Nine campus and community groups, including the International Relations Club, the Lecture Fund and The Hoya, hosted a documentary screening and panel discussion in support of Education is Not a Crime, a campaign for universal access to higher education in Iran, on Friday.
The event, which was held in the Intercultural Center Auditorium, featured a screening of Iranian-Canadian journalist and activist Maziar Bahari’s documentary “To Light a Candle” and was followed by a panel discussion with World Bank Global Indicators and Analysis Director Augusto Lopez Claros, Program for Jewish Civilization Director Jacques Berlinerblau, Tavaana Co-founder and Co-Director Mariam Memarsadeghi and University of Florida Institute for Human Rights and Peace Development Founding Director Winston Nagan.
The campaign seeks to address the religious persecution of Bahá’ís in Iran, who have been barred from studying or teaching in universities since 1979, in addition to unwarranted imprisonment, torture and execution.
Bahari’s documentary uses personal stories and archival footage to demonstrate the predicament of Bahá’ís in Iran and their non-violent advocacy for justice. The documentary also centered on the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education in 1987, an underground university for Bahá’í students and faculty members both in Iran and around the world.
Following introductory remarks by Claros after the film, the panelists spoke about the suffering and perseverance of the Bahá’ís as shown in the film.
Nagan described the film as extremely powerful in its depiction of the struggles encountered by the Bahá’ís.
“The resistance and struggle to stand up for the fundamental values reflected in the Bahá’í faith are universal values,” Nagan said. “It affirms the fundamental idea of the dignity of human beings.”
Memarsadeghi said that discriminatory educational policies would have negative implications for Iran.
“[Iran is] losing out because they can’t retain their high talents. They end up taking people in the lowest ranks of society to put them at the top so that they hold on to power because the newly empowered group have a vested interests in their staying,” Memarsadeghi said. “But in the long term, they are not able to perform so the country falls apart, not just economically but in all aspects. It is the result of being afraid of merit, knowledge, progress and human fulfillment.”
The panelists then discussed the potential opportunities brought about by secularization in Iran.
Berlinerblau first said that having a clear notion of secularism and what it represents is important for the emergence of a respected secular power in the Middle East.
“The problem of the Middle East is that secularism is understood as atheism. The things that secular regimes deliver like expressive freedom and tolerance for minorities are traditionally interpreted as an agenda of an atheist regime,” he said. “But really, what happened in all secular regimes is that all secular states believe that although religion might be great, it must be subordinated to the power of the state.”
Memarsadeghi followed by commenting on the importance of teaching the public at large about human rights and democracy to inspire a transition to an open society.
“Iranians have come to appreciate at the most basic level of the wisdom of separating religion from the state so that all people can practice religion as they choose,” Memarsadeghi said. “If there is anything for the better, if there is hope, it’s because the people have resisted. There is a lot of lip service the government is doing, but it’s downright lie. What matters is real consciousness among Iranians.”
In addition, the panelists touched on the potential of technology and social media in empowering civil society. In particular, the panelists referenced to the Arab Spring and agreed that technology has had a profound impact on a global scale.
“Technology allows for the expression of values that shape expectations, which moves at a faster pace [than the] government can control,” Nagan said.
Memarsadeghi agreed that the impact of technology is observed in Iranian civil society.
“The kind of activities that Iranian society are engaging with has changed profoundly since the advent of the technology,” Memarsadeghi said.
Towards the end of the panel discussion session, the panelists addressed questions from the audience and also gave opportunities for attendees to share their thoughts.
Ayan Mandal (COL ’18) said that he was both saddened and inspired by the film and panel’s discussion on the Bahá’ís struggle.
“It really struck me how far the oppressed Bahá’í people are willing to go to make their education happen, and it inspired me as a student to take my education seriously because I am really privileged to be able to educate myself with ease,” Mandal said.
Sarah Moore (GRD ’16) said that she was able to relate the discussion to her own interactions with friends of the Bahá’í faith.
“This event is extremely interesting to me. I grew up having a lot of Bahá’í friends but I didn’t know the level of persecution they faced and how much they have to fight for their education,” Moore said. “One thing I found particularly interesting was when after the panel discussion [Memarsadeghi] talked about how the Bahá’ís are not seeking revenge for the persecution and I think I really saw that in my friends because they never brought up all these terrible things that are happening to them, and they are always full of love to their country and also the new opportunities they have here.”