First Posted: July 29, 2011
the Face of Oppression
by Geoffrey Cameron
Bahá'í Community of Canada's Office of Governmental Relations
The Bahá'ís in Iran have long
been persecuted, but stand strong in their pursuit of a just society.
A Carleton University graduate is among 11 Bahá'ís who remain
imprisoned in Iran, and who have reportedly been charged with
“conspiracy against national security” and “conspiracy against the
Islamic Republic of Iran by establishing the illegal Bahá’í Institute
for Higher Education.”
The Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) is an initiative of
the Bahá’ís of Iran, who have been blocked from access to higher
education solely because of their religion. The institute has been
running in Iran since 1987, with the full knowledge of the government.
It even has a public website.
On May 22, authorities launched
a raid on 40 homes, ultimately arresting 19 people associated with the
institute. One of those arrested was Shahin Negari, a graduate of the
University of Ottawa, and another was Nooshin Khadem, a Carleton
graduate. Both were instructors with the BIHE. After completing their
post-graduate education in Canada, they took their degrees back to
Iran, where they dedicated themselves to the education of others like
them who are denied access to university by the Iranian authorities.
While Shahin has been released from prison, Nooshin remains detained,
along with 10 of her peers.
On June 21, Senator Mobina Jaffer, the first Muslim woman to serve in
Canada’s upper chamber, condemned Iran for these attacks, saying:
“These are attacks not only on the students and the faculty of the
Bahá’í education institute, but on the cherished idea that education is
the birthright of all.”
The Iranian government blocks Bahá’ís from access to higher education
despite the fact that they form the country’s largest non-Muslim
religious minority. When young Bahá’ís do manage to enrol at a
university, they are expelled when it is discovered they are Bahá’ís.
Carleton University and the University of Ottawa were the first to
recognize BIHE credentials as the equivalent of an undergraduate
degree, and they helped to create new hope for thousands of young
people in Iran. Their example, and the stellar academic performance of
BIHE graduates, led six other Canadian universities to accept
applications from their peers, enabling dozens of Bahá’í students to
acquire master’s and PhD degrees in Canada.
Despite increasing social and economic pressure back home, most of
these graduates did the same thing as Shahin and Nooshin: They took
their Canadian education to Iran and joined the BIHE faculty to teach
hundreds more. The Iranian government did not recognize their Canadian
graduate degrees, but they taught anyway, inspired by their belief that
knowledge and education are the best tools to fight ignorance and
oppression. Canadians should be proud of the quiet and effective role
that our universities have played in this process.
We should also be outraged at the Iranian authorities’ latest attack on
the BIHE. Eleven innocent men and women remain in jail, for no reason
aside from their religious beliefs and their affiliation with an
institution dedicated to advanced education in the sciences and arts.
The government of Iran refuses to give Bahá’ís access to higher
education, while at the same time declaring that the Bahá’í community’s
peaceful initiative – whose sole intention is to fill a need that has
been created by the government’s own actions – is illegal.
These attacks on the BIHE are the latest state-sponsored actions to
suppress human rights and to eradicate the Bahá’í community as a viable
entity. A 1991 government memorandum signed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah
Khamenei stated that Iran’s Bahá’ís should be treated in such a way
“that their progress and development are blocked.” The Iranian
government’s intentions to halt the social and economic progress of the
country’s 300,000 Bahá’ís could not be clearer.
Despite the evidence, the government of Iran continues to perpetuate
falsehoods about its official policy towards the Bahá’ís. During Iran’s
Universal Periodic Review before the United Nations Human Rights
Council in February 2010, its Deputy Minister of Justice Seyed Ali
Raeis Sadati stated: “Limitations against some of these Bahá’í
university students have nothing to do with their religious beliefs.”
His brazen statement directly contradicted a 2006 letter that was sent
from Iran’s education ministry to 81 universities, which instructed
them to expel any student discovered to be a Bahá’í.
In the face of pressure and intolerance, the Bahá’ís in Iran have not
resorted to violence, but have instead continued to work for the common
good. Their aim is to join their fellow citizens to build a more free,
just, and unified society in which education is no longer a crime.