It seems a little strange at first, when you consider that Zoroastrianism is technically tolerated, along with Christianity and Judaism. Traditional practitioners of each of these faiths are identified as fellow People of the Book. But Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic faith in only the loosest sense of the world, so it can’t possibly have much of a claim to unity with the Abrahamic religions. The Baha’i faith, on the other hand, gives primacy to a single, majestic God in virtually all of its teachings. And what’s more, it is undeniably the same God, as the Baha’i faith is a direct descendent of Twelver Shiism.
So why is the Baha’i community categorically rejected by the ruling government? Why is it denied education and driven out of professional employment and denied eternal rest in their own cemeteries, while lifelong practitioners of an ancient, proto-monotheist cult of fire worship are treated as brothers to Islam, just as long as they keep relatively quiet about their faith?
I expect that the problem that the clerical regime faces with Zoroastrianism is that it has been entrenched in the history of Persia and modern Iran for millennia, and to reject it would be to reject a great deal of what gives the nation its unique cultural identity. To outlaw it as all cults and new religious movements have been outlawed would make the ruling clerics seem like interlopers. It would have given the impression – perhaps a more accurate impression – that they had manufactured a revolution to impose their own private culture on a population of tens of millions of people, as opposed to simply becoming the standard-bearers to some genuine Iranian/Persian culture – a culture that is, of course, proudly Shiite, with just a handful of exceptions.
The problem with the Baha’i faith, by contrast, is that it is every bit as unique to Persia as Zoroastrianism, and far more so than Shiite Islam, which was of course created and developed by Arabs first. But the Baha’i date back only to the 19th century. On the scale of world religion, it is in its infancy. And far from being a potential tool for the global isolation of conservative, traditionalist Iranian culture, the remarkable modernity of the Baha’i faith makes it a potential rival for the identity of Iran in the 21st century.
Of course the rivalry has to do with much more than time. It is also a matter of the incompatibility of central Baha’i teachings with the Iranian regime’s fundamentalist understanding of Islam. And it is a matter of the Baha’i community’s incompatibility with the global and cultural isolation that the clerical regime thrives on.
To a greater extent than any other religion I can think of, the Baha’i faith specifically conceives of itself as a world religion. A document by the ruling body of the Baha’i community says that the faith “proclaims the necessity and the inevitability of the unification of all mankind.” In addition to religious precepts, the faith community has social platforms in pursuit of this end, including the establishment of a culturally neutral global language.
None of this explains the extent of the persecution to which the Baha’is are subjected in the movement’s native country; but it does explain why the current theocratic government in Tehran would see such a movement as essentially antithetical to the culture that the government is trying to enforce and preserve – a culture that pits Shiite against Sunni, East against West, man against woman.
It has recently occurred to me that this antithesis makes the persecution of Baha’is a sort of synecdoche for the Iranian government’s entire philosophy of persecution.
For those not familiar with the terminology of obscure literary devices, a synecdoche is when an individual part of something is used to represent the entire thing – as when you say there is a sail on the horizon when what you really see is an entire ship. If you burn down the sails, you burn down the ships; and if you burn down the Baha’i faith you burn down the principles of unification and global peace and understanding that the Baha’i faith deliberately represents.
When the Iranian regime is trying to suppress when it attacks activists and minorities and women and apostates, we can say that it is trying to shut out the sort of interpersonal and global understanding that poses a threat to the power of dictatorships everywhere. If ever there is one group that directly embodies that threat, it is a dictator’s prerogative to destroy it ahead of all others, even though in so doing he is only attacking one part of a greater whole – a greater whole that is much harder to suppress.
Edward Carney is a freelance writer and editor residing in New York State. He holds a degree in Philosophy and Religious Studies from New York University, having pursued these disciplines in the interest of helping to foster inter-religious, inter-personal, and inter-political understanding. As a ghostwriter he has been published in both the popular and academic press, and under his own name he contributes to political blogs on topics including civil rights, ethics, and poverty.