Volume XIX Issue 1(Winter 2001, Spring 2001)

Non-Muslim Communities in Iran

Guest Editors: Janet Afari & Reza Afshari

Legal Status of Non-Muslims in Iran

Abdol-karim Lahidji

This article surveys the roots and consequences of religious apartheid in the Islamic Republic of Iran which by far exceeds the limitations placed upon the rights and freedoms of the Iranian society at large. Since the Islamic Revolution, the inalienable human rights of the non-Muslim communities in the country, including their right to life, have been systematically abused and abrogated. In strictly legal terms, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocracy based not on the legal equality of citizens but on the supremacy of a specific Islamic sect and the inequality of Iranians based on their gender and religion.

Although “national solidarity” has been specified as one of the guiding objectives of the constitution of the Islamic Republic, the non-Muslim communities have legally been denied the right to participate in the realization of this objective. Indeed, the ruling clerics have long unequivocally rejected the notion of the principle of equality of diverse religious groups before the law. In their belief, the Iranian “nation,” which is the focus of the rights and freedoms specified in the constitution of the Islamic republic, is in fact comprised exclusively of the shiite Iranians.

Apart from the pervasive discriminatory nature of the present Iranian constitution, the laws and regulations enacted since the establishment of the Islamic republic have institutionalized legal discrimination against non-Muslim communities. Thus, Iran’s civil, criminal and commercial codes, inter alia, have substantially restricted the rights and freedoms of non-Muslim Iranians in ways that has been unprecedented since the constitutional revolution of 1906. Clearly, Iranian society will not have abided by the universally recognized principles of human rights until and unless the basic rights and freedoms of all Iranians regardless of their race, color, gender and religion enjoy constitutional and legal protection.

The '"Jadid al-Islams" of Mashhad

Jahleh Pirnazer

The Jewish community of Mashhad is believed to have been established in the 18th century. During the seige of Nader Shah Afshar (1736-1747) Jewish families from Qazvin and Deilaman were ordered to resettle in Khurasan as part of the King's’ resettlement policies. Upon their arrival in Mashhad, the Jews found the city’s population to be hostile and religiously intolerant. Yet those families that stayed gradually settled in a secluded area immediately outside the city boundaries and established a segregated community which grew along the larger Shi`a community of Mashhad for many years.

In March 1839, following an angry mob attack on the Jewish quarters which left Jewish homes in ruins and many of its residents killed or injured, the entire Jewish community of Mashhad lost its legal status. Hence, the community in its entirety was forced to convert to Islam and its members became known as Jadid al-Islam (newly-converted Muslims). The new converts comported themselves, surreptitiously as true believers and actively participated in Islamic rituals and public displays of piety. Some of the new converts even visited the Shiite holy shrines including Mecca for which they were accorded the title of Hadji. Nevertheless, the Jews of Mashhad secretly kept their Jewish faith and identity for well over a century. They practiced Orthodox Judaism and congregated in secret underground synagogues. They swore their children to secrecy and raised them as individuals with dual religious, social and cultural identities. Under daily scrutiny of the more zealous members of the Muslim community of Mashhad, and constant fear of exposure, the community of the Jadid al-Islam thus began a collective journey in history leading a double life of rare complexity until mid 20th century when they could once again practice Judaism openly. However a new wave of hostility in 1946 caused the community to leave Mashhad permanently for Tehran or abroad.

The Zoroastrian Community in Historical Perspective

Jamsheed Choksy

The advent of the Islamic Republic witnessed a return to strict socio-religious minority status for Zoroastrians under the new Muslim constitution of Iran. Legal distinctions between Muslims and Zoroastrians-which reflect ordinances that Zoroastrians experienced under many previous Islamic regimes-circumscribe their daily lives. The concept that Zoroastrians are unclean has been revived. Codes for dress, such as use of the veil by women, and rules for socialization, especially across genders, plus public enforcement of such stipulations by the revolutionary guards are viewed by many Zoroastrians as restrictions of their fundamental rights and as Islamic praxes alien to them. Stemming from economic discrimination, chronic unemployment is prevalent among members of both genders-particularly the youth-despite appropriate education and training. Lack of employment has led, in turn, to varying degrees of poverty, malnutrition, and a reluctance to marry and produce children. While employment opportunities are withheld, Zoroastrian men feel that they are considered fit for only one occupation: military conscription.

Many individuals eventually, and in some cases surreptitiously, left Iran. So by 1984, the Zoroastrian population in Iran had declined considerably. Despite inflated figures in recent censuses that put the community’s numbers at around 90,000, a figure officially revised downward several times thereafter to around 45,000, the number of Zoroastrians continues to decline in the twenty-first century. Zoroastrians now constitute a mere 0.05% of the overall population of Iran. Nonetheless, Zoroastrians continue to survive not only in the central Iranian city of Yazd which has been their stronghold for several centuries, but also in Tehran, Shiraz, and Esfahan. Zoroastrians’ public complaints about their subordinate status are infrequent because communal stress brought about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran and the establishment of a theocratic Islamic Republic based on the Shari`a triggered a subconscious and conscious reaction among Zoroastrians: minimization of conflict with the Muslim majority and its political and socio-religious authority through cooperation and avoidance. In sum, members of the Zoroastrian community, when faced with societal changes that could threaten the welfare or survival of the community often still react in a manner initially enjoined by their high priests during the tenth century:" Act in a manner that is most cautious and least harmful."

Anti-Baha'ism and Islamism in Iran, 1941-1955

Mohammad Tavakoli-Targhi

As genuinely Iranian intellectual and religious movements, Babism and Baha’ism have encountered relentless repression and their founders and adherents have been accused as the internal agents of competing foreign powers. In its formative phase, the scapegoating of Babis was actively promoted by the Qajar state at a time when it faced a serious crisis of legitimacy. To win over the Shiite seminarians and ulama, the Qajar statesmen initiated a well-orchestrated public anti-Babi campaign. By concurrently “othering” Babis and stressing some national religious traditions such as the celebration of the births of Ali and Fatimah and sponsoring official lamentation of the martyrdom of Hussein, the Qajar state actively promoted Shiism as the core of modern Iranian identity. Instead of encountering the Babis in a seminarian style of dialogue and debate, and thus fostering the formation of a national democratic public sphere, the Shi`a hierarchy opted for a violently repressive mode of encounter with Babis and Baha’is. Furthermore, Babism was utilized as an effective instrument for silencing the voices of dissent in the formative phase of modern Iranian polity. Making the physical elimination of Babis as a joint state-clergy project, the Shiite clerics served as the co-architects of a repressive and authoritarian political structure.

The growth of Baha’ism in diaspora and in Iran, rather than its anticipated disappearance, led the Qajar state and its clerical allies to deploy a xenophobic strategy of labeling their persistent protagonists as agents of Russian, Ottoman, and British empires, successively. However, the survival of Baha’is as a distinct community engendered a national sense of collective paranoia that attributed primary agency to imperial and colonial forces rather than to self-motivated Iranian subjects. The predominance of conspiracy theories in contemporary Iranian political discourse, which first emerged as the counterinsurgent label used against the Babis and Baha’is, is grounded on an uncompromising refusal to accept the antagonists’ unyielding subjectivity as well as their agency. This undemocratic projection of agency to the imperial and Farangi-Other can not be overcome without an honest exploration of the scapegoating of the Baha’is as Iran’s internal Other in the 1940’s and beyond.

Jews in the Iranian Sports Arena

Houshang E. Chehabi

Culturally, Iranian Jews have always been well integrated into Iranian Society, sharing common culture with the majority population. Jewish houses of strength must be seen as part of this cultural integration. But they appeared precisely at a time when the institution of Zurkhaneh went into the decline and so we cannot tell whether they could have been a harbinger of greater social integration among athletes. In legal terms, social integration became possible in the wake of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. This revolution granted non-Muslims almost full citizenship, and prepared the ground for greater desegregation under the secularizing rule of Reza Shah. From the mid 1920’s to the mid 1970’s, the social integration of Jews (and other non-Muslims) in Iranian society constantly increased, interrupted only by the impact of Nazism in the late 1930’s and 1940’s.

During Reza Shah’s reign a number of Jewish sports clubs were founded in Iran. Although the gradual presence of Jews in Iran’s sports arenas, was interrupted with the rise of anti-Semitism, in 1941 Jewish communal life developed once again in Iran, and Jews founded or revived a number of sports clubs. Of these, the Kurosh (Cyrus) Club became the most durable and successful. Its soccer team once became vice-champion in the country. Indeed, from 1953 to 1979 anti-Semitism was repressed in the Iranian media. The official concept of Iranian nationhood came to include Jews, and Jewish communal life flourished more than ever before in recent Iranian history. Jewish sports benefited from this atmosphere. The year 1965, in which a female Jewish track and field star became Iranian champion and was acclaimed by Jews and non-Jews alike, must be seen, with the benefit of hindsight, as the apogee of Iranian Jewry’s identification with Iran.

The Fate of the Iranian Baha'is

Reza Afshari

The international human rights circles were alarmed by the abuse of human rights in Iran by early 1980. The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities was first to express its concerns over the highly disturbing allegations of human rights violations against the Baha`i community in Iran. The Baha`is of Iran were also the subject of the first UN resolution dealing with human rights violations in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

To incapacitate the Baha'is as a viable religious community, the Islamic republic of Iran embarked upon a policy of systematic elimination of Baha’i’s religious leadership and administrative institutions, at both national and local levels. More than two hundred Baha’is, mostly in positions of leadership, have been killed since 1979. An additional fifteen Baha’is have disappeared and are presumed dead. Furthermore, the regime has proceeded to place rigid restrictions on the Baha’is public and social activities from elementary education to professional occupations, from marriage ceremonies to cemeteries. At the same time, it has been impossible for Baha’is to seek redress for the abuse and crimes committed against them through the courts, since they had already been declared ineligible for recourse to Iranian courts as “unprotected infidels.”

Baha’is have been denied the right to distribute within their own community literature pertaining to their faith. No open classes have been allowed to be held for educating children in Baha’i spiritual and moral values. Although the regime has permitted the enrollment of students from Baha’i families in the elementary and secondary schools, it has continued to deny them access to centers of higher education.

The freedom of vigilante groups, surreptitiously encouraged or sponsored by the government, to harass and attack Bahai’s demonstrates that both the state and society at large share the responsibility for the abuse and breach of human rights of religious minorities in Iran. Although secular Iranians have provided employment opportunities in various professions for a number of Baha’is, Iran’s liberal Muslim intellectuals or even its secular political groups have yet to publicly attempt to decry the abuse of Iran’s non-Muslim communities, particularly the Baha’is.

Gender Discrimination and Human Rights in Iran

Ann Elizabeth Mayer

Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s clerical rulers have been preoccupied with setting limits on the rights and role of women and have taken many initiatives to impose gender discrimination under the rubric of applying Islamic law. Laws have been enacted sharply restricting women’s educational and professional opportunities, reinforcing male control over women in the family, imposing gender segregation in many arenas such as sports activities, requiring all women to wear dark and concealing uniforms, and adding discriminatory features to the criminal code. However, Iranian women have fought to roll back such discriminatory laws and have managed to pressure the government to make some concessions to their demands for enhanced rights and opportunities.

Since these policies could have been expected to remain constant if they had been dictated by settled cultural norms, the frequent alterations in the policies on women demonstrated how the regime’s treatment of women reflected political shifts. There have been certain initiatives to impose gender segregation or discrimination that were followed by readjustments, such as the abrogation of the pre-Revolutionary Family Protection Act, only to allow subsequently certain modest reforms enhancing women’s rights in personal status. Similarly laws removed women from all roles in legal practice and judiciary, only to allow them back later in various capacities. The level of gender discrimination enforced could also vary with the locale. In the holy city of Qom, where restrictions and repression are high, the government’s own statistics has shown a much higher rate of depression among young women than has been found in the more liberal environment of the capital.

Although Iran has engaged for over two decades in systematic and often egregious discrimination against women, it has never been as vigorously condemned by the international community as the Taliban have been. International law is currently inequitable in failing to criminalize systematic gender discrimination where this closely resembles racial apartheid in its scope and impact. The attitude of the international community needs to change on this score. Although gender apartheid and racial apartheid are not perfectly congruent, they are close cousins. In the discriminatory treatment of women in Iran, and in most other Middle Eastern countries, one finds inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one group (men) over another group of persons (women).