The Key to Religious Freedom in Iran

Geoffrey Cameron and Robert Joustra on why the rights of Iran's religious minorities won't be respected until those of the majority are as well.
By: , /
May 22, 2013
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Geoff Cameron

PhD candidate, Trudeau Scholar and Principal Researcher with the Baha’i Community of Canada.

Assistant Professor of international studies at Redeemer University College

It is a well-known fact that religious minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran face severe restrictions on their freedom to believe, teach, and practice their religions. Iran engages in “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused,” according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom. Prof Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, has referred to “the current climate of fear in which many churches operate,” and described the situation of the Baha’i community as “one of the most obvious cases of state persecution.” Common legal charges include “insulting Islam,” deviating from Islamic standards, and the most serious: “waging war against God.” Iran has earned the opprobrium of the international community for its persecution of religious minorities and the climate of impunity that surrounds attacks by non-state actors.

It is a paradox not unique to Iran, however, that promoting religious freedom usually requires more public dialogue about religious interpretation, not less of it. The basis for restricting the rights of religious minorities in Iran is a narrow ideology, propagated by a small clerical elite that uses its control on ideas to preserve a hold on power. Alternative interpretations of Shi’ism are marginalized within the public sphere, currently dominated by discourses that perpetuate a culture of intolerance against those who do not fit within a rigid ideological cast. While Iran is rightly held accountable by international human rights bodies, to which it is a party and signatory, the long-term task of creating a society in which minorities are treated equally and pluralism is valued will require more public space in Iran for debate about Islamic theology.

To understand the role that a single theology plays in restricting the rights of religious minorities, we have only to examine the way in which civil and political rights are described in the Iranian constitution. The official state religion is Twelver Jafari Shi’ism. The constitution formally recognizes only three religious minorities: Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. Others, such as Baha’is, Mandaeans, Buddhists, and Hindus, are effectively outside the law; and even those who are ‘protected’ minorities are effectively relegated to the status of second-class citizenship.

The esteemed Iranian lawyer, Abdulkarim Lahiji, initially drafted a constitution with strong human rights protections, but a clerical council later amended its universal descriptions of political equality so that all rights are provisional on theological interpretation. The constitution states that the government should eliminate “all forms of undesirable discrimination and [promote] the provision of equitable opportunities for all.” However, the protection of civil rights is conditioned upon “Islamic criteria.” The dominant interpretation of these criteria has been against equal treatment for religious minorities.

Furthermore, conversion from Islam to another religion is considered to be apostasy and is punishable by death. While the constitution states, "the investigation of individuals' beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief,” another article allows a judge "to deliver his judgment on the basis of authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwa (rulings issued by clerical jurists)." The spiritual and political founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has ruled that the penalty for conversation from Islam is death – one that has been applied in countless cases.

Iranian state repression is intended not just to restrict minority religions, but as one Sufi activist put it: “anyone who stands up to the current regime [who] is charged with waging a war against God or trying to overthrow the Islamic establishment.” Anyone who questions the doctrine or authority of the Iranian religious establishment can be accused with some version of “insulting Islam”. Many Shi’a activists, journalists, lawyers, and more have been charged for just this.

One, Hojjatoleslam Hassan Eshkevari, trained as a cleric in Qom, widely published and respected, said at a conference in Berlin in 2000 that mixing religion and politics “spoils, corrupts and empties both of their substance,” that no leader should have powers above those of the constitution, and publicly criticized hardline clerics in Iran, including Supreme Leader Khamenei. He was tried behind closed doors in October of that year and sentenced to death. He successfully appealed for a seven-year sentence, and was released in 2005, having served two-thirds of it. Nevertheless, his clerical activities were restricted.

Other prominent voices have argued on theological grounds for civil rights to be extended to religious minorities, and the government has silenced them as a consequence. The late Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Ayatollah Mohammad Kazemeini Boroujerdi, and Ayatollah Yousef Sanei have each advanced alternative theologies that endorse civil rights for religious minorities. Despite their high clerical status, the government has sidelined and even imprisoned them for their views. Montazeri argued that Baha’is “are the citizens of this country, they have the right of citizenship and to live in this country. Furthermore, they must benefit from the Islamic compassion which is stressed in Quran and by the religious authorities.” When Montazeri, one of the highest-ranking clerics in Iran, passed away in 2009, the state news agencies refused to use his title, “Ayatollah.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader wields a virtual monopoly on theological interpretation as a divine right, and his views cascade through the political order. Non-Muslims are clearly suspect in that order. But so are Muslims who refuse to yield to these interpretations, because theirs may be the most creative, and indeed the most effective, challenge to the rigid version of Islam espoused by a hardline clerical elite.

The scandal of blasphemy and apostasy charges, of religious freedoms denied and human rights trampled underfoot, is not merely the gross corruptions of Iranian clerics, but the culture of intimidation and silence that rules in the midst of it. The practice of punishing and suppressing so-called blasphemy is an important weapon used by extremists in Islam’s ongoing war of ideas. It is Shi’a Muslims who can reform the Islamic politics and culture of Iran, they who can challenge entrenched and monopolistic perspectives on the Islamic source and meaning of political legitimacy.

Egyptian scholar, Nasr Abu-Zayd, has argued: “Charges of apostasy and blasphemy are key weapons in the fundamentalists’ arsenal, strategically employed to prevent reform of Muslim societies and instead confine the world’s Muslim population to a bleak, colorless prison of sociocultural and political conformity.” The suppression of Islamic theology is felt acutely in Iran.

The religious freedoms of other religions are not incidental to the future of Iran. But culture and religion tell us that when a Baha’i or a Christian is at last systemically defended in Iran, their dignity upheld, and their religion respected, it will be a Muslim making it so. Islam does not lack that hope or that possibility. And neither should we.

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