Intellectual Othering & the Baha’i Question in Iran

The University of Toronto, in conjunction with the Foundation for Iranian Studies and the Toronto Initiative for Iranian Studies, is sponsoring a conference about the Baha’is in Iran.

The conference will take place July 1-3rd 2011 and offer an array of speakers, many of which should be familiar already to the readers of this blog: Abbas Amanat, Moojan Momen, Payam Akhavan, Muhammad Afnan, etc.

Here is the synopsis of the conference’s topic:

As a genuinely Iranian intellectual and religious movement emerging in the mid-nineteenth century, the Baha’i Faith has encountered relentless and sustained repression and scapegoating in the country of its origin. Exploring various aspects of the Baha’i Question in Iran over the past century and a half, the scholars participating in this international conference will critically reflect on a wide range of issues related to the similarities and differences of Shi’i Islam and Baha’i Faith, the role of Baha’is in Iranian cultural and intellectual life, and the fact of their continued repression and intellectual Othering.

Since a prominent Baha’i blogger will be attending, hopefully we can read about the experience soon after the conference. If you’re in the Toronto area or can travel and are interested to attend, the cost is minimal ($100 Canadian) – Registration.

The event’s facebook page also contains more information, including many videos of the upcoming presenter’s past speeches and related research.

UPDATE: You can view the videos of the conference presentations here, both in translated English as well as the original Persian.

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.