Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism

Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism

Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism

Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism


Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title

Are the principles set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights truly universal? Or, as some have argued, are they derived exclusively from Western philosophic traditions and therefore irrelevant to many non-Western cultures? Should a state's claims to indigenous traditions, and not international covenants, determine the scope of rights granted to its citizens?

In his strong defense of the Declaration, Reza Afshari contends that the moral vision embodied in this and other agreements is a proper response to the abuses of the modern state. Asserting that the most serious violations of human rights by state rulers are motivated by political and economic factors rather than the purported concern for cultural authenticity, Afshari examines one particular state that has claimed cultural exception to the universality of human rights, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In his revealing case study, Afshari investigates how Islamic culture and Iranian politics since the fall of the Shah have affected human rights policy in that state. He exposes the human rights violations committed by ruling clerics in Iran since the Revolution, showing that Iran has behaved remarkably like other authoritarian governments in its human rights abuses. For more than two decades, Iran has systematically jailed, tortured, and executed dissidents without due process of law and assassinated political opponents outside state borders. Furthermore, like other oppressive states, Iran has regularly denied and countered the charges made by United Nations human rights monitors, defending its acts as authentic cultural practices.

Throughout his study, Afshari addresses Iran's claims of cultural relativism, a controversial thesis in the intense ongoing debate over the universality of human rights. In prison memoirs he uncovers the actual human rights abuses committed by the Islamic Republic and the sociopolitical conditions that cause or permit them. Finally, Afshari turns to little-read UN reports that reveal that the dynamics of power between UN human rights monitors and Iranian leaders have proven ineffective at enforcing human rights policy in Iran. Critically analyzing the state's responses, Afshari shows that the Islamic Republic, like other oppressive states, has regularly denied and countered the charges made by UN human rights monitors, and when denials were patently implausible, it defended its acts as authentic cultural practices. This defense is equally unconvincing, since it lacked domestic cultural consensus.


Human Rights Discourse

Literature on human rights monitoring often focuses on current events, mainly providing information on immediate concerns or responding to urgent appeals. By its own logic, the discourse often lacks the historical dimension that might provide a better understanding of a state, the political culture of its rulers, and the continuity of violations. Commenting on Iran’s slight improvement in the treatment of Baha’is in the late 1980s, the UN Special Representative on Iran expressed his desire that the government take further steps to make harassment of Baha’is “a chapter in history.” For all human rights monitors, relegating past violations to “history” is understandably accompanied by a sigh of relief. Academics seldom write on the history of human rights violations in a particular state. This creates a problem not only because our knowledge of human rights violations lacks historical depth, but also because the question of a state’s political legitimacy might be decided by evaluating its current and recent record, irrespective of its dark history. We need more studies that offer a long-term perspective on the realities of human rights violations in the Middle Eastern states.

The human rights observer in me gravitates toward a different goal. In recent years, spirited debates over Islamic cultural relativism and human rights have attracted scholarly attention. Scores of books and articles have been published and conferences have been held on the theme of human rights and Islam. Even human rights organizations hosted such theoretical conferences and published their proceedings, all in a bewildering search for human rights in Islam. This came at a time when almost all Islamic theorists disagreed as to what Islam might entail for citizens of a contemporary state. The debates, and my own contribution, remained largely theoretical, with only minimal references to actual human rights violations and the sociopolitical conditions that cause them. I realize that many readers may in fact remain unconvinced as to the validity of various theoretical postulates. Detailed studies are needed of the human rights violations in those particular states for which cultural relativist claims have been made.

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