The primary, the most urgent requirement is the promotion of education. It is inconceivable that any nation should achieve prosperity and success unless this paramount, this fundamental concern is carried forward. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 109
Normally you’ll find a whiteboard, an instructor, and a group of university students in classrooms and campuses. Not so in Iran, where the government has criminalized learning for the minority Baha’is. For thousands of young Iranian Baha’is and their professors, classrooms mean living-rooms and garages—and they often mean raids and arrests and harsh prison terms.
Pursuing higher education in those living-rooms and garages has made these students a target of government attacks.
When the Islamic theocracy came to power in Iran in 1979, the government re-started a new wave of systematized attacks against the Baha’is. Among the many discriminatory tactics the government put in place to socially and economically suffocate the Baha’i community: a general ban on Baha’i students entering any university.
The response of the community to this oppression offers a unique alternative to the other forms of non-violent resistance experienced in the past century.
To educate their children, the Baha’is established their own unique “open university” in a process The New York Times described as ‘‘an elaborate act of self-preservation.’’ The Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), created in 1987, provides for the educational needs of Baha’i youth and young adults denied access to Iranian colleges and universities. The BIHE now operates via online courses, supplemented by seminars and labs in Baha’i homes and offices throughout Iran.
Despite efforts by the Iranian authorities to disrupt the university’s operation by raiding hundreds of Baha’i homes and offices associated with it, by confiscating BIHE materials and property, and by arresting and imprisoning dozens of faculty; the university has grown to the point that it now offers 17 undergraduate degree programs and 10 graduate degree programs in the sciences, social sciences, and arts. The university relies in part upon the efforts of Iranian Baha’i academics and professionals, many fired from their jobs by the Iranian authorities following the Islamic revolution. It also relies on a network of affiliated global faculty who support the university through online courses, curriculum development, and other services.
BIHE’s reputation for academic excellence has led seventy nine respected universities in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia to accept BIHE graduates directly into programs of graduate study at the Master’s and Doctoral levels. The BIHE demonstrates the constructive resilience of the Iranian Baha’is, and illustrates the community’s unique, non-violent resistance to enormous levels of oppression.
Despite threats to their lives and livelihoods, the Baha’is have not given in to the oppressors by either accepting the role of the victim, or adopting the ruthless and violent ways of their persecutors. They have, instead, continued their constructive contributions to their homeland by every means at their disposal.
Without denying the achievements of the civil disobedience movements, Professor Michael Karlberg suggests that many of the pitfalls of the methods employed by those movements can be avoided if, in response to oppression, this little-examined paradigm of social change is instead adopted. He says:
The Baha’i teachings assert, in essence, that oppositional strategies of social change, whether violent or nonviolent, have reached a point of diminishing returns at this stage in human history because they do not address the underlying cause of injustice and oppression. The underlying cause, according to Baha’u’llah, is a widespread reluctance to accept, on a spiritual and intellectual level, the organic unity and interdependence—or common identity and interests—of all human beings. – Michael Karlberg, “Constructive Resilience: The Baha’i Response to Oppression.” Peace & Change, Volume 35.2, 2010, p. 242.
As “a radical new model of social change—entirely non-adversarial in nature” the Baha’i approach seeks to promote the essential oneness of humanity in dealing with all issues confronting societies, even in situations of extreme pressure and antagonism.
In practice, this has meant avoiding the diversion of “valuable time and energy away from the construction of alternative institutional forms derived from the principles of unity and interdependence,” and instead focusing on building institutions and communities that not only help the oppressed community to deal with its challenges but also serve as models for both the immediate society and also the world at large.
The oppressed of the world can learn useful lessons from the approach the Baha’is of Iran have taken in dealing with their situation. No matter how harsh the environment, they have through constructive and non-adversarial ways changed as much as possible the terms of the encounter, resulting in not only the worldwide recognition of their innocence, but also winning over the admiration of a majority of their compatriots, including many inside the ruling circles. Moreover, they have continued their laudable contributions to the advancement of their country which is, in the long run, the best solution for the problem of ignorance and tyranny.