Saturday, November 23, 2013

Empty charm or game changing substance? How to read Iran

 Empty charm or game changing substance? How to read Iran

"President Rouhani could signal his seriousness of purpose by announcing, at a minimum, the release of the seven Baha'i leaders"

Since taking office in August, the newly elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has been on an international charm offensive, making speeches to the UN, doing interviews with reporters, and tweeting to Iran’s historically marginalized Jewish community. His conciliatory tone on a wide variety of issues, from nuclear weapons to Iran’s role in the Middle East, has diplomats, policy-makers and ordinary citizens everywhere looking for ways to measure his sincerity.

In a phrase, they are asking: will his deeds match his words?

There is, actually, a simple test by which to gauge his intentions. That is the degree to which President Rouhani and his government begin to take concrete steps to improve the human rights situation in Iran.

In recent years, Iran’s record on human rights has sharply deteriorated. In early October, the UN Secretary-General and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran issued their latest reports documenting the continuing human rights crisis in Iran. As usual, they expressed deep concern over Iran’s policy of arresting, imprisoning and otherwise repressing lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders, and ethnic and religious minorities, not to mention its treatment of women and record of juvenile executions.

President Rouhani implicitly knows that he cannot begin to mend Iran’s reputation on the world stage without addressing human rights. On September 18, his government released at least 11 prisoners of conscience, including noted human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who had been imprisoned since 2010 on an 11-year sentence.

As soon as Ms. Sotoudeh was released, she bravely called for the release of other prisoners of conscience, as a full demonstration of the new government’s direction. First among the persecuted groups that Ms. Sotoudeh mentioned was the Baha'i community of Iran. “We ask you to end the injustices against our Baha’i citizens,” she wrote in a letter to President Rouhani, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency.

Soon after its release of these 11 prisoners, the government announced that it was releasing another 80 prisoners. The fact that no Baha'is were among those released is a telling and conspicuous omission. It points to the distinctive situation of Iran’s Baha'i community, which is the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority and has been the target of state-sponsored persecution since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Indeed, if there is a specific litmus test for the seriousness of President Rouhani’s new direction, it will be in the way that he handles “the Baha'i Question.”

Those were the words actually used in a 1991 secret memorandum signed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that outlined a series of repressive social, economic and cultural measures to be instituted against Baha'is. So far, that policy has been followed to the letter.

Since 2005, nearly 700 Baha'is have been arrested, and the number of Baha'is in prison has risen from fewer than five to the current figure of 115. The list of prisoners includes all seven members of a former leadership group serving the Baha'i community of Iran. In 2010, the seven were wrongly sentenced to 20 years in prison – the longest term currently facing any prisoner of conscience in Iran.

Baha'is also face economic and educational discrimination, strict limits on the right to assemble and worship, and a government-led campaign of hate speech in the news media. Baha'is are prevented from attending university. Attacks on Baha'is or Baha'i-owned properties go unprosecuted and unpunished, creating a sense of impunity for attackers. As noted recently by a top UN human rights official, the government-led persecution spans “all areas of state activity, from family law provisions to schooling, education, and security.”

On August 24, 2013, a well-known member of the Baha'i community of the city of Bandar Abbas in southern Iran was murdered. Mr. Ataollah Rezvani was found in an isolated location, shot in the head, and numerous human rights defenders have said his killing was religiously motivated. Among other things, his death came against a backdrop of hate speech directed against Baha’is by a local cleric. Sadly, more than ten Baha'is have been killed or died under suspicious circumstances in the last decade.

President Rouhani could signal his seriousness of purpose by announcing, at a minimum, the release of the seven Baha'i leaders – something that has also been called for by Sotoudeh. He could allow young Baha'is to freely attend university. He could begin to prosecute perpetrators of hate crimes against Iranian Baha'is, such as the killer of Rezvani.

These things would truly signal a new beginning for Iran.

Propaganda of Death Becomes Reality for Baha'is in Iran

Published by Your Middle East

By Zackery M. Heern

Will Rouhani (L) take action against Baha'i oppression?

On August 24, a well-known Baha’i in the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas was shot dead by an unknown gunman. Mr. Ataollah Rezvani’s body was found with a gunshot wound in the back of his head. He was left in his car on a deserted road leading out of the city.

Rezvani’s death is mourned by Baha’is and Muslims alike. According to countless stories by family members and acquaintances, Rezvani was constantly helping those in need, whether it was caring for hospital patients in Bandar Abbas or driving to the opposite end of the country to help his niece and nephew after both parents were imprisoned for being Baha’is. Reports about Rezvani’s funeral indicate that people traveled from far and wide to attend his memorial service, which lasted until 2 a.m.

All indicators suggest that Rezvani’s murder was motivated by the fact that he was a Baha’i. Prior to his murder, he had received repeated threats. Additionally, the assailants did not steal his wallet, car, or anything of value aside from his cellphone, suggesting that the murderers were not motivated by money.

Baha’is have suffered persecution in Iran since the inception of the Baha’i Faith a century and a half ago. Persecution worsened after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Since the early 1980s, the Iranian government has imprisoned, harassed, and executed Baha’is. Leaked secret documents lay out a systematic program for the destruction of the Baha’i community, which is the largest religious minority in the country.

Official media outlets in Iran regularly include anti-Baha’i propaganda, which reinforces the government’s intentions of exterminating the Baha’i community. A recent study of official Iranian news agencies notes that anti-Baha’i propaganda appears in state-run news media every one to two days. Baha’is are commonly blamed for economic problems and political unrest. Anti-Baha’i propaganda often features illustrations of zombies and the grim reaper. Baha’i holy places, known for their well-groomed gardens and beautiful architecture, are depicted as deaths-scapes.

Like most Baha’is, Rezvani and his extended family have suffered continuous harassment. Along with all other Baha’i students, Rezvani was expelled from university shortly after the revolution. His uncle served a prison sentence in the 1980s and was jailed again last year at the age of 85. His sister, Sahba Rezvani, recently served a three-year sentence. Her daughter and son-in-law have also been jailed in recent years. Additionally, government officials have forced members of the Rezvani family to shut down their businesses.

Rezvani lived most of his adult life in Bandar Abbas, where he installed and managed municipal water treatment systems. He was well known in the city as an active member of the Baha’i community.

In the past few years, the leader of Friday prayers (imam) at the congregational mosque in Bandar Abbas consistently delivered inflammatory sermons against Baha’is. The last such sermon was delivered the day before Rezvani was murdered.

Due to the intense pressure that the Baha’i community in Bandar Abbas was facing, Rezvani and several other Baha’is composed a letter to the imam regarding his false accusations about the Baha’is. They also filed a complaint with government officials about the incendiary remarks against the Baha’i community. By taking these steps, the Baha’is were hoping that they could prevent assaults against Baha’is and reconcile with the imam.

Apparently, government officials took Rezvani’s actions as an affront and orchestrated his dismissal from his job. From this point on, Rezvani was continuously harassed by government officials and unidentified callers. Baha’is from Bandar Abbas who have recently been arrested say that they were questioned about the activities of Rezvani and their interrogators warned them not to associate with him.

Since 2005, more than 60 Baha’is have been physically assaulted or murdered by government officials or plainclothes assailants. Not one of these cases has been prosecuted. If Rezvani’s murder is not investigated, it will only add to the assumption that government officials ordered his murder.
His death comes a month after the inauguration of Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani, who is often described as a moderate. Many hoped that he might change the course of Iran’s atrocious human rights record.

However, as media attention focused on the hopeful prospects of a new regime in Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, issued a new series of fatwas in which he projected himself as the leader of the entire Shi’a world.

According to a report by Ali Mamouri for al-Monitor, the fatwas adopt a “hostile view…toward Iran's Baha’i community, wherein any association with them has been deemed unlawful, and the Baha’i faith has been labeled false and misguiding.” Mamouri further suggests that, “these fatwas of Khamenei have been issued as other Shiite authorities, in the hope of eliminating prejudice against the Baha’i community, have recently issued humanitarian and tolerant fatwas regarding the Baha'i.”
"Such a horrible event creates an atmosphere of insecurity"

In another fatwa Khamenei forbids the publication or public announcement of crimes or corruption related to government officials. In light of Rezvani’s murder, this does not bode well for the Baha’i community in Iran, which may well witness an uptick in violence in the coming months.

News media in Iran has been silent on the murder of Rezvani. However, several Persian language outlets outside of Iran, including BBC Persian and Voice of America, have reported the story.
Human rights organizations, including Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and Iran Press Watch, have reported that Ayatollah Masumi Tehrani recently met with a group of Baha’is, which his website confirms. According to Iran Press Watch, the Ayatollah said the following in his meeting with the Baha’is: “The heart-wrenching and unfair murder of the late Mr. Ataollah Rezvani is a cause for grief and sadness, and I offer my condolences to his family and friends…My ardent hope is that with the spread of rationalism and avoidance of blind religious fanaticism in Iranian society we will not witness such horrifying crimes any more. I also hope that the authorities identify and punish those responsible for these crimes.”

Additionally, a group of nearly 50 prisoners of conscience in the infamous Rajai Shahr prison in Iran have written a letter in support of Rezvani. They “condemn this vicious act and demand the immediate investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators of this incident and those who ordered it in a fair court of law.”

They further state that, “such a horrible event creates an atmosphere of insecurity among fellow members of Iran’s Baha’i community as well as other minority groups.” They also remind the reader that on the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Iranian constitution, “all citizens have equal rights, and the government is responsible for protecting their personal, financial, and social safety.”

Rezvani’s family members have made appeals to the Iranian government to launch a full investigation of the murder.

Iran's Human Rights Crisis and the Baha'i Faith

Published by Your Middle East

By Zackery M. Heern


"The judge promptly ordered Kashani to be beaten in the courtroom"

As Iran gears up for next month’s presidential election, its largest religious minority, the Baha’i Faith, continues to face persecution. Last week marked the five-year anniversary of the incarceration of the seven Baha’i leaders in Iran known as the Yaran (Friends), who have been sentenced to 20 years in prison.

According to the Guardian, Iran is holding at least 870 prisoners of conscience. More than 100 of these prisoners are Baha’is – who do not participate in partisan politics and are not calling for regime change.

In addition to being the largest religious minority in Iran, the Baha’i Faith is the second most geographically widespread religion in the world. Therefore, countless Baha’i communities around the world have supported the international campaign called “Five Years Too Many” by raising awareness of the plight of their co-religionists in Iran, who are still struggling for basic human rights.

Government officials throughout the world, UN resolutions, and global leaders continuously call on Iran to stop persecuting Baha’is and other prisoners of conscience. Comedians Rainn Wilson and Omid Djalili as well as Roxana Saberi, journalist and former cellmate of members of the Yaran, are among the most outspoken supporters of Baha’i prisoners. However, the Iranian government is not showing signs of backing down.      

Iran’s systematic campaign to repress Baha’is is organized both nationally and locally. Understandably, most international coverage of Iran’s human rights abuses focuses on high profile national cases. However, local abuse also appears to be on the rise.

One of the most “extreme manifestations of religious intolerance and persecution” in the world
Among the localities that have received considerable attention is Semnan, where a Baha’i cemetery was destroyed in 2009 and several infants are currently in prison with their Baha’i mothers.

Another such local campaign has targeted Baha’is in the city of Gorgan for the past six months.
According to a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, Iranian authorities raided more than 24 Baha’i homes in or near Gorgan last October, which resulted in 25 arrests. According to Dr. Shaheed, the detainees were charged with “cooperating with an enemy

Government,” “participating in a group of more than two people inside or outside the country with the intent of disrupting the security of the state,” and other trumped-up charges.

After several weeks of interrogation and torture, the majority of the Baha’is in Gorgan were released from detention after posting bail. However, six of them were transferred to Tehran – first to Evin prison and then to Gohardasht prison, where they are currently being held.

One of the six Baha’is from Gorgan is Kamal Kashani. According to sources in Iran, guards entered his home and confiscated books, computers, CDs, even wall hangings. Two hours later the guards arrested him and took him in for questioning. He has been in prison ever since.

Kashani’s wife, Parisa, went to the police station everyday asking for his whereabouts. Finally, after 4 days she received a handwritten note from her husband requesting warm clothing. She was finally granted a visit with her husband after one month of his arrest. She was shocked at how much weight he had lost. She recounts that he had been severely beaten and his fingers were so skinny that his wedding ring would no longer stay on his finger.

Another Baha’i from Gorgan, Farhad Fahandezh, was beaten so badly that he was transferred to Tehran in an ambulance. One Baha’i prisoner remembers an Iranian official telling his torturer that he was permitted to beat Baha’is as much as he wanted, but was not permitted to kill them for fear of international media attention.

Kashani’s first court appearance was last February, four months after his initial arrest. At this time he had not been officially charged with specific crimes.

At the court hearing, Kashani’s lawyer explained to the judge that he had not been granted ample time with his client. The judge planned to sentence Kashani and the other Baha’is from Gorgan after 30 minutes. However, the judge agreed to postpone the trial for three months so that the lawyer could prepare a defense.

Kashani and the other Baha’is from Gorgan had their second and apparently final court date on April 24. The judge spoke to each prisoner for about 10 minutes. He asked Kashani why he was organizing gatherings for the “service of humanity.” Kashani replied that Baha’is are not permitted to organize gatherings in Iran. The judge then asked him if he prayed at home. “Of course,” Kashani said. The judge asked whether he prayed with his family. Again, Kashani replied affirmatively. The judge then explained that these family prayers amounted to illegal Baha’i gatherings.

The judge promptly ordered Kashani to be beaten in the courtroom. Severely injured, Kashani could hardly stand for the remainder of the hearing.

The judge announced that he would hand down a sentence the following week. However, the ruling was delayed for nearly a month because the judge reportedly went on pilgrimage to Mecca.

As the imprisoned Gorgan Baha’is were awaiting the judge’s ruling in Gohardasht prison, Kashani’s wife Parisa was arrested in Gorgan on May 8, which meant that her four children were left home alone. Similar arrest warrants were issued for the wives of the other imprisoned Baha’is from Gorgan.

After a week and a half, authorities in Gorgan finally confirmed to the children that their mother was in custody. On May 20, Parisa was suddenly released after her children paid a steep fee, which prison officials had demanded.

On May 22, Kashani and most of the other Baha’is from Gorgan were sentenced to five years in prison. This is the second prison sentence for Kashani. He served a five year term after the 1979 revolution. His brother, Jamal Kashani, was also executed by the Islamic Republic in 1984.

The experience of Kamal Kashani and the other Baha’is from the city of Gorgan is but one example of Iran’s human rights crisis. Iran’s persecution of Baha’is is one of the most “extreme manifestations of religious intolerance and persecution” in the world, according to UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Book Review: "The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta: Uncommon Tales of a Medieval Adventurer" By David Waines

Book Review
By Zackery M. Heern
David Waines, “The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta: Uncommon Tales of a Medieval Adventurer” in
Al-Masaq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Volume 25, Issue 2, August 2013, pages 265-267

 The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta: Uncommon Tales of a Medieval Adventurer

David Waines’s The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta is a palatable monograph on the legendary Moroccan Muslim traveler. Ibn Battuta’s travelogue, al-Rihla, has long been used as a source of information on Eurasia and Africa in the Middle Ages. Sex, culinary delights, miracles, and radical others are among the many themes of Waines’s book. Like Ibn Battuta’s travelogue, The Odyssey explores the sacred and the profane in equal measure.

In the opening chapter, Waines seeks to contextualize Ibn Battuta and his famous travelogue, which is the only book attributed to Ibn Battuta. Waines uses the English translation of al-Rihla by Gibb and Beckingham as his primary source of research for The Odyssey. After Waines makes the inevitable comparison between Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo, he attempts to defend the very authenticity of Ibn Battuta’s travelogue. Waines concedes that portions of al-Rihla are plagiarized and that the chronology of Ibn Battuta’s travels laid out in the text is “impossible.” Waines argues that even though Ibn Battuta copied portions of his travelogue (most notably from Ibn Jubayr), he still adds a fourteenth century eyewitness account on top of the accounts of previous authors.

As Waines periodically indicates throughout The Odyssey, Ibn Battuta’s al-Rihla generally conforms to the historical realities of the Middle Ages. Therefore, the question that scholars are grappling with is whether Ibn Battuta actually visited the places he discusses in his book or if his account is the product of his own research. Ultimately, Waines suggests that critics of Ibn Battuta, including Gibb, provide misleading conclusions. Waines argues that plagiarism among medieval writers was widespread, even if frustrating for the modern scholar. Although the plagiarism question consumes most of the first chapter, it is not the main thrust of Waines’s book. Waines is more interested in opening up the world of Ibn Battuta to a contemporary Western audience.

The remainder of The Odyssey is divided into four chapters. Chapter two dives into the travels of Ibn Battuta. The reader makes a pilgrimage with Ibn Battuta to Mecca, sails south to Yemen, travels to Anatolia, and heads east to India and China before returning to Ibn Battuta’s homeland of Morocco. Along the way, Ibn Battuta hears church bells ring for the first time, purchases two Greek slave girls, joins a military expedition, and receives a large cash gift from a Turkish sultan. Throughout this chapter and the remainder of the book, Waines is a good tour guide, providing historical or cultural context when necessary.

The themes of chapter three are food and hospitality. In fact, much of the discussion on hospitality focuses on food as well. Having written extensively on medieval Islamic culture since the 1970s, Waines is in his element when discussing food. In fact, Waines’s contribution to Ibn Battuta studies may well be his elaboration on food culture. Throughout the chapter, he gives detailed descriptions, even recipes of dishes that Ibn Battuta mentions. Further, Waines points out Islamic food laws when applicable to the stories he relates.

In my view, chapters four and five are the highlights of The Odyssey. Chapter four fulfills the promise indicated by the subtitle of the book. The reader is treated to fantastic tales featuring great religious and political figures. Waines does not disappoint in his retelling of Ibn Battuta’s experiences with fire dancing, snake biting, fortune telling, levitation, and other miracles. As Waines points out, Ibn Battuta’s travels can seem like “a medieval globetrotter’s guide to the cemeteries of the Muslim world” (p. 135). Waines argues that Ibn Battuta’s goal in visiting tombs of saints and other holy sites was to receive religious blessings and witness miracles (p. 121).

The theme of the fifth and final chapter is the “other,” for which Waines relies heavily on the work of Remke Kruk and Roxanne Euben. The first half of the chapter discusses Ibn Battuta’s treatment of women. Waines describes Ibn Battuta as “more of a serial monogamist than polygamist, except for his…sojourn to the Maldive Islands” (p. 158). In what follows, Waines describes a pattern in which Ibn Battuta would contract marriages during his stay in a given place and divorce his wives once he decided to travel to his next destination. Waines illustrates how Ibn Battuta reveled in the fact that marriage in the Maldives “is really a sort of temporary marriage,” (p. 163). However, as a judge on there, he tried to force women to wear Islamic dress, but to no avail. Additionally, Ibn Battuta chastised the immoral behavior of buying Greek slave girls for prostitution, but continuously purchased slave girls throughout his travels when he could afford it. Waines also points out that Ibn Battuta was scandalized by the fact that he came across matrilineal societies in sub-Saharan Africa, where women and men had platonic relationships.

In the second half of the fourth chapter, Waines discusses Ibn Battuta’s relationship with religious and racial ‘others.’ Waines illustrates a number of encounters between Ibn Battuta and practitioners of Islamic legal schools other than his own Maliki school. Waines includes an entire section on Ibn Battuta’s interaction with Shi‘i Muslims. Following the practice of Ibn Battuta, Waines uses the derogatory terms dissidents and Rafidis (lit. rejectionists) to describe Shi‘is. In all, Waines suggests that although Ibn Battuta detested the “extreme Rafidis,” he admired their piety and hospitality.

The Odyssey is a must read for Ibn Battuta enthusiasts, especially those who happen to be foodies and enjoy fantastical stories. The discerning reader is left wondering, though, whether the tales presented by Waines are a veritable portal to the medieval world or simply Ibn Battuta’s imagination of it. Either way, Waines has written a fascinating study of one of history’s most renowned world travelers.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Persecution of Baha'is on Rise: Iranian immigrant fears for those she left behind

By Elaine Jarvik, Deseret News

News Report on Mona Heern

View original publication on Deseret News here

The subject today is homophones: kernel and colonel, boarders and borders, hostel and hostile.

English, with its unreliable vowels and its quirky exceptions to the rules, is Mona Kashani Heern's language now — the one whose sly nuances she enthusiastically explains to her students at Joel P. Jensen Middle School in West Jordan on this January morning.

Heern can't imagine a place she'd rather be than this windowless room full of seventh-graders, even when the subject is just a list of spelling words.

"I was the lucky one who got to come to this country, who got to become a teacher," she explains later. "But in Iran, there are thousands and thousands of Baha'i students who are not allowed to go to school." The religious persecutions of her own life in Iran are the backdrop of a life dedicated now to education.

"I always loved school, and I was always winning scholarships," Heern remembers about her first years in a school near Tehran. "But then the Iranian government said 'If you're Baha'i you can't attend public schools.' My principal, who was Muslim, had tears in her eyes when she told me. She said, 'Who are the Baha'i in this class? Take your backpacks. You can't come to this school anymore.' "

This was 1984, the year also that her father, who owned an auto-parts store and was a member of the local lay Baha'i Assembly, was thrown into prison for his beliefs. Heern was 8 years old.

Intermittent persecution of Iranian Baha'is, including pogroms that killed an estimated 20,000 in the 19th century, continue to the current day, increasing after the Islamic revolution of 1979, according to the Baha'i International Community in its booklet "Closed Doors."

The Baha'i religion was born in 1844, when a young Persian man — later known as "The Bab" — declared that he was a prophet of God, and his mission was to prepare the world for the appearance of the "Lord of the Age," Baha'u'llah.

Baha'u'llah is the most recent manifestation of God, just as Moses, Jesus, Buddha and the Muslim prophet Mohammed are manifestations, according to Baha'i belief. God, Baha'is believe, is an "unknowable essence," and manifestations of God speak in ways that humanity is ready for at the time.

Such beliefs don't sit well with Muslim fundamentalists in Iran, where the 300,000 Baha'is now living there make up the country's largest minority religion. According to the Baha'i International Community, Iranian courts have denied Baha'is civil rights, the assets of businesses run by Baha'ishave been confiscated, Baha'i holy sites have been razed, and Baha'i teachers have not been allowed to teach.

Heern remembers visiting her father in prison in 1984. Once a month, she and her mother and little sister were allowed a 10-minute conversation, face-to-face but separated by glass. First though, there was always an interminable delay in the prison yard. Heern remembers the snowy wait on their visit in January 1985. After hours of standing in the cold, the family was finally ushered inside, where a guard announced "Oh, didn't they tell you? We killed him a month ago."

So, Heern is especially upset by recent reports that Dhabihu'llah Mahrami died in his prison cell last month. The 59-year-old former civil servant and Baha'i follower had been in prison since 1996, when he was first sentenced to die on charges of apostasy. Later, after protests from several Western governments, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

According to a Baha'i Community statement, Mahrami had received death threats in prison, had been forced to perform arduous physical labor, and "had no known health concerns" at the time of his death. "Mr. Mahrami's death comes amid ominous signs that a new wave of persecution of Baha'is has begun," according to the statement. "This year nearly 60 Baha'is have been arrested, detained or imprisoned, a figure up sharply from recent years."

All this weighs on Heern's mind as she goes about her pleasant life in Utah, where she is one of about 550 Baha'is, including about 150 refugees.

In Iran, Baha'i students still aren't allowed to attend Iranian universities, public or private, although the excuses have become increasingly more subtle. In addition, a private college, the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education — which offered classes in private homes or by correspondence (so that teachers' names would remain a secret) — was raided by the government in 1998 and in 2002.

After Heern's father was killed and his shop was taken over by the government, Heern's mother pawned her wedding ring and jewelry and bought their escape, on camelback, across Iran into Pakistan. The three-day journey took a week; the smugglers food supply ran out, and when Heern, her mother and sister finally arrived in their new country, they were thrown into jail for being illegal immigrants. Eventually, with the help of the Baha'i community in Pakistan and the United Nations, they were given refugee status.

As a refugee, though, she wasn't allowed to attend school in Pakistan, Heern says. It wasn't until the family was relocated to Germany, when she was 12, that she finally found herself in a classroom again.
"I started junior high immediately and could not speak a word of German," she remembers. She was also enrolled in English and French classes, which meant learning three new languages at the same time. There were no special ESL classes for immigrant children.

But Heern worked hard, eventually moved to the United States, and graduated from the University of California at Northridge. She received her masters at the University of Phoenix in Salt Lake City.

She loves her religion, she says, for its beliefs in equality of rights and opportunities for men and women, the elimination of extremes of poverty and wealth and for the importance it places on universal education. "I love the fact that Baha'is do not just talk about the oneness of the world of humanity, but that we have established racially diverse communities in every corner of the globe." There are now an estimated 5 million Baha'is worldwide. She worries about the Baha'is she left behind in Iran.

In 2003, Heern and her husband moved to Utah — where on a January morning she stands in front of her seventh-graders, enthusiastically teaching a spelling list. Borders. Hostile. Words that Heern understands too well.

Recurring Trials for an Iranian Family – A Microcosm of the Persecution of the Baha’is in Iran

By Mona Heern

Listen here on

Late last month, my uncle and five other Baha’is were taken from the town of Gorgan in Iran to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where their fate remains a mystery.  This latest round of persecution began the month before.  I became aware of it on October 17, when I received a late night phone call informing me that my uncle, Kamal Kashani, was arrested along with a number of other Baha’is in Gorgan for being members of the Baha’i Faith, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran.

The reports that followed in the next couple of days out of Iran were heart wrenching. They portrayed a picture of innocent Baha’is as young as 18 years of age being kidnapped, taken to unknown locations, and tortured to recant their Faith; of homes being plundered by the authorities; and government officials being unjustly harsh to the families of the captives.  After 35 days of brutal treatment, my uncle and the five other Baha’is were transferred to Evin where their fate could be even worse. 

The last time that I saw my uncle was 28 years ago. We were standing in a court yard surrounded by armed guards in an Iranian prison. At that time, he was 25 years old, sentenced to a six year prison term for being a member of the Baha'i Faith. I was only 10 years old, crying my heart out while giving him one last hug. Scenes like this had become my reality since 1983, when both my father and uncle were incarcerated due to their belief in the teachings of the Baha’i Faith, which promotes the oneness of the human race, unity among all religions, the equality of women and men, and the importance of education for all.

A few months before this visit I was expelled from elementary school along with other Baha’i children because the Iranian government had decided that Baha’i children should not have the right to education. I have never forgotten the day when the principal of my elementary school walked into my 5th grade classroom and said: “Who are the Baha’is in this room?” Two of us raised our hands. With tears in her eyes she informed us that, although we were two of the best students in her school, she had no choice but to follow the order of the government and expel us from school.

Sometime after this incident, we went to Evin prison for our monthly 10 minute visit with my father. God knows how much I cherished those short visits despite the fact that we were separated by a glass window and our conversations were closely monitored by the authorities.  After hours of the usual waiting outside the prison yard, we were abruptly informed in the harshest way possible that my father, along with some other Baha’is, had already been executed after 19 months of imprisonment.  All we were given was a grave number, the address of where he was buried, and a small box containing a few of his personal items, which included two torn shirts, which still showed evidence of torture, his shoes and a picture of my sister and me.  As I sat in the back of our small car driving towards the cemetery with my mother trying to navigate the busy Tehran traffic, I could not let go of my father’s shoes and buried my tears in them all the way to his final resting place.

A few months after my father’s execution, my mother, sister and I left Iran in a difficult journey on camel-back to Pakistan, where we lived under the protection of the United Nations as refugees.  Next, we moved to Germany and later to the United States.  Since then, I have been able to pursue my education, become a teacher, and gather freely with fellow Baha’is for prayers and acts of service. However, my uncle, his children, and hundreds of thousands of Baha’is in Iran are still deprived of these basic human rights.  As I sit in my comfortable home in Murray, Kentucky, I cannot believe that my uncle, now 53 years of age, is once again in prison, charged with the crime of being a Baha’i.

My friends here often ask me if they can help the Baha’is in Iran.  In fact, there is much that can be done.  Congress is currently reviewing House Resolution 134, which condemns the Iranian government for their state-sponsored persecution of Baha’is and their continued violation of the International Covenants on Human Rights. Please ask your representatives to support Resolution 134. In addition, please visit the site: to lend your support to thousand of Baha’i students in Iran, who are deprived of attending any university in their country.

The Baha'i Faith: A History of Persecution in Iran

By Zackery M. Heern

Originally written for NPR affiliate, WKMS

The Baha’i Faith is the second largest religious community in Iran after Shi‘i Islam. It is also the second most geographically widespread religion in the world.

Oppression of Baha’is in Iran is not new. Iranian officials have persecuted Baha’is since the inception of the Baha’i Faith in the mid-1800s. Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, promoted a message of international cooperation, gender and racial equality, universal education, and other teachings tailored to the modern world. Baha’is are also committed to nonviolence. Today the Baha’i Faith is organized by local, regional, and international councils, which are made up of democratically elected representatives. Unlike most major religions, then, the Baha’i Faith does not have clergy.

Countless Iranians quickly gravitated to the Baha’i Faith in the 1800s. The burgeoning Baha’i movement faced a swift backlash from religious and political officials. In the mid-1800s, angry mobs and government officials massacred over 20,000 Baha’is. Public executions and parades of dead Baha’is through the streets of Iran were not uncommon. An Austrian eyewitness in 1852 remembers seeing Baha’is with candles in their flesh “dragged in chains through the bazaar, preceded by a military band, in whom these wicks had burned so deep that now the fat flickered convulsively in the wound like a newly extinguished lamp.”[1]

In 1853 the Iranian government exiled Baha’u’llah to the Ottoman Empire – first to Iraq and later to Palestine. Baha’u’llah remained a prisoner in Palestine until the end of his life in 1892.

Therefore, the reason that the Baha’i Faith has its world center in Israel is that Baha’u’llah was exiled there by the Iranian government. Baha’is have not entangled themselves in the Palestine-Israel conflict. In fact, Baha’is do not directly involve themselves in politics in Israel, Iran, or elsewhere.

Throughout the 20th century, oppression of Baha’is in Iran continued. Baha’i marriages were not recognized, Baha’is were disallowed from public employment, and Baha’i literature was banned. In 1955, the Iranian government issued an order for the suppression of Baha’is. During this time, Baha’is were murdered and witnessed the demolition of their national Baha’i center in Tehran.

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in the wake of the 1979 revolution, the new government has systematically attempted to destroy the Baha’i community. The Hojjatieh Society, which factored prominently into the Islamicization of the Iranian revolution, was initially founded as an anti-Baha’i organization. The current president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is an ardent supporter of the Hojjatieh. The Iranian constitution, which was written by the revolutionaries, does not recognize the rights of Baha’is. Because Iran’s courts treat Baha’is as “unprotected infidels,” Iranians cannot be charged with injuring or murdering Baha’is.

Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s current head of state, signed a secret government document that was leaked in the 1990s, which outlines the government’s plans to block the development of the Baha’i community. He also declared that Baha’is are impure (najes) – a term reserved for animals and infidels.

Throughout the 1980s, the Iranian government systematically executed leaders of the Baha’i community. Since the 1990s, it has shifted to a policy of social and economic persecution. For example, Baha’is are barred from attending colleges and universities, regular news reports condemn Baha’is, and teachers often harass Baha’i school children. Since 2007, Baha’is have witnessed a surge of violence, which includes the destruction of Baha’i cemeteries and new waves of imprisonment, as indicated by the case of Kamal Kashani and many others.

[1] Quoted in, “The Baha’i Question: Cultural Cleansing in Iran,” New York: Baha’i International Community, 2008, p. 41. For full document, see

Monday, March 25, 2013

Muslim Philosophers

Muslim Philosophers

Not much information is available on al-Kindi’s (c. 795-866) personal life, but he was an Arab.  He is actually known as “The philosopher of the Arabs.”[1]  His interests went beyond philosophy and included astrology, mathematics, medicine, music, and optics.  Al-Kindi studied Arabic translations of Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle’s work, although he had several differing ideas than Aristotle.  He is said to be the first Muslim philosopher to use Greek philosophy ideas.
            Through philosophy, Al-Kindi believed people will then learn concepts in terms of reality and then people will also come to know human virtue and the divinity and unity of God.  The most illustrious and most important philosophy is the knowledge of the first truth, which will lead to the cause of every truth, according to al-Kindi.  He believes matter, motion, and time all have an origin and an ending.  He also tried to show that philosophy is harmonious with the religion of Islam.[2]

            Al-Razi (d. 925) was most famous for his work in the medical field.  However, he also became an important philosopher during this time.  His main inspiration came from Plato and one of Plato’s dialogues, Timaeus.[3]  He believed that philosophy and religion were discordant to one another.  He was very unpopular in his day for several of his beliefs, and many of his philosophical writings have been destroyed.
            Al-Razi believes that God made the world as a “physical playground” for the soul to fulfill its desire.[4]  From there the soul achieves salvation, only by God’s gift of knowledge.  When the soul gains knowledge, it now also has reason, and that reason can be used to understand the other four eternal principles of Creator, matter, space, and time (the fifth is the soul).[5]  Al-Razi also had moral thoughts in his philosophy.  He believed the purpose in life is to, as humanly possible, imitate God.  Also, depending on how the soul acted in the physical world, he said there is another world that the soul will go to, which does not have death.[6]  He also stated that God does not condone harming others or yourself.
            Al-Farabi (c. birth 878) is called the “Father of Islamic Neo-Platonism.”[7]  He characterizes God by saying what God is not, for example al-Farabi says God is indefinable.  However, al-Farabi does think God is top on al-Farbai’s hierarchy, and since everything comes from him, God is then responsible for everything but in a roundabout fashion.[8]  He splits reason up into six main categories to make it simpler to understand.  The first four categories are prudence, “obviousness” and “immediate recognition,” natural perception, and “conscience.”[9]  The fifth is more complex, but also said to be the most important by al-Farabi.  The fifth category contains four components, potential intellect, actual intellect, acquired intellect, and active intellect.  The last category is God/divine reason.[10]
            Perhaps al-Farabi’s greatest contribution to philosophy came in the political aspect.  He lays out qualities a good leader should have which include, a strong physical stature, a good speaker, and possessing the desire to learn.  Al-Farabi’s most discussed topic is happiness.  He believed that “virtuous cities” would be places where people work with one another to gain their happiness.[11]  He believed that man needed help to attain real happiness, and that is where the virtuous society, city, and world concept of al-Farabi’s originates.

Ibn Sina
            Ibn Sina (980-1037) followed in the footsteps of al-Farabi and others by being another Neo-Platonist.  Ibn Sina would become the most famous of the Muslim Neo-Platonists.  Ibn Sina was born in central Asia, and when he was only thirteen, he started to study medicine.[12]  He became an expert and many top physicians read his works.  This is how his name began to grow.
            Besides being in medicine, Ibn Sina was also a philosopher.  He believes that things like the body and mind spring from God, who is the source of all existence.  Also, he says that is an important for humans to continue learning and gather knowledge.  It’s important for a human to reach a certain knowledge level, so the human can save their soul by applying this knowledge.  Ibn Sina believes the soul to immortal and having no physical matter.  He it has to be, after all our thoughts are not physical as well as our general intellect.  They are indivisible and physical substances can be divided.[13]  He also believed that God is the root of the soul that has been perfectly purified.  Ibn Sina contributed heavily to philosophy from a Muslim perspective.  His works influenced many philosophers for generations, not just in the Islamic world, but in Europe as well, including Thomas Aquinas, a Christian.

Brethren of Purity
            The Brethren of Purity emerged in the 10th century.  They published an encyclopedia which included 52 volumes.[14]  The exact authors are unknown, but they are believed to be from a Shi’I background, Isma’ilism more specifically.  Their encyclopedia includes everything from spirituality and the nature of the soul to music, mathematics, and sciences.  Although the base of their teachings is the Qur’an and other Islamic traditions, the Brethren of Purity also used the Christian gospels, the Jewish Torah, and other monotheistic readings from Abraham.  They were also impacted by the Greek philosophers, and old Persian and Indian works.
            The Brethren of Purity believed in “truth in every religion.”[15]  At the same time, they also said people should be critical of every religion, including their own.[16]  They believed that the desire for happiness and salvation are what drive a person to search for knowledge and rationality.  The Brethren’s most well known work is how they coupled mathematics with philosophy.  They use calculations to create some theories.[17]  They were considered to be very liberal in their day.

            Mu’tazilites received their name from the Arabic word i’tizal, which means to secede.  The Mu’tazilites disagreed with the early theologians, and thus were named.[18]  The Mu’tazilites call themselves the “People of Unity and Justice.”[19]  They believe that God is “knowing, powerful, and seeing,” but due to the human intellect, we cannot say that those traits vary away from the divine essence.[20]  They believe the dine traits need to be matched up with the divine essence to prevent the “plurality of eternals,” therefore keeping the unity.  The justice the Mu’tazilites refer to is the justice that God will provide by punishing sinners and rewarding those who performed good works.  By stating this, it means that man has free will and is held accountable for their actions.  Mu’tazilites also believe that God never uses or spoke to angels or prophets.  They believe that an Imam needs to be appointed rule over the Muslim community (ummah).[21]  They also believe that the interpreter of religious law (the mujtahid) cannot be incorrect.

            Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (b. 780) would eventually have a group named after him.  He travelled through Arabia, Iraq, and Syria for many years searching for knowledge.  Hanbal collected the ahadith of Muhammad.  Hanbal immensely believed that the Qur’an was eternal and uncreated.  A court was set up for inquisition of scholars who stated the Qur’an was uncreated, by the Caliphs Al-Ma’mum and Al-Mutasim.[22]  Hanbal was put in prison and even though treated harshly, continued to back his own belief.  When Caliph Al-Mutawakkil rose to the Caliphate, Hanbal was released and praised for his unwavering belief.  It is said by followers that he saved the accurate version of the Islamic belief in reference to the Qur’an.
            Hanbal’s followers therefore believe the Qur’an is eternal and uncreated.  They also believe that the Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad are the only true sources of Islam.  Hanbalites do not believe in stressing reason, but rather they stress God and what God gives.  They believe that God is what he says he is in the Qur’an and according to Muhammad’s traditions, that is.  A Sunni school is set up based on the Hanbalite beliefs.

             Ash’arism arose in the 10th and 11th centuries.  The Ash’arites wanted to purify Islam of the non-Islam components that had made their way into Islam.[23]  They are named after al-Ash’ari, who is a descendent of one the Companions of the Prophet.  He studied under a Mu’tazilite scholar, but then changed his views when he was in his forties.  From then on he wanted to bring into light the overall inaccuracy of the Mu’tazilite view.
            The Ash’arites believe God is an eternal and is one Being.  They state God is knowing and powerful, can see, hear, and speak.[24]  They did state that the traits God possesses are original and not the same as the created beings’.  The Ash’arites believe that humans are given actions from God, who creates the action.  This is saying that humans do not have free will, but that God is not controlling human actions.  The Ash’arites believe it is somewhere in between these two viewpoints.  The Ash’arites also think that reason is used to confirm what revelation has provided, and revelation is the main source of truth.[25]

            Al-Ghazali (c. 1055-1111) during his lifetime was one of the most influential philosophers.  He studied at a prestigious school and was well educated.  This led him to working closely with the Seljuq sultan and his court, and later with the caliphal court located in Baghdad.  Al-Ghazali’s adapted his personal life after reading some Sufi works and decided that working in such prominent positions doesn’t fit with living a religious life.  He then went to Damascus and Jerusalem and promised he would never work in any political environment, including teaching at schools the state sponsors.[26]
            Al-Ghazali’s most notable work was titled, “Incoherence of the Philosophers.”[27]  This challenged the prior philosophers’ views and explained why they were wrong in al-Ghazali’s eyes, and how some even bent the truth knowingly to prove their theories.  Al-Ghazali believed that the revelations that were given to the early prophets like Abraham, are the main source of knowing about the human soul and God’s nature among other topics.[28]  He believed philosophy, both the correct and even the incorrect should be tolerated by the religion of Islam.  The only exception is when philosophy touches the subjects of Muhammad’s prophecy, monotheism, and what the Qur’an description of the afterlife.[29]  He believed that eternal knowledge was God’s and only God’s.[30]  Al-Ghazali was controversial and brought about the separation of religion and philosophy.  He generated many responses over generations, while rocking his own.

[1] Kiki Kennedy-Day, “al-Kindi, Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn Ishaq (d. c. 866-73),” Routledge, (accessed October 27, 2012).
[2] Kiki Kennedy-Day, “al-Kindi, Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn Ishaq (d. c. 866-73),” Routledge, (accessed October 27, 2012).
[3] Paul E. Walker, “al-Razi, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya’ (d. 925),” Routledge, (accessed October 27, 2012).
[4] Paul E. Walker, “al-Razi, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya’ (d. 925),” Routledge, (accessed October 27, 2012).
[5] Paul E. Walker, “al-Razi, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya’ (d. 925),” Routledge, (accessed October 27, 2012).
[6] Paul E. Walker, “al-Razi, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya’ (d. 925),” Routledge, (accessed October 27, 2012).

[7] Ian Richard Netton, “al-Farabi, Abu Nasr (c. 870-950),” Routledge, (accessed October 28, 2012).
[8] Ian Richard Netton, “al-Farabi, Abu Nasr (c. 870-950),” Routledge, (accessed October 28, 2012).
[9] Ian Richard Netton, “al-Farabi, Abu Nasr (c. 870-950),” Routledge, (accessed October 28, 2012).
[10] Ian Richard Netton, “al-Farabi, Abu Nasr (c. 870-950),” Routledge, (accessed October 28, 2012).
[11] Ian Richard Netton, “al-Farabi, Abu Nasr (c. 870-950),” Routledge, (accessed October 28, 2012).
[12] Salim Kemal, “Ibn Sina Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn (980-1037),” (accessed October 28, 2012).
[13] Salim Kemal, “Ibn Sina Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn (980-1037),” (accessed October 28, 2012).
[14] Dr. Nadr El-Bizri, “Brethren of Purity,” The Institute of Ismaili Studies, (accessed October 29, 2012).
[15] Dr. Nadr El-Bizri, “Brethren of Purity,” The Institute of Ismaili Studies, (accessed October 29, 2012).
[16] Asghar Ali Engineer, “Ikwhan-us Safa: A Rational and Liberal Approach to Islam,” (accessed October 29, 2012).
[17] Asghar Ali Engineer, “Ikwhan-us Safa: A Rational and Liberal Approach to Islam,” (accessed October 29, 2012).
[18] Mir Valiuddin, “Mu’tazalism,” (accessed October 29, 2012).
[19] Mir Valiuddin, “Mu’tazalism,” (accessed October 29, 2012).

[20] Mir Valiuddin, “Mu’tazalism,” (accessed October 29, 2012).
[21] Mir Valiuddin, “Mu’tazalism,” (accessed October 29, 2012).
[22], “Ahmad ibn Hanbal,”, (accessed October 29, 2012).
[23] M. Abdul Hye, “Ash’arism,” (accessed October 29, 2012).
[24] M. Abdul Hye, “Ash’arism,” (accessed October 29, 2012).

[25] M. Abdul Hye, “Ash’arism,” (accessed October 29, 2012).
[26] Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University, “Al-Ghazali,” Frank Griffel, (accessed October 29, 2012).
[27]Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University, “Al-Ghazali,” Frank Griffel, (accessed October 29, 2012).
[28] Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University, “Al-Ghazali,” Frank Griffel, (accessed October 29, 2012).
[29] Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University, “Al-Ghazali,” Frank Griffel, (accessed October 29, 2012).
[30] “Muhammad al-Ghazali,” (accessed October 29, 2012).