Human Rights in Iranian context *

October, 2010

Daryoush Homayoun

When we talk about human rights we naturally start from the individual, her/his rights; but individual as such does not exist. Even Robinson Crusoe’s individuality did not last long. Individual exists in relation to the community. So we cannot see human rights only from the stand point of individual. Rights also exist in relation with obligations; freedom with limitation. As I hope to show in this paper, preservation of human rights is not the sole task of governments or the political class. Every individual has responsibility. Rights are born with humans but are not free gifts.

We Iranians in the past never could go into such difficult questions. The easiest thing was to put the blame wholly on the ruling classes and neglect people’s considerable part in the equation. Actually there was no other equation in our view but the oppressor and oppressed. I am not defending the oppressors, but they never did have better partners than the oppressed themselves – it has been a vicious circle.

Iranians are the authors of human responsibility. Zaratustra, who brought the greatest moral religion ever and the best religious explanation of the existence of Evil in the world, considered human beings not only fully responsible for their well being and deliverance, but also as equal partners of God of Good, Ahura Mazda, in vanquishing the forces of Evil led by Ahriman, the God of Evil. This huge responsibility was not accompanied by an equal emphasize on rights. Nevertheless, from its glorious entrance in world history to the next six centuries, Iranian empire was a beacon of religious tolerance. It also was leading the known world in equality of sexes, and prevention of human, even animal, sacrifice.

The Sassanid of 3rd century brought two innovations with profound consequences. The first was the concept of an official religion. A unique religion with the king or Pharaoh at its head if not its god was common in the antiquity; but an official religion signified the recognition of religious diversity, albeit accompanied once in a while with horrendous crimes against heretics and discrimination against others. The second was the concept of Religion and State as twins, and not as one -- as had been understood before. So Sassanid Empire could be considered as forerunner of both religious intolerance in Iran and the father of separation of religion and State.

Islam solidified the tradition of total submission of the individual. With all Zoroastrian emphasize on individual’s cosmic responsibility, she/he had no political rights. The unlimited power of Shahanshah, that had corrupted Iranian State and society from the very beginning, prevented the evolution of civic liberties. Iranians were against slavery as a means of production and slaves were few and for certain tasks. But Iranians were treated as little more than slaves by the Shahanshah and the nobility. Islam which is almost all duty and little rights, mostly property rights which is very important, brought its harsh side to the fore in a receptive society used to oppression, and added sexual discrimination to other forms already practiced.

The new Islamic rulers heavily relied on Sassanid Divan, the ancient bureaucracy of Iran which outlasted dynasties and conquerors, and first the Arab Caliphate and then all Shahs and Sultans followed the example of Religion and State as twins and the long tradition of exploitation and suppression by both political and religious elites continued. It only worsened by repeated invasions by pillaging tribes of Central Asia.

The first profound encounter of Iranians with Europe from the beginning of 19 century was in the form of wars of conquest. So their first reaction was to learn from the powerful invaders to better defend themselves – to better remain what they were. We still see this phenomenon in the more traditional segments of Islamic world – Taleban for example. Our complicated and erratic struggle with Modernity started right then with that paradoxical attitude.

The central elements in resisting the new, more advanced European civilization were the concept of individual as against a slave of God or subject of state; and the place of women in society – as is still the case in most of Moslem societies after two centuries. The concept of human rights was resisted both by people and the ruling elites, because it entailed growing emancipation of women. Nevertheless more and more contacts with Western ideas and practices germinated some degree of awakening among Iranians that resulted in Constitutional Movement of late 19th and early 20th centuries -- one of the proudest and most significant chapters of our long history. Like every other aspect of Modernity, we can trace an awareness of human rights in Iran to that period.
Any meaningful analysis of the Constitutional movement should take into consideration Iran’s desperate political situation at that darkest moment of Iran’s modern history. It is fashionable to depict that revolution as a democratic movement, but it above all was a popular uprising against a despotic monarchy that was responsible for a century of decline and almost total sellout to foreigners. The constitutionalists were ardent nationalists before anything else. They wanted first to free Iran from foreign domination and stop its long descent into disintegration. Democracy at the earlier stages of the movement was more a means for preventing the Shahs from literally selling the country.

So human rights were mainly a matter of political rights. Women’s or children’s or minority rights were after- thoughts of a revolution that encompassed all aspects of our society; the first stage of what we can call Iranian enlightenment – the second stage of course, is the green movement of our own time. However, even political rights that were the main goals of the movement were not practiced and even understood everywhere.

During the first 15 years after the revolutionary era Iran being devoid of a real government structure, was engulfed in civil war, factional bickering, ceaseless foreign intervention, invasion and eventually World War One. In 1921 Reza Khan (later Reza Shah Pahlavi) started rebuilding Iran from almost the scratch. He and the new political elite had a very dim view of democracy as had been practiced by champions of the revolution. They had no time or patience for a parliamentary rule that, after an exceptional first parliament, could only produce short lived cabinets. By securing a free hand, the new leader set out to create a modern nation-state in Iran – a task that was accomplished in spite of all shortcomings. This process, after a long period of stagnation was resumed on a larger scale, under the second Pahlavi king.

Again, authoritarian tendencies imbued in our political culture, the millennial tradition of absolute monarchy and a need, sometimes only a pretext, for rapid development put aside any consideration for democratic rights of the people. What made the situation worse was an embittered political atmosphere during the so called second constitutional rule (1941- 1953). This period again saw an unhealthy rise in parliamentary power at the expense of stability and good government; economic stagnation, and foreign interference. This period ended by what was universally believed to be an Anglo-American military coup. This of course was a simplification of a complex situation and is increasingly disputed by the release of official documents of the time. Nevertheless this perception played a vital role in poisoning Iran’s politics – a process that the Shah’s authoritarian policies only strengthened.

Yet again we should look also to the other part of the vicious circle. The oppositional forces that increasingly emerged after the occupation of Iran in 1941 were not paragons of democracy and human rights. For them rights only meant freedom to oppose. They too, had a faith in their righteousness. Even the most enlightened reforms by the Shah, like land reform, that was nothing less than a historic social revolution, was either opposed or shrugged off. To mention just the most flagrant case, only four months after the referendum on the six point reform, Khomeini’s first uprising was greeted with open arms by some of the most “progressive” groups.

In every occasion when opposition groups had the upper hand, they displayed the same intolerance and authoritarian tendencies. It is not at all accidental that a revolution that in 1978 began with the slogan of Independence, Freedom and Islamic Government – soon Islamic Republic – not only overlooked the contradiction in its slogan but showed a lack of concern for any human rights. I am not here dealing with the current situation in Iran which I am sure much more ably by my colleges. Suffice to say that It has not been easy to maintain Human Rights in a society used to all forms of discrimination and repression – political, religious, and social.
From this brief and bleak introduction, I would like to draw some conclusions, as far as human rights are concerned, for the future of Iran.

To begin with, it is wrong to put the blame only on governments, political regimes, and constitutions. This attitude could easily become a mere political tool. The rights are people’s rights, and they are the template for anything happening in the society. Unless they are not ready to change some very important parts of their culture, including their attitude towards religion and especially their political culture, they would be victims of their own neglect and backwardness. We should continue the overhaul of our society. Fortunately this is being done and taking strength day by day.

What makes me so optimistic are two important developments, almost see changes, in our society and under this very Regime: the unstoppable rise of Iranian women, on the one hand and a general deference for human life and dignity on the other. Women are now establishing their equal, sometimes, dominant (in education) status and men have no choice but to accept equality of sexes. There is also more readiness especially among younger people, to treat their opponents not as existential threat. Iranians in their multitude show increasing aversion to the culture of death and violence; mourning and martyrdom. The astonishing display of non aggression, restraint, and respect for human life shown during mass demonstrations of last year was a powerful proof of this cultural transformation.

But we need much more. To promote Human Rights we need a working democracy; and democracy is the most fragile form of organizing society and governments. It is always threatened by its own values and institutions. While dictatorship feeds on its vices – corruption, aggression, stagnation – democracy thrives on virtues. Now humankind, as it is, is less comfortable with those hard, demanding virtues, and more at ease with corruption. That is why there are less countries graduating from dictatorship, compared to democracies that succumb to dictatorship. So it is imperative to learn and practice the ways of democracy and be alert to threats that come from the workings of democracy itself.

There are three elements of our political culture that need change. First, politics is not only about opposition and confrontation, but also compromise and consensus. There should be a code of political conduct, a political etiquette. We can learn a lot from debates in the British House of Commons. Second, in a democracy no group can achieve its maximum demands. We should practice the art of constructive dealings in reaching the optimum results, something for every interest involved. Difference is the air that democracy breathes. Third relinquishing power, losing in an election, should not be a matter of life and death. Parties and individuals could not be permanent fixtures of the political scene. To change our political culture we need a degree of courage and sincerity that has been lacking in our political and intellectual leaders. The courage to first, confront the reality of ourselves, and then what is considered as untouchable, the conventional wisdom.
Human rights and democracy are not understood and practiced uniformly everywhere. We have our own limitations and imperatives. In Iran we need more emphasize on social responsibility. This means constitutional clarity and strong democratic control. Such control not only is essential for stability and progress, but the preservation of Human Rights itself. A fragile democracy, like we will have in Iran, needs to defend itself against many threats. Ideologies opposed to democracy and human rights should not enjoy a free hand. An election to end all elections is not what we need. In Germany and the US the law prevents racist activities. We have other forms of destructive beliefs in our society and should take similar precautions. Keeping religion separate from political power should be our priority.

Preventing money from owning government and shaping public opinion is another vital task of political system. Public financing of political parties as practiced in Germany; free and fair access to television networks as in EU countries; the existence of a strong and autonomous public Radio/TV network on UK lines, in addition to commercial ones, are some of the ways to prevent the sad condition of US campaign financing that is gradually undermining American democracy. (de Tocqueville in his darkest second thoughts about Democracy in America could not imagine such deterioration).

Democracy depends on elections and here is a great potential for paralysis. Electoral systems could shape a democracy and its chances of success. A proportional system tends to fragment politics and proliferate local and interest groups. Too many political parties in a parliament mean week and short lived governments. Absolute majority on the other hand, deprives anything less than %50 of electorate from representation. The best system is the French one – proportional at first stage of voting and in case of inconclusive results, absolute majority in the second contest between the two first winners. There should also be fines for candidates not able to attract a minimum number of votes as in Germany.

Above all, democracy has to work, to deliver. In a country with the majority of people near or under poverty line and in widespread decline, the main priorities are those Human Rights, which are asserted in articles 23 to 26 of the universal declaration. People have the right to live in comfort, and to benefit from the fruits of human progress. Democratic process should not hamper development. If any judge could prevent scientific research on religious grounds, or devolution of executive powers meant delaying vital projects forever, there is something wrong with the whole system. In discussions about decentralization going on in some Iranian quarters, one should always bear in mind the dangers of such costs to development, and also the formation of centers of corruption, monopoly and injustice at local levels in addition to the center. A failed democratic process is less harmful than failed development policies; which also sets back Democracy. China is a good example. Hundreds and hundreds of millions of people support or at least tolerate worst abuses of power because it also is helping them to experience unimaginable prosperity, and national achievement.

In our own case the record of the so called periods of democracy (1907 – 21 and 1941 -53) with its small freewheeling political class and do nothing governments easily pales compared to the authoritarian periods of modernization and progress (1921 – 41 and 1961 – 1978) As for Human Rights of ordinary Iranians, each period had its serious limitations although in different realms.
Human Rights are our nation’s destiny. The powerful march of the new generation of Iran towards democratic rule cannot be obstructed forever. And democracy cannot work without taking others as basically equal to ourselves. The era of meta ideologies and charismatic leaders is over. People in this age of everything connected to everything else, could not be regimented or hypnotized by such influences. We have no choice but to work together as equals in rights and civic responsibilities. Here we come to the famous distinction between positive and negative liberties. To me it seems we have yet to fully understand that distinction.

* Presented at the Conference on Towards a Culture of Civic Liberties, Democracy and Human Rights in Iran, Roshan Center for Persian Studies, University of Maryland, 28-31 OCT. 2010
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