Political accusations against the Baha'i Faith

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Opponents of the Bahá'í Faith, especially (but not exclusively) certain Iranians, have accused the faith's followers of dual loyalty and of being involved with foreign or hostile powers. These accusations are used to justify persecution of this religious minority.[1][2]

During its early years, the Bahá'í Faith and its predecessor, the Bábí religion, experienced growth in Persia. This growth caught the attention of the government and the ecclesiastical leaders in the country,[3] who began searching for ways to stop the growth of the religion, which they saw as a threat to their power and authority.[4] The resistance stems from a variety of Bahá'í teachings which challenge traditional Islamic belief, including principles that call into question the need for a priesthood, and the entire Shí‘i ecclesiastical structure.[5]

In addition to government and clergy-led persecution of the Bahá'ís, Iranian government officials and others have claimed that Bahá'ís have had ties to foreign powers, and were agents of Russian imperialism, British colonialism, American expansionism, Zionism, as well as being responsible for the policies of the previous Shah of Iran.[6] These accusations against the Bahá'í have been disputed, and described as misconceptions,[7] with no basis in historical fact.[8][9] Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, taught that Bahá'ís are to be loyal to one's government, not be involved in politics, and to obey the laws of the country they reside in.[10]

Historical context[edit]

The Bahá'í Faith grew out of Bábism, which was established in 1844 by the Báb in Iran.[11] 89% of Iranians adhere to the Twelver school of the sect of Shi'a Islam, which holds as a core doctrine the expected advent of a messianic figure known as the Qa'im or as the Imam Mahdi.[12] The Báb claimed he was the Imam Mahdi and thus he had equal status to the Islamic prophet Muhammad with the power, which he exercised, to abrogate the final provisions of Islamic law.[13]

Bahá'u'lláh, a Bábí who claimed to be the one foretold by the Báb, claimed a similar station for himself in 1863 as a Manifestation of God and as the promised figure foretold in the sacred scriptures of the major religious traditions of the past and founded what later came to be known as the Bahá'í Faith.[14]

Accusations and reasons[edit]

The principles in Bahá'u'lláh's writings dealt with themes that challenged Shí‘i Islamic doctrines, including the finality of the prophet-hood of Muhammad, the need for a priesthood, and also the entire Shí‘i ecclesiastical structure.[5][15] The claims of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh were originally treated by the Islamic clergy with hostility as it was a threat to their doctrinal legitimacy and social prestige.[16]

In 1852, two years after the execution of the Báb, a fringe element in the Bábí community made an unskilled plot against the Shah, Nasser-al-Din Shah, in retaliation for the Báb's execution.[17][18][19] While Bahá'u'lláh condemned the plan strongly, and renounced the movement's early anti-Qajar stance, on August 15, 1852 the radicalized Bábís attempted the assassination of the Shah and failed.[20][21] Notwithstanding the assassins' claim that they were working alone, and that Bahá'u'lláh had not participated in the assassination attempt, the entire Bábí community was blamed, and a slaughter of several thousand Bábís followed.[22] From that time Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar always remained suspicious of the Bábís and Baha'is and viewed them as agitators similar to the European anarchists.[23]

While accusations against the Bahá'ís in the early history of the religion were based on religious doctrine, non-religious accusations started to increase and dominated in the 20th century. Since Bahá'ís did not belong to any specific ethnic group, could not be identified with any geographical location, and spoke the same language, they became "the enemy within",[15] and start to figure prominently in what can only be described as conspiracy theories.[24][25]

By the end of the 19th century, there was a growing dissension with the Qajar state, and in an effort to draw public attention away from the government and instead toward the evils of the 'devious sect', charges of subversion and conspiracy against the Bábís and Bahá'ís increased.[23] In the early 20th century, the Bahá'ís were seen as being non-conformant in a society looking for unanimity and fearful of losing its perceived unique Shi'a culture due to threats from outside its boundaries.[26] During the 1940s the clerical and governmental groups started stating that the religion was entirely manufactured by colonialists and imperialists to destroy the "unity of the Muslim nation" and that those who did not share the beliefs of the Muslim nation were agents of foreign powers.[27]

By the 1960s critics of the Bahá'í Faith increasingly used charges of spying, and of connections to foreign powers rather than simply labelling Bahá'ís as heretics.[28] These new charges helped define a new 'other' and reaffirmed a threatened Shi'i self.[28] This new attitude towards the Bahá'ís was now not confined to the clerics, but was also rampant among the secular Iranian middle-class.[28] In the 1970s accusations of Bahá'ís being numerous in the Shah's regime surfaced, as well as there being a perception that Bahá'ís were generally better off than the rest of the population.[29]

Chehabi suggests that the accusations and prejudices of secular Iranians against the Bahá'ís arise from the anti-cosmopolitan outlook of Iranian nationalism; while the Bahá'í Faith affirms the unity of humanity, Iranian nationalism has contained strong xenophobic elements.[29] He notes that while Iran's sovereignty was recognized in the 19th century, Britain and Russia meddled in the country's affairs to further their own interests, and that groups that have trans-national ties like the Jews and the Bahá'ís are therefore seen as suspicious by Iranian nationalists.[29] He also notes that while the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith mitigate against a preferential attachment of Bahá'ís to Iran, Iran is seen by Bahá'ís as the "Cradle of the Cause" to which it owes a degree of affection by Bahá'ís worldwide.[29]

Since the founding of Israel, there are also accusations of Bahá'ís being associated with Zionism, since the Bahá'í World Centre is located in current-day Israel, although this is an historic accident, rather than the result of deliberate action by the Baha'is.[29] The Bahá'í World Centre has its historical origins in the area that was at the time part of Ottoman Syria. This dates back to the 1850s and 1860s when the Shah of Iran and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, ‘Abdu’l-‘Aziz, successively exiled Bahá'u'lláh from Iran to the fortress of Acre for lifetime incarceration.[30]

Since the Iranian revolution[edit]

After the overthrow of the Shah during the Iranian revolution, the Islamic regime targeted the Bahá'ís in Iran, since they held a deep hostility toward them as they saw them as infidels.[31] As nationalism grew in Iran, Bahá'ís were viewed as unpatriotic and linked to foreign elements.[32] During this time the Bahá'ís were accused of being anti-Islamic, agents of Zionism, friends of the Shah's regime, and being engaged with the US and British governments.[32] The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Iran, both privately and publicly, addressed the charges against them point by point, but received no response to their rebuttal.[32]

In January 1980 with the election of President Bani Sadr and the continuing anti-Bahá'í sentiment, the Bahá'í Faith was officially described by the government as a political movement against the Iranian revolution and Islam.[33] Before the revolution, Bani Sadr had connected the universal message of the Bahá'í Faith with Western colonialism.[33] In February 1980, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations stated that Bahá'ís were SAVAK agents and repeated the cleric's charges; only later when he broke with the regime in 1982 did he recant his previous statements.[33]

By 1981, however, revolutionary courts no longer couched the execution of Bahá'ís with political terms, and they instead cited only religious reasons.[1] Also documents were given out to Bahá'ís that if they would publicly embrace Islam, that their jobs, pensions and property would be reinstated. These documents were shown to the United Nations as evidence that the Iranian government was using the political accusations as a front to the real religious reason for the persecution of the Bahá'ís.[1]

In 1983, Iran's prosecutor general once again stated that the Bahá'ís were not being persecuted because of their religious belief, but that instead they were spies, and that they were funnelling money outside the country.[34] The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Iran, once again, addressed the issues raised by the prosecutor point by point; the letter was sent to various government agencies. The letter acknowledged that funds were being sent abroad as Bahá'í contributions to the shrines and holy places, but denied all other points, and asked for proof of the charges.[34] No response was obtained from the government to this letter. The clerics continued to persecute the Bahá'ís and charged the Bahá'ís with "crimes against God" and Zionism.[34]

In 1983 to a report to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations the official view of the Islamic Republic was published in a twenty-page document; the document stated that British encouraged the Bahá'í Faith in Iran, and that it was not a religion, but a political entity created by colonial powers, that there was a link between the Bahá'í Faith and Zionism and SAVAK. The United Nations Human Rights Commission Sub-Commission Expert Mr. Eide stated that the publication provided by the Iranian government "recalled the publications disseminated in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, which had contributed to severe prejudice costing the lives of hundreds of thousands of peoples. The Sub-Commission should be on guard against any recurrence of such campaigns".[35]

The Iranian government's statement was not accepted by the United Nations as the United Nations had received no evidence from the Iranian government regarding its claims.[36][37] The representative from Germany stated that "the documents concerning the Bahá'ís showed that the latter were persecuted, not for criminal offences, but simply for their religious beliefs".[38] The Iranian delegate dismissed the text of the Commission's resolution, and persecution of the Bahá'ís continued.[39]

In 1991, the Iranian government again gave a statement to the United Nations stating that since the administrative centre of the Bahá'í Faith is located in Israel, it is directly controlled by Zionist forces,[40] even though Bahá'í World Centre has its historical origins in the area that was once Ottoman Syria.[30] In the late 1990s during Muhammad Khatami's presidency, the name-calling and outrageous accusations did not end, and with the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, the frequency and intensity of the name-calling and accusations has increased.[41]

Russian and British ties[edit]

During the 19th century, Britain had firm control over India; at the same time Russia had been expanding south and east into Central Asia toward India, and a rivalry started between Britain and Russia over territorial and political control in Central Asia. The middle zone of land that was located between India and Russian holdings, included Persia, and was a highly coveted region, where both Russia and Britain worked to gain influence.[42]

The support of the United Kingdom during the Constitutional Revolution, the Anglo-Russian convention which solidified boundaries that identified control between Britain and Russia in Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet, the occupation of Iranian territory during the First World War by the UK, Russia and the Ottoman Empire, as well as the coup d'état of 1921 which was backed by the British, all encouraged the development of antagonism to these foreign powers.[43] Muslim clerics and other anti-Bahá'í groups connected the Bahá'í Faith, and its predecessor the Bábí movement, to the external governments of Britain and Russia to project the mistrust of these two latter groups onto the Bahá'ís.[24][43]

Russian ties[edit]

The foundation of much of the propaganda relating the Bahá'í Faith to Russian influence is a memoir attributed to Dimitri Ivanovich Dolgorukov (also known as Dolgoruki), who was the Russian ambassador to Persia from 1846 to 1854.[24][25] The memoir states that Dolgorukov created the Bábí and Bahá'í religions so as to weaken Iran and Shi'a Islam.[24] The document is in many ways the functional equivalent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent antisemitic tract alleging a Jewish plot to achieve world domination.[24] The memoir was first published in 1943 in Persian in Mashhad, and shortly thereafter published again in Tehran with some of the most glaring errors corrected. The book still, however, contains so many historical errors that it is inconceivable that it is genuine.[25]

The memoir states that Dolgorukov used to attend gatherings of Hakím Ahmad Gílání, where he would meet Bahá'u'lláh. However, Gílání died in 1835, three years before Dolgorukov's arrival in the Persia. There are numerous other errors relating to the dates and times of events that the memoir describes; the memoir describes events after the death of personages, or when the people involved were young children, or when they were in different parts of the world.[25]

Dolgorukov actually only became aware of the Bábí movement in 1847, three years after it started, and his dispatches show that he was afraid of the movement spreading into the Caucasus, and asked that the Báb be moved away from the Russian border.[25][44] In 1852, after a failed assassination attempt against the Shah for which the entire Bábí community was blamed, many Bábís, including Bahá'u'lláh, who had no role in the attempt and later severely condemned it, were arrested in a sweep.[45] When Bahá'u'lláh was jailed by the Shah, his family went to Mírzá Majid Ahi who was married to a sister of Bahá'u'lláh,[46] and was working as the secretary to the Russian Legation in Tehran. Bahá'u'lláh's family asked Mírzá Majid to go to Dolgorukov and ask him to intercede on behalf of Bahá'u'lláh, and Dolgorukov agreed.[46]

The memoirs, however, extend this assistance to all facets of Bahá'u'lláh's life. In one edition of the faked memories, Dolgorukov is said to have provided money for Bahá'u'lláh to build a house in Acre, but Dolgorukov died in 1867, before Bahá'u'lláh arrived in Acre. Thus newer editions of the memoir state that Dolgorukov sent money for a house to be built in Edirne.[25] As Dolgorukov left the Russian diplomatic service in 1854 and died in 1867, he was unable to interact with Bahá'u'lláh in the manner in which the memoir states.[25]

Communist Soviet sources produced[47] polemical pamphlets in 1930, and encyclopedic article in 1933, and most seriously in 1938 "monstrous accusations"[47] accusing Bahá'ís of being 'closely linked with the leaders of Trotskyite-Bukharinist and Dashnak-Musavat bands'.[47] Following this numerous arrests and oppression of the religion, Bahá'ís across the Soviet Union were being sent to prisons and camps or sent abroad.[48] Bahá'í communities in 38 cities across Soviet territories ceased to exist.

British ties[edit]

There have also been claims that the Bábí movement was started by the British, and that the Bahá'í Faith has ties to British imperialism; the connection to the British, however, has also been supported by false evidence.[25] Firaydun Adamiyyat, in a biography on Nasser-al-Din Shah's first Prime Minister Amir Kabir, stated that Mulla Husayn, the Báb's first disciple, was really a British agent who was recruited by Arthur Conolly, a British intelligence officer, explorer and writer. Adamiyyat states that the evidence of such an accusation appears in Conolly's book Journey to the North of India Overland from England through Russia, Persia, and Affghaunistaun, but no mention of Mulla Husayn or the Báb appears in the book. In later editions of Adamiyyat's biography on Amir Kabir, the fabrication has been removed.[25]

Accusations of ties to the British also arise from the knighting in 1920 of `Abdu'l-Bahá, then head of the religion, by the British Mandate of Palestine.[49] `Abdu'l-Bahá, however, received this award in recognition of his humanitarian work in Palestine during the war.[50]

Bahá'ís as agents of international Zionism[edit]

Bahá'ís have also been accused of ties to Zionism, a movement that calls for the self-determination of the Jewish people and a sovereign, Jewish national homeland. This claim is typically advanced is by noting that the most holy shrines of the Bahá'ís are located in current-day Israel.[29] However, Bahá'u'lláh was banished from Persia by Nasser-al-Din Shah, at which time Bahá'u'lláh went to Baghdad in the Ottoman Empire.[51] Later he was later exiled by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, at the behest of the Persian Shah, to territories further away from Iran and finally to Acre in Syria,[52] which only a century later was incorporated into the state of Israel.[25]

Bahá'u'lláh died in 1892 near Acre, and the burial place is in Bahji. Following his death, Bahá'u'lláh's son `Abdu'l-Bahá took over the leadership of the religion until his death in 1921, and he is buried in Haifa, which was then in Palestine.[53] Another important figure for Bahá'ís who is buried in current-day Israel is the Báb, whose remains were secretly transferred to Palestine and buried in Haifa in 1909.[54] Israel was not formed until 1948, almost 60 years after Bahá'u'lláh's death, 40 years after the Báb's remains were brought to the region, and 27 years after `Abdu'l-Bahá's death.

Since the Iranian revolution there have been accusations that the Bahá'ís support Israel because they send fund contributions to the Bahá'í World Centre which is located in northern Israel.[34][55] The donations are used in the Bahá'í World Centre for upkeep of the Bahá'í properties, as well as the administration of the worldwide Bahá'í community.[34] The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Iran in a 1983 letter to the Iranian government stated that while Muslims were praised for sending money out of the country to Iraq and Jerusalem for the upkeep of their religious shrines, when Bahá'ís sent money for the upkeep of their own shrines it was considered an unforgivable sin.[56]

Bahá'ís as agents of the Shah's regime and its secret police[edit]

Another criticism claims that the Bahá'ís, during the time of the Pahlavi dynasty, collaborated with the SAVAK, the Iranian secret police, and held positions of power in the government.[57] Even before the Iranian revolution, the Bahá'ís, viewed as the "other" in Iranian society, were held responsible by the rest of the Iranians for the abusive suppression by SAVAK and the Shah's unpopular policies.[58] After the revolution, the assertion that the Bahá'ís were agents of the Shah perhaps partly originates because Bahá'ís did not help the revolutionary groups, since one of the tenets of the Bahá'í Faith is to obey the government of one's country.[59]

The Bahá'í International Community has, however, stated that the Bahá'í community in Iran was the victim of the Shah's regime, and that SAVAK was one of the main ways of persecuting the Bahá'ís.[37] For example Reza Shah’s government ordered the closure of Bahá'í schools, such as Tehran’s Tarbiyat school for boys and girls, in 1934.[60] Also during the month of Ramadan in 1955, when the Shah’s government needed to distract the general population from its decision to join the Baghdad Pact under pressure from the British and American governments, it sought the support of the clerics. Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Borujerdi, acting as the Marja Taqlid, a Grand Ayatollah with the authority to make legal decisions within the confines of Islamic law, pushed the Shah's government to support the persecution of the Bahá'í community.[61][62]

The 1955 attacks were particularly destructive and widespread due to an orchestrated campaign by the government and clergy who utilized the national Iranian radio station and its official newspapers to spread hatred which led to widespread mob violence against Bahá'ís.[61][62][63] The Shah's military also occupied the Bahá'í centre in Tehran, which was destroyed in the violence.[61][62] Mottahedeh states that under the Pahlavi dynasty, the Bahá'ís were actually more a "political pawn" than a collaborator, and that Reza Shah's government toleration of Bahá'ís in the early 20th-century was more a sign of secular rule and an attempt to weaken clerical influence than a signal of favour for the Bahá’ís.[61]

There is also evidence that SAVAK collaborated with Islamic groups throughout the 1960s and 1970s in harassing Bahá'ís.[62] SAVAK also had links to Hojjatieh, a radical anti-Bahá'í group. Rahnema and Nomani state that the Shah gave Hojjatieh free rein for their activities toward the Bahá'ís.[37] Keddie states that the accusations of Bahá'ís being part of SAVAK were mainly false pretexts for persecution.[2]

With regards to the accusation that Bahá'ís held many prominent positions in the government of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, there is no empirical study that endeavours to determine the truth of such an accusation.[57] There were a number of individuals who were part of the government and who had Bahá'í backgrounds, but were not Bahá'ís themselves. One problem that arises is the definition of a Bahá'í: a Bahá'í is a member of a voluntary association that admits people only when they meet certain religious qualifications, and one can choose to become, remain or cease to be a Bahá'í.[57] However, Muslims who do not recognize the possibility of apostasy (leaving one's religion) may not understand that individuals are free to reject their previous, in this case Bahá'í, beliefs .[37]

Bahá'ís have used the term Bahá'ízada to refer to people of Bahá'í background who are not Bahá'ís themselves or part of the Bahá'í community; there is no Muslim equivalent of the term.[57] Of the Bahá'ís who held positions near the Shah, the best known is the Shah's personal physician, Abdol Karim Ayadi. While Asadullah Sanii, another Bahá'í, was appointed Minister of Defence, the Bahá'í community of Iran revoked his administrative rights — as he had accepted a political position and Bahá'ís are prohibited from involvement in partisan politics — the public, however, still continued to associate him with his previous religion.[57] Parviz Sabeti, a SAVAK official, was raised in a Bahá'í family, but had left the religion and was not a member of the community by the time he started working with the agency.[57]

Other people who were associated with the Bahá'í Faith either had Bahá'í backgrounds or were not connected with the religion at all.[57] For example, it was often rumoured that the Prime Minister Amir-Abbas Hoveida was a Bahá'í. While Hoveida's father had been a Bahá'í, he had left the religion and Hoveida himself was not religious.[57] Other people rumoured to be Bahá'ís included Mahnaz Afkhami, who was the Minister for Women's Affairs and the daughter of a Bahá'í mother, and Farrokhroo Parsa, a cabinet member who was not connected to the religion at all.[57] Chehabi notes that the allegations that half of the Shah's cabinet were Bahá'ís are fanciful and, given the persecution the Bahá'ís have suffered, irresponsible exaggerations.[57]

Bahá'í ties to Freemasonry[edit]

Iranian critics of this faith have also accused the Bahá'í Faith of having ties to Freemasonry.[25] As Freemasonry was a secretive society originating from the West, many in Iran connected the movement with the introduction of foreign ideas into the country in order to undermine Iranian values.[25] Claims were made that many of the earliest Freemason lodges, such as Malkom Khan's faramush-khanih, which were founded in 1858, were linked to European lodges.[64][65] However, Freemasonry was brought to Iran by Iranians who had seen the movement in other parts of the world.[25]

Specific accusations connecting the Bahá'í Faith to Freemasonry often include an assertion that Dr. Dhabih Qurban, who was a well-known Bahá'í, was also a freemason.[25] This assertion is based on an Iranian book publishing documents related to Freemasonry in the country; that book states that in specific pages of Fazel Mazandarani's book on the Bahá'í Faith there are statements that Dr. Dhabih Qurban is a Freemason, but in fact Freemasony is not mentioned in the pages of the referenced Bahá'í book.[25] Furthermore, the Iranian book that is the source of the accusation includes a discussion between the Grand Master of the Great Lodge in Iran, and the Grand Master notes that "no Bahá'ís have become masons and this is repeated by others present with no-one disagreeing."[25]

The teachings of the Baha'i Faith expressly forbid membership in secret societies. Shoghi Effendi, the head of the Bahá'í Faith in the first half of the 20th century, asked all Bahá'ís to remove their memberships from all secret societies, including the Freemasons, so that they can serve the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith without compromising their independence.[66]


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