By Barbara Slavin
When Iranian officials come to the United Nations, they are usually met with questions about their human rights practices, particularly the arrest of dual nationals.
This year was no different as interlocutors brought up the cases of Siamak Namazi and his father, Baquer; another Iranian-American, Robin Shahini; a British-Iranian mother, Nazenin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was seized while visiting her parents with her toddler daughter and Homa Hoodfar, an academic and specialist on women’s issues from Canada.
Hoodfar was finally released last week after seven months in prison apparently through the good offices of Oman, which has played a role in freeing dual nationals in the past. The others are also likely to be let go eventually, perhaps in swaps of the sort that accompanied the implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement in January.
None of this does any good, however, for the scores of Iranians without foreign citizenship who are jailed for their political or religious convictions. Among them is a 60-year-old spiritual leader, Mohammad Ali Taheri, who has developed a large following for his teachings.
The founder of the Erfan-e Halgheh (Spiritual Circle) Institute in Tehran a decade ago, Taheri was arrested in 2010 and sentenced to five years in prison and 74 lashes and fined the equivalent of $300,000 for “insulting the sacred,” “immoral contact with women” and “carrying out illegal medical procedures.” In 2014, he was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death, but the sentence was overturned.
Taheri’s initial sentence ended in February but the notoriously hardline Judge Abolqasem Salavati kept him in jail.
Sara Saei, one of Taheri’s disciples, reached out to this analyst after Taheri was told that his case had been sent back to the Revolutionary Court and that he would face a new trial.
According to Saei, Taheri’s lawyer “has expressed hope that he will be released. Unfortunately we have been hearing this statement from the lawyer over and over again during the years of his arrest.”
In the meantime, Iranian authorities have arrested a half dozen of Taheri’s students, the latest in August. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, four students were prosecuted for protesting Taheri’s incarceration including Saei, who was sentenced to three months in prison and lashings but whose sentence was suspended.
Now she and other Taheri disciples want to bring attention to their teacher’s case before a new verdict against him is pronounced.
Taheri is the author of eight books that have to do with spirituality, mysticism and alternative medicine. The books include Halqeh-Mysticism Human-From-Another-Outlook-Last-Edition Human-Worldview Non-Organic-Beings
Disillusioned with organized, enforced religion – especially since the inception of the Islamic Republic — many Iranians have looked for alternative spiritual experiences. Buddhism, yoga and meditation are all popular among the young generation.
According to Saei, Taheri’s “lectures and thoughts are based on respect to all religions and ideologies and he never denies or insults any religion or beliefs. His beliefs are based on creating ‘freedom of thoughts’ by which any human can follow the path to [spiritual] perfection and self-realization regardless of their race, nationality, religion, and personal beliefs.”
Taheri’s teachings draw on great Iranian spiritualists and mystics of the past including the poets Rumi, Hafez and Saadi. However, Iranian authorities regard such teachings as a challenge to official orthodoxy and the privileged position of Shi’ite Islam as interpreted by government-backed clerics.
As the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran puts it: “Iran’s security establishment has come down hard on Taheri and supporters of the Erfan-e Halgheh spiritual group, viewing it and any other alternative belief system, especially those seeking converts, as a threat to the prevailing Shia order.”
Iran, however, is obliged to respect freedom of religion as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“The prosecution of Mr. Taheri for his spiritual activities and the apostasy charge are clear violations of the protections mentioned in Article 18” of the covenant, Saei wrote to this analyst. That article states that, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching… No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”
Taheri’s jailing also violates Article 15 of the covenant, which states that, “No one shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed.”
Iranian officials are fond of comparing their record on religious freedom favorably to that of Saudi Arabia. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recently wrote an op ed for The New York Times in which he blamed Wahhabism – the intolerant strain of Sunni Islam that originated in what is now Saudi Arabia – for the rise of terrorist movements including al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
It is true that the Saudis have spent billions spreading this creed around the world and that the Saudi state – unlike Iran — allows no churches or synagogues on its soil and discriminates against its Shi’ite minority.
But the sins of the Saudis do not excuse religious persecution in Iran.
A more self-confident system would permit religious exploration that includes embracing Iran’s rich spiritual tradition. Bahais, Sufis and others – including a Sunni Muslim minority — should be allowed to practice their faiths without discrimination and certainly without risking prison or worse.
Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington. Follow her on Twitter @barbaraslavin1
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