Sunday, November 13, 2011

Education Under Fire

Article first published as Education Under Fire on Blogcritics.

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

"Everyone has the right to education...Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit...It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups..."

According to Wikipedia, there are no less than fifty-two institutions of higher education in the Greater Boston area. Boasting more colleges and universities per square inch than some areas have churches or Dunkin Donuts, Greater Boston was just the right place for a conversation about the precious human right of education.

This conversation was hosted on November 12th by Wheelock College and co-sponsored by the National Center for Race Amity, Amnesty International, and the Education Under Fire campaign. Education Under Fire is an initiative seeking to raise awareness about the importance of education as a human right through telling the story of the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education.

The Baha'i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) was founded in 1987 as a non-political and non-violent response the policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran of denying Baha'is access to higher education because of their religious beliefs. Since that time, BIHE has been run by dedicated, volunteer instructors and graduated some 2,000 students many of whom have gone on to continue their studies at colleges and universities in the United States.

It may be such success that has prompted a recent, brutal crack down on BIHE by the Iranian government. In May, more than 30 Baha'i homes across Iran were raided and several faculty and administrators were arrested. Seven professors and administrators were last month sentenced to four and five years each, for allegedly being involved in an illegal group intending to commit crimes against national security.

A primary advocacy tool of the Education Under Fire Campaign is a documentary produced by David Hoffman and directed by Jeffrey Kaufman. Wheelock College hosted one of several screenings and discussions of the documentary that are taking place in the Boston area including at MIT, Harvard, and Boston University. Jeffrey Kaufman introduced the screening pointing out that he is not a Baha'i but was inspired to tell the story of this "tragic and ongoing international disgrace". Kaufman noted that making the film was a collaborative effort, including Iranians helping to get footage out of Iran at great personal risk.

The 30-minute documentary includes interviews with several graduates of BIHE, human rights activists and Iran experts. The stories of the graduates were the most poignant parts of the film. This included Nikan Milani and Mojdeh Rohani who were present for the screening. Both have lost family members who were "disappeared" or executed by the Iranian regime for being Baha'is. Among BIHE's earliest students, in the film they provide historical context regarding the circumstances of its founding and the practical challenges of trying to educate young people in secret.

After the screening, a panel discussion took place including Jeffery Kaufman, Joshua Rubenstein Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA, and actor/comedian Rainn Wilson. The panel was moderated by Northeastern University Professor Dr. Robin Chandler.

Kaufman explained that the story of BIHE is a story of hope and instilling hope is critical in the fight for human rights. He also mentioned that the campaign to shine a light on this issue is gaining momentum including a recent open letter written by Nobel Laureates Desmund Tutu and Jose' Ramos-Horta. Wilson, a Baha'i emphasized that being involved in the Education Under Fire Campaign has deepened his appreciation of education as a "human right". He also commented on why the Baha'i Faith is so threatening to the Iranian government explaining that it is viewed as a heresy and has teachings such as the equality of men and women and religious organization without clergy. Rubenstein reminded the audience that the attacks on BIHE are taking place within a wider context of state-sanctioned repression of political views and other religious and ethnic minorities in Iran. BIHE graduate Mojdeh Rohani reponded to the question of why Baha'is stay in Iran given the oppression they face describing the centrality of service in Baha'i teaching and the desire of Iranian Baha'is to serve their nation and promote its advancement.

The evening concluded with participants being able to visit a variety of "action stations" to learn about steps they can take to support the human right of education. These steps include the following:

  1. Arranging for screenings of the documentary at their colleges or universities.
  2. Signing the Nobel Laureate's Open Letter to the international academic community.
  3. Assisting with the development and teaching of on-line courses for BIHE students.
  4. Encouraging their colleges and universities to accept diplomas and credits from BIHE graduates applying to them.