In a welcome statement issued this week, the U.S. State Department drew attention to the continuing persecution of the small Baha’i religious minority in Yemen by Iran-backed Shi’a rebels.
The rebel Houthis “have targeted the Baha’i community in inflammatory speech along with a wave of detentions, ‘court summons,’ and punishment without a fair or transparent legal process,” the statement observed. These and similar actions over the past 12 months “appear to be an effort to pressure Yemeni Baha’is to recant their faith.”
Like the Yezidi and Christian minorities elsewhere in the Middle East, followers of the Baha’i faith have experienced horrendous persecution at the hands of Islamists—in their specific case, the Shi’a disciples of Ayatollah Khomeini who have ruled Iran since 1979 and who zealously police the country’s non-Muslims. That means evangelical Christian pastors regularly dicing with death and imprisonment—and it means exactly the same for those who worship according to the beliefs and traditions of the Bahai’s.
Yet unlike those Iranians who leave Islam for its Christian antecedent, the “original sin” of the Bahai’s in the eyes of the mullahs is to be a religion of the modern world. Its Persian founder Bahá’u’lláh, who lived during the mid-19th century, is presented by followers of this respectful and universalistic faith as the culmination of a chain of “Divine Manifestations” that connected ancient prophets like Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.
Given Iran’s growing military presence across vast swathes of the Middle East—from northern Syria to the Gulf of Aden—it should not come as a surprise that the Tehran regime’s proxies in Yemen are reproducing the systematic persecution of Bahai’s. As Abdullah Al Oulofy, a representative of the Baha’i community in the capital city of Sana’a, explained it to the UAE news outlet The National: “Iran discriminates against the group, which was born in Shiraz in Iran in 1844. So, the Houthis do as the Iranians do.”
In dutifully aping their Iranian paymasters, the Shi’a rebels in Yemen have added a twist of anti-Semitism on top of the long-established slander that the Bahai’s are a “Satanic” faith. In a televised address in March, the leader of the rebels, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, depicted the Baha’is as a “devilish tool” of Zionism, whose goal is to eliminate Islam. “Baha’ism is bred by Israel and supported by Israel and the Western states,” he railed. Within days of that incendiary speech, other Shi’a religious leaders—like the Iranian-appointed Mufti of Yemen, Shams al-Din Muhammad Sharaf al-Din—started talking openly about “butchering every Baha’i.” That threat should not be taken lightly.
The linkage between the Bahai’s and Israel is not entirely fabricated, of course. Bahá’u’lláh’s tomb is located in Akko, with the magnificent Baha’i World Center on the slopes of Haifa’s Mount Carmel nearby. But Bahá’u’lláh’s presence in the Holy Land was the consequence of his clashes with Islamic authorities to the north and east, rather than a voluntary pilgrimage on his part. In 1853, he was driven out of Persia into Turkey, and later deported by the Ottomans to Akko, at the time a penal colony. He died there in 1892, and leadership of the faith passed first to his son, and after that, to his close follower, Shoghi Effendi, who went on to cement Israel as the administrative and spiritual center of the Baha’i faith.
Yet most Bahai’s do not live in Israel. The biggest population of nearly 2 million is located in India, and there are sizable Baha’i communities in the United States and East Africa, as well as in Iran, the cradle of the faith. In that sense, their brutal Shi’a persecutors might be said to have missed the irony here: For the Bahai’s, Israel comes into the frame first as a land of exile, rather than the site of their national or spiritual redemption, as is the case for the Jews.
Since 1948—when the Haganah ensured that the Baha’i sites in Akko and Haifa were protected from fighting during the War of Independence—the Baha’i Center has quietly flourished in Israel, deliberately staying out of the country’s political and national disputes. No reasoned observer, therefore, could depict the religion as somehow aligned with political Zionism or Israeli policy, and because Israel is a liberal democracy, there is no such requirement mandated by the Israeli authorities to begin with.
Iran’s rulers live by a different conception of the truth, and so for them, details such as these are trifling. But that rather handily demonstrates the vast gulf between the Western notion of religious affiliation as a matter for the individual conscience—without which minority faiths could not hope to survive—and the Islamist insistence that religion is, before anything else, a tool for mass political mobilization.
In those circumstances, as the Jews of the Middle East know only too well, the lot of religious minorities is necessarily a miserable one.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.