COLUMBIA — Sahba Jalali, a Columbia optometrist, was only 12 when his house in Iran was burned down because his family practiced the Baha’i faith. It was 1978, and the revolution was under way.
The Baha'i faith was founded in Iran in the 19th century by Bahá’u’lláh. Baha'is believe in the unity of all religions and humanity. According to the Baha'i faith, Bahá’u’lláh is a manifestation of God, but practitioners also believe that all founders of major religions (Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, etc.) were manifestations of God, each one fulfilling the need for their particular time and place.
The Iranian Revolution began in January 1978 and, after the overthrow of the monarchy headed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, ended in December 1979 with the founding of an Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini. Today, Iran and the U.S. continue to gain an understanding of religion in each country and the role it plays in daily life.
Shortly after the revolution began in 1978, Jalali and his family moved to Columbia because he had an aunt here. She had sent a letter to the family inviting them to stay with her if anything bad happened in Iran.
Jalali is part of a Baha'i community that meets weekly in Columbia; the group is relatively small when compared to mainstream Christian faiths. He has never faced opposition to his faith in the United States, which is one of the many reasons he is grateful to be living here.
“If anything I have trepidation for my friends in Iran who are stuck there and I feel for their suffering… but here I got to go to public schools, graduate high school, get a university education, go to graduate school, set up practice and have people in the community support my business,” Jalali said.
The Jalali family was living a comfortable middle-class life in a brand new home in Iran when the revolution started. Within three short days, a group of Baha'is had been systematically identified and 300 of their houses were burned down. The Jalalis’ house was one of the first 50 to be destroyed.
Jalali and his mother, a high school teacher, were at home because of demonstrations by radicals at the schools when the destruction began. Waiting with suitcases for a relative’s driver to take them to safety, Jalali looked outside his front door and has never forgotten what he found.
“I see these neighbors of ours just literally dumping stuff in the trunk of the car… and I’m seeing neighbors driving about 60 mph with their carpet and their belongings on the roof of the car, just speeding by like crazy,” he said.
A neighbor, seeing Jalali, said, “Mrs. Jalali, are you still home? Oh my gosh! They’re coming!”
“When someone said ‘They’re coming,’ you don’t need an explanation of who, what, when, where, or why," he said. "It’s, ‘OK, they’re coming to get us and our houses’… and my mom and I had no transportation.”
A neighbor eventually offered the Jalalis a ride. Sahba and his mother, unable to carry the heavy suitcases, left all of the family’s possessions behind.
“Literally all my mom did was grab her purse and I grabbed my brother’s toy box and we ran out of the house,” he said.
Jalali and his mother reached safety in a relative’s house and were joined by Jalali’s father and younger brother. Jalali’s home, along with his grandmother’s and his uncle’s homes, was torched that day.
“I think if the demonstrators had not torched our house and destroyed it, I don’t think my parents would have readily left Iran," Jalali said. "I’m really grateful that they burned the houses because if they hadn’t, my uncles and my parents would have been killed."
“They (the new government) took my father’s pension away. They took everything that he had worked for, including our brand new house, away. There was not much more they could do to him other than kill him,”Jalali said.
A 2003 International Federation of Human Rights report about religious discrimination in Iran showed that Baha'is continue to face systematic discrimination.
“Since the revolution in 1979, Iranian Baha'is have regularly had their homes ransacked or been banned from attending university or holding government jobs, and several hundred have received prison sentences for their religious beliefs, most recently for participating in study circles,” the report stated.
Also, according to the report, the Iranian government divides its citizens into four categories: Muslims, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians. The Baha’i faith, which is the largest minority in the country, is not included, and Baha’is are therefore considered second-rate citizens and are classified as “unprotected infidels” by the authorities. They have no legal protection.
Since Baha’is are not even considered full citizens in Iran, they obviously are not allowed to participate in politics. They can neither vote nor be elected. However, Baha’is can become “full” citizens if they deny their faith. This is forbidden, according to the writings of Bahá'u'lláh.
Jalali said he believes most Iranians are open-minded, with only a small minority causing the problems.
“I, as an Iranian Baha’i, have very warm feelings towards the Iranian friends that I have and toward my country. I understand that the government is cracking down on people of my faith so that’s between that government and God, it is not between me and them.”
Even after experiencing the destruction of his family’s possessions and even with the knowledge that Baha'is face continuous abuse from the government, Jalali has faith that the situation in Iran will eventually get better.
“I hope that change will happen in Iran that is good for the long-term health of the nation, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Iranians are smart people and they know what they need to do, but right now they live in a lot of fear,” Jalali said.
Jalali has not been back to Iran. He is not only concerned about his personal safety, but does not want to aid the Iranian government in covering up its abuse to Baha’is. While the government is arresting and possibly torturing leaders of the Baha’i faith, they are also leaving Baha'i visitors alone, Jalali said. Recently the Iranian government went to the UN and gave documentation of thousands of Baha’is safely coming into and leaving the country as proof that there are no human rights issues in Iran, Jalali said.
“Essentially they are facilitating Iranians coming into and leaving the country but yet, in other areas, they are heavily cracking down and making it very difficult," he said. "I don’t want to give them one more name they can turn in."
In a situation that most people would call tragic, Jalali sees God’s loving hand in the destruction of his home because if it had not happened, his family would have stayed in Iran, endangering their lives and freedom.