Towards a Culture of Human Rights and Religious Pluralism in Iran

Religious Pluralism and Iranian Culture:

Implications for Human Rights Discourses

Kavian S. Milani

*delivered on October 29, 2010

I want to thank Dr. Karimi-Hakkak, Dr. Farhang, and the Roshan Center for arranging this fine conference, bringing together a nice balance of academic, scholarly and activist core, which has genuinely been involved a process of dialog and learning and critical discourse. I also want to thank my distinguished colleagues on this and other panels. I will keep my comments short to open time for questions and comments at the end.


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, and is also recognized in the Covenant on Economic, Social and Religious Rights—which ironically belongs in the universe of conventions that the U.S has not ratified—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.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Articles 1-16 has to do with civil and political rights typically emphasized by the western countries, the US and Europe, and the Articles 17-30 with economic, social and cultural rights, emphasized by the old Soviet Union, and now by China, and developing countries.

Article 18 of the UDHR enunciates this right in a positive way: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.”

John Searle, the contemporary philosopher, his book The Construction of Social Reality presents a new and complicated analysis of social reality: “most of what we perceive to be reality—the world with which we interact every day—is not physical reality at all. It is social reality.” Take everyday realities such as money, property, governments and marriages as examples of social reality. These may be “real” and highly impactful on our daily life, “but are all products of the human mind.” Social reality is essentially an expression of human agreement and in a sense they only exist because we participate in them or engage them. In fact Searle argues that social reality, or institutions of social reality “are not worn out by continued use, but each use of the institution is in a sense a renewal of that institution.” (Searle, 57)

Searle’s ontological critique of social reality is equivalent to its complete destruction, a point that many don’t seriously engage. Let us take Searle’s analysis of individual rights, and human rights in particular (Searle 93):

Perhaps the most amazing form of status-function is in the creation of human rights. Prior to the European Enlightenment the concept of rights had application only within some institutional structure—property rights, marital rights, droit de seigneur, etc. But somehow the idea came to be that one might have a status-function solely by virtue of being a human being, that the X term was “human” and the Y term was “possessor of inalienable rights.”…The idea of human rights has survived the decline of religious belief, and has even become internationalized. The Helsinki Declaration on Human Rights is frequently appealed to, with varying degrees of effectiveness, against dictatorial regimes.

Clearly for Searle, human rights have no ontological reality and are human constructs that have become adopted by people but with no basis in reality. The tension between this view and the normative understanding of individual and human rights in the universal framework as we understand it should be fairly clear. In fact it is Searle’s ontological denial of human rights that informs the East “Asian values” counter discourses on human rights, dismissing universal human rights as western hegemonic constructs brought to bear on the “rest” by the imperial “west”, a line of reasoning not lost on totalitarian regimes including the Islamic Republic of Iran, as witnessed by statements of the Iranian President Mr. Ahmadinejad.

It is no surprise that Iranian authorities are well-versed in these western, cultural, anti-imperial critiques and for example one could look at Muhammad Javad Larijani’s statements in Geneva during the last UPR (universal periodic review) showing a serious reliance on cultural critiques. One example is the new line of argument adopted straight out of China’s repertoire, emphasizing Baha’is as firqiyyi-Shaytani (evil cults), not using firqih as a sect in a religious sense, but as a “cult” with all the baggage it carries in the West. This language and set of laws was developed by China in its persecution of the Falun Gong, designating them as “satanic cults” and preparing for a sweeping persecution of this exercise and mindfulness philosophy. The intention of the Iranian government is clear, and we don’t need to dance around that issue, but just because an intention is bad, that does not make the argument invalid. The human rights community needs theorists to formulate theory and meet such challenges analytically, and we need activists as Dr. Afshari suggested yesterday.


Now the situation in Iran is difficult. 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 and agreed ontological 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. 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” or the virtuous mandate given by Ali to Malik Ashtar in the Nahjul-Balaghah leaves freedom of conscience and belief dependant on a liberal reading of the text by religious scholars, a risky and highly problematic proposition given the experience of the past thirty years.  It is possible to find texts that suggest pluralism or a pluralistic reading somewhere in the scriptures, however justification here will depend on a favorable reading by a cleric.

This seeking of favorable evidence in scripture is also the Achilles heel of movements such as the One Million Signatures Campaign who accept to work in a framework foreign to human rights.

In setting up his construction of post-secularism, which is a new development in his thought, Jurgen Habermas, argues in a 2007 paper presented in Munich, titled An Awareness of what is Missing, that for religion to be accepted and legitimized in a pluralist society by religious citizens, citizens of different religions, and by secular citizens alike, the communities of Faith must recognize;

1)    the content of religion must open itself up to normatively grounded expectation that it should recognize for reasons of its own the neutrality of the state towards worldviews,

2)     the equal freedom of all religious communities,

3)    The independence of institutionalized sciences.

He also outlines two presuppositions or preconditions if religions and civil society wants to be able to talk to each other, as opposed to talking about each other:

1)    Religious side must accept the authority of “natural” reason as the fallible results of institutionalized sciences and universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality.

2)    Secular reason may not set itself up as judge concerning truths of Faith…

Habermas calls for religions to enter civil society and the secular state with a de-mythological reasoning and rationality. He also recognizes religion as an important source of ethics and morality in the post-metaphysical world in which we live.

Abdu’l-Baha, the son of the founder of the Baha’i faith teaches the following on religious pluralism.  The Baha’i Faith teaches that diversity, in and by itself is meritorious and a positive thing.

Religious pluralism is the social dimension (or social manifestation) of freedom of conscience and belief. Freedom of conscience and belief can be universally located in the consciousness of the oneness of humanity, awareness of which is a landmark of the modern era. Oneness of humanity as a meta-principle 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 should become decoupled from its right to have a voice, and enter discourses of society, that is, religious pluralism. Religions in general have a theological claim of exclusivity to truth, or cosmologically justified paths to salvation, however the exclusivity of religions must be tempered with an inclusivity and openness to alternative points of view as a practical and pragmatic matter, along with a rejection of violence.

The issues of interfaith dialog were critical but remain unacknowledged in the early formation of the Velayat-i-Faqih, in Kashf-ul-Asrar one of Ayatollah’s earliest works in political theory he juxtaposes his understanding on miracles with what he identifies as Baha’i teachings on miracles. One sees that the perceived conflict in interpretation of a religious issue, and played a formative role in the development of Khomeini’s thought. [i]

Culture can be viewed from 2 angles, a positivist view from above or one that sees culture as fluid. Cultures in this sense are new “subject” positions, also called identities, formed within a culture. The Islamic Revolution of 1979, and its bloody aftermath has been instrumental in the development of a new human rights culture in Iran, what I would call a human rights identity.

Human rights discourses have now emerged as integral parts of the Iranian intellectual culture and as such religious pluralism has become much more culturally accepted as part and parcel of the emerging Iranian identity.





کشف الاسرار ص 56

«میرزا ابوالفضل گلپایگانی صاحب کتاب فرائد که آنرا برای ترویج مذهب باب و بهاء نوشته منکر معجزه شده و کلام این یاوه سرایان بی کم و کاست و استدلاشان از آن کتاب است و نکتۀ انکار کردن ابوالفضل گلپایگانی کرامات و معجزات را این بود که چون دست باب و بهاء از آن کوتاه بود و آنها مردمی بودند که از اشخاص عادی هم کمتر بودند چنانچه کتاب آنها و کلمات آنها که در دست است و مباحثۀ باب با نظام العلماء تبریزی که در تواریخ محفوظ است مطلب را روشن کند و از این جهت چاره ندیدند مگر آنکه معجزات را یکسره انکار کنند تا کسی از آنها مطالبۀ معجزه نکند. این مقاله نگاران که خود را از زیر بار تقلید می خواهند خارج کنند از این جهت ببزرگان آئین و اولیاء دین هرچه بقلمشان می اید مینویسند. گاهی از ابن تیمیمه و وحشیهای نجد نقل می کنند و گاهی از بابیها و ابوالفضل گلپایگانی پیروی می کنند. هرکس می خواهد بفرائد میرزا ابوالفضل بهائی و کتاب منهاج الرشاد که در ردّ وهابیه نوشته شده یا کتابهای دیگر که کم و بیش یاوهای اینها را نوشتند رجوع کند تا مطلب را خوب دریابد و ریشه و پایۀ سخنان اینان را پیدا کند. آنگاه قدر و ارج این سخنان ونویسندگان آن در جامعه معلوم می شود.»



این نوشته در هویت ایرانی, حقوق بشر, سکولاریزم و جایگاه عقل و دین ارسال شده. این نوشته را نشانه‌گذاری کنید.

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