restricted access Religious Minorities in Iran (review)
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Human Rights Quarterly 23.4 (2001) 1121-1133



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Book Review

Religious Minorities in Iran


Religious Minorities in Iran, by Eliz Sanasarian (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000) xix + 228 pp., bibliography, index.

The ancient Persian civilization has in the twentieth century spawned an ardent Iranian nationalism in the name of a population who split along ethnic, linguistic, tribal, and religious lines, creating continuous political headaches for the Persian-speaking, Shiite Iranian elites who often act as though they were the sole inheritors of the land. Combining coercion, material incentives, and propaganda, the last imperial dynasty created a shaky equilibrium that somewhat concealed the smoldering ethnic and religious discontents among the non-Shiites. However, their trials and tribulations restarted after 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini replaced Mohammad Reza Shah as the supreme ruler and placed Shiism in command of state institutions. Set against the background of their historical experiences under the Pahlavi dynasty in the twentieth century, Sanasarian's book describes the ordeals of religious minorities in the Islamic Republic.

Iran's Islamic tradition recognizes followers of three other monotheistic religions Zoroastrianism, Christianity (Armenians, Assyrians and Chaldeans) and Judaism; they are ahl-e ketab (people of the book) and ahl al dhimma (the protected people under Islamic rule). Of all the non-Muslim minorities, only the Armenians and Assyrians/Chaldeans have distinct ethnic-linguistic identities. They converse among themselves in their ethnic languages and speak Persians with other Iranians. Zoroastrianism was the [End Page 1121] religion of ancient Iranians before the Arab-Islamic conquest of the seventh century. The Armenians relationship with Persia pre-dates their conversion to Christianity. Along with Zoroastrians, they received a better treatment compared to other non-Muslims. The other groups of ethnic Christians are the Assyrians and the Chaldeans who trace their ancient roots to the East Syrian Church, also known as the Nestorian Church. The Iranian Jewish community is one of the oldest in the world, numbering probably not more than 30,000 today, down from between 80,000 to 100,000 before the Islamic revolution. The Jews, as well as the ethnic Christians, have admirably retained their diminished presence in the country. Sanasarian observes that "the local Christians shared the Muslims' bias against the Jews." 1 European missionaries' efforts at evangelism have created a small community, further enhancing Iran's religious diversity. Conversion took place among Muslims as well as among the recognized religious minorities (RRM) with ethnic identities. These converts have become members of the Anglican Episcopal Church, the different Protestant denominations, and the nonethnic Roman Catholic Church. The recognition granted to the old Armenian and Assyro-Chaldean communities was withheld to the new Christian community of converts, especially the ex-Muslims. An official recognition of ex-Muslim Christians would have decriminalized apostasy.

The older protected minorities (the dhimmis) are tolerated, the converts occupy the twilight zone between tolerance and rejection, but Bahais are evil, beyond the pale. Since they do not exist officially, it is hard to determine how many thousands of them live across Iran; estimates vary from 150,000 to 500,000. The Baha'i faith has never achieved official recognition in Iran, its troubled birthplace. Islam asserts that the Prophet Muhammad was the "the seal of prophesy," after whom there would be no divine revelation. "The Bahai concept of progressive revelation has set them on a direct collision course with the Muslims." 2 Perhaps, it did not matter what religious concept they developed, since any organized break with Islam was considered an unspeakable act of apostasy. Bahais faced what Sanasarian calls "the paranoia of the prejudiced." 3 From every political angle and across all ideological perspectives, the Bahais have been used as human fibers in the incessant spinning of conspiratorial theories, for which Iranians have a huge appetite. Khomeini depicted them as "oppressors of the Muslim people." 4

Sanasarian explains that modernity offered religious minorities a bumpy road, punctuated by unexpected twists and temporary reversals, to what was at best a superficial equality under the authoritarian Shahs. "Most might not realize how easily nationalist tendencies can move toward fanaticism and become, similar to religious...


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