Case Study: Iran: Building Consensus Against Intolerance
06 May 2015
When it is reference to religion that is used to violate human rights, it might seem that religion itself should be the last recourse in the search for common ground upon which reconciliation can be based. But the stance of an Islamic cleric in Iran towards the Bahá'í community offers an example of how, in countries where universal human rights standards have little local resonance, appeals for tolerance based on religion can help break the deadlock. The domestication of rights and rights language, particularly in reference to religion, can help to curb intolerance and sectarianism, writes Nazila Ghanea for our Global Perspectives Series.
By Nazila Ghanea
It is often suggested that religion offers the human rights movement hope for renewal, greater legitimacy and impact and that religion and human rights share commitments to social justice and the fight against oppression. However this begs some important questions of which religion, whose religion, which human rights and in what part of the world? Context is critical. The greater engagement of religions with human rights requires domestication and rootedness. Appeals for tolerance, equality and reconciliation are communicated best when based on a people's accepted cultural and religious traditions rather than what may be perceived by some as 'foreign' or 'unrelated' concepts. When this is the case, religion and human rights can align to provide a foundation for reconciliation. This is most urgent in cases of longstanding persecution of particular religious communities by governments or social groups.
The persecution of the Bahá'ís in Iran is one such case. With over 300,000 followers, the Bahá'ís are Iran's largest non-Muslim religious minority. However, they have no legal protection or recognition as a minority because, unlike Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians, the Iranian constitution categorically does not recognise their faith. For decades, Bahá'ís have been arbitrarily detained, executed, refused education and livelihood, intimidated and demonised in the media. Hundreds have been killed since the 1979 revolution. More than 130 Bahá'ís are currently in prison on spurious charges such as 'warring against God', 'being corrupt on earth' or 'rising against national security', including seven former leaders of the faith who are serving 20-year jail terms. Even the Bahá'í dead are not allowed to rest in peace, corpses being bulldozed into open canals in Shiraz in mid-2014, for example, as Revolutionary Guards held a celebratory press conference. Over the last 35 years intolerance has become systematised and institutionalised into a far-reaching pattern of serious, government-instigated and government-perpetuated rights violations. For details and further information on the situation of Bahá'ís in Iran, see Bahá'í International Community, [ https://www.bic.org/media/Current-situation-Bahais-in-Iran]; O. Djalili, 'Iran must free the Bahá'í leaders who have been jailed for five years too many', The Guardian, 14 May 2013, [ http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/14/iran-free-bahai-lea... N. Ghanea, 'For the Bahá'ís imprisoned in Iran, freedom and human rights seem remote', New Statesman, 6 June 2014, [ http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2014/06/bah-s-imprisoned-iran-freed.... The persecution of Bahá'ís is part of a much wider Iranian state oppression; a stark example of targeted persecution that also affects activists, journalists, intellectuals and minorities.
At first glance, the case of Iran's Bahá'ís seems to support the notion that religion should be kept to the fringes of human rights discussions. However, further pragmatic analysis would suggest otherwise. Since political and religious leaders in Iran base anti-Bahá'í sentiment on religious foundations, an appeal to universal standards of human rights alone will not be sufficient for the realisation of respectful co-existence. While universal standards have merit they may have insufficient resonance in many local contexts. What the Iranian Bahá'ís case demonstrates is that it is not so much a choice between a 'secular' or 'religious' approach to human rights that policy makers and activists should pursue, but a sensitivity to what works best and in which context.
The Iranian context would seem to present a choice between routinised persecution in the name of religion, and tolerance in the name of universal rights. Yet here, and in similar situations elsewhere in the world, the best entry point for overcoming persecution may actually prove to be an appeal to human rights through the dominant sacred texts and values of that society.
A good example is that of Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani who has been engaged in calling for religious co-existence in Iran since 2001. Despite threats against him, in April 2014 he released a statement Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani, website statement (translated), 7 April 2014, [ http://news.bahai.org/sites/news.bahai.org/files/documentlibrary/987_web.... specifically calling for respect of Iran's Bahá'ís. He recalled that Iran's history has included periods in which numerous different religions and beliefs "enjoyed social interaction and tolerant co-existence", bemoaning the loss of that tradition. He noted the undermining of "the right to be human," the right to life, and human dignity, describing Iran's current social reality as one of "religious apartheid".
As a gift to the Bahá'ís, Masoumi-Tehrani prepared calligraphic works of art, choosing a symbol of the Bahá'í faith known as the Greatest Name – a representation of the conceptual relationship between God, His prophets and the world of creation – and a verse from the Bahá'í holy writings. This was, in his own words, an, "expression of sympathy and care from me, and on behalf of all my open-minded fellow citizens who respect others for their humanity and not for their religion or way of worship, to all the Bahá'ís of the world, particularly to the Bahá'ís of Iran who have suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice". Bahá'í World News Service, 'In an unprecedented symbolic act senior cleric calls for religious coexistence in Iran', 7 April 2014, [ http://news.bahai.org/story/987].
In a letter of August 2014 Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani, open letter to the Ministry of Intelligence (translated), 2 August 2014, [ http://news.bahai.org/sites/news.bahai.org/files/documentlibrary/987_let.... he stated that, "I value and respect humanity and human beings and it makes no difference to me what religion he or she adheres to. I respect Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Bahá'ís, etc., even non-believers who believe in the principles of humanity." His concern is that, "The core concept of religion, which is to propagate the cause of spirituality among people, has been tainted by politicisation, coercion, and brutality towards minorities and those of other beliefs by virtue of the actions of our own kind, the clerics." He has invited others to join and "assist in bringing about a comprehensive, committed, and an uncompromising movement against discrimination and religious and ideological apartheid."
Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani's actions follow similar gestures by the much revered and late Ayatollah Montazeri in 2008 and Ayatollah al-Sadr in 2011 favouring co-existence with the Bahá'ís. By being rooted in religious meaning, their human rights efforts offer cultural resonance which gives them greater legitimacy and impact. As a result, these three Iranian Shia Ayatollahs have mobilised a religious understanding of human rights to respond to violations of the human rights of others.
The academy variously refers to this as the 'domestication', 'rootedness' or 'vernacularisation' of human rights. Sally Engle Merry S.E. Merry, 'Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: Mapping the Middle', American Anthropologist, Vol. 108, No. 1, 2006, [ http://www.law.berkeley.edu/files/csls/Merry_AA_Transnational_Human_Righ...(1).pdf], pp. 38-51., when pondering how transnational ideas, such as human rights approaches to violence against women, become meaningful in local social settings, speaks of intermediaries as being vital. These intermediaries – community leaders, non-governmental organisation (NGO) participants, social movement activists and, as in this example, religious leaders – help bridge the gap "between cosmopolitan awareness of human rights and local sociocultural understandings." She recognises intermediaries as playing "a critical role in translating ideas from the global arena down and from local arenas up... They are powerful in that they serve as knowledge brokers between culturally distinct social worlds."
Religious intermediaries, such as Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani, may not have consciously set out to be knowledge brokers between these social worlds. Indeed these religious leaders may squarely situate their activism within their religious beliefs and not link themselves with the world of transnational human rights as such. Nevertheless, they still contribute profoundly to transforming social life and enabling the universality of human rights. Heavily oppressive environments of politically infused religious intolerance and sectarianism can serve to preclude the expression of support for alternatives. Yet after Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani's gesture numerous others have welcomed his initiative both inside and outside Iran. His role, therefore, was not only that of an intermediary for the translation of human rights, but also as a catalyst for others who yearn for co-existence and harmony to be able to voice their support.
The significant impact that NGOs, social movements and religious communities can make by rooting human rights ideas in their beliefs and practices, as well as the other way round, needs to be recognised by both these actors and their government and international equivalents and sponsors. Such engagement is not limited to contexts of reversing state-sponsored religious persecution, but can generate acceptance of religious pluralism and co-existence in a variety of contexts.
Admittedly, the wide-ranging rights violations in Iran call for much more than a few gestures by a handful of religious leaders considered dissidents by those in power. Indeed, Masoumi-Tehrani is not in the position to ameliorate the persecution inflicted on the Bahá'ís. However, appeals based on religion play a substantial role in undermining Iran's longstanding effort to legitimise religiously motivated attacks on human rights. They foster a new tradition of inclusion. They may also prove a necessary precursor to the improvement of human rights in Iran.
The repercussions of such a tradition of inclusion and co-existence go far beyond the question of the human rights of the Bahá'ís to touch upon the plight of minorities across the region and further afield. It has the potential to grow as an antidote to politically fuelled sectarianism and inter-religious conflict worldwide.
This article is taken from the Global Perspectives Series (Volume I): Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges. Find all the articles from the volume here.