Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former member of parliament and seasoned political activist, has come under fierce criticism for meeting with leaders of Iran’s Baha’i religious community. Political activism rarely makes Iranian news, but with Faezeh being the daughter of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of Iran and a pillar of the Islamic Republic, this story is especially scandalous in Iran.
The controversy began when Faezeh appeared in a picture with Fariba Kamalabadi, her former cellmate at Tehran’s Evin prison and a Baha’i activist, sitting among other activists and leaders of Iran’s Baha’i community. Kamalabadi was on furlough from prison when the picture was taken last week. Faezeh had spent six months in Evin for protesting the 2009 presidential election results. She later defiantly described her imprisonment as the “best time of my life” because it had “opened another world” to her.
The picture of Faezeh with the Baha’i leaders circulated widely on social media. Users praised Faezeh for bringing attention to a persecuted minority. With all the media attention, however, came blowback from Iranian officials, including Faezeh's father. “Faezeh made a bad mistake and needs to correct it and make up for it,” said Ayatollah Rafsanjani on May 15. “The misguided Baha’i sect is a colonially built sect and deviant.”
The strongest criticism came from Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, a leading religious figure in Qom and a source of emulation. “From a religious point of view, strengthening the enemies of Islam is a crime, and the criminal can be pursued,” said Makarem Shirazi May 16, referring to the Baha’is. “We are opposed to them not only because of their enmity with Islam, but because this misguided sect are agents of America and Israel.” The Baha’i World Center, the administrative center for the group, is located in Haifa, Israel, which makes it a constant target of Iranian officials.
After days of threats by Iranian officials, the first sign that Faezeh might face criminal charges came May 18, during a press conference by Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, first deputy of the judiciary. He said that Faezeh will be dealt with “appropriately, according to the law, and what is established by the law.” Mohseni-Ejei added that it was “unfortunate” that she did not apologize after clerics, sources of emulation and even her own father, disapproved of her actions.
In a May 15 interview with Euronews, rather than apologizing, Faezeh defended her actions, saying of the meeting with the Baha’i leaders, “I don’t regret it.” On the media attacks against her and the possibility of jail time, she appeared indifferent, stating, “This wave will pass, and if it doesn’t, then I’ll pay the price.”
Some have speculated that the media attacks on Faezeh are actually an attempt by hard-liners to undercut her father ahead of elections for the leadership of the Assembly of Experts. Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who had once headed the assembly but lost the position after a political falling out over the 2009 elections, has tried unsuccessfully to regain the post. While Rafsanjani has been spared legal troubles, his children, Mehdi and Faezeh, have both served jail time, the former stemming for a corruption-related case.
Faezeh’s meeting has also sparked widespread discussion in the media outside Iran on the situation of the Baha’is, who are not formally recognized in Iran’s constitution and have faced discrimination and arrest as a result of their economic, civil and educational activities. Mohsen Kadivar, a dissident Iranian cleric who resides in the United States, noted that although the Baha’i religion is not recognized in Iran’s constitution, it is also not outlawed. Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism are the only constitutionally acknowledged religions. Kadivar, citing the religious justifications of his late teacher Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, wrote that Baha’is should have full rights as Iranian citizens.
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