Tuesday, September 7, 2010

In Defense

What a fascinating evening.

I have just returned from an evening at the Juan de Fuca Centre in which the public was invited to hear about the Yaran, the seven friends in Iran who were arrested a couple of years ago and have recently been unjustly sentenced to 20 years in prison. The first speaker was Baha'i lawyer Roshan Danesh and the keynote address was given by the local Member of Parliament, Dr Keith Martin.

The evening began for me with the realization that the hall was filled to capacity. My hat immediately went off to the organizers, as it seems to me, from my limited experience, that these sort of meetings usually are quite under attended. Not tonight. There were people from all over southern Vancouver Island, including a few that I would call non-guest dignitaries.

This also speaks highly of the spiritual powers released by the suffering of the seven Yaran.

When the program started, I was underwhelmed by the traditional blowing of one's own horn often done when an interfaith representative is asked to say a short prayer.

Aside: I remember being asked to say a prayer for an interfaith program a number of years ago, and was asked to keep it under 5 minutes. I practiced, and even timed myself: 4 minutes 45 seconds. The organizers asked me to return every year after that (even after I missed one because I thought it was a week later than it really was). One year it got so ridiculous when evevry other attendee spoke for more than 20 minutes, taking over 2 hours in total. And that was just the opening prayers. The following year the only two speakers were myself and the guest speaker. I was told that the invitation was due solely to the fact that I had alwaysbeen obedient to their request regarding time. I guess obedience does pay off.

Well, tonight's opening prayers were quite beautiful, once you got past the initial unscheduled talk before they actually began. And all the prayers revolved around the themes of truth, justice, learning to love everyone alike, and action.

After the prayers, we were introduced to the Yaran, those seven dear souls who are awaiting a just verdict in their case. Short biographies were read about each one, and the ridiculousness of the charges was amply demonstrated. The absurdity of the trial was put forth, including various facts like their lawyers were sentenced to appear before the court, even though they themselves had been arrested and were in jail, and no evidence of guilt was ever offered to the court before the Yaran were sentenced. Indeed, how could evidence ever be offered? Global reactions of dismay and shock were also read.

Then the speakers began.

It started with a reminiscence. The speaker was driving with his 10 year-old daughter and had thought back about his own life when he had been her age. He had been attending a summer camp, and there was another boy there his own age who didn't speak to anyone. Finally one night, as they were all lying down, this quiet boy opened up. He spoke about how he and his mother had recently fled Iran, and how his father had been tortured and executed for his faith. He was a Baha'i.

Now, the speaker said, he had come full circle. His daughter was the same age and more people were in prison in Iran for their faith.

He went on to speak about Baha'u'llah, and how He had wanted to help humanity change progressively. To effect this change, He wanted us to think and act differently than we have in the past. To change in a progressive manner, we need to recognize the oneness of humanity, to see every person on the planet as part of one global family. This is how we are to be.

And for this, Baha'u'llah was arrested and imprisoned in the Evin prison of His time: the Siyyah-Chal, or the Black Pit.

Another short aside: If you think "The Black Pit" is a prison of myth, it is not. It was an actual prison in Tehran, and was where Baha'u'llah was sentenced for months in tortuous conditions. It was also the scene of one of the most dramatic events in religious hostory. But that is too long a story to go into here.

The speaker also shared a quote, a few lines from the Pen of Baha'u'llah, in which He is writing back to His homeland.
Which one of the multitude of thy sincere lovers shall We remember, whose blood hath been shed within thy gates, and whose dust is now concealed beneath thy soil? The sweet savors of God have unceasingly been wafted, and shall everlastingly continue to be wafted upon thee. Our Pen is moved to commemorate thee, and to extol the victims of tyranny, those men and women that sleep beneath thy dust.

It was on this note that the next speaker began.

After a very nice introduction, he proved himself to be a very dramatic speaker, fully capable of engaging a crowd. He did not speak from behind a podium, but from the front of the stage, in full view of the audience. That is noticeably rare these days, and much appreciated.

He pointed out that we need to understand the context before we can approach an answer to the question, "What can we do". He said we should recognize that the "powers" in Iran are using the Baha'is as scapegoats to distract attention from the real problems facing their society. (At least, that was his perspective. I don't know enough to have an opinion one way or the other.)

He also spoke about the importance of approaching the government, and recognizing that it is seperate from the people of the country.
In the end, he had a few interesting ideas about what we could actually do to try and make a difference in Iran.

The first point was to use the internet. There are already a number of petitions on Facebook, another on twitter, one at Amnesty International, and so on and so forth. There are many others if you care to google it. This article, itself, is another response.

The second point he offered was to ask the Chinese and Russian governments to put pressure on Iran, as they are the governments most likely to have any influence. Here, I'll have to take his word on it, but it seems reasonable to me.

The third suggestion he offered was to ask the Canadian government to send a mission to Tehran to negotiate their release. He said that at some point you have to go and talk to the people there.

In response to this last point, he had a few suggestions about what this mission (wow, I really don't like using that term because it has such a negative connotation with Christian missionary work in a Muslim country) (maybe we should use 'delegation' instead) could do. He said that they first would need to know what the leaders want or fear. The wants would be a "carrot", so to speak, and the fears a "stick".

Some of the "carrots" could be helping them move towards greater inclusion in the global commonwealth of nations, or alleviating the fear of an attack by the United States. Both of these would be good.

Some of the "sticks" that could be used would be to freeze the international assets of the leaders, which would affect them directly and not harm the people of the country, or to impose travel restrictions upon these leaders.

One suggestion from the audience was to bring to the international court a specific case against the leaders of the regime dealing with a specific abuse.

In the end, I am not sure what will happen. How can I be?

What I am certain of, however, is the guidance from the Baha'i World Centre. Back in 2001, in a letter addressed to the believers gathered for the opening of the terraces on Mount Carmel, the Universal House of Justice wrote, "Humanity's crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá'u'lláh's teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family."

And this brings me back to the beginning of the night: a change of consciousness.

In the last few years, the Universal House of Justice has written to "The Believers in the Cradle of the Faith" numerous times, and what has really struck me about those priceless letters of encouragement is the way that they praise the nobility of the Baha'is in Iran. They don't tell them to flee, or to fight back. No, what they offer is praise and love and more encouragement.
Back in 2008, they wrote, "...you remain confident in the ability of the Iranian people to discern truth and strive wisely to correct misleading information. May you not slacken in this task. Be not dismayed by the severity of the attacks made against you. Do not yield to despondency and despair. Perseverance and patience are required to counteract the effects of slander and calumny. The ultimate outcome is clear: the light of truth will dispel the darkness of deceit." And again, "Undeterred by the current crisis and drawing inspiration from the Divine teachings, attach no importance to the acts of oppression and cruelty meted out to you. Indeed, respond in the opposite manner. Focus your thoughts on being a source of good to everyone who crosses your path. Make every effort to serve your fellow citizens--heirs to a rich and humane culture--who themselves suffer from many an injustice."
In 2010 they added, "We take comfort in knowing that you are cognizant of the operation of divine forces. You realize that within His grasp are held the reins of all things. You call on the spiritual powers born of such understanding to transcend enmity and oppression."
But to me, the most important lesson for us all is found in a letter dated 23 June 2009: "You have demonstrated in the example of your lives that the proper response to oppression is neither to succumb in resignation nor to take on the characteristics of the oppressor. The victim of oppression can transcend it through an inner strength that shields the soul from bitterness and hatred and which sustains consistent, principled action."
While we outside Iran need to raise awareness of the injustice meted out to these innocent souls suffering in prison, either in the prison just outside Tehran, or in the prison of abuse in daily life, we also need to learn  from them. We need to recognize that protest and anger are not the proper response to what we are witnessing, for that is merely taking on one of the "characteristics of the oppressor". No. We need to learn to rise above that and educate as many people as we can.
My love goes out to those people who are allowing us to learn this from their actions, and my words go out to help raise the awareness of their suffering.

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