Iran’s Human Rights Deficit: Is Islam the Culprit?

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The countries where Islam is the religion, at least nominally, of the majority of the population, from Central Asia to the Middle East and beyond are among that group of countries where adequate respect for basic human rights is sorely lacking.

The Islamic Republic of Iran figures prominently among these countries. The state of human rights, especially those related to political freedoms, historically has never been very good with few exceptional periods. Under the Islamic Republic, in addition to political rights, personal and artistic freedoms ranging from the dress code to the kind of music allowed have also become drastically reduced. However, even under the Islamic Republic the state of human rights has fluctuated. By and large, after the end of the Iran-Iraq war in August 1988, restrictions on aspects of personal freedoms have been somewhat relaxed. And even under Ahmadinejad, despite periodic talk of campaigning against moral laxity, such as what is called Bad Hijabi (inadequate veiling) no significant tightening has occurred. In the political and civil arenas, during the presidency of Muhammad Khatami, the situation somewhat improved.

However, since Ahmadinejad’s election the human rights situation in Iran has seriously deteriorated. This is best illustrated by the crackdown of government forces against protesters contesting the fairness of the country’s June 2009 presidential elections followed by the imprisonment of a vast number of opposition political leaders, students, journalists, artists and ordinary citizens. The charge against almost all of those detained is sedition and endangering the country’s Islamic order (Nizam-e Islami).

Given the extremely unsatisfactory state of human rights in nearly all Muslim-majority countries, the temptation to blame the states’ abuse of their citizens’ human rights on Islam is quite strong. Indeed, many Muslim and Western experts have succumbed to this temptation. However, a closer study of Islamic legal norms and principles concerning rights will show that the human rights deficit of Iran, and other Muslim countries for that matter, has much less to do with religion than with their political cultures, especially the unwillingness of the ruling elites, secular and Islamic alike, to accept the principle of periodic and peaceful transfer of power, and to tolerate criticism. In effect, there is nothing in Islam that makes it more inimical to human rights compared to other religions. Although in certain regards, for instance the relationship between religion and politics, Islam appears less in line with democratic forms of governance it is in fact because of the manner in which certain Muslims interpret Islamic injunctions.

Religion, Democracy and Human Rights

In nearly all religions, in particular Christianity and Islam, the purpose of human life and society is to live by God’s law so as to adequately prepare for the afterlife. In traditional Islamic thinking the main duty of the ruler is to create circumstances in which believers can follow their religion in peace.[1] In other words, religious systems and societies based on religion are God-centred. In such systems, all rights and duties of people are ordained by God, and all rights and duties derive from God. Moreover, most rights specified in religious scripts can, in fact, be viewed as the direct result of duties. For instance, the right to life derives from the injunction “Thou Shall not Kill”, or the right to property derives from the injunction “Thou Shall not steal.’’ Therefore, religious systems, in addition to being God-centred, are also duty based.

By contrast, modern political systems are human-centred. In such systems, human beings, rather than God, form the source of law and the purpose of human existence, as best articulated in the American Declaration of Independence, is to experience “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Furthermore, these systems are rights-based, in the sense that it is assumed that human beings have certain rights by the very virtue of being human and that these rights are natural and inalienable.[2]

What the above implies is that there always is a degree of tension between systems that are God-centred and systems that are human-centred. Even in societies where the political system is definitely human-centred, tensions between the religious and the secular elements are palpable. For instance, in the United States, controversies regarding abortion, same sex marriages and even stem cell research are fuelled by this same tension between the religious and the secular sectors of society.

The next question is whether Islam is particularly anti-human rights or anti-democracy. The simple answer is no. True, Islam provides guidelines for all aspects of life. However, the same applies to other religions, in particular Judaism, the laws of which have deeply influenced the Islamic system of laws in a number of areas.[3] Yet, Islam does not specify what form of government Muslims should have. It only instructs the Muslims on the qualities of an Islamic government, which are those of justice, mercy and caring for people. Other guidelines, notably those related to the critical role of people, especially their agreement to the rule of particular individual or individuals through the process of Bay’a or the pledge of allegiance and its withdrawal if the ruler fails to meet the peoples’ needs and/or acts in an unjust manner, and an emphasis on consultation as the means of decision-making provides strong indications of Islam’s preference for a popularly-based government. However, if throughout history these Islamic principles have been ignored by autocratic rulers, Islam should not bear the blame.

The same is true of the so-called Islamic economics. Islam provides guidelines for a just society and holds the government especially responsible to care for the vulnerable segments of society.[4] It admonishes against excessive accumulation of wealth and interest. The latter is also common to Christian tradition. The fact is that ideas related to Islamic government, politics and economics are a very recent phenomenon and the result of the Muslims’ urge for cultural autonomy following decades of colonial and semi-colonial domination, but they are not firmly rooted in Islam itself.

As relating to the specific issue of human rights, Islam recognises five rights, notably the right to life (Haq’ul Nafs); the right to property (Haq’ul Mal); the right to family and progenitor (Haq’ul Nasl); the right to Reason (Haq’ul Aql) and the right to be free from slander (Haq’ul Nassab). In the context of the modern understanding of human rights the right to reason is especially important because it includes the right to one’s opinion and the freedom to express it. Obviously, the right to free expression is limited in the sense that it prohibits blasphemous and anti-religious statements. But it clearly includes the right to criticise government and its handling of peoples’ affairs.[5]

The right to reason also encompasses freedom of religion notwithstanding the current trends in the Muslim world, which consider rejection of Islam by those born as Muslims as punishable by death. Furthermore, the Qur’anic injunction that there is no compulsion in faith (La Ikrah Fid- Din) establishes freedom to choose one’s religion. The current practice in the Muslim world derives from the perpetuation of a rule established for a specific period of Islamic history, when the small community of Muslims was besieged by various types of enemies and not the significant population of Muslims today.

Indeed, as demonstrated by reformist Muslim thinkers throughout the Islamic world from Morocco to Indonesia, a proper and contextual interpretation of Islamic injunctions can provide the foundation for a concept of Islamic human rights that closely approximates the international understanding of these rights.[6] However, a number of issues related to individual rights, especially gender rights and sexual preferences will remain controversial in the Muslim world both because of cultural attitudes and religious rules.[7]

Human Rights and the Islamic Republic of Iran

Based on the above, certain aspects of Iran’s human rights deficit derive from the religious nature of the Islamic Republic, and more particularly of the current leadership’s interpretation of Islam. The current Iranian Constitution clearly states that Shari’a is the source of law in that country, and that no legislation contrary to the Shari’a is permitted.[8] Furthermore, the state’s legitimacy derives first and foremost from its Islamic nature, and the will of the people is only a secondary source, despite Iranian reformists’ and opposition parties’ insistence on the Republican rather than the Islamic dimension of the state, or their incessant reference to Ayatollah Khomeini’s dictum the standard is the peoples’ will (Meyar ray-e mardom ast.). In effect, those who supported the formation of the Islamic Republic and its Constitution have brought the current predicament upon themselves. After all, in a religion-based state freedom of choice is restricted by religious rules. For instance, freedom to choose one’s dress, especially in the case of women, is restricted by the religious requirements.

In the case of Iran the institution of the Vali-e Faqih further restricts the boundaries of political freedom and makes the establishment of a truly democratic government based on the will of the people even more difficult. However, there is nothing in Islamic rules and regulations that can justify the oppression of those whose opinion differs from that of the leader. As noted by Muslim Iranian reformists, there were no political prisoners during the reign of Imam Ali.

In reality, a considerable degree of violations of the political and civil rights of Iranians has to do with non-religious considerations related to power struggles among various factions of Iran’s leadership. The roots of these struggles go back to the pre-revolutionary era and the diverse forces that coalesced against the Shah to topple his regime but then divided into factions after his downfall.


The Iranian society of today is characterised by a degree of cultural division between those who remain religious and prefer a system that upholds Islamic moral and ethical principles; and those who are either secular or have a more liberal understanding of religion. This is not particular to Iran, and in fact represents a struggle prevalent throughout the Muslim world. It is the result of the fact that modernity in the Muslim world was an imported phenomenon rather than the result of the organic transformation of society as was the case in North-western Europe.[9] Moreover, modernisation in the Muslim world happened in a haphazard way and did not affect all segments of society in an equal fashion.[10] In other words, Iran’s current political problems to some degree reflect different cultural tendencies and belief systems among its population.

In such a bifurcated system one side’s victory means almost complete disenfranchisement of the other. In this light, the problems in Iran become more obvious, including the fact that the Islamic Republic’s brand of religion as state ideology is now directly linked to power. In other words, the rejection of the state’s version of Islam or accepting the reformists’ version will determine the power of one group over the other.

A potential way out of this cycle of violating the human rights of citizens residing in such countries is a new reading of the Islamic Shari’a and tradition with an eye to making it more compatible with the current understanding of universal human rights. This is what Iranian reformists, including prominent clergy, have been suggesting for nearly two decades. Underpinning the reformist thinking is that Islam, as a religion based on persuasion rather than coercion allows a contextual and rational reading of its teachings. A contextual reading of the Shari’a would distinguish and adjust those principles that apply to special circumstances[11] from the general teachings of the religion, leading to a harmonious relationship between Shari’a and human rights. Such an approach can alone uphold the objectives of the Shari’a (Maqasid’ul Shari’a) and include some of the most fundamental principles of human rights: justice, mercy and the well-being of each and every human being.

The problem in the case of Iran is that religion has become state ideology, and as is the case with secular ideologies such as socialism, directly linked to power. In other words, the acceptance of reformist Islam will increase the power of one group while undermining that of others.

However, as pre- and post-revolutionary history shows, Iran’s human rights deficit is only partly due to the religious character of its political system. Further evidence includes cases of secular governments in the Muslim majority countries which have recorded some of the most outrageous violations of human rights. Acts such as unlawful imprisonment and torture are due to the political culture of these countries, in particular their unwillingness to peacefully transfer power from one government to another. The use of human rights as a means of political pressure by outside powers, and double standards applied to different state violators undermines the position of human rights activists in the Islamic world, including Iran.

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