Reza Fani-Yazdi, an Iranian-American human rights activist, recently published an essay urging Muslims to speak out on behalf of the Baha’i minority. The eloquent essay set the example of two prominent Iranians – Ayatollah Montazeri and Shirin Ebadi – who were willing to brave the risks and defend the Baha’is of Iran. The essay ends with a forceful reminder that we can be proud of our religious convictions, while standing up to defend the rights of others.

If I were a Shiite, if I were a high-ranking Shiite cleric, if I were sitting in the place of the object of emulation of the Shiites, then at the same time that I would love the Shiite creed, I would also think about humanity. My heart would ache over all the atrocities that have been done to people, Shiite or otherwise. And when I saw records of the barbaric tortures that have been carried out in the prisons of the Islamic Republic, tears would pour from my eyes.

At the same time, if I had any courage and had the rank of a religious cleric, if the craving for political power and the lust for the trappings of leadership had not blinded my eyes and turned my heart into a stone, I would do the same thing that Ayatollah Montazeri did in the 1980s, through his peerless bravery and without concern for the implications of his action on his own person.

When he acted, Ayatollah Montazeri was not a member of the Mujahedin,1 nor was he a supporter of any of the Marxist or leftist groups. He was one of the architects of the Islamic regime; he occupied the seat of the deputy Supreme Leader and the “hope of people and the Imam”. But when he witnessed the slaughter carried out by the regime and the inhuman tortures in the nation’s prisons and when he heard about the carnage taking place within the prison walls, then not only did his heart ache and his eyes weep, but he also loosened his tongue to strongly protest and oppose such tyranny.

He sacrificed his entire political position and future leadership in defense of human virtues. He defended the Mujahidin, who had cravenly assassinated his own son, as well as the communists and Marxists whom he had no reason to like and indeed may not have had any sympathies for at all. He condemned the regime’s numerous massacres and the medieval tortures of that murderous decade. In carrying out his historic duty, in the strongest voice possible, he denounced the serial massacres of prisoners throughout the country which were taking place on the instructions of the powerful ruler of that time, Ayatollah Khomeini, and he deplored them as crimes against humanity, thereby parting company with the cruel and murderous leadership.

Ayatollah Montazeri denounced Khomeini’s leadership at a time when no one else would dare complain about the vicious and murderous deeds of the “Imam”. Many of those who today array themselves in opposition to the government, or who appear in the cloak of reform and who pretend that from birth they have been defenders of democracy and human rights, not only at that time, when Montazeri spoke courageously in denunciation of Khomeini, they did not utter a word against any of the criminal deeds of the regime and its leader. Indeed many of them closely collaborated with the regime in implementing those tyrannical and barbaric policies. Not only did they refuse to provide any support whatsoever to Ayatollah Montazeri, but in fact they arose in opposition to him, or with their calculated silence they aligned themselves with the murderers and thereby helped to further isolate and marginalize Montazeri.

The latest effort of Ayatollah Montazeri in defending the civil rights of the Bahais is yet more evidence of his historic bravery.2

The significance of his remarkable defense of the Bahai community and the civil rights of the Bahais is underscored even more when, even after his declaration, we still find only a handful of religious intellectuals who concur in supporting the civil rights of the Bahais. And the one or two who have found the courage to speak in support of the civil rights of the Bahai community have gained this courage after the brave pronouncement of Ayatollah Montazeri, as otherwise, most likely they would have continued with their deafening silence on this vital issue.

The defense by Ayatollah Montazeri of the Bahai community of Iran speaks of his deep commitment to human rights.

Whether as a Shiite cleric or from the position of a devoted Shiite, it is most evident that Ayatollah Montazeri has no sympathies towards the Bahai community or the followers of that religion. In fact, from his religious perspective and jurisprudential convictions, most likely he considers the Bahai Faith to be a wayward sect and an opponent and enemy of the Shiite creed.

Nevertheless, he has defended the civil rights of the Bahais of Iran, and has signified that they possess all the rights associated with such citizenship.

The historic import of this verdict is in the fact that during the past 150 years, not a single religious authority has shown the same courage in defending the rights of the Bahai, particularly at a time when the government in the name of “Islam” has devoted itself to the suppression of the followers of this religion.

Ayatollah Montazeri’s defense is a new chapter in the acceptance of the civil rights of the Bahais, a right recognized by one of the highest religious authorities among Shiite centers. I don’t know whether if I had been a high ranking cleric, or if I had been the source of emulation of the Shiites, or if I had been the deputy supreme leader of the nation, I would have had the courage, the humanity and the deep conviction in human virtues and human rights which prompted Ayatollah Montazeri to defend his imprisoned opponents. I don’t know if I could have acted as nobly as he has.

As far as I recall, many leaders of political groups, many even among the rank and file, have become very happy about the suppression of their opponents at the hands of the Islamic regime. They have never complained when the principals of various parties and political groups were tortured in the most barbaric manner and dragged before sham television shows to confess to their “guilt”.

Husayn-Ali Montazeri is among those rare figures in the contemporary history of Iran who has defended his adversaries, even has defended those who assassinated his own child. His defense of the Bahais and their entitlement to live and enjoy civil rights is yet another demonstration of his deep belief and his understanding of the rights of all people, including those with whom he disagrees.

If I Were a Muslim Lawyer

During all these years, as a courageous lawyer, Mrs. Shirin Ebadi has consented to defend those who have often been rejected as clients by other lawyers. She has time and again demonstrated this audacity.

Agreeing to defend the civil rights of the imprisoned Bahais is her latest courageous act.

However, because she decided to defend the imprisoned Bahais, the Security authorities have recently attempted, through the nation’s official reporting agency, IRNA, to elevate the “cost” to her to the level of a charge of apostasy, in a filthy and malicious plot. In this official scheme, IRNA has announced that her daughter has become a Bahai and has then proceeded to claim that Mrs. Ebadi herself has also become a Bahai, and that it is her change of religion from Shiites to the Bahai Faith which has prompted her to defend the civil rights of the Bahais.

To neutralize this malicious campaign against her, Mrs. Ebadi announced in a press conference that she was a Shiite and proud of her adherence to that religion, but that she also would continue to defend the civil rights of the Bahais.

It appears that some friends have been annoyed that she has said that she is a Shiite and is proud of being a Shiite.

What would I do in this situation if I were a lawyer and a Muslim Shiite and at the same had enough courage and professional ethics, and if I was committed to defending the human rights of other citizens, would I defend the civil rights of the followers of the Bahai Faith?

Would I be willing, as a lawyer, to defend those who have been incarcerated on the grounds of being Bahais, particularly in a country in which Bahais enjoy no rights whatsoever?

Would I defend Bahais, when as their lawyer I stand accused by the official news organ of the nation, which is the voice of organized crime and of the dreaded security apparatus of Iran, of the charge of apostasy, and have been threatened with death?

And if I had the courage to defend the Bahais, would I remain silent in the face of an evidently false charge of apostasy by the security and intelligence agencies of the nation, or would I express my pride at being a Muslim who is willing to defend the civil rights of the Bahais?

I am not sure how many among us, if we lived in Iran, and were a Shiite (and actually believed in our religion!), and were a lawyer, and if our life was constantly threatened by both the official authorities and by their hired thugs, would continue like Mrs. Ebadi to defend the Bahais. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Shiite lawyers in Iran, and very few of them would contemplate taking on such a case.

When Shirin Ebadi says she is a Shiite, she is not lying. She is a Shiite, in the same way that Ayatollah Montazeri is a Shiite. She has now agreed to defend the Bahais and their leaders in the courts of the Islamic Republic after three decades in which the silenced Bahais have been brutally suppressed, even though there are thousands of other lawyers and legal scholars in Iran.

Why shouldn’t she express her pride at being a Shiite at the same time that she has arisen to defend the rights of the Bahais? Should the situation be as the publishers of the Kayhan Newspaper insist, namely, that if she wants to defend the Bahais then she must abandon her Shiite faith? Is it written somewhere that only the Bahais are allowed to defend the Bahais?

I can be a Jew and be proud that I’m a Jew. I can be a Christian and be proud that I’m a Christian. I can be a Shiite and be proud that I’m a Shiite. I can be a Bahai and be proud that I’m a Bahai. I can have no religion and be proud that I’m irreligious.

But at the same time that I am proud of my convictions, if I stood up to defend the rights of others, then I could also be proud of my humanity.

(1) While more than one group in Iran have called themselves Mujahidin [holy warriors], the most famous is the People’s Mujahedin of Iran – currently an Iraq-based Islamic Socialist militant organization that advocates the overthrow of Iran’s present regime and believes that socialism and religion can live side by side.

(2) Reference here is to a religious ruling issued by Ayatollah Montazeri on 14 May 2008. The original text of this fatwa is available here:

In the Name of the Most High
With greetings,

The congregation of Bahais, not having heavenly books like those of the Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, is not considered one of the religious minorities in the constitution [of the Islamic Republic of Iran]. However, since they are citizens of this country, they have a right to the land and water, and to enjoy civil rights. Furthermore, they must benefit from the Islamic compassion which is stressed in the Qur’an and by the religious authorities.
God willing, you will be successful.

The essay was translated by Ahang Rabbani and was posted in