Published: Mar 17, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Mar 17, 2012 02:50 PM
What would you do if the government denied your right to attend college because of your religion?
This isn’t a theoretical problem for members of the Baha’i Faith in Iran, They’re not allowed to attend college and are thrown in jail for simply teaching or trying to learn.
At UNC, there’s a staffer whose nephew was arrested and an alum whose cousin still languishes in prison for the “crime” of wanting to learn. Two Iranian Baha’i students came to UNC as undergrads and will leave with doctorates in dentistry. In Iran, they wouldn’t have been allowed to enroll in dental school.
Someone somewhere has to do something about this. At UNC a coalition of organizations, including Amnesty International and the Roosevelt Institute, are supporting Iranian Baha’is with a peaceful, action-oriented campaign in line with how Baha’is themselves have responded to oppression.
After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Baha’is were officially declared apostates because the Baha’i Faith was established after Islam and is now centered in Israel. Baha’is have withstood persecution, including imprisonment and execution. Yet, they haven’t resorted to violence.
When denied access to college and lawful appeals to the government failed, Baha’is in 1987 created the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE), an underground university system in which Baha’i and Muslim professors teach college-level courses to students in living rooms and kitchens throughout the country. In recent years the BIHE has offered online courses, including one taught by a UNC lecturer. Thousands of youth have been uplifted. Many have gone on to study at universities outside Iran, including in the United States.
But the BIHE, which now enrolls about 50,000 students, has not gone unnoticed. Iranian authorities have raided BIHE homes. In May 2011, during the most systematic raid to date, they seized computers and books, and arrested 18 teachers and several students, some of whom have received four-to-five-year sentences for simply teaching or wanting to go to college.
As part of our response, at 7 p.m. Tuesday March 27 at UNC’s Global FedEx Center there will be a free screening of a documentary about the attacks on Baha’i students. Following the film there will be short accounts of the situation in Iran from UNC community members and a consultation about what action we can take.
As of now, campaign organizers think UNC should consider accepting BIHE credits. We think UNC should consider recognizing BIHE degrees. We think UNC should allow BIHE students access to UNC’s online resources, such as digital libraries. We are creating a general scholarship for BIHE students. To raise money for this scholarship we have a T-shirt to sell with the phrase Make Grads, Not War.
Some people might fear that U.S. leaders will use human rights abuses as fuel in their march toward war with Iran. But two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates – Desmond Tutu of South Africa and President Jorge Ramos-Horta of East Timor – understand that working for justice and seeking peace are not mutually exclusive, and they’ve come out with a strong letter of support for Iranian Baha’is and the BIHE. In line with the Nobel Laureate’s letter, we are asking UNC faculty, students, staff, administrators, and anyone from the Chapel Hill community to come to the March 27 free event and log onto educationunderfire.com to sign a petition calling on Iran to free the Baha’i prisoners of conscience and to allow Baha’is the right to study in peace. Such international pressure has helped ease the oppression in Iran in the past.
In this day and age it’s a travesty that any government would systematically deny citizens the chance at an education, the chief means of individual and societal progress. But if Iranian leaders won’t stand up for the oppressed in their midst, then we will.
Mark Derewicz lives in Chapel Hill.