Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Dr. Farhang Mehr: A Pillar of Strength and Faith

Around the world, Zoroastrians mourn the loss of one of their brightest lights.

By Lylah M. Alphonse

Dr. Farhang Mehr rose through the ranks of academia and politics in Iran, shaping economic policy there before fleeing persecution during the Islamic Revolution and settling in the United States. An accomplished scholar, dedicated public servant, and pillar of the Zoroastrian community in diaspora, he died on March 4, 2018, in Southern California. He was 94.

“A thriving Zoroastrian community and a prosperous Iran were my twin dreams,” he said in a 1999 interview for his biography, “Triumph Over Discrimination: The Life Story of Farhang Mehr.” “These dreams were constantly in my thoughts, and their realization is my life’s goal.”

Born in Tehran on Dec. 11, 1923 to Merhaban and Paridokht Mehr, Dr. Mehr earned Bachelors of Science and Bachelors of Laws degrees from Tehran University before traveling to England to earn a Masters of Laws degree from the London School of Economics at the University of London and a PhD from the University of Southampton. He returned to Iran and took a position with the National Iranian Oil Company, heading their International Contracts and Industrial Relations department while also serving as an advisor to the Minister of Commerce.

Dr. Mehr was able to combine his expertise in law and economics with his love for his country by serving in Iran’s Ministry of Finance, where he helped guide economic policy as the Director General of Oil and International Relations, Governor for Iran in OPEC, Director General of Economic Affairs and Monopolies and, eventually, Deputy Minister in charge of finance and economic affairs.

He was nominated to become Iran’s Minister of Finance, but was prohibited from serving in that capacity; only Muslims could hold the title of minister and Dr. Mehr, a devout Zoroastrian, was disqualified due to religious discrimination.

“My religious identity was public knowledge, and my every action was a translation of my beliefs,” he said in 1999. “I fully observed and respected the Muslim customs and traditions, consciously extended equal treatment to the followers of other faiths, all while remaining devout to my own religion. I believed then, and still believe, in a civil society.”

“In a civil society, Zarathushti citizens should be politically active,” he continued. “Without power or access to power, survival and progress are unattainable.”

Persuaded to remain in politics, Dr. Mehr became General Deputy Minister of Iran, and later served as Acting Minister. When he objected to the prohibition against non-Muslims, Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda appointed him to be Deputy Prime Minister of Iran — the first non-Muslim ever to serve in the highest levels of the Iranian government.

“I resisted exchanging my religion for a higher political office, and I refused to sacrifice my heritage at the altars of prestige and political acceptance,” he said in 1999. “As such, I was able to set an example for other Zarathushtis in Iran, one that I hope will continue.”

Dr. Mehr eventually resigned from government service and became the Chairman of the Board and Executive Director of Bimeh-ye Iran, the largest insurance company in the country. In this capacity, Dr. Mehr reshaped the insurance industry, creating a new regulatory agency and a new college of insurance to train agents in Iran and other countries.

His illustrious career extended to positions of great responsibility in higher education, including teaching positions at Tehran University, the National University of Iran, the College of Insurance, and the country’s military academy. He was president of Pahlavi University in Shiraz for eight years, guiding the school to greatness and polishing its reputation on the world stage.

In 1981, Dr. Mehr was forced to flee from Iran to avoid religious persecution, risking his life during a perilous journey through Turkey and eventually finding freedom in the United States.  His wife and children joined him and they settled in the Boston area, where Dr. Mehr taught international relations at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.

But he did not limit himself to the classroom. Dr. Mehr authored more than 80 articles and 12 books, including “The Zoroastrian Tradition, An Introduction to the Ancient Wisdom of Zarathushtra” and “A Colonial Legacy: The Dispute Over the Islands of Abu Musa, and the Greater and Lesser Tumbs.” He retired from Boston University as professor emeritus in 1997, later moving to California.

“When I left Iran, I also left my dreams for that country unrealized,” he said in 1999. “But I carried within me my dreams for the future of Zoroastrianism, and I continue to work toward strengthening the fabric of the Zoroastrian community in diaspora.”

His dedication to his faith and community was a driving force throughout his life. As a very young man Dr. Mehr was focused on fostering unity and securing rights for Zoroastrian youth in Iran; he served in leadership positions in Anjumans and cultural associations in Iran, England and the United States, and was a founding member of the Ancient Iranian Cultural Society and the World Zoroastrian Organization. While in Boston, he was active in establishing and supporting the Zoroastrian Association of the Greater Boston Area, gave speeches at Harvard University, the World Zoroastrian Congress and the North American Zoroastrian Congress, and mentored countless young Zoroastrians, encouraging them to understand and live their faith.

He personified the most important tenets of the Zoroastrian religion — good thoughts, good words, good deeds — and worked tirelessly to create unity and inspire the Zoroastrian community to evolve and “work toward the greater good.”

“As a single entity we should be showing love, upholding justice, exercising compassion, working for peace, engaging creatively in constructive work,” he said in 1999. “These goals cannot be achieved with the current social and religious attitudes of our fractured community. Though at times difficult, some traditions can — and should — be modified as social conditions demand change.”

Dr. Mehr was awarded a FEZANA Lifetime Achievement Award for his service to the Zoroastrian community worldwide, an honor bestowed upon just five others in the history of the organization.

He is survived by his devoted wife, Parichehr Naderi, and their children, Mehrdad, Mehran and Mitra Mehr, whom he adored with all his heart.

Lylah M. Alphonse is the Managing Editor for News at U.S. News & World Report, and the author of “Triumph Over Discrimination: The Life Story of Farhang Mehr,” a permanent legacy project for the Seventh International World Zoroastrian Congress in which Dr. Mehr shared his story, his ideas, and his hopes for the future of Zoroastrians worldwide.  

Dr. Farhang Mehr: Hopes, Dreams, and Aspirations

The following is an excerpt from “Triumph Over Discrimination: The Life Story of Dr. Farhang Mehr” by Lylah M. Alphonse. It is republished here with permission from the author.

More than 20 years after he fled from Iran, Mehr is driven by his hopes for the unity of the world’s Zoroastrian communities. A Zarathushti by birth and by choice, he has dedicated his golden years to the realization of his hopes, dreams, and aspirations for Zoroastrianism. He describes these dreams in his own words:

This is what I call “The Zoroastrian Odyssey.” Zoroastrianism and Zarathushtis are undergoing a tumultuous intellectual and spiritual voyage: An effort by Zarathushtis in Diaspora to preserve their cultural identity. Knowledge about one’s religion and culture, one’s history and heritage, are some of the tools needed in order to make this Odyssey successful. Other tools required for the journey are freedom of choice, protection of human rights, protection of the environment, global solidarity, and cooperation with the democratic process. Zarathushtis must be dedicated to good thoughts, good words, and good deeds; tolerance and inclusiveness are essential to achieving our goal of maintaining a strong and solid community. We must hold fast to this dream.

I cherish other dreams for the future.

I dream of the preservation of Zarathustra’s teachings, which make up the core of Zoroastrianism, and of the preservation of the meaning behind our rituals and customs. The core of our religion is the beliefs and doctrines contained within the Gathas. They are everlasting and unchangeable. They give us the strength to undertake our mental quests. The rituals are described in the literature accompanying the Gathas. The actions of the rituals appeal to our senses. Imbued with meaning, the rituals are a manifestation of the faith, a reminder of our demotion and commitment. Without meaning, rituals become empty motions, devoid of significance. The core and the rituals together are necessary in order to maintain faith. It is possible to be open-minded and acquire new and different political identities without sacrificing one’s religious identity. … When our youths understand the significance of our rituals, they are better prepared to take our religious community into the future, armed with understanding and religious knowledge, confident in themselves and their heritage.

I dream of the formation of a large and flourishing Zoroastrian community. A living religion must also have a vibrant community rich in real religious commitment. Without a community of practicing believers, a religion becomes nothing more than a museum, an artifact, a relic to be viewed by the curious and studied by historians and scientists. We should maintain a community of Zarathushtis in mind and in heart, treading together the path of truth and righteousness. As a single entity we should be showing love, upholding justice, exercising compassion, working for peace, engaging creatively in constructive work. Together we should be practicing good thoughts, good words, and good deeds in order to reach a community-wide goal of enlightenment and unity with Spenta Mainyu and Ahura Mazda. These goals cannot be achieved with the current social and religious attitudes of our fractured community. Though at times difficult, some traditions can — and should — be modified as social conditions demand change. In a civil society, issues can be resolved through discussion and the application of reason, goodwill, and compromise. Compromises should not be confounded by hypocrisy, but should come through constructive confrontation and a willingness to work toward the greater good.

I dream of creating unity within the Zoroastrian community. In a quest for survival and in an attempt to fight social ills, the Zoroastrian community has split into three distinct ideological groups: Traditionalists, Reformists, and Moderates. The division in and of itself is not a threat to the solidarity of the Zoroastrian community; it is merely a sign of spiritual awakening and religious revival. In the modern, free world no religion is monolithic. Doctorinal diversity is a product of freethinking — a value cherished by Zoroastrians and mandated by Ahura Mazda. Religious understanding is no longer the domain of the priesthood; every individual is entitled to knowledge and has the right to study and make inquiries into religion. It is a personal choice. The threat to community solidarity comes, then, not from freethinking, but from intolerance. … Liberty is the most previous of Ahura Mazda’s gifts to humankind. It is a component of divine law. The right to liberty is so undeniable that Ahura Mazda does not curtail humankind’s actions, even in regard to one’s choice of religion. Intolerance is not a tradition sanctioned by the Gathas. … The acceptance of people born to non-Zarathushti parents is not a threat to the survival of the religion. The tradition of non-acceptance is a threat to our very existence.

I dream that the spirit of Zarathushtra will live on in our youths. We, the elders of the Zoroastrian community, charge out youths with maintaining the ideals of Zoroastrianism. It is up to you, especially those of you living outside of Iran and India, to prove that Zarathushtis have the talent, motivation, strength, and benevolence needed to flourish in the next millennium. You must lead the way. You must do what is right for righteousness sake. You must be vigilant, working hard to protect and promote Zoroastrian values, and to keep the eternal flame alight.

I am confident that my dreams will come true, and that Zarathushtis will not only survive, but also excel in the years to come.

—E N D—

The above obituary appeared on FEZANA’s website and is published with permission