While the newly elected president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, is evoking hope for a new détente between his country and the U.S., there is one group of Iranians that desperately longs for change inside: Members of the Baha’i faith. Persecuted and repressed ever since, the new tone of President Rohani makes them dream about peace and official recognition in the Islamic Republic.
While Zoroastrians, Christians and, yes, Jews are all recognized by the state as official religions, the Baha’i community, despite being the country’s second largest religion with some 300,000 parishioners, is just considered as a deviant sect in the eyes of the regime. Having emerged after a split with the mainstream Shia faith in the 19th century, their standing has always been inferior in Iranian society. They are banned from public service, are not allowed to enroll in regular Iranian universities and cannot apply Iranian inheritance laws.
What is more, in the early 1990’s a formerly secret memorandum came to light in which the then ruling regime proposed measures to ensure that the Baha’i people remain illiterate and uneducated, while banning them out of any lucrative economical activity to push the community towards subsistence-level. Even worse: The religious leader of the country, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa this year that urged his fellow Iranians to stop any business where believers in the Baha’i faith are involved. This would basically come down to total isolation of the community, not just economically, but from participation in societal life in general. The problem is: A fatwa is not just a recommendation, but a legal pronouncement.
The Baha’i people are excluded from daily life and even seen as Israeli spies.
One can get easily arrested, even executed, just for practicing this faith in Iran, which is seen as an apostate in the Shi’a state. Since the religious community has its headquarter in Haifa, they are also perceived as spies of the Israeli state following a counter-revolutionary mission.
True is: Compared to his bickering predecessor, Hassan Rohani managed it to radically alter the perception of possibility in Iran’s foreign policy, not just because he was the very first Iranian president that held Smalltalk with his American colleague. This change in tone, however, has not reached the Baha’i community yet; they still lack basic citizens right. Hence, true is also: A Janus-faced Iran, friendly towards the world, ugly towards parts of his own people, would not suit this great nation. Beauty still comes from inside.