Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism

By Reza Afshari | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Islamic Cultural Relativism
in Human Rights Discourse

The challenge facing human rights advocates has always been formidable: to scale the seemingly insurmountable walls of the sovereign state, to reach into its dark and cloistered domestic domains, and to lend a helping hand to courageous but lonely women and men in the clutches of its security apparatus. When the state is fanatically guided by a sacrosanct ideology, the task becomes infinitely more difficult.

The volcano-like eruption of politicized Islam (Islamism) added a new layer of repression and persecution to the already dense depository of historical injustices. Now the life of the individual could be sacrificed to safeguard not only the state but also “Islam,” especially if he or she was secular or a nonbeliever. The debates over Islamization of the state and society (the goal of the Islamist movement) have complicated the task of human rights. As the regime created new patterns of violations, the new rulers, like other ideological suppressors of freedoms, advanced cultural and religious rationalizations to justify human rights abuses. Like other ideological rulers who promised a better world, the Islamists created their own sympathizers in the West.


Political Culture: Assuming the Failure of Secularization

Islamization came over Iran on the trail of a populist revolution that gathered momentum in 1978–79 and overthrew the secular, authoritarian regime of the Shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. To sympathetic scholars the rise of Islamism was indicative of the failure of secularization; that assumed failure lent a new credence to Islamic cultural relativism. We often heard that the shari‘ah (Islamic law) and its principles provided solidarity and sociopolitical motivation to Muslims who demanded “the immediate application” of the shari‘ah.1 Assuming the total failure of modern ideologies in Islamic countries, Muslim thinkers had, in the words of a sympathetic scholar, “advocated a more authentic, Islamic framework for Muslim

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