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. In astonishingly steadfast adherence to the principle of unity and the practice of non-violence – never mind non-violence, they don’t even hold with any kind of partisan division – this community does not seek to undermine even the most corrupt of human institutions. (My son, the prison advocate, finds this position intolerable; he fights the power. Good for him.) For the Baha’is, process is everything; united, peaceful outcomes do not arise from divisive, violent actions. They choose another way entirely. To aid their unjustly jailed sisters and brothers in Iran, diplomatic efforts and public appeals outside the country – not letting the Iranian government off the hook for its domestic abuses – are the only acceptable way. Baha’is within Iran are not only profoundly vulnerable to governmental, clerical, and mob attack, but also refuse in principle to bring further disunity to their already fractured nation.

Because The Seven are only the most recent symbols of over 150 years of persecution. Listen: since the 1979 Iranian revolution, over 200 prominent Baha’is have been murdered or executed, and many thousands more displaced or fired from their positions. Two generations of Baha’i youth have been refused entry to university, simply because of their faith affiliation. And this is only the most recent flareup of Iranian (and before that, Persian) societal scapegoating of the Baha’is. Tens of thousands of murders, often public, massive and horrific, have punctuated the last two centuries, to say nothing of banishments, property demolitions, graveyard desacrations and vicious character assaults on an entire population. It is religious bigotry, unrelenting, on a monumental scale.

Because their innocence is touching, and their resilience is a marvel. The Iranian government has nearly 100 Baha’is in jail on trumped-up charges, but they aren’t alone. Teheran’s infamous prisons are filled with thousands of others who got caught backing the wrong horse in Iranian politics, or who have actively opposed the Islamic Revolution in ways that would not have seen them jailed in democratic countries. (There are many just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.) The Baha’is, though, are thrown in jail for activities like leading children’s education classes, or providing training to youth deprived of university. The Seven, these “Friends” of the Baha’i community, simply formed a group, with the approval of the government (!), to assist the Baha’is in their daily lives – this, after the serial killing of members of elected Baha’i councils, and finally the outlawing of these non-partisan “Spiritual Assemblies”. The Yaran, then, were aiding the Baha’i community to pursue, under more or less severe forms of ongoing oppression, its mandates: universal peace, universal education, gender equity; in short, promoting human well-being and harmony and the general “betterment of the world”.

Then they were thrown in jail, on charges like “propaganda against the regime”, “opposing Islam”, “immorality” and, my (least) favourite, “espionage”. (The Baha’is have been labelled, over their history, as spies for Russia, Britain, the United States and Israel, among others. Such a flexible accusation!) These and many other alleged crimes are the sheerest of fictions; these people, today and historically, are oppressed solely due to their belief in and practice of the Baha’i Faith.

And here’s the thing: no matter what is done to them, nothing stops the Baha’is. Their resilience, their peaceable and loving toughness and indomitability, are amazing. They are among the reasons I keep hanging in there as a believer, stumbling on against my tiny hurdles and paltry challenges.

And finally, why do I protest the imprisonment of these seven extraordinary humans?

Because the Baha’is in Iran have something to show the world. No matter what happens to them, the Baha’is live up to what my country’s highest citizenship honour proclaims: They desire a better country. They are well-wishers of a country whose various leaderships have repeatedly persecuted them. Under centuries of abuse, their community has remained united. (There is only one Baha’i community in Iran, and the global community is similarly singular.) Deprived of opportunities to educate their youth, the Baha’is devised an underground education system that regularly produces graduates who are accepted into advanced studies in the great universities of the world. (And not only that, but many of these students then return to Iran to help the next generation to be educated.)

Put it this way: under recurring harassment, mob violence and systematic persecution, the Baha’i community of Iran continues to exemplify the highest ideals of the peaceful, progressive future that most of the world’s peoples long for – that too many have despaired of ever seeing. This peaceable, lion-hearted population has long carried the hopeful ball of global harmony and civilization, and no matter how viciously they have been tackled, they never drop the ball.

And these are a few reasons that I keep writing about, and believing in the ultimate redemption of, the Baha’i community of Iran. This is why the Yaran, the Quietly Magnificent Seven, are my heroes.

Now, as for the Iranian government: the so-called “Islamic” Republic, and its so-called “Islamic” theological apologists and inciters, have given many scurrilous, ridiculous, and transparently false justifications for locking up the Seven. WHY THESE SEVEN? Someday, history will show us, will show Iran, that these seven not only brought honour and great dignity to their country, but also that the community they served was a harbinger of the best of things to come.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *