Prominent Iranians call for religious liberty

September 30, 2009
Azar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran," addresses an audience in Washington on the treatment of minorities in Iran. (Photo by Evan Wilder)

WASHINGTON, United States — A best-selling author and an Oscar-nominated actress are among those who have called for religious freedom in Iran, including an end to the persecution of Baha'is in that country.

Some 1,400 people heard Azar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran," and Shohreh Aghdashloo, Academy Award-nominated actress for "House of Sand and Fog," speak at a public gathering this month at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. Both Dr. Nafisi and Ms. Aghdashloo were born in Iran, and neither is a member of the Baha'i community.

Dr. Nafisi spoke passionately about the common humanity of all people and the suffering of one being the suffering of all. She particularly focused on minorities in Iran and pointed to the example of the Baha'is.

"I ask myself," she said, "how does it feel to be deprived of every single basic human right in a country you call your own, in a country where you have been born into the language and the culture, a country where your parents and your parents' parents ... have lived and contributed to, what does it mean to be deprived of the right to education, of the right to property, of even the right to life?"

She said the struggle is "not a political struggle, it is an existential one." It goes beyond the Baha'is, she said, to "every single person in Iran who dares to be different, who dares to express his or her desire for the freedom to have a choice."

"Baha'is in Iran have become the canaries in the mine," she said. "You want to know how much freedom the Iranian people enjoy today, you go to the fate of its Baha'is."

Depriving people of their individuality is a way of killing them, she said. "It is worse, in fact, than just being plainly murdered. To deny your humanity, your individuality, is to be dead."

Actress Shohreh Aghdashloo spoke by video to the gathering in Washington, saying she stands "with many others around the world" in supporting the Iranian Baha'is. Slideshow
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Actress Shohreh Aghdashloo spoke by video to the gathering in Washington, saying she stands "with many others around the world" in supporting the Iranian Baha'is.

"The show trials that have been going on in Iran – all these people coming from such different backgrounds, such different ages, such different political and religious beliefs, all of them deprived of their individuality," she said.

The defendants, she said, were forced into confessing that "whatever they believed in, whatever lifestyle they led ... was a farce and sham. That is another way of killing people."

Ms. Aghdashloo, addressing the gathering via video from Los Angeles, said everything she had "ever read or understood about the Baha'i Faith" is that it stands for the oneness of humanity and inherent nobility of all human beings.

"I stand with many others around the world in conveying our unified voice in support of the Baha'is in Iran and wish to speak out against the ongoing and deplorable actions of the Iranian government," she said.

The event in Washington, held on 12 September, was dedicated to the Baha'is who are jailed in Iran, including the seven "leaders" who have been detained in Tehran's notorious Evin prison for more than a year on trumped-up charges of "espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities, and propaganda against the Islamic republic."

It was one of a number of gatherings held in recent months across the United States to offer prayers for the prisoners, including events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and now Washington.

In San Francisco – at the Herbst Theatre, where the United Nations Charter was signed in 1945 – Dr. Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University, was the principal speaker.

"For Iran, the treatment of the Baha'is in the last 150 years, our society's acts of omission and commission, what we said and did or failed to say and do, all create an embarrassing blot of shame on our history," he said.

"Iran can't become a democracy unless it has had a full reckoning with its Baha'i problem," he said. "Iran can't be a democracy unless the Baha'is are considered full citizens of the society and their faith – like those of Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, Muslims, or members of any other faith, belief, or even disbelief – is recognized as a private matter where the state, social institutions, or actors have no right of inquiry, interference, or harassment."

In Washington, one of the speakers was Dwight Bashir, associate director for policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

He quoted from U.S. President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo earlier this year, directed to the Muslim world: "People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive, but it's being challenged in many different ways. ... Among some Muslims, there's a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of somebody else's faith."

"The last part of President Obama's statement is exactly what we are witnessing in Iran today," Dr. Bashir said.

For a video of Azar Nafisi's talk:

For Shohreh Aghdashloo's message:

For Abbas Milani's presentation: