Let the Bahá’ís study!

15/12/2005
Press release
en fr

Newspapers have recently reported the indignation of numerous governments, including our own [France] in reaction to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s intentions to wipe Israel off the map, expressed on October 26, 2005. However, this declaration by the newly elected President of the Islamic Republic of Iran should come as no surprise. It merely highlights what lies at the basis of the new Iranian society. For the past 25 years the Iranian Islamic regime has denied the existence of those it does not want to see, whether living outside Iran or within its own borders.

Thus, the current regime in Iran practices religious discrimination. It recognises two categories of citizens : Shiite Muslims - and, to a lesser extent, Sunnis - and the followers of religions which pre-date Islam (Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians), relegated to the status of second-class citizens. All others, particularly the Baha’is, agnostics and atheists, are non-citizens.

In the "Chronique d’Amnesty" of February 1993, Antoine Spire described the Baha’is as seeking to "reconcile science and religion" and promote both "the equality of men and women, the abolition of class, racial and religious prejudices, by emphasising compulsory universal education, each individual encouraged to search personally for the truth." In Iran, Baha’is are victims of segregation at every stage of their lives. There is one aspect that particularly concerns us as teachers and researchers: they are denied access to higher education.

For the last 25 years, a generation, the sons and daughters of the country’s largest religious minority have had to content themselves with a high school diploma. In Iran, as a matter of fact, one must declare to be Muslim, Jew, Zoroastrian or Christian to have the right to register at a university. Baha’is, as a matter of principle, refuse to feign conversion. Thus have they no right to higher education. This pattern has been going on for 25 years, the life of an entire generation, and the 2005-06 academic Year is no exception. We, teachers and researchers in France and elsewhere, refuse to accept this situation.

We who have had the opportunity to pursue studies which have made us who we are, wish to underline the obvious: access to knowledge is a fundamental human right. It is unfortunate that following its promise to "make higher education equally accessible to all on the basis of individual capacity, without any discrimination", including "religious" discrimination, by signing the UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education, the Iranian government has failed to honour its word.

What does this mean?

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, the approximately 300,000 Baha’is in Iran are considered "unprotected infidels, (...) non-persons" with "no legal rights or protection", according to the International Federation for Human Rights’ (FIDH) 2003 report on religious discrimination in Iran. They have no right to receive pensions, be employed in the civil service, inscribe a name on the tombs of their dead, inherit, or gather for religious worship. Their holy sites and cemeteries have been destroyed. Many Baha’is have had their belongings confiscated. Employers are pressured to dismiss their Baha’i employees.

Why?

Their Faith, originating in Iran in the 19th century, postdates Islam and is therefore not considered by the government to be a religion. It is worth noting that the status of other religions also leaves much to be desired. The FIDH emphasizes that Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians, and to a lesser degree, Sunnis, are "second-class citizens". Primarily victims of employment discrimination, they enjoy, however, have the right to worship, to attend university and, as far as we are aware, are not under constant pressure to recant their faith.

During the years that followed the revolution, repression against the Baha’is was ferocious. In the early 1980’s over 200 Baha’is, hand-picked from among their most active members, were executed for refusing to convert to Islam. The indignation of the international community slowed this repression, but never managed to stop it: the persecution of the Baha’is has since become latent. An internal document personally signed in 1991 by Ali Khamenei, supreme guide of the Islamic Republic, lists a series of recommendations to deal with what the authorities refer to as "The Baha’i Question": "The Government’s dealings with them must be in such a way that their progress and development are blocked. (...)They must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies (...). Deny them employment if they identify themselves as Baha’is."

France ranks sixth among countries hosting Iranian scholarship holders. Co-operative exchanges between the two countries include inter-university partnerships such as the Gundishapur programme which develops high-level scientific and technical co-operation between research teams of both countries by supporting the mobility of researchers. We can be certain that, on the Iranian side, not a single Baha’i will be among the beneficiaries. Of course we rejoice in the fruitful exchanges between these two countries. We refuse, however, to sanction this discrimination against Baha’i students, male or female, by remaining silent. This has prevailed for too long.

The intellectual and professional life of Baha’is in Iran has been put to sleep in the most subtle of manners. The majority of Baha’i doctors, lawyers or engineers in Iran today are close to retirement and their children have no future. This unspoken form of violence is all the more painful because the followers of this religion consider the acquisition of knowledge as a sacred duty: according to Baha’i teachings, knowledge, particularly that of the arts and sciences, constitutes the foundation of human progress.

Moreover, they have not renounced to educate their sons and daughters. Since 1987 they have been acting on their own, setting up a tuition-free university run by volunteer teachers in the intimacy of their homes with their own personal computers, libraries and even exams. This virtual university is subject to the harassment of the State, which confiscates equipment, examination papers and even arrests those running it. In spite of this, its diplomas in psychology, computer sciences, accounting, literature, biology, pharmacy, law and dentistry are recognized by certain employers in Iran as well as by certain universities abroad. However, their resources are meager compared to the thousands of youth to be trained each year. Today only one out of ten Baha’i high school graduates can benefit from this facility: only the most self-sufficient and gifted are trained in these make-shift universities. The rest fill the ranks of a sacrificed generation.

The fate of Baha’i students in Iran is not cast in stone. First of all because Iran has the ambitions and means of a modern society: the educational level of its population, in the country of Avicenna, Hafiz and some of the greatest contemporary film directors, is among the highest in this part of the world. The quality of its university system is well-known. Moreover, it grants significant access to women : contrary to popular belief there are more female than male students in Iran. Finally, the fate of Baha’i youth is not inevitable because the Iranian government is more sensitive than generally believed to the pressure of human rights defenders.

Every human being has the right to access knowledge, whatever his or her origins may be. We declare our solidarity with these young people who are thirsty for knowledge. We ask the Iranian government to welcome into the country’s universities all youth, without exception, who have successfully passed the entrance examination, so that cultural segregation may cease at last.

The initial signatories are:

Dr Rosine Haguenauer, CNRS Research Director in Biology
Professor Jean-Pierre Vernant, Historian, Professor at the Collège de France
Dr Pascal Lederer, CNRS Research Director, Physicist
Professor Pierre-Gilles De Gennes, Professor at the Collège de France, Physics Nobel prize winner
Dr Stéphane Robert, CNRS Research Director, Linguist
Dr Jean-Antoine Lepesant, CNRS Research Director in Biology
Dr Myriam Chimènes, CNRS Research Director, Musicologist
Professor Sophie Vriz, Biology researcher-teacher
Miguel Angel Estrella, Pianist, UNESCO Ambassador, President of the Fédération Internationale Musique Espérance
Professor Michel Volovitch, Biology researcher-teacher
Dr Sophie Vassilaki, Researcher-teacher, Linguist
Professor Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Professor at the Collège de France, Physics Nobel prize winner
Professor François Jacob, Professor at the Collège de France, Medicine Nobel prize winner
Professor François Gros, Professor at the Collège de France in Biology
Professor Isabelle This-Saint Jean, Researcher-teacher, Economist
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)

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