Rainn Wilson comes to MIT to discuss Bahá’í film

Documentary addresses education rights and persecution of Iranian religious group

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Rainn Wilson from “The Office” speaks on the “Education under Fire” panel. On Nov. 11, Amnesty International brought Wilson to MIT to talk about the persecution faced by members of the Bahá’í faith in Iran.
Andrea Fabre—The Tech

Last Friday, Nov. 11, the MIT community welcomed Rainn Wilson, popularly known as Dwight Schrute from NBC’s The Office, as a panelist for Amnesty International’s screening and discussion of the documentary Education Under Fire.

This event was part of the Education Under Fire campaign, the goal of which, according to its website, is to bring attention to the Iranian government’s denial of higher education to Bahá’ís — a monotheistic religious group drawing its tenets from several global religions. The documentary, Education Under Fire, focuses on the stories of former students of the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), an underground university in Iran for Bahá’ís founded in 1987 by a group including an MIT alumnus.

Amnesty International arranged a special group of panelists consisting of Wilson (who is Bahá’í), the documentary’s executive producer David Hoffman, director Jeff Kaufman, and Mojdeh Rohani, whose story was highlighted in the documentary. Fatemeh Haghighatjoo — a former member of the Iranian parliament and current faculty member at UMass Boston — was also on the panel. She said that until the Iranian government is secular, Bahá’ís will not have legal rights by the constitution of Iran.

The Tech was able to catch a few minutes with Wilson, and learned about his connection to the Bahá’í faith.

The Tech: How did you get involved with the Education Under Fire Campaign?

Rainn Wilson: I’m a member of the Bahá’í faith, and the campaign is about raising awareness to people about what’s happening with the Bahá’í Institute of Higher Education. In Iran, Muslim authorities have persecuted Bahá’ís since the faith’s inception. One of the many kinds of institutionalized persecution of the Bahá’ís is [that] they’re not allowed to go to university. To go to university you can only check off Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian. Bahá’í is not presented as a choice, and as Bahá’ís, we feel like that would be a lie against our faith and our integrity to make up that we’re members of another religion. So there have been underground universities set up in Iran for Bahá’ís to get education, and the government’s been bringing the hammer down — arresting teachers and students, throwing them in jail just for trying to learn chemistry, for learning basic stuff that you learn here at MIT. Can you imagine going to MIT and you had to check a religion box? And if you were Buddhist, or if you were Muslim, then you weren’t allowed to study here or anywhere? You couldn’t even go to community college? That’s how it is in Iran. They used to just kill Bahá’ís, throw them in jail and just kill them, but then there was a big backlash against that, so this is a way that they have to try and hold the Bahá’ís down. It’s very similar to the tactics used by Nazi Germany before the war. So as a Bahá’í I learned about this campaign and thought this was a wonderful short film and I think that the documentary is an excellent way to get the message across.

TT: What was it like growing up as a Bahá’í, and did you choose to be of the faith or was it a decision made by your family?

RW: My family was Bahá’í when I was growing up. They became Bahá’ís in the late ’60s. During the late ’60s and the early ’70s in the United States there were a lot of people that were open to spiritual explorations. I mean you even had the Beatles visit the Maharishi in India and learning the Sitar, and people became Buddhists and Sufis and explored different religions other than their parents’ faith. That’s when my parents became Bahá’ís, and I grew up a member of the Bahá’í faith. I left it for a long time when in college. I actually went to Tufts for a while, just down the street from here, but about 10 years or so ago I came back to the faith after a long spiritual exploration of my own and it really just made sense to me and I believe it has a lot of answers that can help heal the world.

TT: Have you ever visited the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education?

RW: It’s not really a place you can visit because it doesn’t really exist. It’s an underground university. It’s literally in basements and rented halls and it’s very scattered. There’s not a building. If there were a building the Iranian government would just blow it up. It’s in people’s garages with textbooks and retired teachers, but one of the important things here is graduates of the BIHE really need international accreditation, and that’s how students at MIT can get involved: asking MIT to give college credits to people who have graduated from the BIHE so they can actually have a diploma. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here as well — to meet with deans of different departments. Harvard and BU are already very interested, more interested than MIT is, so if MIT wants to catch up with BU and Harvard then they should get going on that, and allow BIHE graduates to enroll in graduate programs and give them credits.

TT: Did you ever know anybody, or experience yourself any of the persecution faced by Bahá’ís in Iran?

RW: I have met many Bahá’ís whose family members are in jail now, or whose family members have been killed for doing nothing more than having children’s classes or having prayer gatherings. Bahá’ís are very peaceful people; they’re obedient to their government. Obedience to government is one of the laws of the Bahá’í faith. Bahá’ís can’t and won’t rebel against the Iranian regime. Have I personally been persecuted? No. Thankfully we have freedom of religion here in the United States. People are pretty open-minded of people with different beliefs and that’s a great thing.