Religious Pluralism and Iranian Culture:
Implications for Human Rights Discourses
Kavian S. Milani
The debate over religious pluralism in contemporary Iran cannot be examined in isolation from the larger question of “universal” human rights versus culturally “relative” rejection of the above. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does suggest a right to religious belief and practice, yet in contemporary Iran (and arguably for most of Iranian history) religious voices have been limited in the public square, with prominence given to a normative “official” voice, and consequent suppression of other voices that are seen at best as misguided or at worst as apostasy. Even within Twelver Shi’ism, intellectual strands that are not in uniformity with a narrow reading of the Guardianship of the Jurist are seen as dissenting voices that are suppressed. A selective and uninformed version of the “Asian Values Debate” constitutes the backbone for the justification of suppression of (competing) religious views, dismissing international law instruments and covenants as part of the “Western” imperial project seeking to impose its secular and anti-Islamic views on Iran. The problem here has been further complicated by the lack of a strong theoretical justification for human rights.
The rich reservoir of wisdom of Persian literature offers no clear solutions. While some bits and pieces of the masterpieces of poetry and prose have a strong language of virtues or equality, often times those same contain strong derogatory language regarding women or religious minorities. However virtues are not sources for positive rights as enunciated by Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they rather set the cultural framework of rights. Other solutions that have been offered in guaranteeing religious belief and speech have been based on other sources. Some seek these guarantees and rights in international covenants and instruments. Others have sought the virtues of religious pluralism in the Qur’an or hadith such as the Chapter of Infidels in the Qur’an. Meanwhile others have argued for a religious pluralism native to Iran in the form of pre-Islamic open society, relying on important symbols such as the edict to end Babylonian captivity, or the pluralistic teachings of the Sufi masters such as Rumi. All of the above have strengths and weaknesses, and except for the international instruments, they require a selective narrative or ahistorical reading. For instance, the grounding of religious pluralism in a Qur’anic verse such as “There is no compulsion in religion” leaves freedom of conscience and belief dependant on a liberal reading of the text by religious scholars, a highly problematic proposition given the experience of the past thirty years.
Religious pluralism is the social dimension (or social manifestation) of freedom of conscience and belief. Modern scholarship can maintain that freedom of conscience and belief can be universally located in the consciousness of the oneness of humanity, awareness of which is a hallmark of the modern era. Oneness of humanity implies equality however by itself it does not guarantee religious pluralism. Reciprocity among equal individuals, along with oneness of humanity does establish a reciprocal relationship of equal right to religious practice, worship and presence in the public square. The question of religious “truth” or size of the community of faith becomes irrelevant from its right to have a voice, that is, religious pluralism. Human rights discourses have now emerged as integral parts of the Iranian intellectual culture and as such religious pluralism should become part and parcel of the emerging Iranian identity.