By Whitney Mueller
Attendees of last Monday’s “Education Under Fire” documentary screening and conversation found the seats of Sharpless Auditorium draped with two-leaf sets of paper. The first sheet of each offered a reproduction of a letter by Nobel Laureates Desmond Tutu and José Ramos-Horta; the second, a list of frequently asked questions regarding the subject of the documentary: the Bahá’í faith, the informal Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), and Iran’s persecution of Bahá’ís pursuing their education.
The Laureate letter indicates the universality of the Education Under Fire movement (EUF). It summarizes the offenses of Iran against the universal right to education, a right it is bound to recognize as a signatory of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An early acquisition of the campaign, it serves both as a sign of powerful support and as an outline of the organization’s mission. It is the prize of the David Hoffman, founder of EUF and executive director of the documentary, who carries a stock of reproductions of this letter in his briefcase.
The frequently asked questions provide testament to one of the organization’s greatest challenges: convincing outsiders of the legitimacy and pertinence of a cause concerning a little-known religion in a foreign country.
The Bahá’í faith, though less than two centuries old, comprises a large minority in Iran. “The Iranian government,” Hoffman says, “clearly will target any threat they perceive; the only difference [in the treatment of Bahá’ís as opposed to other religious minorities] is that they see the Bahá’ís as the greatest threat.”
Ed Martin, director of the Center for Interfaith Engagement at Eastern Mennonite University and moderator of Monday’s discussion, adds that “Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are represented in Parliament,” while Bahá’ís are afforded neither representation nor recognition under the Iranian constitution.
The reaction of the Bahá’ís—whose religion promotes education, unity, equality, and obedience to government when possible—was to form their own school, the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education. Homeschooling is exactly what it would be akin to,” Hoffman remarks of the BIHE. A Bahá’í himself, he rejects the term underground: “We don’t even use that terminology.”
May 2011, however, saw coordinated attacks by Iranian officials on the BIHE. Students and faculty alike were taken jail, their homes raided during the night. “There have been several periods of time where there have been attacks,” Hoffman says, “but I think this is the most brazen one.”
“The fact that there is a designated group of individuals being denied education,” as Martin points out, is the “most powerful” consideration in this matter; yet the particular contrast between peacefulness and violence provides another compelling argument for EUF’s cause. For Americans, it holds a special resonance with the South and the Civil Rights Movement. This thought was generally confirmed by all of the guests at Monday’s event, and called upon in analogy by Shamim Pakzad, a BIHE graduate and professor at Lehigh University who formed part of the panel. Of Iranian Bahá’ís’ position in light of their treatment, he commented: “You can’t argue with a white supremacist—say [to the] KKK, ‘I’m just like you.’”
The nonviolent appeal to human rights has inspired great movement within the world community. Omid Memarian, an Iranian journalist and the final panel member, says not only that “non-Bahá’í Iranians have started to speak out,” but also that “every time an Irani official appears on stage, there is at least one question about the Bahá’ís” from an international audience. Linnea Segen BMC ’12, a leader of the bi-college Bahá’í Campus Association and organizer of Monday’s screening of “Education Under Fire”, notes that “the first screening in the US was at Columbia University in the middle of the fall semester.” Even within the bi-college community, she says, “Our collaboration with student organizations at Bryn Mawr … only began at the beginning of this semester, and people just jumped right on board.”
The numbers of EUF’s “Drive to 25” echoes this enthusiasm. Joining the Drive involves simply entering name and e-mail into an online form, which generates seven letters to key Iranian officials. Its ultimate goal is 25,000 participants, or 175,000 letters; over half this number has already been reached.
Following its introduction of the issues and campaign, Monday’s event invited the rest of the bi-college and surrounding community to participate by taking commentary and questions from the audience. Praises of BIHE students littered the conversation, with community members alternating at the microphones to recount their experiences with the institute. Students brought forth questions and, as the event reached its end, laptops. Those who had not already were encouraged to join the “Drive to 25.”
Beyond these measures, Segen adds, “We’re even meeting with administrators in the Bi-Co who are interested in the possibility of removing barriers to the acceptance of BIHE students into masters programs at Bryn Mawr.” Similar actions have been implemented by at least 60 other institutions worldwide.
According to Segen, there will be opportunities for those who missed the screening of the 30-minute documentary. “So many people have said they wanted to come to the kick-off event but couldn’t, and with all of the support from our cosponsors it was very obvious what we could do next. We’re going to keep having more screenings so those who couldn’t come to the first event can still be part of the initiative.”
In order to promote the “Drive for 25” within the bi-college community, the organizers of the event are hosting a competition between Haverford and Bryn Mawr. Students who join the campaign using their school e-mails are counted with the help of the Education Under Fire organization, and the numbers are updated periodically on the Education Under Fire Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/EducationUnderFire).