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Muslims for Baha’i Human Rights Written by Esra'a Al Shafei
Published Thursday, November 13, 2008
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Iran might be famous for Avicenna, the Cyrus cylinder, and its leaders' scathing remarks, but for over 6 million Baha'is across the world, it holds a special significance, as it is the birthplace of their faith.
Founded a century and a half ago, the Baha'i faith encourages the independent investigation of "truth," and calls – among other things – for the unity of religion and humankind, and the elimination of gender inequality. However, one of its central tenets – that Islam is not the final revelation of God – has led to it being declared a heresy, and its adherents denounced as apostates.
The earliest followers of the Baha'i faith in Iran experienced imprisonment, expulsion and execution, but as the faith's followers grew in number and spread over more countries in the region, it soon became evident that other states would not provide a safe haven for Baha'is to freely practise their faith.
Communities from Morocco to Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere underwent an onslaught of propaganda attacks and arrests, and several countries placed a ban on all Baha'i activities.
While in recent years the situation of Baha’is has improved (with Indonesia, for instance, repealing a ban on Baha’i activities), Iran remains the only country where Baha'is experience grave persecution. To date, however, hardly any Muslim-majority countries recognize the Baha'i faith as an independent religion. The lack of recognition rendered many Baha'is incapable of obtaining identification documents, effectively denying them their right to equal citizenship.
The Muslim Network of Baha'i Rights was founded in an effort to address and challenge the discrimination that Baha'is have to suffer under the supposed banner of Islam. Its mission is to secure their basic human rights within our societies, through raising awareness of the plight of Baha'is in many Muslim-majority countries, and encouraging fellow Muslims to speak out against such injustices.
Propaganda campaigns (spread primarily by state-owned media and religious clerics) have led to a deep and dangerous misunderstanding amongst many Muslims of Baha'is and their faith, wrongly associating them with political ideologies like Zionism or referring to them as "Satanists."
Since Baha'is are often censured within the mainstream media, such claims are hardly corrected, putting members of the faith in a very difficult situation. It is our responsibility as Muslims, and as members of the dominating majority, to raise awareness of who Baha'is actually are and to make sure that they are treated equally within the law and society. They are citizens of our countries regardless of their faith, which for the record is extremely respectful of Islam.
As practising Muslims we don't believe in the Baha'i faith, but why should that stand in the way of granting them their full rights? Why should our religious differences justify decades of abuse, wrongful imprisonment, murder, denial of education, and other crimes?
Baha'is have been ignored in their requests for peaceful coexistence, and despite the abuse they have never resorted to violence. It is therefore time for us to stand up and demand that their rights are fully ensured and legally protected. It is time for us to help Baha'is factually refute wrong accusations within regional media outlets that have dire consequences for their security.
As a strategy, and a recruitment tool, we have relied on the power of the Internet, the most open network in the world, to reach our target audience in an honest, uncensored fashion. It is to our advantage that increasingly more people rely on the Internet for news instead of traditional media, which in much of the Middle East is heavily censored. Many curious people resort to the Internet for research because of the amount of information that resides in it.
One of our biggest accomplishments was our successful utilization of creative media in order to raise awareness about the abuse perpetrated against the Baha'i minority in the Middle East, and encourage others into taking action.
Before any significant changes are made to the perceptions of citizens of the Middle East, or discriminatory laws are removed, it is important that we start a discussion, and our media productions have been more successful than any written post in achieving that.
Our first video campaign was documented in one of Egypt's most prominent papers within one week of its launch. Some of our comics have also been published and used in relevant conferences around the world. When the site was first established in the summer of 2007, it was covered by BBC Persian Service in an exclusive article only three weeks later. We owe this success to the accessibility of the Internet, where we break our way into global media outlets without having to worry about censorship.
Despite the amount of controversy we continue to stir in the Muslim world, we are committed to the cause of championing equal rights for the Baha’i minority in the region.
Esra'a Al Shafei is the executive director of MideastYouth.com and the Founder of the Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights. She is based in Bahrain.
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