For Bahais, a Crackdown Is Old News

Clifton, USA - Sometimes during the past two weeks, making her rounds as a hospital resident, Dr. Saughar Samali has caught a glimpse of television news in a patient’s room or heard a bulletin on the radio in the family-practice office. Against her desire, against her better judgment, she has been plunged back into the maelstrom of Iran.

As long as she is on duty, Dr. Samali can suppress what she sees and hears of the marchers, the arrests, the beatings. But when she leaves St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson and returns home to nearby Clifton, the present conjures up a terrible past.

She remembers when her father’s factory in Tehran was set afire, leaving him severely scarred and blind in one eye. She remembers her family’s trying to escape to Pakistan, traveling in a smuggler’s Jeep, headlights out on a midnight desert. She remembers the army bullets that shattered the windshield and pierced the tires, and she remembers the months in prison that followed.

It was 1985, and she was 5 years old. In all the years since, even after a subsequent, successful escape and a new life in the United States, Dr. Samali has not forgotten what it meant to be a Bahai in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“I try to turn my emotions off,” Dr. Samali, 28, said of the current turbulence in Iran. “The Bahais in Iran go through this every day. It’s sad to see this, but maybe this is a way for the truth to come out.”

The Bahais have long served as the proverbial canaries in the coal mine of Iran’s theocracy. Their persecution, as documented over nearly 30 years in numerous human rights reports, has contradicted all the näively hopeful predictions that the hard-line surface of Iran obscures a deeper wellspring of moderation and tolerance.

In 1983, the Iranian government banned all official Bahai activity. Deeming the faith an apostasy, Iran’s fundamentalist Shiite government has denied Bahais higher education, confiscated Bahai property, desecrated Bahai cemeteries and refused to recognize Bahai marriages.

During the recent upheaval, which is essentially a struggle among Shiites over the dubious re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bahais have again served as scapegoats. Supporters of President Ahmadinejad have recycled the canard that Bahais are American spies and secret Zionists, and have added a new one, claiming the British Broadcasting Corporation stands for the Bahai Broadcasting Company.

The rhetorical attacks have coincided with the government’s decision to put seven Bahai leaders on trial on July 11 in a so-called Revolutionary Court. The leaders, arrested in early 2008, face charges of “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” according to official Iranian press reports. Espionage is punishable by death.

So, for the 165,000 Bahais in the United States, at least 10,000 of whom are refugees from Iran, the questionable election and the crackdown on protesters come as grim confirmation of the government’s character.

“I feel a sense of turmoil in my heart,” said Farhad Sabetan, a spokesman for the Bahai International Community, the organization that represents Bahai interests at the United Nations. “Bahais have gone through this kind of pressure for over the last 30 years, and the way they’ve been treated is how the Iranian people are now being treated.”

The Bahai community in Clifton embodies both stirring achievement and unrelenting tragedy. A mixture of American converts and Iranian immigrants and refugees, the group operates a Bahai center for classes and celebrations and elects a nine-member “spiritual assembly.”

One of those nine, Habib Hosseiny, was born and raised in Iran, becoming a professor of English. He was studying for his master’s degree at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt., when the Islamic revolution overthrew the shah in 1979. After hearing of the execution of seven Bahai leaders in 1981 in Hamadan — “all my friends, such beautiful people,” Mr. Hosseiny said — he decided not to return.

In the United States, Mr. Hosseiny built a career teaching English as a second language in colleges and high schools. He and his wife, Ahdieh, raised children, who gave them grandchildren. His Bahai friends in Clifton included doctors, engineers and journalists.

All the while, from afar, Mr. Hosseiny followed the waves of persecution in Iran. His father-in-law was imprisoned three times. A gynecologist who served on the spiritual assembly in Mr. Hosseiny’s home city, Kermanshah, was arrested and killed. The Iranian government seized Mr. Hosseiny’s home and all of his savings.

“When you’re strong in your faith, you accept this as a test,” Mr. Hosseiny, 69, said. “You want to take on important, difficult tests, so you can achieve.”

Even after 30 years of official oppression of Bahais, Mr. Hosseiny repeats a mantra that mullahs plainly do not hear: that Bahaism is a religion of peace, that Bahais are not political, that Bahais support the government wherever they live. All the Bahais in Iran want, he said, are the same human rights as other citizens.

As he watches the news, as he tries to call relatives in Iran, as he tracks events as obsessively as Dr. Samali tries to screen them out, Mr. Hosseiny has arrived at a conclusion similar to hers. Maybe the Bahais have achieved some kind of equality at last.

Attacked by the Basij militia and the Revolutionary Guard, assaulted with water cannons and guns, Iranian Muslims, at least the ones who publicly call for fair elections and human rights, are being treated just like Bahais.