Saturday, June 25, 2011

How Does It Feel to Be A Question?

Image courtesy of the Washington Post.

Article first published as How Does It Feel to Be A Question? on Blogcritics.

I wrote recently that young Baha'is in Iran are denied the experience of graduating from college taken for granted by young Americans this time of year. For a young Baha'i in the United States, the denial was not a diploma, but a phone call.

An article recently published in the Washington Post told the story of a graduate from George Mason University. The graduate named Mahtab Mortezaei Farid did not receive a promised call from her father on her graduation day. At first she thought he had forgotten. She later learned he had been arrested and denied the opportunity to call. Her father Kamran Mortezaei Farid was rounded up with several other Baha'is for their involvement with the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education. The Baha'i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE) was founded as a creative and wholly non-violent response to the Iranian regimes policy of denying higher education to Baha'is. This grim news transformed what should have been a celebration of achievement into a vigil for justice.

You may wonder why the Islamic Republic would spend its time arresting citizens for trying to educate young people. The reason is that if you are a Baha'i in Iran you are not a person; you are a "question". At least this is the language used in a document of the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council of Iran. According to this document "The government’s dealings with them [Baha'is] must be in such a way that their progress and development are blocked". Towards this end several recommendations are made including the following:

  1. They can be enrolled in schools provided they have not identified themselves as Bahá’ís.
  2. Preferably, they should be enrolled in schools which have a strong and imposing religious ideology.
  3. They must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Bahá’ís.
  4. Propaganda institutions (such as the Islamic Propaganda Organization) must establish an independent section to counter the propaganda and religious activities of the Bahá’ís.
  5. A plan must be devised to confront and destroy their cultural roots outside the country.
  6. Deny them employment if they identify themselves as Bahá’ís.
  7. Deny them any position of influence, such as in the educational sector, etc.
I've often pondered the implications of viewing a whole population as a question rather than as people. It reminded me of W.E.B Du Bois' poignant discussion of a similar dynamic in his literary classic, The Souls of Black Folk:

"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it...To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word. And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,--peculiar even for one who has never been anything else..."

I wonder if Baha'is in Iran encounter something similar with their neighbors. In this case, the unasked question is not "How does it feel to be a problem?" but "How does it feel to be a question?" Whether asked explicitly or not, as Du Bois suggests, being a "question" must be a strange experience even if you've "never been anything else". Mahtab's story in the Washington Post offers some indication of just how strange it might be.

Those who choose to see Iran's largest religious minority as a "question" would do well to ponder a question posed by the Founder of the Baha'i Faith, Baha'u'llah during his own forty years of imprisonment, torture and exile. During an interview with British Orientalist Edward Granville Browne, Baha'u'llah stated: "Thou hast come to see a prisoner and an exile...We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations; yet they deem us a stirrer up of strife and sedition worthy of bondage and banishment...That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled -- what harm is there in this?"