PhD candidate, Trudeau Scholar and Principal Researcher with the Baha’i Community of Canada.
The Office of Religious Freedom marked the first anniversary of its creation in February 2014. At a religious freedom forum organized for this occasion, Dr. Andrew Bennett remarked that in the Middle East, the world has witnessed “a worrying inverse trend of persecution and human rights” in the wake of the Arab Spring. A similar trend has extended to Iran—even under the new regime of President Hassan Rouhani. Religious minorities have been among the worst affected by this rising tide of extremism.
In the cause of advancing religious freedom, those in it for the long game know that lasting change often requires a spirit of generous, tolerant theology. Politics, they say, is downstream of culture. And only good theology beats bad theology.
Plenty of bad theology persists around the world. Theology that sustains domination and dehumanizing atrocities against minorities. But the flower of good theology, of generous and civil religious communities flourishes in many of these same places, and at the same time. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one such place. At the same moment that the UN Human Rights Council renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran—a signal of continuing opprobrium—Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani has made an astonishing gift of reconciliation to that Iran’s Baha'is, a religious minority that has endured decades of persecution.
In 2001, Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani decided to prepare calligraphic renderings of the Torah, Psalms, and Koran as a means of fostering dialogue among religions. However, he was forced to abandon the project under threat from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. On this matter, he has stated that, “some of them thought that calligraphy and decorative production of Holy Scriptures is tantamount to the promotion of those beliefs, while in our capacity as producers of art we made no judgment as to the truth or falsehood of the work,” which he notes, “is separate from the message of peace and peaceful living.”
Now, thirteen years later, he has gifted to the Baha'is of the world a work of calligraphy in a traditional Persian style of ‘illumination’ from the writings of Baha'u'llah, the Prophet-founder of the Baha'i Faith with no clear government opposition. In Iran, in which only Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians are recognized non-Islamic faiths, even members with these communities face routine violations of their freedoms. Because the Baha'is, a religious community with no official standing has suffered terrible persecution in the past, Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani's action can only be described as shockingly courageous.
The quote in the calligraphy gifted to the Baha’i in Iran is from “The Most Holy Book” of the Baha'i Faith and reads, “Consort with all religions with amity and concord, that they may inhale from you the sweet fragrance of God. Beware lest amidst men the flame of foolish ignorance overpower you. All things proceed from God and unto Him they return. He is the source of all things and in Him all things are ended.” (The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, paragraph 144)
In a world in which politics is downstream of culture, politics is often the last to change—most intransigent, the most stubborn. But in that same world, where simple, felicitous acts of aesthetic nobility can sustain generous and universal interpretations of the Qur'an and, in Iran, of Shia Islam, the consequences for besieged religious minorities like the Baha'is may be radical. These are acts that Canada can celebrate.
The sentiment motivating Masoumi-Tehrani's daring gesture is conveyed in a post on his website: “With utmost brotherly kindness, this feeble one calls upon all my dear fellow citizens from every religion, belief and walk of life who may hear my words, to evince love and affection, friendship and kindliness, mercy and compassion, forgiveness and empathy, care and solidarity, helpfulness and support, and to respect the life, possessions and dignity of others.”
It would not be overstating it to say that when the day comes that there are those in Iran who stand between harm and other religious communities, it will be those acting on faith and the best of their theology to defeat the worst of human tyranny.
In Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani we have a foretaste of that day. His are among the innumerable acts of small courage—a ‘banality of goodness’ as former speech-writer Michael Gerson describes it—of repeated virtues that humanize, protect, and bless the persecuted. Unfortunately, he has, and will, see real danger for this subversion, as all people of peace in all times.