Nationalism & Human Rights in Iran in Historical Context

Ali Ansari on the historical context of the Iran's push for human rights.
By: /
May 22, 2013

In an influential article written in a leading Iranian intellectual magazine, the lay religious philosopher, Abdolkarim Soroush argued emphatically that a “religion that is oblivious to human rights…is not tenable in the modern world.”1 Writing in the 1990s, a full decade and a half after the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, Soroush, along with other thinkers, was in the throes of a rigorous critique of the Islamic Republic that would provide the intellectual justification for the Reform movement which emerged with such vigour with the landslide election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997. For Soroush, the critical fault line in successive Iranian states, the Islamic Republic included, was a surfeit of ‘obligations’ and an absence of ‘rights'. In sum, the Iranian citizen remained an abstract concept, not a legal one. Unsurprisingly, Soroush’s critique invited considerable criticism from conservatives disturbed by his assault on religious orthodoxy. As if to underline the seriousness with which they objected to Soroush’s comments, a number drew unfavourable comparisons with the nationalist intellectual, Ahmad Kasravi.

The comparison was notable on a number of grounds, not least the ominous allusion to the fact that Kasravi had been assassinated in 1946 by a religious zealot convinced that Kasravi was guilty of blasphemy. Kasravi had been one of the early ideologues of Iranian nationalism and as such was viewed as a dangerous ‘secularist’, if not outright atheist, in the official narrative of the Islamic Republic. He was part of a group of intellectuals who in their apparent obsequiousness to the ideas of West, had taken the country astray; alienated from its cultural roots; an agent of ‘westoxication’. Kasravi was among the most rigorous critics of religious dogma and contemporary Iranian political discourse has condemned him for it, even if his ideas have received more attention from young Iranians in search of an alternative narrative.

But Kasravi’s religious views were but one aspect of a much broader political agenda, which had much more to do with the imposition of the rule of law and the institutionalisation of individual rights. Indeed if Kasravi and his fellow travellers were beholden to the West, it was to a particular idea of Western civilization born of an Enlightenment to which all humanity were its heirs. Indeed early Iranian nationalists such as Kasravi, Taqizadeh, and Foroughi – those key thinkers who defined the idea of Iran and Iranians for the modern age – did so on a basis of common citizenship and individual rights and it should therefore come as little surprise that they eschewed the notion of ‘race’ (increasingly popular in some European intellectuals by the end of the 19th C), but enthusiastically pursued the development of a rational legal system, an independent judiciary, and the establishment of the rule of law.

The political system they sought to establish was constitutional and could be summed up in the Enlightenment phrase a 'republic of law'. Here was a political system that not only limited the power of the state but enshrined the rights of its citizens, whatever their religious or ethnic affiliation, within an inclusive Iranian identity founded on a shared history and the literary ubiquity and utility of the Persian language.  In 1906, during Iran’s Constitutional Revolution, Iran’s nationalists began this process of transformation by encouraging the implementation of a radical programme of education and judicial reform. Starting from an extremely low base, they achieved a great deal, but political realities ensured that they were forced to make difficult compromises which have haunted the project to this day.

A lack of means by which to implement their policies, and the realities of political stalemate and deterioration, meant their efforts to construct the state came at the expense of society. The dramatic development and extension of the judiciary under Reza Shah (1925-41) and his indefatigable Minister of Justice, Davar, was not matched by an equal effort to institutionalize the rights of ‘citizens’. The result of this imbalance was the emergence of a state that was ironically far more powerful in its ability to penetrate society than its more ‘absolutist’ predecessors. Yet a central paradox of this state, was that while it continued to incarcerate ‘political prisoners’, it did not inflict torture upon them. As one prisoner reflected with a hint of nostalgia, the magistrates and police officers of Iran’s emergent modern state were on the whole, "European trained products of the Constitutional Revolution."2 They were not averse to defending the rights of their prisoners on the basis that they were, after all, also Iranians.

Kasravi too, fought hard to maintain the independence of the fledgling judiciary though in the end he found the task beyond him, and the failure to institutionalize the rights of society against the growing power of the state ensured that many of the ills of absolutism were to return in the decades to follow. Indeed, Iran’s ‘Enlightenment’ moment, was to prove short-lived. Torture as a tool of state policy was to return with vengeance during the reign of Reza Shah’s son and successor, Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-79) as a byproduct of the perceived existential threats posed by the Cold War, and was taken to unprecedented extremes by the Islamic Revolution. The ideological struggle that characterized the Cold War and which subsumed any sense of individual rights under the banner of political expediency, was now dangerously sacralized.

The judicial reforms that had been promised by the early nationalists were delayed and then in the full fury of the revolution, effectively reversed. Even the language of individual rights – seen as a dangerous Western idea – was erased from the official lexicon, while the nationalists who had introduced and developed these ideas within an Iranian context were at best marginalized and at worst dismissed as Western stooges. So effective has this exercise in historical revisionism been that post-revolutionary intellectuals who have raised the question of the deficit in rights (in both theory and practice) approach it as if it is wholly new to Iranian political discourse. The facts are that such ideas are not new, nor had they been superficially understood by an earlier generation supposedly seduced by Western ideas. On the contrary, their engagement and understanding of these ideas was nuanced and sophisticated, and they were often critical of compatriots whose ‘nationalism’ was insular and suspicious of Western civilization, in contrast to their cosmopolitan patriotism. This earlier generation understood that real and effective nationalism was built from the individual up and could not be imposed by the state;  that there could be no rights of ‘Iran’ in the absence of rights for Iranians. It is a lesson contemporary Iranian politicians would do well to learn.

1 Soroush, ‘The Idea of Democratic Religious Government’, in Sadri & Sadri (trans), Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam, Oxford, OUP, 2000, p. 128

2 Quoted in E Abrahamian Tortured Confessions p 41

Also in the series


Human Rights and Historical Amnesia

Kaveh Shahrooz on why it is essential to revisit Iran's painful past to get to a democratic future.

John Baird on Canada’s New Dialogue with Iran

Minister John Baird on Canada's advocacy on the issue of human rights in Iran.

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.

Why Iranian Women Can't Have Any of It

Gissou Nia on why denying women the right to run for President is only a small part of the regime's apparatus of repression.