Thursday, September 29, 2011

My Talk

I wrote the article below for an event in June of 2011 to honor the Baha’is in Iran who are being persecuted for their religious beliefs. The part of the article that enumerates the injustices inflicted on the Baha’is of Iran has been extracted from sources that have kept an eye on the plight of the Baha’is in Iran over the last 32 years. I would like to thank my friend Charles Rakay for his editorial suggestions in writing this article. It is with humility and awe that the following text has been written in honor of all of those who have fought for justice in non-violent ways. It is their perseverance, uncompromising principles and dignity that has touched our hearts and has left a lasting legacy.

On August 10, 1980 Dr. Vafai, my brother in law, a prominent member of the Baha’i Faith in the city of Hamadan in Iran was arrested for the 4th and final time by the local government officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran along with 6 other Baha’is. All seven Baha'i men were arrested without any charges or explanation of any wrongdoing. Within a few hours their heads were shaved, mug shots were taken, and they were placed in a prison along with murderers and hardcore criminals. What followed was months of interrogation, and imprisonment in the most appalling and unsanitary conditions where all 7 men were held in a small cell for the next 10 months.

During the 10 months of imprisonment, my brother in law and the other 6 Baha'i prisoners were told by the authorities that their only crime was that they were members of the Baha'i Faith. They were told numerous times that if they would publicly recant their Faith, they would be free to go back to their families, and everything that had been taken away from them would be given back to them, otherwise they would be killed. The seven Baha'i men did not recant at any of the given opportunities to do so.

During one of the interrogation sessions, the Baha'i prisoners were told by the lead Islamic clergy of the city, “We know that you are good people and are much loved by the entire city. Your reputation is impeccable. You are here because you are Baha'is.” In response the seven prisoners said, “What is wrong with being a Baha'i? We are loved by the community because of the teachings of the Baha'i Faith, which is a religion devoted to service to humanity. Why do you want us to recant our religion?” At which point, the Islamic clergy replied, “We want you to recant because the growth of your religion will bring an end to Islam.”

Ten months and 10 days after the day my brother in law and the six other Baha'is were arrested, one night they were taken to an unknown location where they were tortured, their bodies severely mutilated and then they were each shot several times. As none of the shots were to the head or the heart, they died a long and agonizing death. This was how the lives of the seven innocent men, who had served their community for many years, ended. After that, life was never the same for their wives and children who had to endure the difficult years that followed. Soon after the execution of her husband and confiscation of their property and belongings, my sister and her young daughter had to be smuggled out of Iran, since their lives were in danger.

Bahaís hold no political ambitions, are committed to non-violence, and seek only to help in the development of the societies where they live. Yet, in Iran, for more than 30 years, they have been persecuted solely for their religious beliefs.

The persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran has its roots in Iranian history going back to the inception of the Baha'i Faith in the19th century where 20,000 Baha'is were killed in a short span of time. Baha'is in Iran enjoyed a period of relative calm in the early part of the 20th century until the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 when the current campaign of systematic persecution began. In the 1980s, virtually the entire leadership of the Iranian Bahá’í community was arrested and executed or disappeared. Bahá’ís have been detained, imprisoned, and falsely charged with “spying”; they have been denied access to education and sources of livelihood; they have been stripped of all influence in Iranian society and deprived of their right to religious freedom.

In contrast to its campaign of outright killings, imprisonment, and torture of Bahá’ís during the 1980s, the Iranian government has in recent years focused largely on economic and social efforts to drive Bahá’ís from Iran and destroy their cultural and community life. The government has also used arbitrary arrests and detentions, coupled with the confiscation of personal property, to oppress and terrorize the Baha’i Community. In the 1980s, over 10,000 Bahá’ís were dismissed from positions in government and educational institutions. Many remain unemployed and receive no unemployment benefits. Efforts to impoverish the Bahá’í community and to deprive its members of their economic livelihood have continued through a variety of means. In particular, government authorities have in many places around the country continued to block Bahá’ís from receiving pensions, conducting business, or finding employment. Even when Bahá’ís find employment in the private sector, government officials often intervene and force the owners of the companies to fire them. And when Bahá’ís start a private business, the authorities attempt to block their activities.

Since the inception of the Islamic government Baha'i youth have been denied access to formal education and are banned from attending colleges and universities. In what the New York Times called “an elaborate act of communal self-preservation,” the Bahá’í community in 1987 established its own higher education program to meet the educational needs of as many of its young people as resources would allow. That program evolved over the years into a full-fledged university, known as the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education. It had a faculty of more than 150 first-rate academics and instructors, and complete course offerings in ten subject areas. The classes for the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education were held in private homes throughout Iran and what little permanent infrastructure it had was composed of a handful of rented classrooms and laboratories scattered throughout the capital. Because of the continual threat of persecution, the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education was forced to operate in a highly circumspect and decentralized manner. Then, in acts that speak volumes about the government’s real attitude towards Baha’ís, twice government agents fanned out across the country, arresting Baha’i Institute faculty and staff, raiding homes, and confiscating hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of books, equipment and records in a blatant effort to shut the university down. The most recent raids were carried out, on May 21, 2011 where 14 Baha'is associated with the university were arrested. “The materials confiscated were neither political nor religious, and the people arrested were not fighters or organizers. They were lecturers in subjects like accounting and dentistry; the materials seized were textbooks and laboratory equipment.”

When the Islamic Republic’s new constitution was drawn up in April 1979, certain rights of the Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian minorities in Iran were specifically mentioned and protected. However, no mention whatsoever was made of the rights of the Bahá’í community, Iran’s largest religious minority. Under Iran’s concept of an Islamic government, this exclusion has come to mean that Bahá’ís enjoy no rights of any sort, and that they can be attacked and persecuted with impunity. Iranian courts have denied Bahá’ís the right of redress or protection against essentially all forms of persecution; including assault and even murder. — and have ruled that Iranian citizens who kill or injure Bahá’ís are not liable for damages because their victims are, as the Iranian Government calls them, “unprotected infidels.” Among the Baha'is currently in prison in Iran are the seven leaders of the Baha'i Faith. This group of 5 men and 2 women recently started their 4th year of imprisonment. The seven were charged among other things, with espionage, propaganda against the Islamic republic, the establishment of an illegal administration - charges that were all rejected completely and categorically by the defendants. Their crime is nothing more than being members of the Baha’i Faith. Indeed, the trial of the seven in many ways was the trial of an entire community of more than 300,000 Iranian Baha’is. The charges against the seven reflects the kind of false accusations and campaign of misinformation that Iran’s regime has used to vilify and defame Baha’is for decades.
The trial of the seven Baha’i leaders ended on June 14, 2010 after six brief sessions, characterized by a blatant lack of due legal process. The final sentence was 20 years of imprisonment.

The worldwide Bahá’í community is today one of the most diverse and widespread organizations on earth, comprised of individuals from virtually every nation, ethnic group, trade, profession, and social or economic class. The Bahá’ís in Iran seek no special privileges. They seek only their rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right to life, the right to liberty and security of person, the right to education and work, and the right to profess and practice their religion.

The international community has responded to the persecution of the Bahá’í community in Iran with overwhelming sympathy, expressing concern for the Bahá’ís and condemnation of the Iranian government. The Bahá’í community believes that this outpouring has been a strong restraining force against the government, preventing persecution on a much greater scale.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has passed more than 20 resolutions expressing concern about reports of human rights violations in Iran, and each has made specific mention of the situation of the Bahá’í community there. We are heartened that representatives of the United States government have recently spoken out about the continued denial of basic human rights to Bahá'ís in Iran. We thank President Obama, who on March 20th of this year, when speaking about the Iranian Government’s persecution of the Baha’is, and others, said, “ The world has watched these unjust actions with alarm”. We thank our own congressman Mike Coffman who co-sponsored House Resolution 134, which condemns the government of Iran for persecuting its citizens of the Baha'i faith. Because of support from our leaders like President Obama and Congressman Coffman, and support from the international community, the wholesale genocide of the Bahá’í community in Iran has so far been prevented.

It must be said that under the Islamic government of Iran other religious and ethnic groups have suffered as well. In fact, the Iranians citizens have suffered greatly in the hands of this regime and its tyrannical ways. Our hearts go out to all Iranians who have endured, and still are enduring the atrocities inflected on them. We Baha'is dream of a day when people of Iran, the country which is the birthplace of our religion, live in a free, just and peaceful society.

Human history speaks of unimaginable cruelties. In the last 100 years, we have witnessed two world wars, the Holocaust and many genocides and acts of ethnic cleansing across the world. Whatever suffering and turmoil the world faces today, however dark the immediate circumstances, the Bahá’í community believes that humanity can confront these trials with confidence that the ultimate outcome will be a just and united world. Baha'is along with other like-minded groups and individuals across the world are committed to helping humankind reach the long-promised age of global peace, justice and unity. The prerequisite for this outcome is the acceptance of the principles of oneness of mankind. Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i Faith, teaches that an equal standard of human rights must be recognized and adopted. In the estimation of God all men are equal; there is no distinction or preferment for any soul in the dominion of His justice and equity. I will end with the words of Baha'u'llah:

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My Friend and I

This picture was taken on 9/5/2011, Labor Day Weekend, with my friend Shari.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

My Neighbor

My neighbor Kim and her family moved to the house across the street from me about 6 years ago when I was going through my divorce.

Kim is married with 2 young children. At the time, I was so engrossed in my own life and pain that I didn’t notice when they moved in and how many people lived in their household. I lived oblivious of my surroundings. I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anybody or make friends. I intentionally avoided making eye contact with my neighbors.

A year after Kim and her family moved in when my relatives were visiting something came up, and I actually had to say hello to Kim when I saw her on the street. That started our acquaintance. I was impressed that after the initial meeting every time she saw me, she said, “Hi Soheila” with perfect pronunciation of my unusual name. She obviously had a good memory. Unlike most people, she remembered how to say my name after hearing it just once.

Kim is a stay at home mom who is always outside. She is usually sitting on the porch smoking a cigarette, drinking a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. She is often talking to the neighbors and working in the yard. I see her every morning when I leave my house and every evening when I come home. She is always sweet and warm in all her interactions. She keeps an eye on everything that goes on in the neighborhood.

One day about 4 years ago, I got a notice from the homeowner’s association that my lawn didn’t look perfect, and I had some weeds on the edges of my yard. I called and told them that due to the water use restrictions my lawn doesn’t look that great, and I will pull out the weeds. During that conversation, I found out that one of my neighbors had complained about my lawn. They wouldn’t tell me who it was, but I had a strong suspicion that it was Kim who was always working in her yard, had the most perfect lawn and kept a close watch on everything that was going on in the neighborhood.

When we had a snow storm with 15 inches of snowfall about 2 years ago, I came home from work on Thursday evening. I worked from home the next day and did not leave my house until Monday morning. When I got home Monday night, Kim saw me and said, “You didn’t leave your house for 3 days. There were no tire tracks on your driveway the entire weekend.” Her observation made me uncomfortable. I got the sense that she was watching everything I do.

When my niece was visiting 2 years ago in Dec and had parked her car in front of my next door neighbor’s lawn with 2 of the tires partially on the curb, Kim had knocked on my door and had given her a hard time, at which point my niece had told her, “I didn’t park in front of your house, why are you so concerned?” That day I got a call from Kim at work all upset saying that she didn’t mean to cause trouble, and she didn’t want to upset anybody, but she was concerned that my next door neighbor could not properly shovel the snow on the sidewalk if the tires were on the curb. I told her, “Don’t worry about it, it was no big deal, and no one is upset.”

Kim is actually a good neighbor in many ways. When I had left the garage door open one night, she called me at midnight to tell me that my garage door was open. When my car was stuck in the snow, she helped push my car out. When my bicycle was broken, she lent me her bicycle. When my sister’s car broke down, she gave her a ride to where she wanted to go. She is always very helpful and friendly. She is also very religious. She ends each conversation with “God Bless”.

It is just that she truly is watching everything that goes on around her. Last winter, I got a call from her saying, “Your mother’s bedroom window is open about 8 inches. It is going to snow, so you may want to close it.” Sure enough, the guest room window where my mother stays when she comes over was open about 8 inches. I was wondering how she could see that from her house. Does she use binoculars? When my mom fell at my house and broke her back, as soon as the ambulance arrived, Kim was in my house wondering what was going on and if she could help.

Last summer one morning as I was leaving my house, I put the trash can outside so the trash would be picked up. As I was getting into my car, I heard a voice calling my name. I looked around, but I saw no one. I heard someone calling me again. I couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from again, I looked around and saw no one. The third time I heard my name, I looked up in the sky and thought to myself, “Is this voice coming from the heavens? I don’t see anybody anywhere.” At that point, I heard the voice say, “It’s Kim, I’m up here in the 2nd floor bathroom of my house. I’m looking at you from the bathroom window.” I said, “Oh, Hi Kim. I can’t see you.” She said, “Is your trash pickup company Pro Disposal?” I said, “Yes, it is”. She said, “They already picked up the trash. You missed them.” I thanked her amazed at how nothing escaped her keen eyes.

So in the last few years living as a single woman again, I have dated a lot, in fact too much, and Kim has watched different men come into my life. First there was the guy with the Honda, then there was the guy with a Mustang, then the guy with a Porch, then the Acura guy, and then there was the guy with the Corvette and so on… Kim has watched these men come and go and surprisingly has not said anything as she has watched the traffic from her porch.

So when a couple of months ago, my friend Rick came to pick me up with his motorcycle, as I was putting on the helmet and the leather jacket that he had brought for me, I bursed into laughter knowing that Kim is watching and wondering. I got on the back of the motorcycle and as we drove away, I saw Kim looking at us with her mouth wide open. I tried really hard to tell myself that she is not really there.