Overcoming oppression

Many minority groups haven’t resorted to extremism when facing poverty or discrimination

Farbodkia’s graduating class of 2008 from the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) had to learn in secret to avoid persecution from the Iranian government.
Farbodkia’s graduating class of 2008 from the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) had to learn in secret to avoid persecution from the Iranian government.
Credit: 
Photo Illustration by Arwin Chan.

Saba Farbodkia, PhD ’16

The belief that oppression and poverty are the root causes of violence often becomes the centre of discussions on religious extremism.

Last month’s attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper offices in Paris and this month’s shooting outside a synagogue in Copenhagen were both carried out by radicalized individuals.

In light of these events, some people have identified oppression as an explanation for extremism. At last week’s White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, U.S President Barack Obama said a link exists between radicalism and the deprivation of basic human rights.

He referred to organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda, noting that oppression creates a “ripe environment for terrorists to exploit”.

But this radicalism doesn’t always manifest itself in marginalized groups. There are many examples of minority groups around the world remaining peaceful in their protests against their oppressors. We can’t assume violence is a common response to abuse.

The perseverance and triumph of the Baha’is in Iran is a clear instance where oppression didn’t lead to violent actions. The Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) — an Iranian university for Baha’i people who are prevented from attending other schools — is an example of the peaceful resistance of an oppressed community.

The Iranian Baha’is created the BIHE in 1987 as a response to the systematic denial of their right to higher education by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

From 1980-87, the Islamic regime put Iran’s academic system through a “cultural revolution”, removing all western and non-Islamic elements.

They prevented new admissions of any Baha’i students and expelled all enrolled Baha’i students and working professors from all universities. Some of the professors were executed.

The Baha’is planned small when creating the BIHE. Members of the community selected a few bright applicants to start their own school. This was all done in secrecy. Attending any such gathering could have cost them their lives.

When I entered BIHE as a student in 2003, things had changed significantly.

Since 1997, under the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami, Iran had stopped executions of Baha’is and the number of Baha’i “prisoners of conscience” had decreased.

The BIHE, which mainly operated through correspondence learning courses — where the teacher mailed class material to students — in its early years, had begun to hold periodic in-person classes in Tehran.

To minimize costs and facilitate the process, many Baha’is living in Tehran hosted BIHE students at their houses. They risked their safety to host the classes of an illegal educational institution.

The sacrifices these students made to pursue their education weren’t easy to make.

What made the school’s founding and success possible was the combination of unrelenting religious faith and strong bonds of love and unity that a suppressed community experiences in difficult times.

The Baha’is intelligently managed resources, and channeled anger and frustration that could have otherwise arisen into energy to create goals and make change.

One of their goals was to gain recognition outside Iran, since recognition inside was impossible.

In the late 1990s, some BIHE graduates had been conditionally admitted into Canadian universities to pursue a Master’s degree, starting with Carleton accepting students in 1998.

In Canada, they had a chance to show that despite all its limitations, BIHE’s quality of education was high enough for these students to be admitted into graduate studies without extra training.

Queen’s — along with McGill University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Ottawa and others — also accepts BIHE graduates. This is the reason I’m a Queen’s student.

Triumphing over a ruling regime doesn’t only pertain to the Baha’i people. The book Small Acts of Resistance by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson covers more than 80 stories of positive resistance to oppression in different kinds of communities.

One such story is of Uruguayan citizens participating in mass peaceful protests in the 1970s against the junta military regime, which inflicted violence on its political opponents.

Today, this regime has ended and junta leaders are now in jail.

Last fall, protestors took to the streets of Hong Kong to demand legitimate democratic practices, without resorting to violence. Protestors returned to the streets earlier this month; they’ve become more disruptive in voicing their beliefs to tourists and daily shoppers, but still remain nonviolent.

Like BIHE, these examples show how minority groups can take a crisis and turn it into a victory — or at least have their voices be heard.

History shows us that suppressed communities don’t always respond with violent unrest and terrorism when faced with adversity.

It’s important to keep this in mind when discussing the origins of radical terrorist organizations.

The Baha’is took anger and frustration and turned it into the energy to build a university. They took the violation of their rights and turned it into support for the community.

If they can succeed like this, hopefully others can as well.

Saba Farbodkia is a fourth-year PhD student in neuroscience.

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