Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Iranian Intellectuals Break Taboos Concerning Bahais, Israel

Mohammad Nourizad and Mohsen Makhmalbaf are both filmmakers. Both were active supporters of the Iranian regime but later turned against the regime and became ardent advocates of human rights. Now they have openly broken with another feature of their past: prejudice against religious minorities.

Earlier this month, Nourizad who lives in Tehran engaged in a highly symbolic act to express his solidarity with Iran’s Bahais, a religious minority who are legally banned from employment and educational institutions, and have been persecuted by Iran’s Shii majority for years. He went to the home of a Bahai child whose parents have been imprisoned for teaching Bahai youth. He kissed the child’s feet and apologized to him for the severe discrimination which he and his fellow coreligionists have suffered. He also ate the food which the child’s grandmother offered him and made a point of breaking with the Iranian Shii practice of considering Bahais untouchables and polluted. (1)

A few days earlier, Makhmalbaf who has recently produced The Gardener, a sympathetic film about the Bahai faith, attended the Jerusalem International Film Festival where his film was screened. At a news conference he said the following to the people of Israel: “I love you, but please do not attack Iran. It is not the solution. It would only aggravate the situation. . . It is better to help the Iranian democratic forces” (2).

At first, a statement signed by 150 Iranian political activists and scholars attacked Makhmalbaf’s participation in the Jerusalem Film Festival as an “implicit support for Israel’s apartheid policies” (3) However, soon afterward, expressions of support for Makhmalbaf also started being heard: A statement signed by 80 political activists and scholars (4) , articles published by the opposition press in exile, and letters sent to the Persian language Radio France have admired him for breaking with taboos concerning Bahais and Israel.

Reza Fani Yazdi, a former political prisoner and activist in exile calls Makhmalbaf’s film, “the expression of a transformation not only in his mind and ideas but in the foundations of thought in Iranian society. It is a blow to the most delicate forms of prejudice which have been imposed in a religious and political manner on a significant minority of Iranian citizens during the past 100 years.” He also supports Makhmalbaf’s participation in the Jerusalem Film Festival and writes that “any contact which would lead to strengthening friendly relations between the two nations is a positive step toward reducing hostilities and avoiding war and bloodshed…” (5)

Tahmoures Kiani, an Iranian scholar of the Middle East, based in Seattle, writes that Makhmalbaf’s participation in the Jerusalem Film Festival does not advocate silence about the plight of the Palestinians or Israel’s continued occupation of what constituted Palestinian territory prior to 1967. However, he points out that “silence in the face of occupation in other parts of the world and treating Israel as an exception and a taboo to the point of banning travel, dialogue, and interaction with Israel and ignoring the many scientific, cultural and economic achievements of this small country, reveals the following point: There is a strong element of antisemitism and prejudice in many of the anti-Israel positions.” He also believes that those who support the Palestinian cause, should publicly condemn attacks on Israeli civilians and recognize their right to have security and peace as well. (6)

Whether one agrees with Kiani’s charge of antisemitism or not, it remains to be said that opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and support for economic boycotts aimed at stopping Israel’s military aggression and illegal settlement building, need not lead to a cultural and academic boycott that would cut off any dialogue with the entire population of Israel.

Makhmalbaf and Nourizad have each attempted to break with prejudice against religious minorities and express the sentiments of the part of the Iranian population that detests religious fundamentalism and bigotry. They have clearly started an important dialogue and need to be commended for their courage.

Frieda Afary

  1. محمد نوری زاد. " بوسه بر پای یک بهایی کوچک." وبسایت رسمی محمد نوری زاد. 24 تیر 1392  Nourizad, Mohammad. “Busa bar pay-e yek ‘baha’i-ye’ kuchak” July 15, 2013.
  2. Don't Attack Us, Asks Exiled Iranian Filmmaker
  3. Open Letter to Filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf: Please Be a Messenger of Freedom for Iranian and Palestinian People
  4. Thank you, Mohsen Makhmalbaf 
  5. رضا فانی یزدی." باغبان مخملباف:نشانه ای از تحولی بنیادی در وحدان نسل ما." اخبار روز 18 ژوئیه13 20
  6. تهمورث کیانی. "بچه های اشکلون، محسن مخملباف و نامه روشنفکران!" اخبار روز. 21 ژوئیه 2013

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