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MSU student, Lansing resident share their lives under a theocracy in Iran

November 2, 2017

Amin Ghorbanpour never got to meet his grandfather.

In 1984, five years before Ghorbanpour's birth and five years after the Islamic Revolution installed a theocracy in Iran, his grandfather, one of nine people who made up the local Baha'i spiritual assembly, was arrested for his faith in a nighttime raid. Three months later, his family was informed by the government that he had been executed. No explanation of his formal charge, no time of death or information on the judge and court that sentenced him, just the coldly-delivered fact that he was no longer alive.

Ghorbanpour's father, also a member of the spiritual assembly, escaped the same fate, but at a cost: he went into hiding for several years, forced to leave his young family behind in the face of significant danger. He would bounce from house to house, wary of remaining in one place too long, being caught and sentenced to death without a fair trial.

"It was a chaotic situation at that time," Ghorbanpour said. "Many of these raids and executions, basically they were not based on previous instruction, like a court order or something like that. That's why, because of all the chaos, people tried to stay safe and maybe not live at one address." 

Ghorbanpour's grandfather is one of over 200 Baha'is that were killed in the early years of the Iranian Islamic system, and his father is one of countless Baha'is to have faced or evaded imprisonment as a result of his faith. Even as faith-based executions have given way to less violent forms of societal repression, Baha'is continue to be persecuted for nothing other than the religion they follow. 

The political and social climate in Iran, as well as long-standing religious disagreements, have led to a dangerous situation for Baha'is who choose to stay, and heartbreak and confusion for those like Ghorbanpour who choose to flee the country they called home.

Targeted persecution

Mahtab, a 28-year-old graduate student at MSU whose name has been changed for her protection, can identify with a lot of what Ghorbanpour has gone through. Growing up Baha'i in Iran left her with similar stories — fearing for her family's safety, experiencing unequal treatment and seeing loved ones become political prisoners. As a result of protests in the aftermath of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election in 2009, she said her Baha'i friend was arrested and given a bogus charge.

"The funny and sad thing is, my friend who was arrested, she at the time was 24 or 25. Very young artist, has nothing to do with this," Mahtab said. "Her charge was that she was trying to overthrow the government. She's a teeny tiny woman artist, like what? Overthrowing the government? No matter what happens in Iran, they always use that as an excuse to go and arrest Baha'is." 

At first glance, the persecution and violence seems random. Government overthrow is hardly a goal of the Baha'i faith; Ghorbanpour said Baha'is are taught to not even verbally argue with others, let alone try to violently prove their points. The Baha'i are the largest minority religious group in Iran, but they are outnumbered nearly 250-to-1 by the Muslim majority — and accept Islam as a legitimate, divine faith, as they do with other major religions.

Although 99.5 percent of Iranians are Muslim, the persecution that Baha'is face is largely avoided by those of other religions. Christian and Jewish communities in Iran, although incredibly small, aren't threatened with imprisonment or death nearly as often; Islam recognizes Jesus and Moses as legitimate prophets.

The Baha'i faith is different. They believe in a prophet, Bahá'u'lláh, who died only 125 years ago and preached a message of global equality. Bahá'u'lláh was born in Iran and, after establishing the faith, was exiled, moving throughout the region until his death in Israel, making the latter nation a "holy land" for Baha'is. Mahtab said this means that Baha'is are often accused of being spies of Israel and its ally, the U.S.

"If they arrest you in Iran as a Baha'i, they basically don't need anything against you," Mahtab said. "They can just say, 'spy of Israel' and, all set. You can be sentenced for that." 

On top of these issues, not only do Baha'is violate one of the most central tenets of Islam, that Muhammad was the final true prophet, but the faith's progressive tendencies tend to contradict Iran's social conservatism. In a government like Iran's, whose power has been directly drawn from Islam since the revolution, a contradiction against the religion is a contradiction against the state.

"When the prophet started the faith, he said things that at the time were not acceptable, like equality of men and women or not having clergy, and now the country is governed by clergy," Mahtab said. "These are all things that would take away the power from who is governing. It's all politics." 

As a result, much of the discrimination faced by Iranian Baha'is is far from taboo; it's explicitly state-sanctioned. A 1991 internal memo, featuring a handwritten note of approval by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, contained anti-Baha'i statements like "Deny them employment if they identify themselves as Baha’is" and "A plan must be devised to confront and destroy their cultural roots outside the country."

Some of the persecution is not only restrictive, but demeaning. Mahtab says rumors circulate that Baha'is are so dirty that their food is inedible, or that they're infidels — even that Baha'is have tails. She recalled a high school teacher who, instead of teaching his assigned subject, would constantly criticize Baha'is and other minority groups. Her friends in class refused to let it continue.

"Instead of teaching language, he was talking about Baha'is and other minorities," Mahtab said. "He started saying these things, and my classmates actually defended me, saying, 'No, we have a friend who is Baha'i. We know what you are saying is not true.'" 

This is an example of something both Mahtab and Ghorbanpour agree on: the average Iranian doesn't actively discriminate against Baha'is. With the exception of "maybe ten percent" of Iranians who are religious and closed-minded or under governmental influence, Ghorbanpour said nowadays, many of his fellow countrymen view Baha'is as equal citizens, making persecution more of a political power play than a widely held belief.

"Because of the media, because of the internet, because of social media, year by year Iranians could get to know Baha'is better," Ghorbanpour said. "The rest of the community, I think they treat Baha'is as fellow citizens, full Iranians." 

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East Lansing resident Melanie Smith believes as fellow Baha'is abroad refuse to physically fight back against persecution, interest in the struggle will grow among other Iranians. Stressing that Baha'is in Iran were not responding passively, but rather non-violently and within the Iranian legal framework, Smith believes that these methods have been crucial to helping citizens see Baha'is for more than what the government tells them.

"As time has gone on and people have observed how the Baha'is respond to the persecution, they're intrigued," Smith said. "A lot of the populace has been prevented from learning about the Baha'i faith, has been subject to propaganda and a lot of fake news."

Education is not a crime

As is the case with many basic aspects of life for Iranian Baha'is, receiving an education is a challenging process. Ghorbanpour recalls his elementary and secondary schooling experience as being marked by discrimination and, sometimes, hopelessness.

"As Baha'i children, also we had tough times too, because schools were dominated by Islamic culture and beliefs," Ghorbanpour said. "As a kid who doesn't have those beliefs, people try to integrate you or try to make you uncomfortable. ... In some incidences — not specifically myself, but there have been so many cases — teachers or the school managers try to bother or even dismiss someone from the school." 

After completing high school, Ghorbanpour took the Iranian University Entrance Exam, required of all graduating students. What happened after he took the exam is a typical story for Iranian Baha'is looking to attend university. His score indicated he was qualified to attend many of the Iranian universities and enter into the major of his choosing; the final decision said something different.

"I took this national exam, and although I had this score that was qualifying me to go to so many majors, I didn't. I got this result back that I have not accepted to any major," Ghorbanpour said. "That's not only my story, that's the story of other Baha'is as well." 

In order to receive any sort of post-secondary education, Ghorbanpour turned to the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education, an "underground" university the Iranian government refuses to recognize as legitimate. The BIHE has been labeled an "extremist cult" by Iranian leadership, and a Quartz report on the university said BIHE enrollment is, in effect, a "scarlet letter" on students. Even as the government kept tabs on the university's every move, he was able to receive his undergraduate degree.

The BIHE is a bare-bones operation; Ghorbanpour says classes nowadays are largely online, with in-person meetings occurring at people's houses every few weeks to address questions and provide help. He said the university made gains towards operating as a normal university, obtaining computers and better facilities as the Iranian government momentarily loosened its grip, but those gains were short-lived. Government raids led to the confiscation of computers and the arrest of ten to twelve faculty members, forcing the BIHE back to a largely home-based operation.

After graduation, Ghorbanpour had minimal trouble proving the value of his BIHE degree to American universities, a benefit of sustained efforts of other Baha'is to establish the university's credibility. As is common for many BIHE graduates, was enrolled on a conditional basis at the University of Texas at Arlington, under which he had to prove he could meet the university's requirements. 

He's done that and more; since emigrating to America in 2012, Ghorbanpour has completed his master's degree and is pursuing his doctorate from UT-Arlington. Now a geotechnical engineer with Golder Associates in Lansing, he praises the sacrifices of those associated with the BIHE — especially the faculty — to continue providing a college education for students who could otherwise receive none.

"Those imprisonments did not stop the path and the journey that the BIHE started," Ghorbanpour said.

Mahtab attended the BIHE for about a year and a half, studying pharmacy — she said it was a lifelong dream of hers to study medicine, but due to her faith, none of the medical schools would accept her. She supplemented her education by working for a non-governmental organization with a focus on HIV, until she was kicked out for being Baha'i; under Ahmadinejad's rule, many of these NGOs were being shut down, and her employer wanted to avoid any "controversy" that could draw unwanted attention their way.

Realizing pharmacy wasn't her passion and seeing no other path towards a career in medicine, Mahtab left the university and the country, arriving in the U.S. in 2009. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan and was accepted to MSU for medical school. 

"I wanted to study medicine, but that was not an option," Mahtab said. "Being in med school, there are days that I wish I was able just to see a medical school in Iran, attend a medical school for one day in Iran." 

This denial of educational opportunities has driven a significant amount of international attention to the plight of Iranian Baha'is. "Changing the World, One Wall at a Time," a 2015 documentary on a street art campaign to raise awareness of the situation in Iran, inspired MSU's Baha'i community to put together a "Unity Painting" night. Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight Schrute on "The Office," is a practicing Baha'i who released a video in support of the BIHE and universal right to education.

Smith, who has been a Baha'i since discovering the faith in college in the 1960s, said the fight for education has been a focal point in the Baha'i community's response to the persecution in Iran. Education is a right, she said, and securing that right is key to reducing the government's power over the Baha'i minority.

"Education suppresses or destroys superstition," Smith said. "If people begin to think for themselves, that is a threat to the power structure." 

Waiting for a change

It would appear that covert executions and state-sanctioned violence against Baha'is are largely a thing of the past in Iran, Ghorbanpour said. As the world began to understand that stories like his grandfather's were no rarity, international pressure on the Iranian government forced leadership to tone down its treatment of Baha'is. However, a relative lack of violence doesn't mean Iran now views Baha'is citizens of equal standing.

"Still, in so many other areas, they're under persecution," Ghorbanpour said. "Baha'is don't have access to higher education, they still can't have any governmental job, they can't practice their religion ... they can't have businesses close on their holidays. They try to oppress this community by blocking their way to economic and social progress so they leave the country." 

In this, the Iranian government was successful. Ghorbanpour and Mahtab, both foreseeing minimal opportunities in their home country, came to the U.S. to continue their education. That's two fewer Baha'is in Iran; in the government's eyes, two fewer heretics, two fewer propagandists — and two fewer opportunities for bad press as a result of governmental discrimination.

Even though she chose to leave, Mahtab misses her home country. She misses her parents, who remain in Iran and misses the streets she grew up on. Her friends think she is crazy for it, given that she has studied at two of the most acclaimed research universities in the world, but she even regrets never having the chance to study at an Iranian medical school. She feels stuck in the middle in America; not completely detached from Iran, not completely rooted here.

It's a complicated balance, weighing this homesickness against reality. Mahtab said that when her older brother was born, her parents imagined a world where he could grow and work in Iran as a free Baha'i. Her brother, now in his mid-30s, has since obtained a doctorate and moved to New York — and the persecution back home continues.

"I hope at some point things change," Mahtab said. "There are some changes that you do see, like getting into high school was a little bit easier for me than it was for my brother. But you also see some random, out of nowhere invasions that happen ... It's just sad." 

Through it all, Mahtab said she's never seen renouncing her faith as an option. Some Iranian Baha'is have — and she isn't willing to judge. She said she doesn't know what it's like to be forced to discredit your faith with a gun to your head and understands why people would rather be granted basic human rights than be vocal about their beliefs.

But for her, existing as a Baha'i is a victory in itself. She thinks past generations sacrificed too much for her to have hidden who she is, and her upbringing taught her to never question her faith, even in the face of danger.

"We do not hide our belief," Mahtab said. "Honestly, when I was in Iran, it never crossed my mind just to say, 'I'm not Baha'i' so I could go to a university. Yes, life might have been easier if I had said "I'm not Baha'i" and lived my life. But again, that's not what I believe in my heart." 


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