Thoughts on the Latest Raids Against BIHE

By now you’ve no doubt learned about the recent raids on the Baha’i Institute Higher Education by Iranian government authorities. This resulted in the confiscation of teaching materials as well as the arrest of several Baha’is serving as faculty. Sen wrote about this almost immediately after it occurred: Many searches and 14 arrests of BIHE faculty.

In case you’re not familiar with the BIHE, it was setup as a result of the systematic persecution of Baha’is in Iran. Part of the organized persecution of the Baha’i community is the Iranian government’s explicit policy to exclude Baha’is from the education system. As the BIHE’s website explains:

In 1987, after failed attempts to persuade the government to admit qualified Bah??’? students to Iranian universities, the Bah??’? community of Iran rallied its forces and expertise and established the Bah??’? Institute for Higher Education (BIHE)…. Professors and researchers in Iran who had been discharged from their universities and colleges for no reason other than their membership in the Bah??’? faith dedicated themselves to the BIHE project that has evolved from a compensatory institution to a university with academic standards not only on par with the Iranian public university system, but also equaling the standards adopted by universities in the West.

Sadly, this is not the first time that the Iranian government has raided and interfered with the activities of the BIHE. There were similar raids in the 1990′s and again in 2001/2.

Since the malicious intents of the Islamic Republic of Iran is clear, one alternative is to implement a different model. If the BIHE operated as an online education platform instead of an offline, real world decentralized one, it would be much more difficult to curtail. This way there is nothing to confiscate since the servers which contain all the necessary data are in a centralized location outside the purview of the Iranian regime. An example of this model already gaining traction is the Khan Academy.

Baha’i students could use a VPN to tunnel into servers and bypass any Iranian internet security that may prevent them access. This would also prevent hacking/eavesdropping by the authorities. For an extra layer of security the site can be anonymized via an .onion TLD (and accessed via TOR). Yes, there’s more to the internet than just http: IRC, torrents, usenet, etc. There is a whole darknet out there.

Of course, not all disciplines being taught at the BIHE will be compatible with an online teaching format, however many will. As well, the added advantage is that students can take courses even if they are geographically isolated.

Even if implemented, such countermeasures run headlong into Iran’s recent plans to close their internet off completely. Currently, as with many other countries in the Middle East, Iran has restricted access to thousands of sites. Many of these are popular ones you may use without a second thought everyday (twitter, youtube, facebook, etc.). But that doesn’t mean that Iranians can’t get around the restrictions.

In fact, ways to circumvent the Islamic firewall are well known. Just recently, Houshang Fanaian, a Baha’i living in Iran was sentenced to 4 years in prison for his activities on facebook. Ironically, Iran is putting in place such monitoring and censorship with the software and hardware sold to it by US companies such as Secure Computing Corp., Juniper Networks, and Fortinet.

As if by coincidence, just as news arrives of Iran’s intentions to heavily restrict internet access, a report from the United Nations declares unfettered and universal access to the internet a human right:

Given that access to basic commodities such as electricity remains difficult in many developing States, the Special Rapporteur is acutely aware that universal access to the Internet for all individuals worldwide cannot be achieved instantly.

However, the Special Rapporteur reminds all States of their positive obligation to promote or to facilitate the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and the means necessary to exercise this right, including the Internet.

Hence, States should adopt effective and concrete policies and strategies –- developed in consultation with individuals from all segments of society, including the private sector as well as relevant Government ministries -– to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all

Obviously if Iran is successful in isolating itself and forming its own massive ‘intranet’ instead of being connected to the same internet that you and I use, the countermeasures suggested above for the BIHE are useless.

Another obstacle is the cost of internet access in Iran. If you are connecting to an online site to learn via video and other rich content, you will need a high speed ADSL (or equivalent) connection. That is rather expensive in Iran. A 2 Mb connection costs the equivalent of $400 US per month. In Europe or North America the cost is less than a tenth of that.

Ultimately, the best of the worst options is for young Baha’is in Iran to leave and pursue productive and happy lives elsewhere. The continuing human rights abuses of the IRI regime will not stop and attempts to adapt and survive will in the end be nothing more than a cat and mouse game leaving the community harried and exhausted.

There are many countries that would be happy to provide a new home to Baha’is. Many are taking the offer and saying “Farewell to Iran” every day. To the young Baha’is in Iran that are able to leave but may be reluctant because of feelings of doubt about the West or perhaps due to nationalistic loyalty I’d like to remind Baha’u’llah’s words:

Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind.

UHJ Letter to Baha’is of Iran Naw-Ruz 168 BE

The Universal House of Justice has released a letter they wrote to the Baha’is living in Iran. In the letter they acknowledge the hardships borne by the Baha’i community under the oppressive theocratic regime.

The House of Justice also notes the ongoing changes in the Middle East tying this with the Baha’i concept of the “rolling up” of the Old world order:

The world is in turmoil, and the onrushing tide of change is proceeding with unparalleled force and speed. The age-old order of the world has been disrupted, and the profound transformations that have taken place at all levels of human relationships call for a fundamental reconsideration of every aspect of life. This applies equally to Iranian society. Consider how its people are resolutely striving to establish a progressive society and are ready to bear every manner of pain and calamity in pursuit of this objective.

There is no doubt that every just person is counting the days and hours until the tyrannical regime in Iran crumbles and releases its people from their bondage. It must be noted at the same time that the Iranian people, unlike those in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, are not taking up the fight for their future with equal fervor. There have been a few sporadic protests but for the most part the political leaders are under arrest, dissidents are tortured and killed, protests broken up and the other 99% of the population is too busy trying to provide for their next meal to really care about anything else.

And even if they were to suddenly take up the fight for freedom with tenacity, the result would only be further tragedy because the brutal and unforgiving government of Iran gives no quarter.
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“1979: The Game” – A Video Game Based on the Iranian Revolution

Navid Khonsari, one of the creative forces behind the phenomenally successful Grand Theft Auto III and GTA: Vice City games, is working on a new video game called 1979: The Game which will be based on the events of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The trend in video games is for more complexity and “sand-box” gameplay where situations are open ended and the player is allowed to make choices that will impact the plot development and ultimately the conclusion of the game. Khonsari has been instrumental in this trend and in the merger of video games with movies. Games like Red Dead Redemption and the soon to be released LA Noire feel more like an immersive movie experience than what an average person would think of when they imagine a video game.

But saying “there are no good guys” as Khonsari does is going too far. Moral ambiguity is part and parcel of life but the 1979 Iranian revolution has no ambiguity. And thanks to the 20/20 perspective that hindsight provides us, we know exactly who was on the right side and who was on the wrong side.

In any case, this is an interesting development especially considering the reshaping of the Middle East taking place right now. Maybe in 30 year’s time we’ll have a video game about the Egyptian and Tunisian popular uprisings.

On the Persecution of Iranian Baha’is

A few months ago the Baha’is of Washington DC organized an event in support of the Baha’is of Iran. The evening featured Ms. Shohreh Aghdashloo, Dr. Azar Nafisi, Dr. Dwight Bashir, Layli Miller-Muro, as well as theatrical and musical performances.

Here is a short video of the Emmy award winning and Oscar Nominated actress, Shohreh Aghdashloo, speaking via video from Los Angeles to the gathering in DC:

Ms. Aghdashloo is featured in the upcoming film, Mona’s Dream, about the life and martyrdom of Mona Mahmudnizhad. She will be playing the role of Mona’s mother. The film is set to (hopefully) go into production this year.

Here is a quick recap of the evening:

More recently, the Universal House of Justice released a short statement asking Baha’i communities around the world to observe a special day of prayer on May 14th in honor of the unjustly persecuted Iranian Baha’is:

It grieves our hearts to contemplate the passing of yet another year in which the seven former members of the Yaran remain imprisoned on baseless charges for which the authorities have no evidence whatsoever. The approach of the second anniversary of their incarceration calls to mind the multifarious forms of oppression being visited upon the members of the Baha’i community in Iran of all ages and walks of life, including interrogations, summary arrests and imprisonment, deprivation of the means to a livelihood, wanton destruction of property, and the denial of education to Baha’i students. The heroic steadfastness of the friends in Iran in the face of such relentless persecution inspires their fellow believers around the globe to redouble their efforts to serve humanity and contribute to its material and spiritual progress. It has also led to the gradual, but undeniable, awakening of the conscience of fair- minded Iranians, who have been moved to express their concern at the violation of the human rights of their Baha’i compatriots.

We call upon the Baha’is of the world to organize special meetings of prayer around 14 May for the indomitable followers of Baha’u’llah in Iran, indeed, for all the people in that blessed land who are similarly subject to oppression, that the Hand of Divine Providence may grant them relief from their long ordeal. To this end we too offer our fervent supplications at the Sacred Threshold.

Iranian Baha’is on Trial: Quick Update

It is easy to forget that we are closing in on almost 2 years of incarceration for the 7 members of the national administrative body of the Baha’is of Iran. In Persian, the body is known as the Yaran (or Friends):

yaran bahai group iran

Since their arrest, they have been in legal limbo. The Iranian authorities are pressured on one side to present and argue a case so that they can be found guilty but on the other hand the international community and NGOs like Amnesty International are demanding a fair and open trial.

The result has been a bureaucratic gridlock that has produced and ignored countless trial dates. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the strategy adopted by the Iranian regime. After all, if the IRI can basically detain prisoners indefinitely without really bringing any charges or afford them the opportunity to defend themselves in a transparent court of law, they’ve more or less accomplished their goal.

Now it seems the strategy has shifted after almost two years. On April 12th the IRI finally went ahead with a trial. Here is an official update from the Baha’i International Community:

Two members of the legal team, Mrs. Mahnaz Parakand and Mr. Hadi Ismailzadeh, were able to be present at the session. Their two other colleagues, Mrs. Shirin Ebadi and Mr. Abolfattah Soltani, were unable to attend.

The hearing was scheduled to begin at 9:30 AM, yet notwithstanding that the lawyers were present at precisely the specified time, the session commenced only two and a half hours later. The families of the defendants were not permitted entry to the proceedings, which clearly signaled that the session was to be closed. However, numerous officials and interrogators from the Ministry of Intelligence were present, including a film crew whose cameras were positioned in the courtroom, which understandably gave rise to questions and concerns about the intentions behind the presence of such individuals in a closed hearing.

In view of the foregoing circumstances, the prisoners, with the full agreement of their attorneys, indicated to the judge that they declined to be party to the proceedings. The judge then adjourned the session. No date was announced for the next hearing.

So the gridlock continues. But the IRI can now claim a victory on the grounds that they were ready to move forward but their attempt was rejected by the Baha’is.

I’m not sure why exactly the Baha’is decided to not to proceed. Having government officials (interrogators, intelligence, etc.) included in the proceedings is part and parcel for the IRI’s case so it is natural that they would be included.

As well, what is wrong with having a camera record the proceedings? It is actually a step in the right direction, isn’t it? And how else would you be able to record the proceedings unless you have staff manning the audio/visuals? And why do they believe that this was a closed hearing if there was no actual ruling on this?

I’m not an Iranian or international legal expert but simply excluding family members (who are unrelated to the case) isn’t necessarily out of order nor unheard of. As long as the defendants have proper representation and are able to call witnesses, present evidence, etc. why would having their families there and not being filmed be so crucial that they would “walk out”?

Maybe I’m missing something but the strategy of the Baha’is and their lawyers is baffling and ultimately may end up hurting them.