One student recalls religious persecution in Tehran

Patrick Higgins / Free Press Staff

Posted on February 04, 2013 in Henry's Head, Perspectives
By Andrew Henry

Shuan hesitated as he started to talk about the night in Tehran when he was stabbed. He had gone looking for a man who owed him money. He found him. “He treated me like…” he trailed off. Then the man took out a knife and stabbed him in the forearm.

Shuan was still living in Tehran when he was in his early twenties. Now he is a second year computer science major at USM, but four years ago his life was very different.

The Free Press will not use Shuan’s last name for the safety of him and his family.

The man who stabbed Shuan was Muslim, but Shuan follows Bahai, a religion practiced by 5-6 million people around the world. Shuan believes that he was stabbed because of his religion. His experience is just a microcosm of being Bahai in Iran. At an estimated 170,000 members in Iran, Bahai is a minority compared to the Muslim faith, and according to a 2010 PEW study 99.6 percent of the population in Iran is Muslim. When asked the main difference between Bahai and Muslim, Shuan answered with a laugh. “That’s like asking the differences between being Muslim and Christian.”

Shuan grew up in Iran and almost finished primary and intermediate school there. In Tehran, the weekends are only one day.

“Friday is our Saturday and Sunday,” he said. “On Friday we have Darsakhlagh, which is a class where we play with friends or learn about our religion.”

“But after you graduate from school,” he said, “it ends.”

“You can’t go to a university, you can’t get a job, that’s sort of the ending point in your life,” he said. “There are no opportunities for [higher education] for people who are Bahai,” he said.

The Bahai are not allowed to go to universities in Iran. They have a slim chance at a successful career there and are treated as outcasts. Shuan explained that there is a university designated for people who are Bahai, but employers recognize the school as heavily attended by Bahais and treat its degrees as inferior.

The Bahais have endured great mistreatment in Iran, as Muslims regard Bahais as subordinate. The discrimination in Iran against Bahais, Shuan said, has taken place for decades. They have desecrated graves, ransacked homes and imprisoned Bahais on nothing but the basis of their faith.

This prejudice has emotionally and physically affected Shuan. After he was stabbed, he went to the police, who at the time didn’t know he was Bahai. When the police put the pieces together and discovered his faith, the odds were stacked against him. He went in front of a judge to charge the man who had attacked him. When the judge became aware of his faith, as Shuan described it, the judge basically said, “Oh, he is Bahai? Then it is fine” –– the case was dropped. “Just because of my religion,” he said pointing to the silver-dollar-sized scar on his right forearm.

Shuan said that he’ll never hide his belief, but it’s clear that having other people know he is Bahai poses a threat to him and his family. Shuan’s uncle, for example, was arrested a few years before Shuan was born and spent six years in prison. He said he was arrested for being Bahai. Because the police and judicial systems are corrupt, he said, his uncle had no defense and was swiftly put in prison.

“Politics and religion are the same thing in Iran,” Shuan said. The Iranian government refuses to recognize the Bahai faith as a minority religion or as a religion at all and instead classifies it as a political group.

The turning point for Shuan came in 2008 when he finally decided to leave Iran. He moved to neighboring Turkey and went to the United Nations embassy there to explain his complex and troubled past in Iran. After filing the necessary paperwork, he moved to Portland where his other uncle lived. Shuan says Portland is “small, quiet,” and with a smile, “safe.”