On May 21, 2011, Iranian officials raided 30 homes, unjustly arresting more than a dozen Iranian citizens. It’s a quick headline, and one which is both sadly mundane by now and distant from the immediate concerns of most Columbians. But this story is particularly disconcerting—not just for those who follow Iran in the news, but for all of us at this University—because these individuals were arrested for crimes of faith and education.
It’s no secret that since an Islamist government took power in Iran in 1979, the hardline religious elite has slowly ramped up policies to indoctrinate and homogenize the nation under the banner of a very narrow, less-than-popular brand of Islam. That impulse has led the government to bar select citizens from higher education in Iran—mainly those who espoused the wrong Islam, challenged the government, or followed the wrong faith. One group targeted by this policy was the Baha’i (ironically, a religious faith that originated in Iran in the late 1800s)—the group targeted in the May raids.
If you know little about the Baha’i, that’s not terribly surprising—I am a religion major and encountered them in about half a line of text in my first three years at Columbia. It was only by chance that I learned more about their faith. While in Kenya, I was invited to a party celebrating the independence of South Sudan, which I later learned was being hosted by the Baha’i community of Nairobi. And a more diverse group I never saw in Kenya.
The Baha’i are a monotheistic faith of all faiths—proponents of unity who accept all faiths as legitimate expressions of truth and push a dogma of peace, justice, and global unity. (Full disclosure: I am not Baha’i, but I am religious.) Although there are only just over five million Baha’i in the world, their message has gained traction in almost every nation in the world. That diversity and dispersion has led to an incredible cohesion and ingenuity, and that is why I mention the Baha’i raids: The Baha’i used their organizational savvy to actively fight back against Iranian educational suppression.
Soon after the 1987 crackdown, the Baha’i formed the Baha’i Institute for Higher Learning, a collective of teachers (both Baha’i professors barred from working in Iranian colleges and Muslim academics willing to risk their careers) teaching clandestine courses across the nation to excluded groups. Over the years, the BIHL has gained recognition from more than 50 universities worldwide, allowing excluded Iranians to continue their education, hopefully returning as the analytic critics the Iranian government so clearly feared.
But it was those teachers who were scooped up in the May raids.
The Iranian regime is stepping up its game. They have not just launched a full scale attack on the only critical non-state educational system in the nation, they have begun (according to a letter in support of the Baha’i by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and East-Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta) to revise the majority of school content to more closely match and instill the government’s narrow values in the nation’s youth. (It’s important to echo Tutu and Ramos-Horta again here and note that this is not the product of the Islamic faith, or even of an Islamic state, but is a direct product of an exclusive, dictatorial regime.)
We should all be very concerned.
Lazy optimists tend to believe that other systems will arise naturally in Iran to oppose an educational tyranny. And it’s true that organizations like the Khan Academy, offering online, free collegiate education globally (and a number of other distance-learning tools, touted as the absolute answer and the future by many who study education) can help to weaken the educational stranglehold of dictatorial regimes. But unbridled faith in the Internet is misplaced—the Iranian government has invested widely and has one of the best cyber-armies in the world. We recall the positive effects of technology in the 2009 Iranian post-election revolution, but one need only read the works of Evgeny Morozo to realize how quickly Iranians batted down the technological savior advantage and turned it to their own suppressive gains. Technology cannot save us here—this is a nation that, if set on brainwashing and homogenization, can achieve it. But only so long as we who have a reason and the power to take a stand sit idly by instead.
Columbia is a global university and strives to create global citizens. I have personally critiqued the University a number of times, noting all the ways that it fails to live up to that picture of itself. But the sentiment—the goal—is no less valuable. And here is an opportunity to prove that commitment.
This is not to say that other nations do not stand opposed to ideals espoused by Columbia. But in this case, Columbia can stand united, as all of us in some way implicitly or explicitly have bought into the value of higher education and few of us would see access to it denied. And this is a concern at the core of the University as it moves forward in its global expansion. To sit quietly as Iran closes itself off would be the antithesis of a spirit that binds us together and connects us to the larger world.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in religion and political science.