Celebrating Norooz in Prisons

By Maziar Bahari

The words and views expressed below reflect that of the author, and do not necessarily represent ADL.

The last days of March is a strange and melancholic time in prisons across Iran; but somehow, it is also hopeful. This is the time when prisoners see their sabzeh, or wheat sprouts, grow on their windowsills. The green blades of sabzeh make them long for home and gives them hope for the Persian new year, Norooz, on March 21st.

Growing sabzeh in prison takes extraordinary effort from extraordinary individuals. Not every prisoner has the patience or perseverance to look after sabzeh. But one group of Iranian prisoners has consistently worked to grow sabzeh no matter the challenges and hardships they’ve had to suffer. These prisoners are Iranian Baha’is, members of the largest religious minority community in the country.

The Baha’is’ struggle to grow sabzeh in prison speaks to their love for their country and their willingness to suffer for this love. Most of the Baha’is in Iranian jails have done nothing wrong. They’re charged with “undermining the security of the nation,” which essentially means practicing their faith, refusing to recant it, refusing to convert to Islam.

Since the 1979 Revolution, the Islamic Republic has murdered, tortured and jailed Baha’is. But, forty years later, there are still more than 300,000 Baha’is in Iran. Despite being treated as second-class citizens, suffering daily discrimination at school and work, being denied places of worship and subjected to arrest, imprisonment and torture, Baha’is remain at the forefront of progressive social changes in Iran. As a forward-looking community, they contribute to the progress of Iranian society and culture, and as brave individuals, they are role models for other persecuted Iranian women and men.

The Islamic Republic celebrated the 40th anniversary of its revolution last month, and it will soon celebrate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the start of the Cultural Revolution that led to the closure of Iran’s universities for three years while undesirable elements were cleansed away by force. Each of these anniversaries remind the Baha’is of discrimination, arrest and murder.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s movement, which started in 1962 against the government of the Shah, and led to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, was not an anti-dictatorial and anti-imperialist liberation movement. Judging by Khomeini’s speeches and letters, his movement was a rebellion against women having the right to vote and the relative freedom of the Baha’is under the Shah. It was, in essence, a reactionary protest against modernity in Iran and its two most prominent symbols, women and the Baha’is.

One of the main objections of Iran’s Shia clergy against the Baha’i Faith has been the Baha’i emphasis on the equality of men and women and universal education. The second main objection is to the Baha’is’ belief in an individual’s personal relationship with God, and that, unlike Shia Muslims, they do not believe clerics are needed to interpret the religious teachings.

The oustanding example of this progressive Baha’i outlook is their approach to higher education. After the international community condemned the killing of Baha’is in Iran, after the Revolution, the regime changed course and tried to turn Baha’is into second class citizens. Baha’i students and teachers were denied the right to study and teach at university during the early 1980s Cultural Revolution. Instead of submitting to suppression, they chose a beautiful form of peaceful resistance by starting their own university: The Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (or BIHE) in 1987.

The BIHE is an underground university with no real campus and no official recognition within Iran. BIHE teachers are Baha’is and non-Baha’is inside Iran, in the homes of Baha’is across the country, and volunteer teachers around the world who teach BIHE students online. Thousands of young Baha’is — who were qualified high school graduates, but were rejected by Iranian universities — have studied at the BIHE. The standard of its teaching is so high that now many prestigious universities, including Berkeley, Harvard and Yale, accept its graduates.

Since its first few years, BIHE students and teachers have been arrested and have spent years in prison on charges of “unlawful gathering” and “undermining the security of the nation.” This March, dozens of BIHE graduates are among the almost one hundred Baha’i prisoners who have been growing sabzeh over the past few weeks. A number of these sabzeh plants are thrown to the floor and trampled by sadistic prison wardens. But Iranians take solace in the words of Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah and one of three central figures in the Baha’i Faith, who despite being exiled from Iran in the 19th century, and witnessing the persecution and murder of his followers, never lost hope in Iran and in Iranians in one of his new year messages:

“May the old earth disappear and the new earth appear; old ideas depart and new thoughts come; ancient politics whose foundation is war be discarded and modern politics founded on peace raise the standard of victory; the new star shine and gleam and the new sun illumine and radiate; new flowers bloom; the new spring become known.”

About the author: Maziar Bahari is the editor of iranwire.com. His 2014 film To Light a Candle tells the story of the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education. It can now be watched for free here: https://vimeo.com/229264690

A longer version of this blog-piece is published on IranWire.

About ADL’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities: The mission of ADL’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities is to bring international attention to the human rights offenses committed against minority communities in the Middle East. The Task Force consists of regional and topical experts who serve as an advisory body to augment ADL’s work in protecting vulnerable minorities by identifying, elevating, and educating on emerging human rights issues in the Middle East.

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