Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism

By Reza Afshari | Go to book overview

Preface

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.”1 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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