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Rainn Wilson Discusses Documentary "Education Under Fire"

Raunak Khosla |
February 6, 2012 | 4:45 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Rainn Wilson from 'The Office' talks. (Creative Commons)
Rainn Wilson from 'The Office' talks. (Creative Commons)

Imagine yourself sitting quietly in a lecture at your American college or university, taking notes, answering questions, learning new stuff. Suddenly, military officers with guns barge in, pull you out, question you about your religious beliefs, and consequently get you expelled from your institution, with no option of ever getting higher education. You have no other option, they would jail you or kill you if you do not comply.

Although it may be hard to imagine such a scene for Americans, it has been more than simple reality for thousands of Baha’i youth for more than two decades in Iran. Not many are aware of the how the government has been cracking down on members of the Baha’i Faith, denying them higher education, even though the nation signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, of which the Right to Higher Education is a part. Unchecked by the international community, it has been systematically carrying out raids, imprisonments, executions, taking away the Baha’i’s right to higher education. 

Even fewer are aware of the extraordinary story of the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) and how it has been working underground to uplift an entire community of knowledge seekers.

The documentary "Education Under Fire" has been screening at select locations and college campuses throughout the US, targeting this lack of awareness and empathy. It was recently screened at the USC Norris Cinema Theatre this Friday evening, followed by a panel discussion involving activists and television personalities. The 30-minute documentary, produced by Single Arrow Productions and co-sponsored by Amnesty International, profiles the growth, struggle, and inspiring spirit of the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education. 

The film documents a story never before told to such a large audience, especially outside the iron curtains of Iran. It delves underground, to show the working of the BIHE and how it uplifts lives of youth whose resolve to study is even greater than the risk of imprisonment or execution. It portrays an intensive picture of how BIHE students today are working under the government’s radar to study maths and science. The BIHE does not have a fixed location, but holds classes in temporary residential buildings where students have to sit together and study, sometimes for days at a time, and often having to borrow extra chairs from the neighbours. They cannot commute in groups, have to deliver reports and documents to other towns by hand, and use the internet discreetly. Interviews with students, who have taken refuge in the US, show how they dealt with the execution of their friends, family, teachers, and how they still continue to support the BIHE.

Following the screening, there was a panel discussion with "The Office" actor-comedian Rainn Wilson, activist Reza Aslan, director Jeff Kaufman, executive producer and USC alumnus David Hoffman, and USF and BIHE professor Shabnam Koirala-Azad, moderated by the USC Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni. They talked about the inspiration behind the documentary, and why awareness of the issue is so crucial. According to Reza Aslan, Iran is a state susceptible to international opinion, contrary to popular belief. He said that if the international community voices it’s opinion against it, Iran will be forced to comply. Shabnam Koirala-Azad, who teaches at the University of San Francisco and for BIHE via the internet, talked about how she is constantly amazed at the resolve of the BIHE students, and how American students usually take their right to education for granted. She also praised the wholesome education that BIHE students receive, as they also learn about important values, security skills, and the importance of community and loyalty.

Students from the audience were especially moved by the presentation. During a question and answer session, many students expressed their concerns and asked relevant questions. One student from the USC School of Education compared the denial of higher education with the discrimination of African-Americans in the 1960s. Another student commented on the importance of the Internet in allowing for such communication and education.

The documentary was enlightening in terms of how we usually take education for granted, and how people in other parts of the world have to fight to get even the most basic of human rights. The documentary also displayed the power of community and knowledge as a defence against tyranny. It was a grand example of what Azar Nafisi said in a talk at USC barely a week ago, regarding the power of education and literature to bring people together through empathy and liberate minds for greatness.

To learn more about Education Under Fire and to sign the petition, visit educationunderfire.com.

Reach reporter Raunak Khosla here.



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