Baha’is of Iran, 1941-1979

By Mina Yazdani
Submitted to Session P3737 (Religious Inclusivity and Civilizational Identity: Expanding Iranian Identities along Religious, Ethnic, and Gender Lines, 2014 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
According to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s version of history, members of Iran’s Baha’i community lived in a state of bliss during the reign of Muhammad Reza Shah (r. 1941-1979). Moving away from such simplistic and monolithic narratives, this paper will investigate the multi-layered, multi-faceted history of the Baha’i community of Iran during the reign of the last Pahlavi monarch. Based on primary sources such as memoirs, newspaper clippings, interviews with eyewitnesses, and government documents, I will argue that while Baha’is were initially scapegoated in the interactions among the government, the clerics and the people from 1941 to 1955, they enjoyed a state of relative security from 1956 to 1979 without ever being officially recognized as a religious community and while their existence as Baha’is was essentially ignored or denied.
With the sudden removal of Reza Shah’s iron fist and the ascension of his young son to the throne, Iranian society underwent many changes, among them the political resurgence of the Shi‘i clerics and the appearance of several Islamic organizations with anti-Baha’i agendas. Meanwhile, some Baha’is increased their religious activities by settling in areas with little or no co-religionists. In the political chaos that characterized the 1940s, numerous Baha’is were murdered, while others had their homes raided or were expelled from their villages and towns, almost always with impunity. These conditions climaxed with the 1955 anti-Baha’i campaign, which proved to be at once the apogee and culmination of government-clergy collaboration, as the government, weary of international condemnation, refused to comply further with the clerics’ demand to suppress the Baha’is. With the Shah consolidating power in the latter part of his reign, the Baha’i community experienced a period of relative security—with the exception of episodes of violence during the 1963 anti-government riots that again went unpunished. A number of individual Baha’is became successful entrepreneurs and industrialists and one served as the Shah’s personal physician. At the same time, the “Anti-Baha’i Society” (later Hujatiyah) formed in the mid-1950s was supported by the Shah’s internal security agency, SAVAK, and given free rein to harass Baha’is. The Civil Employment Act did not permit Baha’is to be recruited to government jobs, silence permeated about them inside the country, and their existence was officially denied throughout.