The question that my interrogator asked

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There is an abundance of expert literature on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s relationship with the United Nations and its subsidiaries, the government’s equivocal approach to UN conventions and its often harsh reactions to the international body’s decisions and resolutions on how, in particular, those in positions of power treat Iranians. This article will also make an effort to explain this contentious and fractious relationship in the context of causality against a political and ideological backdrop. Yet, this piece will also try to explore the matter using a conceptual framework, by making an attempt to identify the missing social notion rather than examining the impeding agent. In doing so, it seeks help from the paradigm of the secular tradition.

Let me begin by relating an anecdote from a personal experience. Back in 2009, I was working in the capacity of a political analyst for the British Embassy in Tehran. Following the disputed presidential election and a famous Friday Prayer sermon by the leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamenei, I was arrested by military-security authorities on a number of charges, ranging from espionage to propagating against the state. I spent many days in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin Prison and had to sit through some very long interrogation sessions, some of which lasted ten hours. In some sessions, I was accused of trying to undermine the Islamic Republic and treated as a pariah, an enemy of the state and in others I was asked to share my analysis.

In one such session of the second category, the interrogator and inquisitor (whom I never saw, as he always sat behind me while I was seated facing the wall) sought my opinion on the ‘vulnerability’ of the Islamic Republic. It was a public holiday in the Islamic calendar and the day’s interrogation had begun by the interrogator making a point that he had had to come in because of me (i.e. I had ruined his holy day). I opted for an enlightening example to convey my argument. I told him the night before, from the small cell window that partially let air and light in, I could hear the voices of some young men, in a very jovial mood, singing. It was not difficult to tell they were young conscripts, who guard the prison compound. Obviously, on the occasion of the religious celebration, the young men had been given the opportunity of a jolly good evening. To serve in the maximum security Evin Prison, all the personnel, including conscripts are strictly vetted. That evening those very young conscripts, as young as 19 and probably not older than 25, sang many songs. I told my interrogator that out of a good 20 or so songs, three decades since the establishment of the Islamic Republic Republic, the majority were from before the Islamic Revolution or works of the so-called ‘Los Angeles singers’. Only two or three were of the ‘licensed’ category, sanctioned by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

I told my interrogator: the biggest vulnerability of the Islamic Republic is the ‘vacuum’ it has created and its colossal failure to successfully establish its own paradigm of values, hence a state of confusion and chaos. While the religious and revolutionary leaders have futilely persisted in the denial of the established secular traditions and norms of Iranian society, they have also failed to provide functioning alternatives. I would like to refer to the product of that failure as a ‘vacuum’.

To further illustrate my example of the singing conscripts, I told the interrogator sitting behind me that people accentuate their convivial mood in moments of festivity through the medium of genial music and songs. But the revolutionary and religious leaders of the Islamic Republic were in denial and had banned such music as decadent and carnal. What was the alternative that they provided to meet the needs of those moments? None! Or irrelevant and dysfunctional, thus creating a vacuum. The vacuum was filled with the old past and with smuggled CDs from Los Angeles, and from across the border, i.e. Turkey.

It is a characteristic of a vacuum that it sucks in what is available to fill the empty space or the void that is the result of the removal of what is now the absent element. Human societies, through the experiences and challenges that they encounter and by way of interaction, try to maintain a state of functionality and productivity. To survive they have to progress and adapt to the changes of time. It is true that at any given time, the equilibrium is achieved via appealing to a majority and the denial or neglect of – at times, probably the legitimate share of – the others; yet, norms and values evolve and develop to establish new paradigms. Paradigms create traditions, which integrate religious and secular values.

In effect, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the apex of the secular tradition of all human societies represented in 30 articles.[1] Over the course of history, mankind and human societies have progressed to be less exclusive and more inclusive by recognising and respecting the rights of more and more members. Relapse happens only when forces and groups within a given society are in denial.

Article 18 of the Declaration reads, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance’.

Former Iranian Minister of Intelligence, Ayatollah Ali Younessi, presently a top advisor to President Rouhani on Religious Minorities Affairs, recently attended a synagogue in Iran. He simply upheld the secular value of tolerance and mutual inclusivity in Iran, as part of the secular tradition of Iranian people of various ethnicities and faiths, who have lived together for centuries. Mr Younessi made a very important statement in his address to the audience, “If I, the mullah, and that rabbi do not interfere, people will happily live side by side”.[2] Effectively, what the former Minister of Intelligence admitted in his speech was that, without the interference of certain forces, human societies have the competence and ability to provide happy co-existence to their members.

In contrast to the above statement, when a member of the cabinet recently visited the religious city of Qom to meet Grand Ayatollah Safi-Golpayegani, this Shiite source of emulation objected to the appointment of female governors and said, “such an act is against the dignity of women”. If the appointments have been made by the Interior Minister without any objection from local communities and citizens, then the ayatollah is in denial. What he refers to as ‘dignity’ is the very vacuum discussed above. It is a void, because the ayatollah cannot offer Iranian women, as very capable members of society, an alternative ‘dignity’. This meaningless dignity will be the void within the walls of the house. And that is how the Islamic state that he has in mind becomes vulnerable, because functioning paradigms can only be replaced by other functioning ones, lest we shall have chaos and confusion.

However, in dealing with a ‘vacuum’ – or the void that certain forces create by failing to offer functioning alternative values – we are faced with an unfortunate and bitter paradox. It is true that by the creation of a vacuum, denialists bring about the vulnerability of a human system, (i.e. a society or government), but at the same time via the state of chaos they create, the group can, for some time, maintain control. The chaotic state can help them produce quasi-concepts, words that are generally considered to denote positive concepts are uttered as casings devoid of any content. In the absence of the real concept or value, they are make-believes that only confuse and bewilder. And so ‘despotism’ becomes ‘democracy’, ‘injustice' can be called ‘mercy’, ‘dignity’ is really ‘confinement’ and people are given ‘lies’ as ‘truth’.

But most important of all is what I would like to call the element of ‘shame’ (‘qobh’ in Persian), especially among the powerful. It is the shame factor that disappears, because in this distorted reality the essential criteria against which honesty and fairness can be measured disappear. And that is how the collapse of values happens, creating the most real vulnerability. Human societies use ‘shame’ as a check and balance. It can be restricting, but in essence it is the responsibility of the members of a society to refrain from any acts that could cause harm to others, or those responsible shall experience ‘shame’ and be ‘shameful’ of their actions. This social notion particularly applies to those who are in power and whose decisions and actions affect people in great numbers. Laws can be manipulated to the benefit of the powerful and one of the main checks that prevents them from abusing those laws is a feeling of ‘shame’, as violators should. One who does not lie feels ashamed if he or she may do so. Similarly, one who does not treat others unfairly will feel shame if he or she does.

A lot has been said and written about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, about what it contains. Maybe the most important ingredient of the document is not explicitly mentioned. What Article 30 of the Declaration says is that any violation of the rights stipulated is unacceptable:

‘Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein’.

What this implies is that the violation of those articles is a shameful act and the violator shall be ‘ashamed’, but this can also happen when true meanings of words and concepts are restored without distortion. The best way to achieve that objective is to awaken the society by reviving the values that are embedded in their secular tradition, values that transcend and at the same time encompass laws.

[1] UN, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 1948,

[2] BBC Persian, Assistant to the president in a synagogue, he defended the rights of religious minorities, May 2014,

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