Truth and Reconciliation: A Conversation Between a Baha'i Survivor of Human Rights Abuses and a Former Member of the Hojjatieh Association
(November 29, 2012) - In this video, filmed on October 27, 2012 in The Hague, the Netherlands, IHRDC captured a conversation of truth and reconciliation between Ruhi Jahanpour – a Bahá’í who was imprisoned for her beliefs in the Islamic Republic of Iran during the 1980s – and Abbas Mazaheri – a former member of the Hojjatieh Association, which Mazaheri admits perpetrated serious human rights abuses against Iran’s Bahá’í community.
On the day of the film, Jahanpour was in The Hague to testify at Iran Tribunal – a people’s court set up to prosecute crimes against political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Iran’s prisons in the 1980s – and Mazaheri, who was moved to tears by Jahanpour’s testimony and the memories of the abuses he and the Hojjatieh subjected Bahá’ís to, approached Jahanpour and asked for her forgiveness. The dialogue between Jahanpour and Mazaheri raises powerful questions of what it means to be a victim and victimizer and what type of conversation about responsibility and accountability is needed for societies to heal from past abuses.
The views and opinions of the witnesses expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
Abbas: Dear Ruhi--Ruhi Jahanpour! I heard your testimony. I could not help but cry. Please, let me apologize to you. I, Abbas Mazaheri, was your enemy between the years of 1961 to 1965. Between the ages of 17 to 21, I was an enemy of humanity. I was an enemy of culture. I was an enemy of your religion. I have done wrong.
Ruhi: What organization did you belong to?
Abbas: I was member of Hojjatieh, an anti-Baha’i association, and I was fighting against members of the Baha’i faith.
Ruhi: What kinds of things did you do?
Abbas: I created a negative atmosphere in the society against the Baha’is. I am sorry for that. Please forgive me. Those four years were the darkest years of my life, and I will never forgive myself [for what I did]. But I beg of you and all Baha’is, who are civilized and who have enriched our culture, [please forgive me]. I have read the history of Baha’I Faith. I know about the Bab; I know about Táhirih. The Bab was one of our greatest thinkers in the nineteenth century. Táhirih was the first brave lady in our society who removed her veil. She removed the veil, which was a sign of captivity and she appeared among men without the veil. But the Shah ]Naser al-Din Shah Qajar[ killed her. As a person who spent 4 years of his life in darkness and poisoned the social atmosphere against you and your co-religionists, I apologize to you.
Ruhi: Thank you… But who I am to forgive you? Forgiveness is for God! Thank you very much for coming and sharing [your story] with me. I would like to ask you about the Hojjatieh., Members of this group [sometimes] shut down our meetings when I lived in Shiraz. But I never had any chance to get to know them. So what kind of anti-Baha’i activity were you involved in? Who was asking you to engage in anti-Baha’i activity? This takes us back many years; you must have been very young then. I would appreciate if you share [more details] with me.
Abbas: My story goes back more than fifty years. Now it is 2012… I got involved with anti-Baha’i [Hojjatieh] association about fifty-one years ago in 1960.
Ruhi: How old were you then?
Abbas: In that time I was just 16-17 years old.
Ruhi: You were very young.
Abbas: I was involved with the association until I was 21. Later, with the help of some other people, I formed a party that we named the Islamic Nations Party. I was arrested in 1965 [for my activities with the Islamic Nations Party]. I was sentenced to life in prison. [After that,] I spent 14 years of my life in prison. In the 1950s I was a very curious young man and I wanted to learn. But in that society, the dictatorship of Shah didn’t give me a chance to learn. This was not possible during the Shah’s reign. Even reading the wrong book could land a person in prison. In that atmosphere, only the mullahs (Islamic clergy) were allowed to propagate their beliefs. They were the only group who could have an influence on us. Eventually, I joined the Hojjatieh association to work against the Baha’is.
Ruhi: What kinds of things did you do?
Abbas: Since I was a passionate young man, I was ultimately promoted to a leadership position (in the Hojjatieh). During that period we attended Baha’i gatherings. We just sat still and did not react to the events. We listened in on these gatherings in order to find out which attendees were Muslims who had been taken there to be converted to the Baha’i faith. As we determined which of the participants were Muslims [interested in] joining the Baha’i faith, we tried to talk them out of attending [and countered] that if they were interested in learning about the Baha’i faith they could join another meeting somewhere else which was being held every Thursday night.
Ruhi: Was the Hojjatieh holding these Thursday night meetings?
Abbas: [Yes], the Hojjatieh association had meetings every Thursday night. [They were administered by] a fraudster named Dr. Tavana who called himself a doctor. He was a mullah but he wore a suit and spoke against the Baha’is.
Ruhi: Was he really a doctor?
Abbas: I don’t think so. The mullahs were very jealous of physicians, engineers, and educated people. But they resented them at the same time.
Ruhi: So he was a mullah?
Abbas: He was a mullah. Later, I attended his meetings. We became brothers-in-arms. Everywhere he went he wore clerical garb—except on Thursday night, during which he wore suits and gave speeches denigrating the Baha’is. He was trying to dissuade Muslims who were attending these Baha’i meetings to convert. The activities that I am ashamed to admit having engaged in before you and all of my Baha’i countrymen, whom I value so highly, is that I was propagating a negative view of the Baha’is. If the front door to your home was burned down, I consider myself guilty of that although I didn’t take part in those actions. If you [Baha’is] were killed or executed, [I blame myself]. I’ve heard that in Shiraz, hot water was poured in the mouths of (Baha’i) babies. I consider myself an accessory to any [mistreatment] by Muslims that you were faced with as a Baha’i. In prison I converted from Islam. When I converted from Islam, I reviewed my past deeds and realized that I had done terrible things. I promised myself that anytime I met my Baha’i countrymen I would apologize to them. As I told you, during that time and later on, I studied a lot about the Baha’i faith. I have studied a lot about the Bab. The Bab was a very wise man. He was one of the great thinkers of nineteenth-century Iran. I think very highly of him. Táhirih is my hero. Her statue should be built and placed in Iranian cities’ squares, because Tahirih is a symbol of freedom for Iranian women. I hold her in high regard.
Ruhi: Did you read the Baha’i books when you were active in the Hojjatieh association?
Abbas: Yes, I have read a lot of books including the Bab’s Bayan and Baha’ullah’s Aqdas. I obtained these books from the Baha’i association and read them. When I attended the Baha’i meetings I would ask them to give me some Baha’i books for my friends, but when I left the meetings I threw them in the trash. I did read those books [at that time], but I wasn’t affected by them; when someone reads something with hate, even if he’s normally a logical person, he is blinded [by his hate].
Ruhi: They [anti-Baha’i groups] poisoned your mind.
Abbas: I was actually a victim. A 16-17-year old youth doesn’t have any social experience.
Ruhi: How was the Hojjatieh association founded? Who was in charge of it? How did you get involved with them?
Abbas: I was very interested in political issues at the time. I spent a lot of time at universities. At the time I was a freshman in high school. [But] I was involved with the university students. Some of these students in the university knew about the Hojjatieh association and recommended that I join the group to fight for Islam and the Twelfth Imam ]the last Shi’a Imam[. Since I was reading those Baha’i books with hate, they didn’t have an impact on me. Meanwhile, since I was reading the Quran with enthusiasm, I believed that the Quran opposed cruelty and that it was based on justice, but later when I read it dispassionately I realized that I had been wrong. Now I have a request from you. You know that I was a victim.
Ruhi: Of course.
Abbas: I was a victim of the mullahs’ reactionary system, which had trapped me during that period. I was fooled. I am guilty. I engaged in nefarious acts. Four years of my life were spent opposing the Baha’i community. I apologize to you from the bottom of my heart. Please, let me know. Please give me peace. Do you forgive me?
Ruhi: Of course! God is gracious. Who am I [for you to need my forgiveness]?
Abbas: No! I want to hear your own opinion.
Ruhi: You have come to me sincerely and honestly to confess your mistakes, mistakes made when your own mind had been poisoned. Of course I forgive you.
Abbas: Thank you very much.
Ruhi: And I hope the rest of the people in the Hojjatieh association reach the same level of humanity.
Abbas: I know of two people, one in Germany and another in Canada, who were both involved with the Hojjatieh. They have left the association and they feel the same way I do.