Just months after the sentencing of the Baha’i leaders in Iran to 20 years imprisonment, Iran has once again come under international scrutiny for its long-standing persecution of Baha’is. On 21 May, a coordinated series of raids were carried out in various locations in Iran on the homes of Baha’is who have been involved with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE).
The BIHE was established in 1987 as a way of providing an education to young Baha’is who have been systematically denied access to higher education by the Iranian regime. Baha’i Thought has a great article up discussing the raids and the Iranian regime’s violation of a number of universal human rights such as the right to freedom of belief and the right to education.
As Baha’is, it is only natural that the issue of the persecution of Baha’is in Iran weighs heavily on our hearts. It is always distressing to be reminded of how rampant war, persecution and injustice still is in today’s world. In this case, it’s particularly devastating to us – as Baha’is – to see the friends in Iran suffer so terribly for a faith that simply embraces all humanity and affirms the value and worth of each individual. Some of us are even friends or family of those in Iran who have been directly affected, making it all the more heart-wrenching.
A few days ago.,I came across a fantastic essay by Matthew Weinberg (published in 1997) which looks at contemporary human rights discourse from the perspective of the Baha’i Writings. I found it to be a fascinating read and it made me reflect on the way in which I – as a product of the society we live in – talk about and understand human rights.
Human rights in today’s world is a claim that an individual makes to protect himself or herself from the excesses of power and authority that a state or society may exert. It is a catch-all phrase that we often use to arbitrate against the numerous injustices that are perpetrated against the weakest individuals in societies across the world. Identity politics has become part and parcel of this culture, in which we advocate for the rights of a group of people with whom we have a common identity by virtue of a shared social marker such as race, religion, class, gender or nationality.
Reflecting on my own reactions to the situation in Iran, I have found that the way I talk about the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran, as well as human rights in general, reflects much of how society talks about human rights and justice. I have found myself fixated solely on the various human rights treaties and the manner in which the Iranian regime, in its treatment of the Baha’is in Iran, has violated numerous treaty provisions. I have found myself falling into the trap of identity politics, with my sadness at the events in Iran being accentuated by the feeling of solidarity I have with members of what I consider my spiritual family.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with holding governments accountable and asking that they abide by the legal obligations they sign up to. Nor do I think it is at all strange to feel a special connection with and compassion for members of your religious community. These reactions are natural and only human! But as with all human responses, they are ultimately limited in their ability to grasp the full spiritual reality of things.
Weinberg, in his article, points to a far loftier conception of human rights in the Baha’i writings and suggests that the Baha’i commitment to human rights is based on an understanding of our spiritual reality.
The Bahá’í commitment to justice is an essential and tangible expression of faith. In contrast to the secular liberal theory that gave rise to the present human rights regime, the Bahá’í teachings ground human rights in what is regarded as the objective spiritual nature of the human person.
… As the 1947 statement of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada eloquently affirmed: “The source of human rights is the endowment of qualities, virtues and powers which God has bestowed upon mankind without discrimination of sex, race, creed or nation. To fulfill the possibilities of this divine endowment is the purpose of existence.”
In short, human beings must be free in order to discover and know God: “…to ascend unto the station conferred upon their own inmost being, the station of the knowledge of their own selves.” This process of spiritual discovery and development is the essence of life itself. The innate and fundamental aspiration to investigate reality is thus not only the right but the obligation of every human being. And it is for this very reason that `Abdu’l-Bahá states that the “conscience of man is sacred and to be respected…”
Human rights goes far beyond the minimum guarantees that we enshrine into law and treaties. It goes beyond the basic rights like education and shelter. It goes beyond tolerance. It is about the recognition of the divine spark and nobility that exists in each human being and the love and respect that flow from that recognition.
Our commitment to justice, as Baha’is, is not one that applies only to the Baha’is in Iran but to people from all walks of life – be it the other persecuted minorities in the world or those in our own neighbourhood who face exclusion and injustice. It’s not just about making sure that everyone has access to basic necessities and freedoms such as education and freedom of belief, but a determined effort to see each human being supported and nurtured such that they may “ascend unto the station .. of the knowledge of their own selves” and fulfil the purpose God intended for them.
As a Baha’i, the principles of the oneness of humanity and universal brotherhood are in no way remote. I have been fortunate to have access to volumes of teachings that show us how the principles of love and unity are the foundations for a new world order. But it is important not to speak of grandiose terms like universal human rights and a new civilization in isolation from our day-to-day interactions.
Baha’u’llah affirms the nobility and sacredness of every man.
With the hands of power I made thee and with the fingers of strength I created thee; and within thee have I placed the essence of My light. Be thou content with it and seek naught else, for My work is perfect and My command is binding. Question it not, nor have a doubt thereof. Hidden Words, No. 12 from the Arabic
Baha’u’llah also tells us to “be most loving to another”. He exhorts us to reconcile our differences with “perfect peace and unity” and to “burn away, wholly for the sake of the Well-Beloved, the veil of self with the flame of the undying Fire” and to associate with everyone “with faces joyous and beaming with light”.
You have good intentions; your purpose is the good pleasure of God; you desire to serve in the Kingdom of the Merciful One. Therefore, arise in the utmost power. Be in perfect unity. Never become angry with one another. Let your eyes be directed toward the kingdom of truth and not toward the world of creation. Love the creatures for the sake of God and not for themselves. You will never become angry or impatient if you love them for the sake of God. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace
Rethinking how I understand human rights has been hugely challenging. Society protects that rights of individuals in a very limited way. But an understanding of human rights as stemming from our spiritual reality reminds me that every human being has one lofty purpose: to know God and to develop spiritually. In his revealed Teachings throughout the ages, God has repeatedly laid down laws as to how we should treat one another. These laws lay the foundations for societies and communities in which the spiritual growth of the individual will be best nurtured and supported.
Show forbearance and benevolence and love to one another. Should any one among you be incapable of grasping a certain truth, or be striving to comprehend it, show forth, when conversing with him, a spirit of extreme kindliness and good-will. Help him to see and recognize the truth, without esteeming yourself to be, in the least, superior to him, or to be possessed of greater endowments. Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah
Every human being, simply by virtue of being a creation of God and being imbued with that divine nobility, has a right to the love and friendship that each person needs to grow spiritually and to achieve their life’s purpose of knowing and worshipping God. The impatience that I feel with a family member; the judgment I silently pass on a stranger on the tram; the lack of warmth and love I feel for someone who challenges my ideas about how we should interact with each other; my quickness to take offence and allow my ego take over and my unwillingness to understand where another person might be at in their own lives – none of these are a violation of human rights in the legalistic sense.
But each of these actions represent a violation of the divine injunction to love – truly love – every human being for the sake of God.