Why These Seven?

(Two responses to this question. One is my apologia, my reasons for concerning myself so — and so often — with seven people I’ve never met. The other is for the Iranian government to make. How do you solve a problem like the Baha’is? They need new answers, to both questions.)

They have endured a lot since this photo was taken.

There are countless political prisoners in the world. We call them the “unjustly accused”, “prisoners of conscience”, and they’re everywhere. There are likely some in North American and European jails, too, lest we get too self-righteous. More commonly, though, “First World” inmates, even if wrongfully held, face punishments for minor crimes based on class or racial bias. A number of Canadians, one of my sons among them, make their warehoused fellow citizens a personal cause. I don’t. Nor do I devote much time to the, what, tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands? of souls locked up by tyrannical regimes simply because of opposition, real or paranoically imagined. As my mother-in-law says, pick only one or two lost causes to get behind.

So why was I writing little-read protests about the Yaran (Farsi for “friends”), the “Baha’i Seven”, two years ago, and 18 months ago, and again now? Why flood the Inboxes of my hearty band of Twitter followers with news of the continued imprisonment of this small group in an Iranian prison? Why these Seven? I’ll start with the lamest of my reasons, which also happens to be the most emotionally compelling. This is PERSONAL:

Because they’re Baha’is, and so am I. Global citizens, we in the Baha’i community are called to be. Lovers of humanity, and not simply of our own family, congregation, tribe or nation. But I can’t help it: I identify with these people because we share a spiritual choice, though our cultural backgrounds differ widely. Barely one in a thousand citizens of Earth belong to this community, and it is natural to stand up for your own. Necessary.

Because there’s no other way to fight. Baha’is don’t oppose their governments.

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Reminder 7.5: You Can’t Kill Jamaloddin Khanjani

This was the third of my quick and furious reactions to the ongoing imprisonment of seven innocent Baha’is in Iran. May of this year marked the end of their seventh year in captivity. As I wrote back then, “I’d never heard of Mr. Khanjani until recently, but today he’s my hero.” He and his six partners in the most benevolent, world-minded sort of “crime” you could imagine were the focus for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, which was a noble thing but not yet bearing fruit. Now, it’s 7.5 years. Counting…

Here’s one heroic and underreported story of the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran.

The Unbreakable Mr. K.

The Unbreakable Mr. K.

Mr. Khanjani is 81.

His given name means something like “God’s beauty”.

He was arrested on May 14, 2008, along with five of the Quietly Magnificent Seven. In 2011, his wife of over fifty years, mother of his four children, died. He was not permitted to attend her funeral.

He is held in Gohardasht Prison. (The place even sounds harsh to a Western ear. Tehran’s Evin Prison is more infamous, but Gohardasht is brutally harsh as well.) He lives.

While his story will echo for a long age among Baha’is – among all who pay attention to grace under pressure, to indomitability under the worst circumstances – surely his days are numbered, yet when I read a brief biography, the man does seem to be pretty much unbreakable.

Listen: after the 1979 Revolution, Iran’s Baha’is were still under the leadership of their annually elected National Spiritual Assembly, nine women and men who never asked to be leaders, never campaigned, but were chosen from among the mass of Iran’s largest religious minority to care for and administer the community. It wasn’t long before their death sentences were handed down, the crime being heresy (or espionage, or immorality, or sedition, or any number of euphemisms for cut the head off the snake and the body will follow). All nine were executed.

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Reboot 7.5: Late Night Thoughts on Mahvash Sabet

I had a few things to say, six months ago, on reading the story of a little-known Iranian woman named Mahvash Sabet. She was the focus, on May 14, for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign that tried to train a spotlight on her imprisonment, and those of six of her fellow Iranian Baha’is. Iran ought to be ashamed of itself.

The world was briefly more aware of the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for seven outrageous years, but as of right this minute it’s now seven and a HALF years. There is no sign of their imminent release from an incarceration that would be ridiculous if it weren’t such a serious injustice, such an outright loss to Iranian society. So if you missed it, here I was, trying to get to know Mahvash a little better.

Ms. Sabet was the first among the seven Baha’i leaders to be arrested, in March of 2008. These seven had taken on an ad hoc role of guiding and encouraging the oppressed Baha’i community of Iran, since its local and national institutions had been banned in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Over a year after her arrest, Ms. Sabet was charged with “espionage” and “spreading propaganda against the [government]” in a kangaroo court proceeding, more of a political harangue than anything we’d recognize as judicial. There she is, and here am I, wondering about her life as I read a brief biography.

Greyer, but what a kind, calm face.

Greyer, but what a kind, calm face.

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Biography of a Criminal: Fariba Kamalabadi

How’s this for a life of crime? Dad’s a doctor who loses his job for practising medicine while Baha’i (that’s known as a ‘PMWB’ offence, which went from a misdemeanour to a felony after the Iranian Revolution in 1979). He was imprisoned and tortured, though it probably did nothing to straighten him out. (You know how these people are!) His daughter Fariba seemed to think that, just because she had outstanding high school marks, her brazen attempt to go to university was somehow her RIGHT. The ruling authorities of the Islamic Republic, fortunately, were able to nip that nefarious plan in the bud. Ms. Kamalabadi, however, was incorrigible, embarking in her 30s on an extended, clearly delusional attempt at higher education from an underground university, the notorious “Baha’i Institute for Higher Education” (BIHE). She had a lengthy criminal record with a wide range of what are euphemistically called “volunteer activities” and was imprisoned several times. Finally, when her propensity for repeated, remorseless involvement with a gang of six other reprobates continued – why, these people were helping that illegal Baha’i element to learn, marry and other of their supposed “human rights” – she was among the seven who were finally rounded up and removed, dangers as they clearly were to law-abiding Iranian citizens, from decent society…

*Coughs*. That’s enough of that. Irony is hard. Sarcasm kills…

Pre-incarceration photo, likely much changed now -- except for that resolute chin.

Pre-incarceration photo, likely much changed now — except for that resolute chin.

[This is the second of my stubborn efforts to get to know more of the seven innocent Baha’is in Iran, who are the focus for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, and so here’s a taste of the remarkable life of that “arch-criminal” Fariba Kamalabadi, 52. Again, thanks to intrepid Baha’i social networkers Danny and Pej, who have fed me with a steady diet of sad yet still ennobling information about this tragic, heroic and underreported story of the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for a week of years. This won’t take long; be sure not to miss her own description of her “crime” below.]

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No Academy Award — Just Light in a Dark, Dark Room

My friend Sherri asked me to help out with an event she was helping to organize. So I did. I got to see a woefully underviewed but important film. For free. And I hardly had to do anything, but I got to write this:

Sherri Yazdani is a prairie girl, but as her surname suggests, she married into an Iranian family. Sherri is a mother, a storyteller, a lawyer, and when she stood in front of a nearly full auditorium in my city, she stood for human rights victims half a world away, yet not far from her family. She was a symbol, without making any fuss. She was there to bear witness to the ongoing, and indeed worsening, situation of the Baha’i community of Iran — maybe you’ve heard about this? — and to introduce the Ottawa screening of the documentary film To Light a Candle. She was one of several voices that brought local accents to its stirring international subject.


Bahari is on the right, and that's Jon Stewart in the middle. (Sorry, other guy!)

That’s Jon Stewart in the middle, actor Gael Garcia Bernal on the left, and on the right, the man he portrayed in Rosewater, Maziar Bahari. (Thanks, Sherri, for the edit!)

Canadians familiar with Maziar Bahari likely know him from the 2014 Jon Stewart biopic Rosewater, or perhaps from the Iranian-Canadian Bahari’s best-selling memoir Then They Came For Me, the book that inspired Stewart to make his directoral debut. However, before his now-famous stay and forced “confession” in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison following the suspicious 2009 elections, Mr. Bahari was Newsweek’s Iran correspondent and the award-winning maker of numerous documentaries. His most recent film is To Light a Candle.

Mr. Bahari, as part of a global campaign (, chose February 27 as an international day of conscience and awareness, and many Canadian communities screened To Light a Candle, supporting Bahari’s efforts to spotlight another notable injustice from his homeland: the Iranian government’s denial of education to Baha’i youth. (Bahari is not a Baha’i himself.) Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including South Africa’s Desmond Tutu¹ and Iran’s Shirin Ebadi, joined with Mr. Bahari and many other notable artists and public figures in speaking up for the beleaguered Baha’i community of Iran.

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