By Terry Glavin, Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, 20 April 2016
You’d have to go for a very long walk to find a religious tradition as benign as the Baha’i faith, which marks the holiest days of its calendar during the 12-day Festival of Ridvan, which began at sunset on Tuesday this week.
The religion’s precepts respect scientific discovery and emphasize the uplifting of the poor, the equality of men and women, and the unity of the world’s peoples. There is no clergy. Deriving from a 19th-century schism within Shia Islam, Baha’is are admonished to respect all other faith traditions, not just the Abrahamic varieties. Their religious duties involve quiet prayer, meditation, education and the service of humanity.
You might think this would cut them at least a little bit of slack in Iran, where the Baha’i faith emerged during a time of religious tumult in the early 1800s. But it’s all unforgivable blasphemy to the Khomeinist regime, which considers Baha’i people “unclean” and excludes them from 25 separate employment categories. Because they are not legally “persons” in Iran, Baha’i people are denied pensions and government services, their marriages are illegal, their children are “illegitimate,” they have no recourse to the courts and they are banned from attending post-secondary institutions.
In 2008, all seven members of the Iranian Baha’i leadership council were imprisoned on charges of heresy and conspiracy. In January, 24 more Baha’i people were sentenced to a total of 193 years in prison for the crime of practicing their faith. Over the past three years, more than 200 Baha’i-owned businesses have been boarded up, and the regime is increasingly refusing to renew Baha’i business licences. It’s all part of an explicit policy of closing off the last remaining survival opportunities for Iran’s 350,000 Baha’i people, and since the election to the presidency of “reformer” Hassan Rouhani in 2013, the persecution of Iran’s minorities, and most especially the Baha’is, has only grown worse.
With the lifting of United Nations’ sanctions following last year’s American-led nuclear weapons agreement with the Khomeinists, the mania for business deals with the regime and its state-owned enterprises (which run most of Iran’s economy) has gone into hyperdrive. One of the Iranian economy’s largest corporate landlords is the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and Canada formally lists the IRGC’s Quds Force, a key ally with Bashar Assad in the ongoing massacres of Syrian civilians, as a terrorist entity.
It’s hard to say where all the post-sanctions excitement will leave the Baha’i people. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new government has expressed enthusiasm for renewed trade and diplomatic relations with the regime, and the Liberals’ shutdown of the previous Conservative government’s Office of Religious Freedom wasn’t exactly an encouraging sign of continued human-rights diligence.
Canada has long shown leadership in shaming the regime about its contempt for human rights. Iran Accountability Week, during which MPs from all parties each “adopt” an Iranian political prisoner, is an annual event on Parliament Hill. Carleton University, the University of Ottawa and McGill University each extend an informal accreditation to the “underground” Baha’i Institute for Higher Education in Iran. Canada continues to lead in the United Nations’ annual scrutiny of Iran’s human rights record. But with so many lucrative trade deals being dangled in front of us, will Canadians persist in questioning the regime and holding it accountable for its thuggish treatment of religious and ethnic minorities, women, trade unionists, journalists and secularists?
“Canada should raise these questions and keep raising these questions in all its dealings with Iran,” Gerald Filson, public affairs director of the Baha’i Community of Canada, told me the other day. Canadian businesses doing deals in Iran should insist on raising the same sorts of questions and should take every measure to guard against complicity with the regime’s brutal practices, Filson said.
There are at least five million followers of the Baha’i faith worldwide, with perhaps two million in India and a roughly equal distribution of the rest in Africa, South America, Europe and North America. About 175,000 Americans are adherents of the Baha’i faith, along with around 35,000 Canadians, about 7,000 of whom are Iranian immigrants who fled their homeland following the Khomeinist takeover in 1979.
While drawing adherents from a wide diversity of Canadians, the Baha’i faith has put down particularly deep roots in this country’s aboriginal communities. Among Canada’s most prominent Baha’is is renowned Northern Tutchone storyteller Louise Profeit-LeBlanc. Former Yukon Carcross-Tagish chief Mark Wedge and Deloria Bighorn, a Sioux-Chickasaw college counsellor, are both long-serving members of the governing council of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada.
Despite the Khomeinist proposition that Baha’is are blasphemers for rejecting the idea that Mohammed was God’s final, ultimate prophet, Canada’s Baha’is enjoy generally cordial relationships with this country’s Muslim communities. This is perhaps particularly the case with Ismaili Muslims, alongside whom Baha’i people suffered the same persecution and dispossession in Uganda and Tanzania during the 1970s.
Canada’s Baha’is also find welcome among Canada’s Iranian diaspora, which generally harbours a very dim view of the Khomeinist regime back in the old country. It’s a bit of an irony, but for all the Iranian regime’s bellyaching about degenerate Western influences, the regime itself is Shia Islam’s worst enemy in Western countries. “The regime has done more to kill religion in the hearts of people in the Iranian diaspora than anything else,” Filson pointed out.
Baha’is also enjoy close associations with Canada’s Jewish communities. The Baha’i have always accepted Israel as a Jewish state, and the Baha’i World Centre is a pilgrimage site located in Israel, in Acre and adjacent Haifa, owing to the imprisonment there of the religion’s founder, Baha’u’llah, by the Ottoman Empire, in the late 19th century. The Baha’i Universal House of Justice, the seat of the religion’s governing body, is situated on Mount Carmel.
“Both the Liberals and the Conservative governments in Canada have been consistently strong about human rights in Iran, and we hope that continues,” Filson said.
The Baha’i case is not hopeless. The Khomeinist police state may be irredeemably corrupt, but its persecution of the Baha’i’s people is not necessarily popular even among the ruling elites. Two years ago, the senior ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi Tehrani declared that Iran’s Baha’i people were suffering from “blind religious prejudice.” His pronouncement was not universally condemned.
“There is a sense of shame and honour in Iranian culture, so that’s helpful,” Filson said. “The government doesn’t like attracting attention to their treatment of the Baha’i, and the Iranian government’s mission to the UN does a lot of lobbying against any human rights focus. They put up a big fight at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, too.”
So there’s hope. Not much, maybe, but some, and in a post-sanctions context, Canadians should expect their government not just to remain vigilant, but to step up the pressure and show some real spine.