Homo Sacer: Baha’is of Iran

Graduate Studies Essay for JHR 510: Political Evil, Economic Crime, and Alternative Practices to Human Security (12/6/2011)

Homo Sacer BookAre some human lives worth more than others? What is your reaction to the fact that 25,000 people die every day due to hunger (one person every three seconds), yet there is more than enough food in the world to feed all of humanity?[1]  Some people hardly even blink, many offer some superficial level of sympathy, such as “wow that’s sad” or “I wish the world wasn’t like that,” and a select few will actually be moved enough to take some level of action to bring justice to those that are suffering from the conditions of poverty and hunger.

Throughout the history of the world, there have been millions upon millions of lives that various societies and political bodies decided were worth less than other lives, or even “didn’t matter” at all. One of the most well-known examples is that of the Jews in Nazi Germany, in which nearly six-million Jews were taken from their homes, stripped of any human rights, and placed in concentration camps where they were systematically exterminated.[2] In Stalinist Russia, during Joseph Stalin’s “Great Purge,” nearly ten-million people were executed simply for their perceived political orientation.[3] In the early 1900s, the Turkish government systematically killed between one and two million Armenians (nearly three-fourths of the Armenian population) simply because of their ethnicity.[4] European colonialism in Africa was commonly led by the merciless mentality of “exterminate the brutes,” which led to the slaughter of many African populations, such as the decimation of the peaceful Congo population from 20 to 40 million reduced to 8 million people.[5] In 1971, in an attempt to crush forces seeking independence for East Pakistan, the West Pakistani military regime unleashed a campaign of mass murder which killed millions of Bengalis.[6] In 1988, the Anfal Campaign, led by the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, systematically killed nearly one-hundred thousand Kurds because of their ethnicity.[7] In 1994, around 800,000 Tutsis were murdered in Rwanda because of their tribe.[8] In the United States of America, many argue that the death of millions of Native Americans and African slaves was another example of a systematic genocide perpetrated by early European colonizers, and later by the United States government. These examples are but a sample of the intentional, organized killings of a group of people whose lives “didn’t matter.” But what about today? In addition to the thousands of people dying from hunger and poverty on a daily basis, there are millions of people in the world whose lives don’t seem to matter as much as everybody else’s. Does anybody care when a prisoner on death row is executed, even though there‘s considerable evidence that he may have been wrongfully convicted? What about when a homeless person with a mental illness dies of hypothermia in a cold street alley because he couldn’t access the appropriate social services? Does anybody care about the thousands of undocumented immigrants in American detention centers who are stripped of many basic rights? What about those who have been deemed a “terrorist threat” to America, being held in secret, remote prison facilities, denied of any type of due process? If they end up dying unjustly, does the world really care, or even notice?

In his book “Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life,” Giorgio Agamben discusses his theory of homo sacer, or sacred man, as a person who may be killed, but not sacrificed[9]. In more understandable terms, homo sacer is someone whose life holds no value, or simply doesn’t matter. They can be killed, without punishment for the murder, and without any concern for their life from the political governing body or greater society. All of the examples presented above represent groups of people who became a homo sacer in their environment. How does a group of people become deemed “homo sacer?” What conditions need to exist? Why does it happen? Who are those that are most in danger of becoming homo sacer? One contemporary case in modern history of homo sacer is that of the Iranian Baha’is. In order to attempt to answer some of these questions, and gain a better understanding of the term homo sacer, we will take an in-depth look into Agamben’s theory and apply homo sacer to the Baha’is of Iran.

Homo Sacer

As stated earlier, Agamben defines homo sacer as “a person who may be killed, but not sacrificed.” To fully understand this term, it takes some further analysis. Homo sacer is a Latin term, which when literally translated, means “sacred life.” Agamben discusses how this term is initially confusing to understand, mainly because of the term “sacred.” Most people associate the term sacred to something of reverence or holiness. In fact, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines sacred as, “worthy of religious veneration” or “entitled to reverence and respect.”[10] However, in Latin, the word sacer has a double meaning. One definition of sacer is similar to our understanding of the word sacred, meaning “holy or consecrated.” The other definition, however, is far different, meaning “accursed, devoted to destruction, or horrible.”[11] This second meaning is the definition that applies to the term “homo sacer.” Agamben explains how this second meaning of the word sacer is similar to that of the word “taboo.” Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines taboo as “forbidden to profane use or contact because of what are held to be dangerous supernatural powers” or “banned on grounds of morality or taste.”[12] Citing William Fowlers’ “The Original Meaning of the Word Sacer,” Agamben explains this connection further, “…to link the Latin term sacer with the category taboo: ‘Sacer esto is in fact a curse; and homo sacer on whom this curse falls is an outcast, a banned man, tabooed, dangerous… Originally the word may have meant simply taboo, i.e. removed out of the region of the profanum [profane], without any special reference to a deity, but ‘holy’ or accursed according to circumstances.’”[13] To elaborate further on this double meaning, Agamben refers to Alfred Ernout-Meillet’s Dictionairre etymologique de la langue latine, which states, “Sacer designates the person or the thing that one cannot touch without dirtying oneself or without dirtying; hence the double meaning of sacred or ‘accursed’ (approximately). A guilty person whom one consecrates to the gods of the underworld is sacred.”[14] These excerpts provide some clarity on the formulation of the term homo sacer, and its meaning.

Understanding Agamben’s definition of homo sacer, “a person who may be killed, but not sacrificed,” also takes some further study. In discussing the definition of homo sacer, Agamben discusses the related word “sacratio,” stating, “According to both the original sources and the consensus of scholars, the structure of sacratio arises out of the conjunction of two traits: the unpunishability of killing and the exclusion from sacrifice.”[15] Discussing further the first component from the definition, “a person who may be killed,” Agamben elaborates, “It suspends the application of the law on homicide attributed to Numa Pompilius: Si quis hominem liberum dolo sciens morti duit, parricidas esto, ‘If someone intentionally kills a free man, may he be considered a murderer.’”[16] In most cases, when one person kills another human being, there is some form of punishment for the killer. In the case of homo sacer, there is no such punishment; homo sacer may be killed with impunity. Regarding the second half of the definition, in that homo sacer can be killed “but not sacrificed,” we can look to the definition of the word “sacrifice.” Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines sacrifice as “an act of offering to a deity something precious”[17] To clarify further, Agamben discusses how this explanation is used to, “…distinguish the killing of homo sacer from ritual purifications, and decisively excluded sacratio from the religious sphere in the strict sense.”[18] This means that the life of homo sacer is not precious; it is of no value to society or to any God or deity. In short, homo sacer can be killed with impunity, with his life being completely insignificant and worthless.

Agamben also discusses the dynamics of the “sovereign,” which he argues creates the existence of homo sacer.  Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines sovereign as “one possessing or held to possess supreme political power.”[19] Agamben talks about the paradox of sovereignty, which he states, “consists in the fact the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order. If the sovereign is truly the one to whom the juridical order grants the power of proclaiming a state of exception and, therefore, of suspending the order’s own validity, then ‘the sovereign stands outside the juridical order and, nevertheless, belongs to it, since it is up to him to decide if the constitution is to be suspend in toto (in its entirety).”[20] In short, the supreme political body possesses the power to act outside the law which it is supposedly living within. This situation, in which the sovereign acts outside the law, is what Agamben refers to as a “state of sovereign exception.”[21] A state of sovereign exception is incredibly problematic, as acts that normally constitute a crime can be carried out with impunity by the sovereign. Agamben explains, “The sovereign exception (as zone of indistinction between nature and right) is the presupposition of juridical reference in the form of its suspension. Inscribed as a presupposed exception in every rule that orders or forbids something (for example, in the rule that forbids homicide) is the pure and unsanctionable figure of the offense that, in the normal case, brings about the rule’s own transgression (in the same example, the killing of man not as natural violence but as sovereign violence in the state of exception).[22] In other words, the supreme political power (sovereign), within the state of sovereign exception, possesses the ability to kill someone without any of type of punishment or justice, thus the connection between the sovereign and homo sacer is drawn. Agamben makes several references to this relationship between the sovereign and homo sacer. He states, “The relation of the exception is a relation of ban. He who has been banned is not, in fact, simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable. It is literally not possible to say whether the one who has been banned is outside or inside the juridical order.”[23] Agamben states further of the connection between the sovereign and homo sacer, “The sovereign sphere is the sphere in which it is permitted to kill without committing homicide and without celebrating a sacrifice, and sacred life–that is, life that may be killed but not sacrificed–is the life that has been captured in this sphere.”[24] In essence, the sovereign and homo sacer are on two ends of a spectrum, each needing the other to exist. A state of sovereign exception creates the situation of homo sacer, and an existence of homo sacer means there is a sovereign in a state of exception. Agamben writes of the parallel between these terms, “At the two extreme limits of the order, the sovereign and homo sacer present two symmetrical figures that have the same structure and are correlative: the sovereign is the one with respect to whom all men are potentially hominess sacri, and homo sacer is the one with respect to whom all men act as sovereigns.”[25] This presents a dangerous notion: if our governing body is acting in a state of sovereign exception, in which it can act with impunity, being accountable to nobody, aren’t we all potentially homo sacer?

To make these terms more understandable, Agamben discusses some modern examples of the sovereign and homo sacer.  As mentioned in the opening paragraph, the Jews of Nazi Germany and Hitler’s Third Reich regime are a quintessential case of homo sacer and the sovereign. Agamben describes, “The Jew living under Nazism is the privileged negative referent of the new biopolitical sovereignty and is, as such, a flagrant case of a homo sacer in the sense of a life that may be killed but not sacrificed. His killing therefore constitutes, as we will see, neither capital punishment nor a sacrifice, but simply the actualization of a mere ‘capacity to be killed’ inherent in the condition of the Jew as such. The truth which is difficult for the victims to face, but which we must have the courage not to cover with sacrificial veils–is that the Jews were exterminated not in a mad and giant holocaust but exactly as Hitler had announced, ‘as lice,’ which is to say, as bare life.”[26] Agamben also references the mentally ill as a homo sacer during this same time period, but with the physician playing the role of the sovereign. He writes of a physicians trial at Nuremburg, in which a doctor recollected that “the Reich had just issued measures authorizing ‘the elimination of life unworthy of being lived’ with special reference to the incurable mentally ill.”[27] Of this case, Agamben declares, “This implies that the sovereign decision on bare life comes to be displaced from strictly political motivations and areas to a more ambiguous terrain in which the physician and the sovereign seem to exchange roles.”[28] Similar to this example, Agamben also cites that “in the 1920s, 800 people held in United States prisons were infected with malaria plasmodia in an attempt to find an antidote to paludism. There were also the experiments–widely held to be exemplary in the scientific literature on pellagra–conducted by Goldberg on twelve prisoners sentenced to death, who were promised the remission of their penalty if they survived experimentation.”[29] Of these examples, Agamben points out, “What concerns us most of all here, however, is that in the biopolitical horizon that characterizes modernity, the physician and the scientist move in the no-man’s land into which at one point the sovereign alone could penetrate.”[30] These scenarios seem to “open up a can of worms,” as they indicate that the sovereign is not simply limited to political governing bodies, but that potentially anyone (or any institution) can end up playing the roles of the sovereign and homo sacer. For example, are the 25,000 people dying every day of hunger simply the homo sacer of the world’s economic system? And is the world economic system playing the role of “the sovereign,” which allows it to kill 25,000 people daily with impunity? What about the examples used earlier of the prisoners, homeless, undocumented immigrants, and people labeled terrorist threats, etc? Are they all homo sacer? If so, who plays the role of the sovereign? To conclude, Agamben provides some profound words, stating, “If today there is no longer any one clear figure of the sacred man, it is perhaps because we are all virtually homines sacri.”[31]

Clearly, these concepts of “the sovereign” and “homo sacer” can be somewhat difficult to fully comprehend; nevertheless, they are of tremendous importance to humanity in ensuring the protection of human rights and social justice for all. For when one becomes homo sacer, or even possesses the potential of becoming homo sacer, their human rights have been violated to the greatest degree. In order to gain a fuller understanding, we will now apply this theory of homo sacer to the situation of the Baha’is of Iran.

Who Are the Baha’is?

Baha'i ImageIn order to understand the application of homo sacer to the Baha’is of Iran, one must understand the history of the Baha’is. The Baha’is are followers of the Baha’i Faith, the youngest of the world’s independent religions. The beginning of the Baha’i Faith can be traced back to May 23rd, 1844, in Shiraz, Persia (modern-day Iran). On this day, a young man named Sayyid ‘Ali Muhammad Shirazi, who took the title “the Bab” (meaning “the gate”) announced that the Messenger of God awaited by all the peoples of the world–the Promised One of all religions–was set to appear on earth in the immediate future.[32] Speaking of this Promised One, the Baha’i writings explain, “To Israel He was neither more nor less than the incarnation of the ‘Everlasting Father,’ the ‘Lord of Hosts’… to Christendom Christ returned ‘in the glory of the Father’, to Shi’ah Islam the return of the Imam Husayn; to Sunni Islam the descent of the “Spirit of God”; to the Zoroastrians the promised Shah-Bahram; to the Hindus the reincarnation of Krishna; to the Buddhists the fifth Buddha (Maitreya, the Buddha of universal fellowship).”[33] The Bab declared that he himself was a divine messenger from God, sent to prepare the world for the coming of this great Messenger of God awaited for by humanity.[34]

From this point, the Bab developed a strong following of many thousands of people, known as Babis, awaiting the promised one. One of these followers was Mírzá Husayn `Alí Núrí, who in 1863, announced that he had had a divine revelation from God, and that he himself was the One promised by the Bab. He took the title of “Baha’u’llah” (meaning “Glory of God”), with the followers of Baha’u’llah being known as Baha’is, and the religion being called the Baha’i Faith. Along with this significant declaration of being the Promised One of all religions, Baha’u’llah shared many unique teachings.  He taught that there is only one God, whose successive revelations to humanity over the course of history through the Divine Messengers (Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Mohammed, the Bab, and Baha’u’llah) has been part of a single plan by God to educate humanity. While most of the world believed (and still does) that these Messengers were founders of separate religious systems, Baha’u’llah claimed that they all came from the same source, and their common purpose has been to bring the human race to spiritual and moral maturity. Baha’u’llah claimed that humanity was now entering the age in which the entire world will unite as one human family, building a peaceful, global society. In order to help humanity achieve this goal, Baha’u’llah shared many revelations from God. Some of the most notable principles taught by Baha’u’llah are: the oneness of God and humanity, the common foundation and unity of religious truth, the elimination of all forms of prejudice, the equality of men and women, the need for harmony between religion and science/reason, the realization of universal education, the elimination of extreme forms of wealth and poverty, the establishment of a global commonwealth of nations, and the responsibility of each individual person to independently search for truth. [35]

Since Baha’u’llah’s declaration, the Baha’i Faith has grown to approximately five-million followers worldwide, representing nearly every nation, race, and culture on earth, including a large number of Baha’is in the religion’s native country of Iran. Unfortunately, the journey of the Baha’is has not been an easy one, especially for those in Iran. The Baha’is of Iran have endured a history of intense discrimination, maltreatment, and persecution, living a life of homo sacer.

Baha’is as Homo Sacer

Baha'i PersecutionSince the very beginnings of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’is have been treated as homo sacer, with the Iranian political body, religious authorities, and greater society playing the role of the sovereign. Immediately after the Bab made his declaration as a Divine Messenger, he was condemned as a heretic and apostate of Islam, as many leaders felt that his claims contradicted their interpretations of the dominant Muslim beliefs. As a result, the Bab and his followers faced heavy persecution. The Shah (the political leader of Iran at the time) in tandem with many Islamic religious leaders issued several coordinated attacks and incited countless violent mobs against the Babis during this time period, with some estimates claiming the number of Babis killed was as high as 20,000 or more. Included in those killed was the Bab himself. In 1850, in an effort to put an end to the Babi movement, the Prime Minister of Iran ordered the execution of the Bab, who was then being held prisoner.[36] The Bab was then brought to Tabriz and executed in a public square by a firing squad.[37] In 1852, Austrian officer Captain Von Goumoens, who was employed by the Shah at that time, documented his eyewitness accounts of the persecutions, torture, and executions of the Babis:

“[F]ollow me to the unhappy ones who, with gouged-out eyes, must eat, on the scene of the deed, without any sauce, their own amputated ears; or whose teeth are torn out with inhuman violence by the hand of the executioner; or whose bare skulls are simply crushed by blows from a hammer; or where the bazaar is illuminated with unhappy victims, because on right and left the people dig deep holes in their breasts and shoulders, and insert burning wicks in the wounds. I saw some dragged in chains through the bazaar, preceded by a military band, in whom these wicks had burned so deep that now the fat flickered convulsively in the wound like a newly extinguished lamp. Not seldom it happens that the unwearying ingenuity of the Oriental leads to fresh tortures. They will skin the soles of the Babi’s feet, soak the wounds in boiling oil, shoe the foot like the hoof of a horse, and compel the victim to run…. “As for the end itself, they hang the scorched and perforated bodies by their hands and feet to a tree head downwards, and now every Persian may try his marksmanship to his heart’s content from a fixed but not too proximate distance on the noble quarry placed at his disposal. I saw corpses torn by nearly one hundred and fifty bullets.”[38]

Based on this account, it is clear that the Babis were treated as homo sacer, as they were killed with impunity, simply on the grounds of their faith. The Iranian government acted as the sovereign, permitting appointed executioners the right to kill any and all Babis, as well as granting “every Persian” the right to take part in shooting at a Babi’s hanging body, without any type of repercussions.

These harsh levels of violence caused the Babi following to go underground in an effort to avoid the persecution. During this time, the Babi movement transitioned into the Baha’i Faith, as Baha’u’llah declared his divinity. The religious and political leaders of Iran did not initially view the Baha’is as a serious rival, resulting in less overt forms of persecution. However, this did not put an end to the Baha’is journey as homo sacer. Rather than the central government playing the role of the sovereign, the task was somewhat delegated to local leaders. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the number of executions was reduced; however, outbursts of persecution still took place in various regions periodically. Executions did still occur from time-to-time, with the most serious episode occurring in Yazd in 1903 when about 100 Baha’is were killed. Other forms of persecution were quite common, such as locals using threats of denunciation as a Baha’i to extort money or take advantage of someone.[39] Society recognized that Baha’is were homo sacer, and understood that even the accusation of someone being a Baha’i put that person in a position of homo sacer, allowing the accuser to personally profit from this threat.

Under the Pahlavi regime (1925-1979), the persecution of the Baha’is continued, becoming much more bureaucratic. As the Baha’i Faith grew and became more visible, the corresponding actions by the central government became more forceful. The government shut down Baha’i schools, banned Baha’i books, openly discriminated Baha’is, and even failed to recognize Baha’i weddings, which meant that Baha’i men who had been married were arrested and imprisoned. During this period, the most serious episode of persecution occurred in 1955, when government and army radio broadcasted anti-Baha’i hate speeches, which encouraged mobs to take action against the Baha’is. This led to several outbursts of violence against the Baha’is, including robberies, rapes, and murders.[40] This indicates that, while explicit forms of violence were less common throughout this time period, Baha’is still remained homo sacer. At any given time, the government was able to take action to rouse anti-Baha’i groups into acting out against Baha’is, such as the case in 1955. This led to anti-Baha’i mobs acting as the sovereign, being given the right to kill anyone they identified as Baha’i, without punishment.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 established the Islamic Republic of Iran, ushering in a new wave of persecution against Baha’is. The new religious leaders brought with them a deep prejudice against the Baha’is, resulting in the institutionalization of Baha’is as homo sacer. The Islamic Republic of Iran drafted a new constitution, which granted certain rights and protections to the Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian minorities. The Baha’is, then (and now) the largest religious minority in Iran, remained unmentioned, unrecognized, and unprotected.[41] Of this new government body and constitution, the International Baha’i Community (an agency through which the Baha’i community acts within the United Nations) reported that, “Under Iran’s concept of an Islamic government, this exclusion has come to mean that Baha’is enjoy no rights of any sort, and that they can be attacked and persecuted with impunity. Courts in the Republic have denied Baha’is the right of redress or protection against assault, killings or other forms of persecution—and have ruled that Iranian citizens who kill or injure Baha’is are not liable for damages because their victims are ‘unprotected infidels.’”[42] This description is literally a text book definition of homo sacer.

As further evidence of the Baha’is state of homo sacer, the Baha’i International Community also reports, “In the late 1970s and early 1980s, virtually the entire leadership of the Baha’i community was arrested and executed or disappeared. In all, more than 200 Baha’is have been killed or executed since the Islamic Republic’s founding.”[43] These killings and disappearances included all nine members of the Baha’i governing council (National Spiritual Assembly) in 1980. Shortly after, a newly elected Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly was formed in 1981, only to have eight of the members executed. The Baha’i community courageously formed another National Spiritual Assembly in 1984, in which the Islamic Republic responded by executing four more members. Clearly, the Baha’i leadership has been heavily targeted. Furthermore, in June 1983, ten Iranian women, including two teen-aged girls, were hanged for teaching Baha’i children’s classes and refusing to recant their faith as Baha’is. [44]  This shows that it is not only Baha’i leadership that is homo sacer, but any and every Baha’i. Due to international pressure, the outright executions of Baha’is by the Islamic Republic has slowed drastically since the 1990s, however, the concept of homo sacer most certainly still applies to the Baha’is of Iran. In recent years, many Baha’is have died under more clouded circumstances, such as dying while in prison due to harsh treatment, or even “unknown causes,” as well as being mysteriously attacked and killed by unknown assailants. This indicates that the Islamic Republic may be uncomfortable being viewed as “the sovereign” by the rest of the world, but that they are still determined to keep Baha’is in a state of homo sacer.

In addition to these executions and mysterious killings that constitute an obvious case of homo sacer regarding the Baha’is of Iran, there are several additional pieces of concrete evidence that the Iranian government and religious leaders are working as the sovereign to force Baha’is into a less-obvious state of homo sacer. The most poignant example is a secret government document written in 1991 by the Iranian Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council addressing their discussion of “the Baha’i Question,” prepared at the request of Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the then President of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The document was obtained by the United Nations in 1993 and made public.[45] Within the document, there is a “summary of the results of the discussions and recommendations,” which is translated here:

A) General status of the Baha’is within the country’s system: 1) They will not be expelled from the country without reason, 2) They will not be arrested, imprisoned, or penalized without reason, 3) The Government’s dealings with them must be in such a way that their progress and development are blocked.

B) Educational and cultural status: 1) They can be enrolled in schools provided they have not identified themselves as Baha’is, 2) Preferably, they should be enrolled in schools which have a strong and imposing religious ideology, 3) They must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Baha’is, 4) Their political (espionage) activities must be dealt with according to appropriate Government laws and policies, and their religious and propaganda activities should be answered by giving them religious and cultural responses, as well as propaganda, 5) Propaganda institutions (such as the Islamic Propaganda Organization) must establish an independent section to counter the propaganda and religious activities of the Baha’is, 6) A plan must be devised to confront and destroy their cultural roots outside the country,

C) Legal and social status: 1) Permit them a modest livelihood as is available to the general population, 2) To the extent that it does not encourage them to be Baha’is, it is permissible to provide them the means for ordinary living in accordance with the general rights given to every Iranian citizen, such as ration booklets, passports, burial certificates, work permits, etc., 3) Deny them employment if they identify themselves as Baha’is, 4) Deny them any position of influence, such as in the educational sector, etc. [46]

After reading through this document, it is evident that, while individual Baha’is may not be as threatened in terms of being literally executed, the government is arguably aiming to institutionalize a state of homo sacer on the entire culture of Baha’is. The goal seems to be to kill the ideology, to kill the progress, and to kill the spirit of the Baha’is, all with impunity. Baha’is who identify themselves are expelled from higher education, denied employment, and denied any position of influence. Propaganda institutions are to make anti-Baha’i content a main focus of their activities. Their progress is to be blocked and their cultural roots outside the country destroyed. All of this language clearly indicates that the government wishes to eliminate the Baha’i community without having to physically execute the population. In addition, there is an important point regarding “Section A” of this document, which states that Baha’is must not be expelled, arrested, imprisoned, or penalized “without reason.” While this language seems to offer some level of protection for the Baha’is, the Baha’i International Community offers this interpretation: “When the entire memo is understood in the context of what to do about ‘the Baha’i question,’ it is clear that [this] directive is merely instructing officials to be sure that they justify their actions before they make any moves against a Baha’i. It in no way promises any sort of protection.”[47]

Another government document that surfaced was a letter issued in April of 2007 from the Public Places Supervision Office of the Public Intelligence and Security Force in the city of Tehran, addressing the police and the heads of public intelligence and security to prevent Baha’is from engaging in several forms of business that were either high earning or had some level of influence on society, such as the press, publishing, tourism, photography/films, computer sales, Internet cafés, hotel management, along with many others.[48] In addition to these secret letters issued by the government that clearly outline the strategy of persecution against the Baha’is, it is well documented that the Iranian government has persistently denied Baha’is of several internationally recognized human rights. Besides the right to life, liberty, and security, the Islamic Republic has violated the Baha’is freedom of religion, freedom from torture, right to education, right to housing, right to own property, right to livelihood, and the right to due process.[49] Furthermore, in 2008, it emerged that the Iranian government is considering reforming legislation to fix the death penalty as the punishment for apostasy (renunciation of a religious faith).[50] As the Baha’is are often labeled apostates in the media, this potential change to legislation poses a grave danger to the Baha’is and would even more intensify their position as homo sacer.

Acting as the sovereign, Iranian political and religious leaders have also persistently used propaganda through the media to justify the persecutions of the Baha’is, and intensify the Baha’is position as homo sacer. The International Baha’i Community recently released a report on the matter of anti-Baha’i propaganda in Iran, stating, “Repeated time and again throughout history, the pattern of demonizing and dehumanizing a segment of society is always a matter of grave concern. Through such propaganda, the victims’ humanity is denied. Blame for the economic and social problems of the country—and often the wider world—rests firmly with the ‘other,’ who may be reviled as an animal, a vermin, a pest, a disease or as practicing witchcraft. In the case of Iran’s Baha’is, slanders and falsehoods are disseminated in state controlled and state sanctioned media, through pamphlets and tracts, from pulpits, and at public exhibitions and events.”[51] This process of dehumanization through propaganda aims to reduce the target, in this case the Baha’is, to bare life without any value to society. The government-sponsored or government-enabled anti-Baha’i propaganda has used a variety of themes to incite hatred from the public, such as that Baha’is are: anti-Islamic and anti-government, a misguided sect/cult, agents of Zionism or spies for Israel, morally corrupt, and historically connected to colonialism and imperialism, among many other falsities. The propaganda has taken on many forms through the media, including public comments made against the Baha’is at the highest level, from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.[52] Furthermore, the International Baha’i Community’s report also points out that, “History has shown that the hatred of an entire population can be stirred up by such a relentless, systematic repetition of falsehoods and myths that can become common credence as a result. When aroused citizens take violent action against their neighbors—whom they have been repeatedly told are traitors, corrupt or unclean—the offending authorities can absolve themselves of responsibility by blaming the actions on the populace.”[53] This shows that the use of propaganda is clearly linked to the creation of the sovereign and homo sacer. By utilizing propaganda to convince society of Baha’is inhumanity and the need to attack them with violence, it causes the Baha’is to be harmed, and even killed, without punishment of the government (and often the actual perpetrator), further reinforcing the Baha’is current position as homo sacer.


Is there any hope for the Baha’is to escape the position of homo sacer in Iran? Unfortunately, as Agamben explains, once a sovereign state of exception becomes institutionalized, it is hard to reverse.[54] Thankfully for the Baha’is, they have a lot of international support putting pressure on Iran to end its persecution. The United Nations (UN) has issued several statements condemning the Iranian government’s treatment of Baha’is. For example, the UN has sent special investigators, known as special rapporteurs, to Iran on several occasions to monitor and report on human rights issues. These rapporteurs commonly report on the unfair treatment of Baha’is, including a recent statement made on September 23rd, 2011 by special rapporteur Ahmed Saheed, in which he stated he is, “concerned about reports of violations against the Baha’i community, which, despite being the largest non-Muslim religious minority, does not enjoy recognition as such by the Government.”[55] In addition to the UN, many heads of state and government leaders across the world have criticized Iran’s treatment of the Baha’i community. Prominent human rights advocacy organizations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Federation for Human Rights, as well as many well-known human rights activists, have reported extensively on the Baha’is of Iran and offered their support. The world’s news media outlets, including some prominent Iranian journalists and commentators, have also played a strong role in bringing more international attention to the matter.[56] Additionally, a group of 43 prominent professors and lecturers in the fields of theology and religious studies recently issued a letter demanding the reversal of a ban imposed on Iran’s Baha’i institute for Higher Education and called upon the Iranian government to cease its persecution of the Baha’is.[57] This international support for the Baha’is likely what caused the Iranian government to virtually cease the outright executions of Baha’is, however, as stated earlier, Baha’is have still remained homo sacer. The potentiality for mass executions of Baha’is is still very possible, especially if the global support for Iranian Baha’is ever begins to dwindle or lose momentum. As a result, continued international support and stronger action is needed in order to put pressure on Iran’s leaders to end the persecution of Baha’is and provide them with the human rights they deserve.

Ironically, many of the false claims made against Baha’is, such being anti-Islamic or anti-government, directly conflict with the core principles of the Baha’i Faith, which instruct Baha’is to be law-abiding, as well as to love and embrace all religions without prejudice or contention. Still, these false claims are widely accepted among the leaders of Iran, as well as much of society (although a growing number of Iranians are becoming more tolerant of Baha’is). While the persecution of Baha’is has seen varying degrees over time, it is clear that through the current situation of government-sponsored propaganda and outright denial of several human rights, they presently remain in a position of homo sacer. However, even through this intense persecution, many of the Iranian Baha’is still love their native homeland, and remain loyal to Iran, hopeful that the situation will eventually improve. In a statement issued to the Iranian President in 2004, the Iranian Baha’i community proclaimed, “Baha’is would never commit any act contrary to the law of the land; they are well-wishers of the people and the state; they do not involve themselves with any political party; and they tenaciously uphold their Faith’s principles, which call on them to love and serve the entire human race and to bring about peace, amity and unity of religion.”[58] For the sake of the Baha’is, and all of the others in the world living in state of homo sacer, one must have hope that the wishes of the Baha’i community will one day come true.

In closing, we look to the words of Abdul Baha, Baha’u’llah’s son and also the successor of the Baha’i Faith following Baha’u’llah’s death in 1892 through 1921. Abdul Baha wrote many prayers that Baha’is recite for various occasions. The following in an excerpt from a prayer for peace:

“O Thou kind Lord!  Unite all.  Let the religions agree and make the nations one, so that they may see each other as one family and the whole earth as one home.  May they all live together in perfect harmony. O God!  Raise aloft the banner of the oneness of mankind. O God!  Establish the Most Great Peace. Cement Thou, O God, the hearts together.”[59]

[1] Hunger and world poverty. Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://www.poverty.com/

[2] Jewish virtual library Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/36quest1.html

[3] Case study: Stalin’s purges. Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://www.gendercide.org/case_stalin.html

[4] Case study: The armenian genocide 1915-1917. Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://www.gendercide.org/case_armenia.html

[5] Arendt, H. (1973). The origins of totalitarianism. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company, pg. 185

[6] Case study: Genocide in bangladesh, 1971. Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://www.gendercide.org/case_bangladesh.html

[7] Case study: The anfal campaign (iraqi kurdistan), 1988. Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://www.gendercide.org/case_anfal.html

[8] Case study: Genocide in rwanda, 1994. Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://www.gendercide.org/case_rwanda.html

[9] Agamben, G. (1998). Homo sacer: Sovereign power and bare Life. Stanford: Stanford UP. pg 8

[10] Merriam-webster dictionary. Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sacred

[11] University of notre dame latin dictionary and grammar aid. Retrieved 12/1, 2011, from http://catholic.archives.nd.edu/cgi-bin/lookup.pl?stem=sacer&ending=

[12] Merriam-webster dictionary. Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/taboo

[13] Agamben, pg. 79

[14] Agamben, pg. 79

[15] Agamben, pg. 81

[16] Agamben, pg. 81

[17] Merriam-webster dictionary. Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sacrifice?show=0&t=1322787479

[18] Agamben, pg. 81

[19] Merriam-webster dictionary. Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sovereign

[20] Agamben, pg. 15

[21] Agamben, pg. 21

[22] Agamben, pg. 21

[23] Agamben, pg. 28-29

[24] Agamben, pg. 83

[25] Agamben, pg. 84

[26] Agamben, pg. 119

[27] Agamben, pg. 140

[28] Agamben, pg. 143

[29] Agamben, pg. 156-157

[30] Agamben, pg. 159

[31] Agamben, pg. 115

[32] Baha’i topics – the bab (1819-1850). Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://info.bahai.org/the-bab.html

[33] Baha’i library online – baha’u’llah, the promised one. Retrieved 12/1, 2011, from http://bahai-library.com/warwick_bahaullah_promised_one

[34] Baha’i topics – the bab (1819-1850). Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://info.bahai.org/the-bab.html

[35] Baha’i topics – basic teachings of baha’u’llah. Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://info.bahai.org/bahaullah-basic-teachings.html

[36] Moojan, M. (2005). The babi and baha’i community of iran: A case of “suspended genocide”? Journal of Genocide Research, 7(2), 221-241., pg. 221-222

[37] Religion Facts – Execution of the Bab, Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://www.religionfacts.com/bahai/features/execution-of-the-bab.htm

[38] The bahá’í question cultural cleansing in iran. (2008). New York, NY: Bahá’í International Community, pg. 41

[39] Moojan, pg. 223

[40] Moojan, pg 223-224

[41] The bahá’í question cultural cleansing in iran, pg. 43

[42] The bahá’í question cultural cleansing in iran, pg. 44

[43] The bahá’í question cultural cleansing in iran, pg. 27

[44] The bahá’í question cultural cleansing in iran, pg. 44-46

[45] The bahá’í question cultural cleansing in iran, pg. 21

[46] Baha’i topics – A translation of the 1991 iranian government document on “the baha’i question”. Retrieved 12/1, 2011, from http://info.bahai.org/article-1-8-3-20.html

[47] The bahá’í question cultural cleansing in iran, pg. 21-22

[48] The bahá’í question cultural cleansing in iran, pg. 37

[49] The bahá’í question cultural cleansing in iran, entire report

[50] The bahá’í question cultural cleansing in iran, pg. 28

[51] Inciting hatred: Iran’s media campaign to demonize baha’is. (2011). New York, NY: Baha’i International Community, pg. 6

[52] Inciting hatred: Iran’s media campaign to demonize baha’is, pg. 6-10

[53] Inciting hatred: Iran’s media campaign to demonize baha’is, pg. 32

[54] Agamben, pg. 38

[55] The situation of human rights in the islamic republic of iran. (2011). United Nations General Assembly, pg. 16

[56] The bahá’í question cultural cleansing in iran, pg. 54-57

[57] Blomfield, A. (2011, Religious academics denounce persecution against iran’s baha’i minority The Telegraph, Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/8816662/Religious-academics-denounce-persecution-against-Irans-Bahai-minority.html

[58] The bahá’í question cultural cleansing in iran, pg. 54

[59] Baha’I prayers. Retrieved 12/1/2011, from http://www.bahaiprayers.org/mankind4.htm


One thought on “Homo Sacer: Baha’is of Iran

  1. Although any death due to Homo Sacer is not justified, is it fair to compare the genocide of 6 million Jews with the killing of 20,000-40,000 Babis and Baha’is? It seems there should be different degrees or levels of Homo Sacer which would explain why one group would have 6 million victims while the other group was able to minimize its victims.

Please share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s