What does Iran's Islamic regime have to fear from the country's Christians, Baha'is, Zoroastrians, Sufis, Sunni Muslims, or Jews? Yet its treatment of these minorities is so repressive that it seems not unreasonable to ask if the clerics might be afraid of what they consider challenges to their fantasy of pure Islamic identity. Pictured: The destruction of a historic Baha'i cemetery in Shiraz, Iran, by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp. (Image source: Baha'i World News Service)
The regime that currently rules Iran was set up after a revolution in early 1979, and after forty years remains in power. It will have escaped no one's attention that relations between Iran and the West, notably the United States, have never been healthy and in recent months have deteriorated further.
The United States has placed increasingly harsh sanctions on its clerical foe, including some on Iran's hard-line Supreme Leader (Rahbar-e A'zam), the ageing but still powerful Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. These sanctions are justified on several grounds: Iran's massive involvement in Middle East conflicts beyond its borders (For example, in Syria Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Venezuela and the Gaza Strip); its financial, moral, and physical support for major terrorist bodies such as Hizbullah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad; its funding and arming of its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), now designated as a terrorist entity by the US; its carrying out of executions of dissidents, homosexuals, religious minorities, among others, making it responsible for over half of all recorded executions worldwide; its enforcement of strict codes of modesty on women, who can be arrested merely for wearing a hijab badly or not at all – a policy that was reinforced in 2016 and 2019 through the recruitment of thousands of morality police; its mass arrests, imprisonments and murders of dissidents, human rights activists, religious minorities, and others, with little or no evidence and without access to defence, and its rejection of diplomatic efforts to secure the release of the innocent British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe because its government refuses to recognize the international standard of dual citizenship.
There is also the matter of Iran's unremitting hatred for Israel, a country with which it does not even share a border, and expressed in regular chants of marg bar Isra'il, "Death to Israel" during demonstrations or after mosque sermons, and in aspirations to "wipe Israel from the map." Along with all that is also its deep antisemitism; its illegal arms smuggling to terrorists and its current attacks on shipping in the Gulf.
Even a few of so many violations at home and abroad would be more than enough to condemn any country as a pariah state. The clerical rulers of Iran and their many acolytes, however, are actually proud of their longstanding refusal to join the secular democratic states of the West. That was, after all, the purpose of their revolution. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and other leading revolutionaries were strongly influenced by the writer, ethnographer, and cultural commentator, Jalal Al-e Ahmad (d. 1969).
Al-e Ahmad's best-known work in Persian is Gharbazadegi, variously translated as "West-struckness", Westoxification", or "Occidentosis". In it, the author argued, not without justification, that the importation of Western ideas and cultural pursuits -- dress, music, cinema, education and more -- was corrupting the values of a highly elevated civilization. Iranian culture had a long history: from its Ishraqi philosophy to its Sufi-influenced poetry (with world-standard poets such as Hafez, Saadi, and Rumi) to its breathtaking calligraphy; exquisite music; Shi'ite spirituality; gardens (which were the first in any country and which gave us the word "paradise", the Greek pronunciation of ferdows), to its architecture in palaces and mosques. Al-e Ahmad was apparently convinced that Western ways threatened that culture, notoriously under the Westernizing ambitions of the first Pahlavi king, Reza Shah, and his son, the ruling (and last) occupant of the Peacock Throne, Mohammad Reza Shah (deposed in 1979).
Al-e Ahmad, the son of a cleric, was widely read in foreign culture and started life as a Marxist, but he came to see Shi'ism as a path to rejecting the intrusive West, and when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in January 1979, he too was convinced that all Iranians must be persuaded or coerced in a religion-based alternative to the ways of the West.
It is this deep conviction of the distance that must be preserved between Shi'ite Iran and the Western world -- perceived as a foe at all levels of personal and national life -- that keeps the regime on its unwavering path of anti-Western preaching and activity.
In the list above of the many things in which the Islamic Republic achieves a negative distinction, religious minorities were also mentioned. In June 2019, The US Department of State published its massive 2018 report on international religious freedom. Like its predecessors, this well-researched compendium covers every country. The section on Iran is one of the longest, not least because the Islamic Republic presents an almost total lack of religious freedom. Examining this aspect of Iranian practice is immensely revealing: it shows not just a high degree of intolerance but also extraordinary pettiness. What, one has to ask, does the Islamic regime have to fear from the country's Christians, Baha'is, Zoroastrians, Sufis, Sunni Muslims, or Jews? Yet its treatment of these minorities is so repressive that it seems not unreasonable to ask if the clerics might be afraid of what they consider challenges to their fantasy of pure Islamic identity.
The "Freedom of Religion" report on Iran is much too long to summarize in any detail. However, it will be of value to cite it and précis it here. Its executive summary begins with an explanation of overall governmental and legal positions on religious rights (and the lack of many of them):
The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic, and specifies Twelver Ja'afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on "Islamic criteria" and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, "in conformity with Islamic criteria." The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh ("enmity against God") and sabb al-nabi ("insulting the Prophet"). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja'afari Islamic schools [the four Sunni schools and the Shi'ite Zaydi school] shall be "accorded full respect" and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians (excluding converts from Islam) are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and to form religious societies "within the limits of the law."
Further, the report notes that
Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC.
Gonabadis are Shi'ites who follow the spiritual path of Sufism. They number between two and five million, which may be an exaggeration, and they have been persecuted for many years. According to Tara Sepehri Far of Human Rights Watch: "Sufism is very deeply rooted in the Iranian culture. They're not that different from the way that Iranians pursued Islam in its early years". And they are Shi'ite Sufis, not Sunni Sufis. So why this persecution? Because they represent a challenge to the radical shari'a law doctrines of the clergy who impose Ayatollah Khomeini's religio-politico system of Velayat-e Faqih (rule by the theocratic Islamic government).
In 2006, a Sufi shrine in Qom was demolished after Ayatollah Hossein Noori-Hamedani, called the religious order a "danger to Islam". Saeid Golkar, a senior fellow on Iran policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs clarified this "danger":
Usually the Dervish aren't politically involved. Their only political act is participating in elections and voting for reformists.
There are millions of Sufi followers in Iran, and they follow their leader. These millions of people can impact any election.
Regarding Christians, notes the report:
According to World Christian Database statistics, there are approximately 547,000 Christians [in Iran], although some estimates suggest there may be many more Christians than actually reported. While the government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians, Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates that there could be between 300,000 and one million Christians.
Although in theory Christians are a recognized and protected community under shari'a, many in Iran suffer persecution, particularly those who have converted from Islam, thereby making them apostates. Under Islamic law, apostates may be executed. While this is not common in Iran, it sometimes occurs. The chief factor in pressing for punishment is the idea that renouncing Islam is treason for the state or the community -- something wholly relevant to political Islam. As one of the foremost leaders of Sunni Islam, Sheikh Yusuf al- Qaradawi, explained on television in 2013:
"If they [Muslims] had gotten rid of the punishment for apostasy, Islam would not exist today."
In Iran, Christian rights are limited:
Authorities may close a church and arrest its leaders if churchgoers fail to register or unregistered individuals attend services. Individuals who convert to Christianity are not recognized as Christian under the law. They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.
Hard as life can be for Christians in Iran, for many decades the plight of its indigenous Baha'i community has been one of the worst examples of religious persecution in the modern world. The Baha'is (who emerged in Iran in the 19th century) are non-political believers in world peace, the brotherhood of man, the abolition of prejudice, the equality of the sexes, and the oneness of religions. They do not represent any sort of threat. But they are relentlessly harried by the regime, today as much as forty years ago.
After the revolution in 1979, one by one all the holy sites of the religion were systematically demolished. Their cemeteries (designed as gardens) have almost all been bulldozed and corpses disinterred. One of those cemeteries, in Shiraz, held the bodies of nine Baha'i women and a seventeen-year-old girl, all hanged in 1983 for teaching morality lessons to children, and all of whom refused to disavow their faith. More than 950 bodies were dug up and dumped.
Businesses have been closed without compensation; young Baha'is are banned from entering or remaining in institutes of higher education; "benefits in the pension system" have been denied to older believers ; hundreds have been imprisoned purely on account of their faith; many have been murdered; Baha'i properties have suffered arson attacks, and since 2013, this persecution has increased, not diminished. According to a report by Baha'i International Community:
The situation facing Baha'is has not changed since the coming to power of President Hassan Rouhani in August 2013, despite his promises to end religious discrimination. Since his inauguration, at least 283 Baha'is have been arrested, thousands have been blocked from access to higher education, and there have been at least 645 incidents of economic oppression, ranging from intimidation and threats against Baha'i-owned businesses to their closure by authorities. More than 26,000 pieces of anti-Baha'i propaganda have been disseminated in the Iranian media during President Rouhani's administration.
Because the Baha'is have their World Center in Haifa and outside Acco in Israel, the country most hated by the regime, this alone serves to condemn believers as agents of anti-Iranian espionage and interference.
For forty years, the UN, governments including the US and the European Union, the European Parliament, and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, as well as the international community have issued repeated condemnations of the Iranian government for its persecution of the country's Baha'is, yet not once has the regime shifted in its determination to strangle this peaceful community. Protests have, in fact, sometimes provoked an intensification of the persecution.
All this religious discrimination and persecution that resists even the protests from the world's highest bodies is a yet stronger indication of Iran's determination to defy the West and its values, and its appeals for human rights as mere tokens of the weakness of the democracies and the corruptions of gharbzadegi (West-struckness). It is time for that bias to end -- not through war, but through support for the Iranian people who desperately want their own freedom. A regime that can dismiss the norms of religious freedom so viciously is not worthy of respect. The Iranian people who have been fighting for their freedom all these years deserve our immediate help.
Denis MacEoin PhD has an MA and PhD from Edinburgh and Cambridge universities in Persian and Persian/Iranian Studies. He is an international authority on the Baha'i religion and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at New York's Gatestone Institute.