The Bahá’í Community: Battling Religious Intolerance

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) recently held the “largest annual human rights and democracy conference[1]” from 21 September to 2 October of 2015. The conference was called the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, and its purpose was to focus on “combating racism and xenophobia” and “discrimination against religious communities[1].” The Brussels Office of the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) participated in this conference, and commented on the issues at hand based on the Bahá’í community’s experience of religious persecution in Iran. Rachel Bayani, the representative of the BIC, says that the only way to rid the world of these issues is to promote a “deeper understanding of how religion contributes to the advancement of society [1].”

Image courtesy of Neal Ungerleider © 2008, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Neal Ungerleider © 2008, some rights reserved.

The Bahá’í religion was founded in Iran in 1844 by Mirza ‘Ali-Muhammad of Shiraz, who came to be known as “the Báb,” meaning “the gate” in Arabic [2]. Some of the basic principles of this religion are that religion must promote love and affection, there should be equality between men and women, and people should strive to find unity in diversity and spiritual solutions to economic problems [2].

It’s hard to believe that a religion so peaceful and modern in its beliefs could be the target of such violent persecution, but the movement the Báb started was highly controversial. Although Bahá’í originated within Islam, there are many differences between the two religions which have created a significant amount of conflict, especially in Iran. One example of these differences is that Muslims believe Muhammad was the last prophet, but according to the Bahá’í faith, the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh came after Muhammad and offered additional revelations from God [3]. Opinions on science are another source of disagreement between Bahá’í and Islam. Bahá’ís attempt to unite science and religion. Abdu’l-Bahá, who wrote the central book of the Bahá’í faith called Kitáb-i-Adquas, wrote that we must “earnestly endeavour to be the means of uniting religion and science [4].”

These differences between Bahá’í and Islam have led to the religious persecution of the Bahá’í believers in Iran. Today, the Bahá’í religion is Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority [5]. When President Hassan Rouhani became the president of Iran, he made promises to improve human rights and to take steps to end religious discrimination. In 2013, when he was still only a candidate for Iran’s presidency, he said: “All Iranian people should feel there is justice. Justice means equal opportunity. All ethnicities, all religions, even religious minorities, must feel justice [6].” However, President Rouhani has not lived up to his promises. If anything, the situation for the Bahá’ís in Iran has gotten worse. Since his inauguration in 2013, issues with Bahá’ís being arrested and expelled from university have remained frequent. In addition, more than 200 Bahá’í businesses have been threatened or shut down, and anti-Bahá’í propaganda is very prominent in the Iranian media [5]. Bahá’ís are also being physically assaulted and attacked; in 2014 there was an incident in which three Bahá’ís were stabbed and killed in their home, and another incident involving a firebomb attack on a Bahá’í home [5].

The treatment of the Bahá’í makes in Iran a statement about the country’s human rights record and every person’s right to religious freedom. When an entire group of people is persecuted, there is a great risk of losing that group’s unique culture and ideas, which may never be able to be recovered. For example, in April of 2014, Irani revolutionary guards destroyed a historic Bahá’í cemetery containing the graves of several important Bahá’í  figures [5]. Not only was this a loss for the Bahá’í community, but also for humanity as a whole.

However, as is apparent from their participation in the OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the Bahá’ís have remained resilient in spite of this persecution, and they have had a significant amount of involvement in raising awareness and attempting to tackle the issue of religious freedom and tolerance. In addition to their participation in events like the OSCE conference, the Bahá’í community has set up centres all over the world. They have a significant presence in Scotland, with centres in several locations including Dundee and Edinburgh. These centres hold social and educational events in an attempt to facilitate much needed dialogue and communication both within their community and beyond it.

David Merrick, a member of the Bahá’í centre in Edinburgh, offers additional insight to the St Andrews Foreign Affairs Review:

Is the UK Bahá’í Community actively attempting to address issues of religious persecution in Iran?

“Yes. Its numbers in the UK mean it works indirectly through encouraging international policy toward a just treatment in Iran of its citizens and the Baha’is in particular. Obviously the treatment of Baha’is in Iran, who are the largest religious minority there (the general estimate is given as 300,000 but it would be difficult to provide any verifiable count due to circumstances in the country), is an example of the wider injustices toward the innocent, and supporting justice toward the Baha’is in turn supports justice for all. It’s slightly complicated who we can strenuously support, because as one of or the most persecuted group there if we tried to support other specific groups and individuals also, it would tend to undermine their own predicament; so it is natural our focus has tended to lie most safely in this way.”

According to the Bahá’í faith, what is the best way to respond to religious intolerance?

“Love and kindness are the best way to ablate intolerance when received, and speaking up for the need for love, tolerance, justice and a fair assessment of all matters (that one should not act from second-hand reports, hearsay and gossip) will help all generally.”

This advice from the Bahá’í faith is especially relevant today—we need only look at the current issue of ISIS to see that religious prejudices and destructive religious expressions ruin and end lives. Humans have a tendency to be afraid of what is different, and to view opposing ideas and beliefs as a threat. It is imperative that the international community focus more attention on issues rooted in differences of religion, culture, and identity, even when the issue is on a smaller scale and not constantly in the news.

Perhaps their own experience with persecution based on religion has led the Bahá’í believers to adopt a very tolerant approach to other religions and to desire to create an inclusive worldwide community. This is something people all over the world can learn from, and hopefully come to agree with Abdu’l-Bahá when he says “See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness [7].”

[1] “Migration and role of religion discussed at major European gathering.” Bahá’í International Community. 8 October 2015.

[2] “The Bahá’í Story.” Edinburgh Bahai Community UK.

[3] “Seal of the Prophets.” Islam and the Bahá’í Faith. 2004.

[4] “Paris Talks.” Abdul-Bahá, Bahá’í Reference Library

[5] “Current Situation of Bahá’ís in Iran.” Bahá’í International Community United Nations Office. 2 October 2015.

[6] “Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the Bahá’í Question.” Bahá’í International Community United Nations Office. September 2015.

[7] “The Development of a Worldwide Community.” The Bahá’í Faith. 2015.