175 Years of Persecution

A History of the Babis and Baha'is of Iran

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Fereydun Vahman
  • London, England: 
    Oneworld Publications
    , February
     2019.
     352 pages.
     $30.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781786075864.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Religious persecution matters, because it is a life-and-death matter for many of those directly affected, and a quality-of-life matter for many more. Especially egregious is religious persecution in the name of religion itself. 175 Years of Persecution: A History of the Babis and Baha’is of Iran (i.e., from 1844 to 2019) is an updated version of the Persian original, published in 2009. The author, Fereydun Vahman, is professor emeritus at Copenhagen University and former Iranian studies fellow at Yale University, with over forty years of teaching and research in Iranian religions and languages.

Throughout this sordid and shocking history, accessory Shi'i Muslim clerics were able as a matter of Iranian state policy to incite, instigate, and orchestrate persecution of the Baha’i religion (i.e., the Baha’i Faith) and its predecessor, the Babi religion, whose adherents—then and now—collectively comprise Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority. In due course, the Babi religion, which originated in 1844, evolved into the Baha’i Faith, often characterized as the youngest independent world religion.

The Babis and Baha’is of Iran have suffered relentless persecution, in all forms imaginable—in all strata and social spaces of Iranian society—in the name of Islam. This, of course, seriously compromises and undermines the professed ideal of Islam, at least among Muslims themselves, as the proverbial “religion of peace” (with the notable and continuously newsworthy exception of radical Islamism).

The chapter titles themselves offer a brief synopsis of the history and course of these persecutions. In the “Introduction: The ‘Enigma’ of the Baha’i Religion in Iran,” the “enigma” is the irony that, inside Iran itself—the very birthplace of the Baha’i faith—there is a dearth of accurate information and a plethora of disinformation, notwithstanding the fact that the Baha’i religion is one of the most widespread religions in the world today, with basic, credible information readily and publicly available outside of Iran.

Compounding this “enigma” is the further irony that, although the Baha’i faith is the largest non-Islamic religious minority in Iran, a “long campaign of propaganda and suppression of information about the Baha’i community in Iran” has nevertheless “served to mask a continuing human rights crisis” (1). This book is then divided into two major parts, with the first part covering persecution of the Baha’i faith-community during the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties (1844–1979), and the second part chronicling the Islamic Republic of Iran’s “confrontation” with the Baha’i faith, with relentless aggression and perpetual oppression perpetrated by the putatively “Islamic” state itself, to which the Baha’is have responded with what has elsewhere been characterized as “constructive resilience,” i.e. quietly perduring these systematic, orchestrated acts of persecution with exemplary fortitude and moral rectitude.

Producing such a history is timely, yet long overdue. The topic is challenging, especially in maintaining an evenhanded, balanced approach, yet not shying away from documenting episodes that are often horrific in the extreme, as Vahman notes:

It has been an enormous challenge to convey such a history merely through episodes and epochs, neatly divided and categorized for the reader in a coherent, analytical fashion. The problem has not been a dearth of facts. On the contrary, the evidence of widespread cruelty is overwhelming. The problem has been how to express the reality of this inhumanity for those who suffered it, often for generations. No pen can adequately describe the lasting wounds for those whose families have been shattered, homes looted, and loved ones imprisoned, tortured, or hanged. The deeper meaning of these unspeakable atrocities, exacerbated by calumny and denial, is best expressed by recognizing that it can never be adequately captured in words. (277–78)

Statistics only intimate what Iranian Baha’is must routinely face, when anti-Baha’i antipathy and policies are a fact of daily life and experience. According to the Baha’i International Community, since 2005, some 1,006 Baha’is have been arrested, with dozens of Baha’is currently in prison in Iran. With over twenty-six thousand pieces of anti-Baha’i propaganda disseminated in the Iranian media, the irony is that anti-Baha’i campaign has, in fact, intensified ever since President Hassan Rouhani came to power in August 2013, despite his promises to improve the human rights situation in Iran. At least fifty-two incidents of arson attacks on Baha’i properties have been documented, for which no one has been arrested, with some sixty incidents of vandalism, desecration, and/or destruction of Baha’i cemeteries recorded.

In 2017, at least eighty-four arrests of Baha’is were documented, with eighty-one in 2016, and fifty-six and 2015—evidence that Iran’s state-sponsored persecution of Baha’is is ongoing and unrelenting. Among the current forms of religious persecution now taking place in Iran are home raids, unlawful arrests, arbitrary detentions, violations of due process, economic persecution, denial of the right to higher education, denial of cultural rights (including desecration and destruction of Baha’i cemeteries and violations of burial rights), and incitement to hatred (See Bahá’í International Community, “Situation of Bahá’ís in Iran”).

More recently, land confiscation and mass displacement of Baha’is in Iran has drawn media attention. Two Iranian courts ruled Baha’i ownership of lands to be illegal, resulting in the October 2020 expropriation of the farmland of twenty-seven Baha’i farming families in Ivel Village, which falls under the administration of the city of Sari, in the province of Mazandaran (See International Federation for Human Rights, “Iran: Leaked Document Reveals Plans to Intensify Suppression of Baha’is and Other Religious Minorities”).

The sheer scope, breadth, and depth of this history of religious persecution of the beleaguered Babis and Baha’is of Iran is masterful, impressive, and instructive, especially as to its contribution to present-day thought and implications for the future. As Payam Akhavan observes in the foreword: “Great works of history are themselves history-making, because they transform distant occurrences from the past into a narrative about our current struggle to build a better future” (ix).

175 Years of Persecution: A History of the Babis & Baha’is of Iran is essential reading for any serious study of religious persecution in the Middle East (especially in Iran) and is a valuable contribution to human-rights literature. By memorializing the religious persecution of adherents of the Babi and Baha’i religions in Iran from 1844 to 2019, this book—affordably priced, especially for an academic book—is recommended for university libraries with substantial holdings in the fields of human rights and Middle East studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Buck is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
March 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Fereydun Vahman is Professor Emeritus at the University of Copenhagen. Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 he has been a leading voice defending the rights of Baha'is.

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