The right to search for meaning
by John Barnabas Leith
Seated from left,
Behrouz Tavakkoli and Saeid Rezaie,
fariba Kamalabadi, Vahid Tizfahm,
Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi,
and Mahvash Sabet.
On 5 March 2008, school teacher and mother of two Mahvash Sabet was arrested in the Iranian city of Mashhad. Detained without charge for the best part of two years before being tried in four court hearings beginning in January 2010, Mahvash, along with six other leading Bahá'ìs in Iran, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The seven, who had been the members of a group known as the Yárán-i-Irán (the friends in Iran), responsible for attending to the needs of Iran's 300,000 Bahá'ìs, faced charges of espionage, propaganda activities against the Islamic order, the establishment of an illegal administration, cooperation with Israel, sending secret documents outside the country, acting against the security of the country, and corruption on earth. These charges were utterly baseless. Their real crime was to be Bahá'ìs.
The treatment of these seven Bahá'ìs is the highest profile example of the systematic efforts that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been making since the early 1980s to eradicate the Bahá'ì community from the land of its birth. It is a landmark example of the denial of a fundamental human right, freedom of religion and belief.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the foundation of the modern understanding and practice of universal human rights, affirms that: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
In its General Comment 222 the UN Human Rights Committee, the body that monitors governments' adherence to human rights treaties, observes that no limitations whatsoever can be placed on the freedom of thought and conscience. This includes the freedom to have or adopt a religion of one's choice, which "necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views, as well as the right to retain one's religion or belief."
Without the right to change, the notion of freedom of religion or belief becomes meaningless. And yet it is precisely on the right to change one's religion or belief that a number of states have sought to weaken the language in UN treaties and declarations. In a recent lecture in Lambeth Palace3 Malcolm Evans, Professor of Public International Law at Bristol University, pointed out that:
…there is a near universal consensus that "the freedom of religion or belief…encapsulates an idea of worth and goal to be realised." So why do governments feel free to restrict or deny religious freedom? In his Lambeth lecture Professor Evans highlights the sad fact that:
"Rather than being a celebration of a thing of worth, the approach currently adopted by the international political community to religious freedom is dominated by the language of special pleading, disadvantage, hostility, and hate."
Professor Evans calls for work to re-start on a UN Convention on freedom of religion or belief and notes of some approaches that: "The question which continually gets lost in these twists and turns is simple, but important: 'Why not start with the idea of the freedom of religion or belief for everyone?'" Why not indeed? Sadly the whole question of ensuring that everyone can enjoy this fundamental freedom has become mired in international and domestic politics, themselves often linked to dominant religious ideologies.
But why is this freedom so important? Why is it 'fundamental'? In its 2005 statement on the freedom of religion or belief4, the Bahá'ì International Community5 makes these highly significant affirmations:
"The freedom to hold beliefs of one's choosing and to change them is central to human development as it makes possible the individual's search for meaning - a distinguishing impulse of the human conscience."
We believe that the protection of the right to freedom of conscience, religion or belief is not merely a legal exercise or a pragmatic necessity; it is part of a much larger and essentially spiritual undertaking of shaping attitudes and practices, that allow human potential to emerge and flourish. The human mind, endowed with reason and conscience, must be free to search for truth and to believe."
This freedom, then, is fundamental to our capacity to be fully human. Violations of this right have disproportionate impacts on women, young people and minorities and compromise the right to education, employment, peaceful assembly, citizenship, political participation, health, and even life.
One of the most poignant and far-reaching effects of the persecution of the Bahá'ì community in Iran has been the inability of young Bahá'ìs to pursue university-level education. In the face of long-term, systematic and persistent efforts by the Iranian government to implement a policy of expelling Bahá'ìs from universities or of preventing them from entering university in the first place, the Iranian Bahá'ì community established its own Bahá'ì Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) in 1987. The New York Times referred to this as 'an elaborate act of communal self-preservation'.
Miriam saw her compatriots in Iran entering university, but because she was a Bahá'ì she was unable to enter medical school to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. Instead, she joined the BIHE programme to study psychology. She commented: "At the beginning, I was not invested in it. I was dragging my feet. But we had no other choice. So then I started doing it and disciplining myself." Eventually, Miriam was able to leave Iran. Her BIHE degree was recognized by a major North American university, where she entered a master's programme in a field related to psychology. "At the time, everyone told me that if I wanted to become a doctor, it was still not too late… But mentally, I didn't want to do medicine anymore. My BIHE degree in psychology just meant so much to me…It was my way of saying to the Iranian government that I am a Bahá'ì and I am proud and I don't care if you want to try to destroy us. We are still alive. And I needed to do something with my degree. I wanted to prove that we hadn't done this for nothing."6 Recent raids on some 39 Bahá'ì homes associated with BIHE and arrests of BIHE staff have unleashed a worldwide storm of outrage by governments, academics and NGOs.7 In an open letter in The Guardian on 11th June8 a group of leading UK academics say:
"It is official policy to block the development of the Bahá'ìs. Young Bahá'ìs who cannot study are denied a basic human right. Their desire to contribute to society is being strangled at the start of their adult lives. Academics, students and politicians should join common cause for Bahá'ì students in Iran. The authorities must be taught that human rights are universal. Barring Bahá'ìs from university exposes the government's own ignorance."
I believe that it is more than just ignorance that the Iranian government is showing. In 1991 Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, signed a secret document on 'the Bahá'ì Question'9- subsequently brought to the attention of the United Nations - that set out the government's policy to block the progress and development of the Bahá'ì community in Iran and 'to confront and destroy their cultural roots outside the country'. The authorities' campaign to stop Bahá'ìs being educated - as well as all the other actions against Bahá'ìs in Iran - is in deliberate pursuit of this policy.
The appalling treatment of the Bahá'ìs in Iran violates a whole raft of human rights. However, it is, at root, a grave violation of their freedom of religion or belief. In drawing this situation to the attention of the UN, governments, parliaments and nongovernmental organisations the world over, the Bahá'ìs are not seeking any special privileges, but are adding weight to the message that:
"…the promise of freedom of religion or belief for all remains one of the most contested and pressing human rights of our time."10
- John Barnabas Leith is a member of the UK Bahá'ì community’s national governing council and coordinated its efforts to promote human rights and to protect the rights of the Bahá'ìs in Iran for several years. He was appointed OBE in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his services to the Bahá'ì Faith and inter faith relations.
- Lambeth Lecture, 8th June 2011: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2062/archbishop-hosts-annual-lambeth-inter-faith-lecture.
- Freedom to Believe: Upholding the Standard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, http://bic.org/statements-and-reports/bic-statements/freedom-believe-upholdingstandard- udhr.
- The Bahá'ì International Community is an international non-governmental organization with affiliates in over 180 countries and territories, which together represent over 5 million members of the Bahá'ì Faith.
- Freedom to Believe: Upholding