The news from Iran is troubling to say the least. Are the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations misguided? Is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meddling in our affairs?
Hidden from the headlines and punditry are the lives of ordinary Iranians. But their experiences demand our attention. On March 2, about 200 people gathered the University of Texas at Austin to illuminate the plight of Iran’s estimated 350,000 Baha’is who are denied, among other rights, access to higher education.
As part of the international campaign Education Is Not a Crime, members of the Austin Baha’i community and UT’s Baha’i student group organized a screening and discussion of “To Light a Candle,” a documentary made by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari.
The campaign has all the modern trappings — a slick website, celebrity endorsement, video messages and calls to tweet world leaders, including Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the people I spoke to at the screening say they’re determined to go beyond hashtag activism. They believe Iran’s regime cares about world opinion, that with enough pressure, leaders will bend.
It’s hard to fathom that kind of hope.
“To Light a Candle” chronicles decades of merciless abuse of Baha’is — and their staggering resilience. When Spiritual Assembly leaders were rounded up and executed in the 1980s, they elected new leaders. When they were barred from the Iranian university system, they created their own, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education.
I attended the screening and served as a panelist for the discussion that followed. The content of the film wasn’t shocking to me. I had covered the Baha’i community as a reporter and heard the stories of imprisonment, torture and executions. And I teach about persecution of Baha’is in my Journalism & Religion class at UT.
But, as all good documentaries do, “To Light a Candle” provoked new questions: Why does Baha’i suffering exist largely in the dark? Why do the mullahs find this religion so threatening? And why on earth would anyone stay in such a hostile place?
As religions go, the Baha’i faith, founded in mid-19th century Iran by a prophet called Bahá’u’lláh, is relatively new. Baha’is believe in progressive revelation, the idea that God sent a series of divine messengers (Krishna, Jesus, Muhammad, etc.), each building upon the revelations of the earlier prophets. Followers eschew partisan politics, promote gender and racial equality and require the education of children.
But to the Shia Muslim establishment, the claim that God sent a prophet after Muhammad is anathema. Iranian clerics and government officials contend the Baha’i faith is not a religion at all but a political dissident group, an enemy to Iran and Islam.
The Iranian government bars Baha’is from higher education unless they renounce their beliefs. The other option for young people is to go underground and, at great risk, earn a degree they may never be able to use publicly.
Thousands enroll in the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, taking courses online and in private homes. Many of the professors are themselves graduates of the institute. Some teach from other countries, including the U.S. An audience member shared that after earning his bachelor’s degree from the institute, he was able to pursue a master’s degree at UT.
But students and their teachers are considered criminals in Iran. They are regularly arrested, tortured and detained without official charges or legal representation.
Their commitment to scholarship is not a secular ideal but a religious one. In the Baha’i faith, universal education is compulsory. The prophet Bahá’u’lláh said: “Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.”
During the panel discussion after the screening, the moderator Khotan Shahbazi-Harmon, whose own father was executed after the Islamic Revolution, asked for my gut reaction to the film.
I answered bluntly: “I don’t understand why they stayed. No country is worth that. No faith is worth that.”
It seemed unfair that the Baha’i faith, which has been under siege since its inception, could have a rule against recanting — even to save one’s life.
Bijan Masumian, a wise and soft-spoken Austin researcher, explained that Baha’is are connected to the people who came before them and to those who will follow. The rule reminds them that they are called to think outside their own circle, their own family, and to consider the whole of humanity.
He added: “You cannot eradicate a religious belief system by persecution. The harder you push, the more resilient they become.”
At the end of the Q&A session, a man with a white mustache raised his hand. “I know of a way we can help,” he said quietly. “Light a candle, no matter how big or how small. There is no darkness — only the absence of light.”
One of the panelists leaned over to me and whispered, “That’s Baha’i theology 101.”
Flynn, a former religion reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, teaches the course Journalism & Religion at the University of Texas at Austin.