FOREWORD BY KENNETH E. BOWERS
The stories of the truly great movements of history—those that have in some way upraised human dignity and enlarged freedom—can best be told from the perspective of individuals. Such stories often depict women and men of humble origins who might otherwise have left little impression on our common memories, but who instead achieved greatness serving a great cause. It is in their lives that we see the fullest expressions of the human spirit. These heroes and heroines epitomize multitudes of others whose struggles have, against all odds—and often at the cost of their lives—ensured the onward progress of justice and emergence of the finest human values. In them, we see living examples of the courage, faith, self-sacrifice, and love all of us possess and are potentially capable of reflecting. It is they who give us hope that a better world can be built. They are our torchbearers, showing us the way forward long after they have gone. Where would Americans be without Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, or Medgar Evers to light the way on our national struggle toward “a more perfect union”? Under the Staircase is just such a story. It is about the life—and death—of Fatollah Ferdowsi, who made the supreme sacrifice upholding his belief in the unifying teachings of the Baha’i Faith and his desire to live in accordance with them. In a larger sense, however, it is the story of the entire community of Iran’s Baha’is, who have endured more than a century and a half of severe persecution, and who have responded to their predicament with determination to do what they can, in the face of unrelenting indignities and injustice, to preserve their identity and to work for the good of their country.
The story that follows will, as it unfolds, make it abundantly clear to the reader that Fatollah Ferdowsi never harbored a “death wish” or anything of its kind. On the contrary, he was a loving husband and father, a successful entrepreneur, an active public servant, and an enthusiastic and grateful partaker of the wholesome joys of life. Though staunch in his love for a Faith with a global vision that promotes ultimate prosperity for all members of the human family, he was equally proud of his native land and held an unswerving belief in its future greatness. The resistance he encountered came from those violently opposed to principles that he, as a Baha’i, considered essential to the creation of a genuinely just society— among them, the elimination of all forms of prejudice, including religious fanaticism and ethnic discrimination; the full equality of women with men in all fields of human endeavor, including access to education; and the full participation of all people in their own governance, without need for a special class to determine the rights and the future of others. At all times underlying this was a deep faith in the God Who loves and cares for all humanity, Who is actively guiding us all toward the creation of a better world, and Who will ensure the realization of our highest hopes. Fatollah Ferdowsi chose to stand up for these beliefs, even at the cost of his life. By the time a revolution overthrowing the reigning monarch came to their country in 1979, religious leaders in Iran had for generations harbored the distorted view that the ideals cherished by Baha’is posed a distinct threat to their privileges. The leaders of the new Islamic Republic of Iran, therefore, lost no time unleashing their hostility against that innocent community. A wave of persecution soon engulfed the adherents of the largest religious minority in the country. And far from having abated over the course of the more than four decades that have elapsed since, the aim of suffocating the life of that community has become a fixed governmental policy.
Baha’is have not responded in kind: they have chosen not to meet hatred with hatred, violence with violence, and fanaticism with fanaticism. Rather, they have responded with an attitude of unflagging goodwill, patience, and the belief in the essential fairness of their fellow citizens. Neither, however, have they accepted the role of passive victims. Instead, wherever they reside, they have steadfastly tried—within the confines imposed upon them—to be of service to others. The reason for this is simple: means should be consistent with desired ends. If we wish to create a world characterized by love and justice for all, it can only be done by doing our best to be loving and just. If it is peace that we want, then it must be achieved by peaceful measures, not by sowing the seeds of hatred and conflict.
History furnishes few comparable examples of a community numbering in the hundreds of thousands facing relentless bigotry and discrimination yet refusing to respond with rebelliousness, violence, sedition, or political machinations. Iran’s Baha’is have never swerved from their great confidence in the high-mindedness of the people of their country, trusting that, in time, their fellow citizens will overcome the obstacles that have for too long limited their potential to contribute to the betterment of the world.
This, then, is a story from Iran. Yet it is not merely an Iranian story. In it, there are lessons for both the oppressors and the oppressed across the world. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The shining example of the resilience of Iran’s Baha’is in the face of unjust treatment has served to fortify not only the entire human rights movement in that country, but the multitudes in other lands envisioning a world embracing the principles of respect for all and of unity in diversity. These people are everywhere helping to bend the arc of the moral universe. It is one thing to hear of such events in the abstract, whether in a compilation of statistics or a report of the actions of faceless masses. It is quite another to read about the heavy price paid by an individual and his family in the service of high ideals. Within these pages, one comes face to face with the uncertainty, the terror, the anguish, and the irreplaceable loss that were the consequences of the choices that Fatollah Ferdowsi willingly made—losses not only to him but to his family and his circle of friends and associates. Poignantly, the story is told by his own son, who has taken the full four decades since his father’s death to come to grips with those choices, to understand their meaning, and to appreciate not only what was lost but what was gained by the sacrifices his father made for the sake of his ideals.
There is no question that the people of Iran will eventually come to appreciate the precious value of the ideals for which their Baha’i brothers and sisters have sacrificed so much. But at what further cost? How much human potential and social benefit will have been wasted before that awakening comes?
It would do well for Americans to be prompted by this story to contemplate our own situation. At what cost to our country do we continue to hold onto senseless prejudices and bigotry that constitute such a stain on our social fabric? Why do we rob ourselves of the immense contributions to the betterment of our society each and every one of our fellow citizens could make? What is the price we all pay for looking the other way when the evidences of cruel injustice are openly manifest around us? How much longer will we abide living in an atmosphere of ruthless competition and contest? How long will it take us to at last learn to work with each other in a spirit of true regard for our common benefit? Let us hope this story will—as well it should—inspire us not only with admiration for Mr. Ferdowsi’s exemplary life, but to an examination of our own lives and a new resolve to do what we can in our own circumstances to serve the greater good. Whatever our own religious beliefs, is this not, after all, the true meaning of faith?
Kenneth E. Bowers