GUEST COLUMN Education declared a crime

Religious and academic persecution in Iran cannot stand

Imagine for a moment that you are sitting in an afternoon section of an 18.03 (Differential Equations) class. Your professor is explaining how to solve a differential equation, and is interrupted mid­sentence by two surprise guests who walk into the classroom: armed men wearing military uniforms. In the tense silence that follows, one of them whispers into the professor’s ear, and then the professor points at you. The men lead you out to another empty classroom and begin interrogating you. The topic of questioning turns to your religion, and you answer the questions truthfully. You are then told that you are being expelled from MIT and barred from ever attending any institution of higher learning in the country.

This disturbing scene seems drawn from an Orwell novel. In Iran, however, followers of the Bahá’í Faith have frequently experienced such a scenario. The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has for 30 years carried out a systematic policy of denying access to higher education to members of the Bahá’í community, the country’s largest religious minority. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Bahá’ís in Iran have not been allowed to teach or study at universities. Students in their university applications must specify their religion. Those who identify themselves as Bahá’í are routinely rejected. Occasionally, in the past few years, a few Baha’is have been admitted, but most of them were later expelled. The denial of education to Bahá’ís is part of a formal policy of persecution and harassment by the Iranian government and the Islamic clergy. A 1993 report by the UN’s Commission on Human Rights revealed a confidential memorandum drawn up by Iran’s Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council on “the Bahá’í question.” This report, approved by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, specifically called for the Bahá’ís to be treated in such a way “that their progress and development shall be blocked.” Bahá’ís have been executed or imprisoned, fired from jobs, had their homes and other possessions confiscated, and have been subjected to acts of violence. In a particularly shocking episode, 10 women were tried and hanged in the city of Shiraz in 1983. The youngest of them, Mona Mahmudnizhad, was only 17 years of age. Her crime was teaching religion classes to children in the Bahá’í community. You read that correctly: she was executed for serving as a Sunday school teacher.

Various pretexts, such as espionage, have been offered by officials in Iran to justify this persecution. The falsity of these pretexts is exposed by the fact that Bahá’ís who agree to recant their Faith and convert to Islam immediately find themselves out of any trouble. Furthermore, the writings of Bahá’u’lláh (1817–1892), the prophet-­founder of the Bahá’í Faith, set a high standard of moral conduct, teach peace, tolerance, and obedience to the law, and categorically forbid involvement in partisan politics or sedition against recognized governments. The persecution of Bahá’ís is based solely on their religious beliefs.

The latest episode is an attempt by the government to ban even informal efforts by Bahá’ís to educate themselves. In 1987, in response to the denial of educational opportunities by the government, the Bahá’ís in Iran began organizing a grassroots effort to provide higher education to their youth. This effort became known as the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). Classes were held in homes and taught by volunteers, many of them professors who had been fired because they are Bahá’ís. The BIHE did not seek any formal recognition by the government. It could not grant formal degrees, not were its credits recognized, at least initially, by schools in other countries. From the beginning, there were connections to MIT, as two of our alumni were involved in organizing and teaching. BIHE was the first institution in Iran to join MIT’s OpenCourseWare Consortium.

In May of this year, the homes of many professors and administrators of the BIHE were raided. Dozens were arrested; books and equipment were confiscated. Soon after, the Iranian press declared the BIHE illegal. One of the aforementioned MIT alumni has been sentenced to a prison term.

But there is hope. The government of Iran, despite its intransigence, is embarrassed by the spotlight of world attention. Last month, two Nobel peace prize winners, Timor President José Ramos-Horta and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, issued an open letter to the international academic community, calling on it to publicly condemn the Iranian government’s policies toward the Bahá’ís, demand the release of the BIHE prisoners, evaluate the BIHE curricula and consider accepting its credits, and offer online curricula to students in Iran who otherwise would be deprived of the right to higher education. The administration of MIT would do well to consider these recommendations.

Brian Aull PhD ’85 is a staff scientist at MIT and represents the Bahá’í Faith on the MIT Board of Chaplains.