From TNR: ‘An Evening in Support of the Bahais of Iran’

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From The New Republic: Abbas Milani’s speech at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco.

Posted on Saturday, August 15, 2009

This Tuesday, seven leaders of Iran’s Bahai movement will go on trial on capital charges of espionage and threatening national security. They have been in prison for more than a year. The group’s two lawyers have not only been refused the legally required visits with their clients, but neither will be in court on Tuesday. One, Abdulfattah Sultani, is in prison on charges of participating in the “Velvet Revolution,” while the other, the Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, stands accused by the regime of participating in the same “conspiracy” – but has been fortunately traveling in the West.

For the last few weeks, all around the world, there have been meetings in support of the Bahai Seven in Iran. And last Wednesday, at the San Fransisco Herbst Theater, where the meeting to draft the declaration of Human Rights was once convened, a delightfully multi-ethnic, multi-faith group came to show their concern for the fate of the Bahai Seven and solidarity with the 300,000 Bahais who still live in Iran. Ross Mirkarimi, an Iranian-American member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was among the political leaders who spoke at the gathering. The president of the University of San Francisco offered a few words of prayer to begin the meeting. Here is the text of the talk I gave on that night. I am not a member of the Bahai faith, and like many in the hall, I was there in solidarity with a much persecuted religious minority in Iran.

My name is Abbas Milani, and I stand here as an Iranian contrite and resolute–ashamed for what I consider Iran’s disgraceful past in our treatment of our Bahai citizens, and resolute in my determination to say, Never Again, And Never More.

Pogroms were a fact of life in 19th century European Anti-Semitism. In the 20th century they begot the Holocaust. In Iran, there have never been more than a handful of murderous pogroms. But by the 19th century, Iranian Anti-Semites had turned a kind of psychological, emotional pogrom into a sinister art, and tragically, all the subtle and crude techniques of this persecution were turned against members of the Bahai faith, the new bane of Shiite zealots.

One can certainly understand why Shiism, and its belief that its prophet ends the prophetic line, and that the Messiah that must come is none other than its twelfth Imam, might have profound theological tensions with the Bahai faith. But it is a singular requirement of civility in our modern world that we no longer try to solve our theological difference at the point of a gun, or the end of a whip.

But there is also another reason for the obsessive zeal of many Shiites in fighting the Bahai faith. The Bahai’s message of peace in contrast to the Islamists’ increasing use of violence; the Bahai’s promise of gender equality in contrast to a faith where misogyny has long been a way of life; and finally the Bahai’s almost Jeffersonian devotion to the principle that in matters of faith there must be neither coercion, nor acceptance by happenstance of birth, but that children born to Bahai parents should at the moment of maturity decide for themselves their own faith in contrast to a state religion that mandates conversion a capital crime, punishable by death–all combine to create a glaring set of contrasts that render traditional Shiism sclerotic. In comparison, their nemesis faith is a harbinger of modernity and its incumbent reformation–a reformation wherein faith is a private matter between men and women and their own notions of the sacred.

Read the rest of this great presentation here.

And thank you, Mr. Milani, for your support.

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