The following exceptional article by Steven was posted on MideastYouth and we thought the readers of BahaiRights would be interested in it.

The Baha’is: A Tiny Weird Group in Your Backyard

The Bahá’ís have been in the news out of Iran and neighboring regions.

I could go on about the governmental angle but my real focus is the experience and attitudes of people. This isn’t just about government oppressions and fanatical theologies to hold onto power. This is really about bias and oppression of a minority that becomes increasingly visible – something you heard about as children and youth and something you had a chance to see for yourselves. In Debating Muslims[1], one of the authors reviews his youthful pranks and how he grew up and did more serious things. This isn’t about government policies – this is about children and youth and what’s ok to make fun of.

Well maybe it’s about government a little bit. We still see government policies subverting their own rules to systematically denigrate and attempting to dismantle the Bahá’í community. We see allegations of Bahá’í involvement with other powers still being promulgated even as we did a century ago. And in all the world we see this mostly from Iran. In Iran we see testimony like Eliz Sanasarian who says [2] “Of all non-Muslim religious minorities the persecution of the Bahais has been the most widespread, systematic, and uninterrupted.… In contrast to other non-Muslim minorities, the Bahais have been spread throughout the country in villages, small towns, and various cities, fueling the paranoia of the prejudiced.” Just to the north in Turkmenistan we  see that though Perestroika took hold across the Soviet block, and the Bahá’í community of Ashgabat in Turkmenistan was the first to reform its institutions, had doubled its numbers from 1989 to 1991, and had successfully registered with the city government of Ashgabat but still the national government of Turkmenistan revised it’s religious registration laws such that by 1997 it forced the de-registration of the Bahá’ís along with several other religious communities and more than just being unable to form administrative institutions, own properties like temples, and publish literature, perform scholarly work and community service projects - their membership in a religion is simply unrecognized, the religion is considered banned, and homes are raided for Bahá’í literature.[3] Moving further northwest we have the situation in Uzebekistan – news reports mention how a government official thinks Bahá’ís “can drink tea – that’s not forbidden” but banishes others and a government policy apparently forced cable television operators to air what they knew was propaganda. But at least Bahá’ís are able to be registered and operate their eight local communities. And then we see in Kazakhstan, another step further north west, a somewhat hostile atmosphere demanding national and local registration but there are at least 25 communities so registered and no talk of banishment and propaganda.[4]

I think it is fair to say that when the great well known religions were young they all went through some stages before they were able to establish themselves in a civilization, a way of life among the people. The Founders of the religion were dealt with painfully and their followers were killed in number. But a student of these histories may know of different times when things were done less viciously. These events in modern day Iran do not compare with the burning of Christians to provide light as was done in early Rome.[5] The comparable period of the Bahá’í Faith is past. This isn’t the somewhat disinterested concern over weirdness in a community as in the case of Emperor Trajan [6] against the Christians. That seems more like what Stalin did – it didn’t matter what we believed, we were just different but left alone if we were unobtrusive. Perhaps this is more like “Diocletian’s preference for activist government, combined with his self-image as a restorer of past Roman glory, presaged the most pervasive persecution (of Christianity) in Roman history.”[7]

But let’s broaden the view here. Bahá’ís are interested in fairness – not regime change. We’ve lived and died under harsher abuse when we were blown from cannons and danced with lit candles carved in our skins, or when the Stalinist Soviets broke up small cities of Bahá’ís. We didn’t foment rebellion. But most Bahá’ís are not Persian or in Iran and haven’t been for a long time. One can quote statistics – that according to the Britannica Book of the Year (1992–present) the religion is the second most widespread of the world’s independent religions in terms of the number of countries represented. Or that for at least 35 years Christian evangelist sources known to favor counting Christians above other groups still noted the religion as among the fastest growing religions in the world – it certainly hasn’t been growing in Iran! But I believe statistics don’t matter much to most people. They just take up alittle air time to say but don’t impress upon people a grasp of what’s really going on. Children would still pick on children who are different. Youth would roll by in small gangs still pushing around kids who are different. But these children and youth grow up alittle more and encounter things not just in their backyard. So I urge people to examine their belief by exploring the depth and breadth of the community represented in these and other statistics. Pick a country – any country – and see if you can find the Bahá’ís there, something of their history there, the experience of the local people who’s heritage is in that spot. Some of this can be seen on Wikipedia but there are depths far beyond what can be reviewed in a dry semi-acadmic summary of what others say. There are parents, young love, and children, there is art and acts of service, there may be a change in outlook and behavior here and there. Is this the spreading of corruption or the bending of knee and grasping of hands to work together? Christians were judged weird and dedicated by ancient thinkers.[8] Perhaps we honor that heritage? Though barely established Bahá’ís helped in the 2010 Haiti earthquake just as we did in the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake just as we do in India, Bolivia, Zambia, Czech….

References

1. Debating Muslims, pages 48–54, 222–250.

2. Religious minorities in Iran, page = 53, 80

3. The letters of the younger Pliny, page 295.

4. Bahá’í Faith in Turkmenistan

5. Bahá’í Faith in Kazakhstan

6. The Annals (Tacitus)/Book 15#44

7. Lane Fox, Robin. Pagans and Christians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. ISBN 0-394-55495-7, page 595.

8. Backgrounds of early Christianity, page 601