court judgments issued in late 2020 that justified the seizure and destruction of some 27 Baha’i homes in Ivel. The courts ruled that this land seizure was legal because the Baha’i Faith is a “perverse ideology” and Baha’is had no right to own property in the first place. 

The Baha’i Faith was founded in Iran in 1844 and is often cited as the largest minority religion in the country. Its central tenets include the essential validity of every great religion, the need for harmony between scientific and religious truth, and the oneness of humankind. The religion has since spread to nearly every country in the world. It has always been persecuted in Iran, but the Revolution in 1979, which brought with it a rigid and legally codified version of Shi’a government, made Baha’is more than mere objects of derision, ridicule, or occasional mob abuse. Recognizing a religion that had come after Islam made them apostates in the eyes of the government with legally enforceable consequences. Faith made them criminals. 

The persecution of the Baha’is is deeply entrenched in Iranian policy. Over the years, the Baha’i community has collected thousands of documents that detail the Iranian government’s concerted efforts to oppress them. Perhaps most infamous among them is a 1991 memorandum written to address “the Baha’i question.” Signed by the Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, the memorandum calls for a number of punitive measures against the Baha’is, concluding that the community’s “progress and development” must be “blocked.” Yet, whenever questioned about the Baha’is by the international community, the suave mouthpieces of the regime, like Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, insist that to be a Baha’i is not a crime. 

I’m a Baha’i, and though I’m not Iranian, my religion has brought me into close contact with many Iranian Baha’is who have since relocated to Canada or the U.S., often as refugees. Very few have been untouched by state-sponsored persecution and hate propaganda.   

Though I wasn’t surprised by what happened in Ivel, I have been surprised in recent years by the changing tide of public opinion in Iran about the Baha’is. While the government continues to exact punishing measures against the Baha’is, the Iranian people themselves are beginning to recognize that the Baha’is are not the bogeymen their government has attempted to portray them as. And more and more, public figures in Iran, often at great risk to their own safety, have begun speaking up on their behalf. 

These efforts have done little to change the government’s position, however. The Baha’is have long been a convenient scapegoat for the Iranian government, upon which it can project blame for any and all public grievances. This is a well-oiled machine of propaganda. In 2020, the Baha’i International Community reported that, in the first half of 2020, more than 3000 pieces of anti-Baha’i propaganda were published by state media. Against this backdrop, the home seizures are simply business-as-usual belligerence. 

In the early years after the Revolution, hundreds of Baha’is were rounded up and executed. Concerted international outcry stanched this flow of blood into a less calamitous but still punishing set of discriminatory policies. Open letters, though they might seem insignificant, let Iran know that its actions are being watched. Ottawa should reinforce this notion. At a multilateral level, Canada’s continued leadership with the annual UN resolution on human rights in Iran is an effective way to show that these concerns are widespread. Bilaterally, there have been many important public conversations on how and whether to reopen engagement with Iran since our embassy closed in 2012. While the Baha’is are a particularly egregious example, they are only one of many minorities that the Iranian government systematically targets. In the face of such flagrant human rights abuses, Canada should not accept a bilateralism that politely looks away. 

Often, I daydream about visiting Iran with my wife. I see us taking in the many beautiful sights, and perhaps visiting the grave of her grandfather, laying flowers and offering prayers. Then I remember who we are in the eyes of the government. The thousands of miles between us and Iran expand in an instant, and the vision recedes. The grave again becomes a parking lot. (JSF)

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The Bell is edited by Emily Nickerson, Mariel Aramburu, and Andrew Potter of the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. If you have any feedback or would like to contribute to this newsletter, please send an email to the editors at newsletterthebell@gmail.com