Then They Came for the Bahai
In mastering the knowlege that even bigotry is relative and comes in gradations, I was a premature pupil. I learned this lesson when I was only 10.
In 1977, in an eclectic neighborhood in Tehran, my Jewish family lived on a narrow, wooded alley in what was then an upscale area, alongside two other Jewish families and many more Muslims. There was also a Bahai family, the Alavis, next door.
By then, I had already intuited that my relatives, in the presence of Muslim friends and neighbors, were somehow less flamboyant creatures, quieter and more measured. But the Alavis, debonair and highly educated, were mere ghosts.
Theirs was a corner house on the alley, one of the most beautiful in the neighborhood, and the first to be sold within days in 1979, after the return of the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini. In a neighborhood so closely-knit that even the mailman dispensed pearls of pedagogical wisdom to our parents, the Alavis simply vanished one day.
No chance for tears, or promises to keep in touch. Not even a forwarding address. My mother insists they said goodbye to her, but my mother considers inventing happy endings a maternal virtue.
American audiences, their eyes brimming with anxiety, often ask me about the condition of Jews living in Iran today. But the hardships they assume to be the burden of the Iranian Jews is really the daily experience of the Bahais.
In a 1979 meeting with five of the Iranian Jewish community leaders, Khomeini summarized his position on the local Jews in one of his quintessentially coarse one-liners: “We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless Zionists.” The line has served as the regime’s position on the Jewish minority ever since. So important were these words that they were painted on the walls of nearly every synagogue and Jewish establishment the day after the ayatollah spoke them.
It did not prevent Jews from being relegated to second-class citizenry, nor did it enable them to thrive in post-revolutionary Iran. But it recognized the legitimacy of the Jewish existence in Iran and allowed the community to live on, albeit extremely restrictedly.
But it is the Bahai community that has been suffering the bleak fate assumed to be that of the Jews. It is the Bahais who are not recognized by the Iranian constitution. Decades ago, Khomeini branded them, among other unsavory terms, a political sect and not a religion, circuitously defining them as plotters against the regime. Iranian Bahais have been accused of espionage for every major power save the Chinese, and simultaneously so. They are not allowed to worship. Their properties are vandalized. Even their dead know no peace, as their cemeteries are systematically destroyed.
Their children cannot attend schools, nor can Bahai academics teach. That is why in 1987, unemployed professors, in an act reminiscent of the Middle Ages, established underground universities to educate the Bahai youth.
Last month, six Bahai leaders were arrested. They had already been accustomed to routine weekly harassments and interrogations, which is why some of their wives have taken up sewing blindfolds to keep the guards from forcing dirty ones onto their husbands’ eyes. What is most alarming about this particular arrest is that they have not returned home and are being kept incommunicado.
What compels me to write these lines is the eerie similarity between this and another historical parallel to which I have been a witness. When the American embassy was seized in Tehran in November 1979, the world took the ayatollah at his word for the egregious act he vehemently supported — that it was solely against America. But for those living in Iran, the hostage taking turned out to be about everything but America.
Newspapers were shut down. Political parties were banned. Opposition group members were arrested and their leaders hauled off to stand before firing squads.
When it was all said and done, the hostages, despite their great suffering during 444 days of captivity, eventually returned home. But the secular opposition of the regime was practically obliterated, and in perfect silence, too, as all attention was focused on the news from the embassy.
The current Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has taken a page from Khomeini’s book. He rails against Israel. He denies the Holocaust. Through these means he focuses all attention on Jews, and while the world remains perfectly oblivious his men assault the Bahais.
Though Ahmadinejad’s intentions against Israel are gravely alarming, in immediate terms, the community that is paying the most for his pan-Islamist ambitions is the Bahai. Since Ahmadinejad’s election to presidency, there has been a sharp rise in anti-Bahai literature in government-sponsored journals, which has, in turn, led to a rise in gang attacks against the community.
That the Bahais shy away, per religious mandate, from advocacy on their own behalf surrounds their predicament with even greater silence. But for those in the West — especially for Jews, who know the lessons of World War II — the plight of the Iranian Bahais is most urgent: It is an act of destruction, not simply promised, but already underway.
Roya Hakakian, the author of “Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran” (Crown, 2004), is a recipient of a 2008 Guggenheim fellowship.