Anyone who takes an interest in human rights issues in Iran -- and there are many who do -- probably knows about the Baha'is. They are a small religious minority (perhaps as many as 300,000), but nonetheless the largest in the country. The largest, yet painfully small and the most hated. If Jews and Christians have a rough time in Iran, the Baha'i experience has been worse. Over 200 members of the religion, including many of its leaders (there are no priests) have been executed, and others have been and still are in prison. In 1983, a seventeen-year-old girl, Mona Mahmudinezhad, was hanged in Shiraz along with nine older women, mostly in their 20s. Their crime was, apparently, teaching "morality lessons" to Baha'i children who had been expelled from school. All the Baha'i holy places in Iran have been reduced to rubble, including the beautiful House of the Bab, a small treasure of Iranian architecture which the author visited often with its custodian. All Baha'i cemeteries have been dug up and bodies exhumed. No young Baha'i is permitted to enter university. Older Baha'is have had their pensions removed. Jobs are hard to come by. Many linger in prison. There are serious plans to rid the country of the Baha'is altogether.
The destruction of a historic Baha'i cemetery in Shiraz, Iran, by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp. (Image source: Baha'i World News Service)
Why is there such animus towards a small and entirely inoffensive religion that has at most five or six million followers round the world, most of whom are not Iranians but Westerners, Africans, Latin Americans, Indians, and Pacific Islanders. The Baha'is have a noble range of principles: equality of the sexes, the unity of mankind, a universal language, universal education, opposition to racism and other forms of prejudice, and the goal of world peace — you get my drift. Engaged in good works in many countries, they are forbidden by their own laws to take part in politics or anything remotely "subversive." Above all, they believe in Muhammad as a prophet of God and the Qur'an as the word of God. So, aren't they just a sect of Islam?
Not really, despite their origins in a sect of Shi'ism. Baha'is consider theirs to be a "world religion" (though many might question that on several counts). They recognize Muhammad, but they do not think he was the last of the prophets, as Muslims do. They have two 19th-century prophets of their own who, they say, fulfilled Islamic prophecy. They are, therefore, a threat to Islam. Should large numbers convert to their faith, Islam would be diminished and might eventually die out, and that is something the autocrats of Tehran cannot ever contemplate.
How did things get into such a mess? In its conservative versions, Islam cannot contemplate change. There are Muslim reformers, but they are bowed down beneath the heavy weight of tradition. Not even the reformers can accept the possibility of prophets after Muhammad. If God has sent his final prophet and revealed his final book and given mankind his final set of laws and ethics, why should anyone want to leave that behind?
Modern hardliners, called Salafis, take their name and ideation from the Salaf, the first three generations of Muslims, the closest to the prophet. In the classic formulation, kull al-bid'a kufr, "all innovation is unbelief."
The Baha'is place their origins in a short-lived religious movement known as Babism, started in 1844 by a young man of 24, Sayyid 'Ali Muhamad, better known as the Bab. Executed in 1850, the Bab claimed divine revelation, introduced a bizarre raft of laws, "revealed" some extremely obscure books, and claimed that a new religious era had dawned. Two to three thousand Babis (many of them armed) were killed in clashes with state troops, and the few who remained might have seen their faith descend into permanent obscurity. But this was prevented when a follower of the Bab, an Iranian nobleman called Mirza Husayn-'Ali Nuri, better known as Baha' Allah, founded a new faith on the remnants of Babism, borrowed a few ideas from Western reformism, wrote a short new book of laws, was exiled to the port of Acco in Israel, and died in 1892, the second of the post-Islamic prophets.
Baha' Allah was succeeded by his eldest son, 'Abbas Effendi 'Abd al-Baha', who made no claims to prophethood or divinity, just infallibility in the interpretation of sacred texts. He made his way to Europe then America (narrowly missing a trip on the Titanic) and became something of a celebrity, an early precursor of the gurus who travelled to the U.S. during the first half of the twentieth century. His teachings were simple, in tune with the times, and won him a loyal band of Western followers until his death in 1921.
His grandson, Shoghi Effendi, an intelligent and Westernized man, became the first Guardian of the Baha'i faith, created an international administrative system and a global missionary enterprise. Today, that administrative system has its center on the flanks of Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, where exquisite gardens surround marble buildings and a golden-domed shrine that contains the remains of the Bab -- another reason for the Islamic regime in Tehran to hate the Baha'is.
In Iran, however, the Baha'is were always persecuted, and a list of martyrs marks their progress through the eras of the Qajar and Pahlavi Shahs, with many more put to death in the days of the Islamic Republic.
It is the Baha'is who apparently represent the greatest threat to Islam: people unafraid of innovation and grown bold enough to break away from the Islamic faith. Many Iranian Baha'is were both well educated and westernized -- two more things with which to condemn them.
Baha'ism is, by and large, a liberal religion, and liberalization is a constant threat to today's Islamists.
I have known a lot of Baha'is in my time, and I have never found them unfriendly or unenlightened. I have spent a lot of time with them in Iran, and found them thoughtfully balanced between Iranian culture and the values of the West. They are Iran's best hope. They are tolerant of other faiths, including Hinduism and Buddhism. Their women led the movement for emancipation, and many have served as physicians, lawyers, university teachers, and architects (a Baha'i, Husayn Amanat, designed the great Shahyad Monument in the center of Tehran).
But in that peculiar longing for self-defeat that segregates Muslim children, calls on Palestinian teenagers to commit suicide, and arrests scientists and human rights activists, the Iranian regime turns on the very people who may still hold the future of their country in their hands, but who would opt for a secular regime in place of the theocratic antiquated bigots who currently rule Iran.
 'Current Situation of Baha'is in Iran'. See also the present author, A People Apart: The Baha'i Community of Iran in the Twentieth Century, London, School of Oriental and African Studies, Occasional Papers, 1989.
 For the fullest account of the Bab and his movement, see the present author, The Messiah of Shiraz, Studies in Early and Middle Babism, Brill, 2008.
 See Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism, W. W. Norton, 2004.