Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1987

Bahá’í Institute of Higher Education Established to Provide Educational Opportunities for Oppressed Religious Minority in Iran

Since the 1980s, members of the Bahá’í religion living in Iran have suffered severe human rights violations, including being denied access to education. The Bahá’í Faith, founded in 1844, is based upon principles of unity, peace, justice and equality for all. However, as a religious minority in Iran, its members have faced severe oppression and injustice since the birth of their Faith. This persecution has heightened significantly in recent years, beginning with the 1979 Iranian revolution and subsequent increased fundamentalism. In particular, Bahá’ís have been prevented from both studying in and working as faculty at institutions of higher education.

In response to this situation, the Bahá’í Institute of Higher Education (BIHE) was established in 1987. BIHE was created to provide opportunities for individuals being denied access to higher education to obtain tertiary schooling through creative means. BIHE began as a purely volunteer effort, with faculty who had also lost their jobs volunteering to provide classes for students.

Operating under the threat of oppression has encouraged BIHE to seek creative means to educate its students. An “infrastructure” was built consisting of classrooms, labs, and libraries spread out through private homes across Iran. A sophisticated interface for on-line learning was also developed, enabling BIHE to become a pioneer in distance and correspondence learning with faculty from around the world. Quickly BIHE grew from a small compensatory institution to a full-fledged university. By 1990, BIHE had over 900 students and 150 volunteer faculty members, and had developed academic standards rivaling western universities.

Unfortunately, the Iranian government has continued to oppress the Bahá’ís and BIHE’s students, faculty and staff. Students are forced to meet in discreet locations as threat of persecution continues. On several instances, the government has seized textbooks and resources, broken up class meetings, and arrested students and faculty. As was widely reported in the international news media, agents of the Iranian Government staged a series of sweeping raids in 1999, arresting at least 36 members of the BIHE's faculty and staff and confiscating equipment and records located in over 500 homes. As the New York Times noted, "[t]he materials confiscated were neither political nor religious, and the people arrested were not fighters or organizers. They were lecturers in subjects like accounting and dentistry; the materials seized were textbooks and laboratory equipment." These human rights violations have been recognized by the international community, through the passage of multiple United Nations resolutions on the violation of the human rights of the Bahá’ís in Iran, including a 2006 resolution following the arrest of another 54 Bahá’ís in the city of Shiraz. General Romeo Dallaire, former Canadian lieutenant-general and member of the United Nations Advisory Committee on Genocide Prevention also issued a personal statement on the situation of the Bahá’ís in Iran in 2006, within which he remarked: “I am deeply concerned that Iran's Bahá’ís are now being specifically targeted by a regime that has the means to carry out the most despicable of intentions.”

Despite these attempts to prevent Bahá’ís from having access to education and to destroy the Bahá’í Institute of Higher Education, BIHE and its students and faculty have pressed on in their dedication and commitment to higher education. One article reports, “A former student, who is now living outside of Iran, likened the attitude of many of the students to Gandhi's attitude of non-violent resistance. Denied the right to an education by the authorities, students were determined to study to show the government that they could study.”

This determination has paid off – BIHE has continued to grow its programs, and now offers over 700 courses with 250 affiliated faculty members. It offers fourteen undergraduate degree programs, including Architecture, Biology and Medical Sciences, Business Administration, Civil Engineering, Law, and Persian Literature, five Associate degrees, and three programs of graduate study. BIHE also maintains a high level of academic standards and rigor – in its first year of existence, over 1500 students applied for only 250 spots. Although Iran still refuses to recognize BIHE degree programs or graduates, students of BIHE have been admitted to over 25 prestigious universities in North America, Europe and Australia for graduate studies.

The source for BIHE’s vision and mission comes directly from the Bahá’í Writings, which place great importance on the role of education. More than a century ago, its central figures addressed the rulers and peoples of Iran, writing:

“Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.” –Bahá’u’lláh

“The primary, the most urgent requirement is the promotion of education. It is inconceivable that any nation should achieve prosperity and success unless this paramount, this fundamental concern is carried forward.” -‘Abdu’l-Bahá

In this spirit, BIHE views its objective as to provide an environment for students to not only receive rigorous academic training, but also:

“to seek knowledge, to search for truth, beauty and justice, to pursue excellence in a spirit of loving fellowship, to become independent learners, creative thinkers and problem solvers, to examine dynamic interactions between scientific facts and universal values as a frame of reference for the meaningful application of knowledge, to appreciate the role of technology in laying the material foundation of civilization, and to draw upon the lessons of the past in order to advance new understanding for the future.”

BIHE presents an inspiring example model of the ability of education to transcend national boundaries and particularistic injustices in a global society. As the Institute states, “At BIHE, we believe that through collaborative and versatile learning that emphasizes conceptual as well as practical aspects of living in a global society, challenges can be transformed into possibilities. Indeed, that has been the founding principle of BIHE.” BIHE hopes to expand its capabilities in the future to allow universal accessibility to its programs, and to become a leader in education for global prosperity.

References

Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education: www.bihe.org. Accessed online: November 29, 2006.

Bahá'í International Community, “Statement to the 55th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights under Agenda item 10 of the provisional agenda: The Right to Education”. Circulated as UN Document # E/CN.4/1999/NGO/13 http://statements.bahai.org/99-0129.htm. Accessed online: November 29, 2006.

Bahá'í International Community, 29 September 2006 (BWNS), “Romeo Dallaire, expert on genocide, expresses concern for Baha'i community in Iran.” http://news.bahai.org/story/481. Accessed online: November 29, 2006.

Bahá'í International Community, 22 November 2006 (BWNS), “UN expresses "serious concern" over human rights in Iran, including the situation of Baha'is.” ttp://news.bahai.org/story/491. Accessed online: November 29, 2006.

Landau, Elizabeth, New Jersey Times, June 12, 2006, “Teaching Iran a Lesson on Faith.” http://www.princeton.edu/~bahai/images/New_Jersey_Times.pdf. Accessed online: November 29, 2006.

Official Web Site of the Bahá’í Faith; www.bahai.org

Prepared by Kathy Madjidi, OISE/University of Toronto, 2006.

 

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