Anyone with an ear to the ground knows what the hardliners are up to – where they’re cracking down and who they’re arresting. But it’s not always easy to understand why.
It can take even old hands like me a while to understand the latest moves.
Take the latest arrests of Iranian Baha’is last month.
At first, it seemed like just another round of punitive bigotry and persecution.
Then, a chance meeting with an old contact got me thinking.
A couple of months ago, just after the nuclear deal was signed, I was in an Iranian city where I dropped in on an old and trusted acquaintance, a Baha’i shopkeeper. That day I found him upbeat.
Over an instant coffee, he told me ““President Rouhani’s election victory has worked out well – even for us Baha’is. Now that he’s finalized the deal, more democratization is bound to follow – just as he promised in his campaign.”
I was startled to hear such unguarded optimism from a member of a political and persecuted religious minority.
A few weeks later, though, everything had changed.
In November, at least 25 Baha’is were arrested across Iran and dozens of Baha’i shops were closed.
When I checked in with my contact I found him in shock.
Stroking his beard, dyed coal black, he said, “The authorities are bragging about all the people they’ve arrested with Daesh connections….but it’s just propaganda. After the Paris attacks, they want to look like players in the fight against international terrorism.”
“The REAL arrests are the members of the Baha’i community.”
He pointed to the specific timing of the arrests, right after an important two-day religious festival.
As he explained, “For more than a century, the Baha’is in this country celebrated the birthdays of their two prophets, Bab and Baha’u’llah, according to a calendar unique to Iran. Then the Baha’i head office in Haifa decided to standardize the religious calendar according to lunar calculations so that in future, the birthdays would fall on the same two consecutive days worldwide. That way, Baha’is everywhere would celebrate in unison.”
I had a sudden flash of insight. (Rather like the epiphanies that burst upon James Joyce’s characters in Dubliners. Regular readers of my blogs will know that I love books, and the way they illuminate common human experience.)
It dawned on me that the recalibration of the Baha’i calendar played right into Iranian hardline paranoia.
To them, a synchronized Baha’i religious calendar amounts to that most dangerous of things: a global, cosmopolitan organization.
It gives a Baha’i in Tehran or Isfahan exactly the same reference points as a fellow worshipper in Jakarta or Los Angeles. It becomes a network that transcends borders and defies isolation. That makes it a dangerous microcosm of something many reform-minded Iranians would like for the whole country.
My acquaintance then told me that the police recently distributed a leaflet to all Baha’i shopkeepers. Among other things, it ordered them to observe “Islamic” dress and conduct and keep “official” opening hours – in other words, the same opening hours as businesses owned by Shi’a Muslims.
“That’s it”, I said. “It’s a cover.”
“They can now close Baha’i-owned shops for being open at the wrong time, so they don’t have to admit they’re actually persecuting a group of people who have fought against their isolation, and enjoy links to an international community.”
Of course, if more Iranian organizations follow the Baha’i example, it’s no secret whose power would be under threat.