As a number of Baha’i educators appear in court in Iran, two Nobel Peace Prize winners have sharply criticized the Iranian government, comparing its actions to “the Dark Ages of Europe” or the “Spanish Inquisition.”
The remarks by Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, and Jose Ramos-Horta, President of East Timor, appear in an open letter to the academic community published today in the Huffington Post, under the title “Iran’s war against knowledge.”
In the letter, the Nobel laureates call upon the Iranian government to release unconditionally and drop charges against the seven Baha’is currently on trial in Iran for their educational activities.
“The forward progress of humankind in the last centuries has been fueled, more than any other factor, by increasing access to information, more rapid exchange of ideas, and in most parts of the world, universal education,” they write.
“So it is particularly shocking when despots and dictators in the twenty first century attempt to subjugate their own populations by attempting to deny education or information to their people.
“Not only is it futile in the long term, it makes them appear fearful of the very age they live in, and haunted by the new thinkers in their midst.”
“Perhaps the most glaring example of this fear today is the denial of higher education to the members of the Baha’i Faith in Iran – a peaceful religion with no political agenda, which recognizes the unity of all religions,” says the letter.
The publication of the open letter has coincided with reports that trials have now begun in Iran for seven Baha’i educators. They were detained in connection with an informal community initiative known as the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), which gave Baha’i professors – debarred by the Iranian government from practicing their professions – the opportunity to teach young community members who are themselves banned from university.
“Those arrested were neither political nor religious leaders,” observe Archbishop Tutu and President Ramos-Horta in their letter. “They were lecturers in subjects that included accounting and dentistry, who today face the prospect of decades in prison. The crime with which they are charged – delivering higher education to Baha’i youth.”
The Baha’i International Community has learned that six of the seven – imprisoned after raids last May on some 39 homes of Baha’is associated with BIHE – are now being tried in pairs.
“The lawyer who was preparing to defend them is himself now in prison; two of the prisoners reportedly had court hearings yesterday; two were scheduled to appear today and two tomorrow – and it seems that another was in court last week,” said Bani Dugal, Principal Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations.
“All the signs are that we cannot expect a fair trial,” she added.
Ms. Dugal expressed the gratitude of the Baha’i International Community to Archbishop Tutu and President Ramos-Horta.
“We thank them, as well as all the governments, organizations and people of goodwill throughout the world whose efforts send a clear message to the Iranian authorities that their actions are being closely watched and condemned,” she said.
Expelled for their beliefs
The open letter also highlights the plight of other Iranian youth who have been expelled from universities “for their beliefs or for holding viewpoints determined to be counter to the ruling party, including pro-reform views.”
“We believe it is important to recognize that these actions are neither the result of or dictated by the Islamic faith. One need only look at the Dark Ages of Europe or the Spanish Inquisition to see that Iranian Ayatollahs are certainly not the first to use religion as the cloak to attempt to forcibly suppress ideas and knowledge that they fear could threaten their power. The rich philosophical and artistic Iranian traditions, the contributions of Iranian scholars worldwide, and the actions of the Muslim community members who have aided and supported the BIHE, are testament to the fact that the actions of their leaders are no reflection of the Muslim faith or the many good-willed Muslims in Iranian communities,” the letter says.
“And while we believe that both historically and in today’s ‘wired’ world it is futile to suppress the quest for knowledge, there are many in Iran whose lives are being threatened or damaged by the attempt.
“They need our support.”
Among other demands, the Nobel laureates are urging the academic community to register with their Iranian counterparts their disagreement with, and disapproval of, any policy which bars individuals from higher education based on their religious background or political persuasion.
The international outcry at Iran’s persecution of Baha’i educators has spanned the world in the past four months, from Australia to Zambia.
On 5 September, Baroness Catherine Ashton – High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs – expressed her “serious concern” about the attack on BIHE.
Three days earlier, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the arrests of BIHE staff “are based on unfounded charges of conspiring against national security. This institute provides valuable educational services to the Baha’i community, which is denied formal higher education in Iran.”
The seven Baha’i educators facing trial are: Vahid Mahmoudi and Kamran Mortezaie, who reportedly appeared in court yesterday; Mahmoud Badavam and Nooshin Khadem, who were scheduled to appear today; and Ramin Zibaie and Riaz Sobhani, who will appear tomorrow. It is understood that Farhad Sedghi appeared in court on Tuesday 20 September.