Religious freedom has a strong claim to being one of, if not the, oldest issues which we now consider to be a human right. Throughout history, examples can be found of states and empires not only tolerating but also respecting the beliefs of others within their territories. Well-known examples include the great civilisation of Ancient Persia, the Roman, Moghul, Ottoman and British Empires, and perhaps most famously, the Emirate of Cordoba during the tenth to twelfth centuries. In the modern era, the United Nations has expended tremendous energy in trying to ensure that religious intolerance both within and between states is curtailed. The right to hold religious beliefs is now part of the nucleus of those aspects of international human rights law which all states accept. Alongside the right not to be tortured or held in slavery, it is one of those few rights which can never be derogated from. But religious freedom is not just about the right to believe in a god, it is equally about how you choose to manifest your belief and also the right not to believe at all.
Religious freedom does not end with the right to hold certain beliefs; it is equally about not being discriminated against on the basis of those beliefs. It is that intolerance of others and less favourable treatment of them that has too often become a catalyst for the untold suffering and misery of millions. As the 1981 United Nations Declaration on Religious Intolerance notes, it is discrimination and intolerance on the basis of religion that has brought wars and great suffering to mankind over the centuries. Every international human rights agreement includes a provision to the effect that rights must be protected ‘without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, religion, or other opinion ... or other status.’ But we are confronted with very real dilemmas when religious traditions and beliefs are used as a justification, real or purported, for discrimination against others. Often such discrimination is on the basis of the religion of others or their gender. Should we then respect and allow the manifestation of such religious beliefs or should we seek to uphold the value and dignity of each individual? This is an acute problem in many parts of the world, and applies to almost all religious traditions be it Catholicism, Islam or Judaism. The articles in this review highlight how these issues, among others, manifest themselves in Iran.
The human rights situation in Iran is of on-going concern to people in many different parts of the world, be they expatriates, activists, academics or simply those with an interest in human rights. Dialogue and discussion, both with the reformist movement and the international community, is needed to end the increasing isolation of Iran. This project aims to illustrate some of the complexities of the situation and to inform readers of the many challenges facing Iran. I warmly welcome its publication and am pleased to be associated with it.