Freedom of Belief and the Rights of Religious Minorities: A Talk by Professor Hashem Aghajari

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Translated by Ahang Rabbani

At the invitation of the Committee for Investigation of Willful Arrests, a group of human rights activists and families of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience gathered on Wednesday afternoon [1 October 2008], so they could explore the concept of the peaceful coexistence of religions in accordance with Islamic teachings and discuss the role of freedom of belief within the Islamic framework. Towards this objective, on Wednesday, 1 October 2008, a session under the title “Freedom of Belief and the Rights of Religious Minorities” was conducted.

In this session, Hashem Aghajari, a professor of history at the university, spoke. However, prior to his presentation, Aghajari thought it important to offer a preamble:

The followers of other religions and beliefs among our countrymen must recognize that they are not the only ones subject to discrimination. We are faced with a regime and an administrative apparatus that in addition to non-Muslims, or those who perhaps have no belief in any of the divine religions, imposes discrimination on Muslims as well. Today we witness that in this land, in the name of the Shi‘a creed, various limitations have been imposed on the Sunnis. Discrimination also exists within the Shi‘a circle as well. In recent years, the Imami Shi‘as of Sufi proclivities or various Dervish orders have beheld the destruction of their religious centers.


In this manner, Hashem Aghajari commenced his expansive talk on the session’s theme, and added his regret that heterodox thinkers and religious minorities have suffered oppression in the name of religion and Islam. He stated:

Today we witness a very narrow definition of “Us” versus “Others” given by the government and the nation in such a way that it affords rights to only one minority group among the wide circle of Muslims and our fellow Iranians: namely, those who have a particular understanding of Islam and Shi‘ism – more specifically, the Shi‘ism of the clerics who believe in the doctrine of the rule of jurists – and even within that small circle, to a smaller group who believes in a fundamentalist interpretation of religion.

This must be contrasted with the fact that in the Holy Book of us Muslims – that is, the Qur’an – and in the Prophet’s traditions, His character and ways, as well as others among our religion’s leaders and the Imams, and even the history of Islamic societies, have all demonstrated that a diversity of beliefs and heterodoxy was welcomed.

He then referred to the passage of the Islamic Penal Code which had passed the [Iranian] parliament, which for the first time, officially, raises the issue of apostasy and laws pertaining to apostasy, and he suggested that this was a peculiar innovation. He stated that the passage of this law could be the basis of an effort to impose certain pressures on our countrymen – all in the name of defending religion and belief [i.e. orthodoxy].

Aghajari continued his comments by raising this question: Where in religion has sanction been granted to suppress the diversity of beliefs?

He said there is absolutely no connection between belief and coercion in the sacred Qur’an. He added, “The sacred Qur’an has explicitly proclaimed that religion should not be a matter for compulsion. Therefore, by considering the verses of the sacred Qur’an, based on responsible actions, one cannot justify the use of force, coercion and authority to impose religious belief or prevent freedom in the choice of belief and convictions.”

For this reason, Aghajari considered unity of thought and belief to be unattainable other than through the instrumentality of teaching and education. This is because according to his opinion, if God had wanted to, He could have created a uniform system of belief; whereas destiny has decreed a multiplicity of belief systems.

Consequently, he added, “Those who wish to impose uniformity and homogeneity, not through teaching but rather through force, which at times may be clothed in the garment of law, stand in opposition to Qur’anic logic. This is because nowhere in the Qur’an has it been sanctioned to impose belief through compulsion.”

Therefore, Aghajari arrived at the conclusion that “People are different and think differently. Everyone searches after the Truth, but no one can employ the Truth that they have come to believe as a mechanism for forcing and pressuring others to homogeneity [of belief].”

By stating that the situation of the followers of diverse religions is very clear in the Qur’an, this history professor [Aghajari] stated that the Qur’an instructed us to co-exist in peace and harmony with those who believe differently. In referring to the traditions of the Prophet of Islam in dealing with followers of other religions, Aghajari asked, “Which of the Prophet’s battles was to impose His beliefs upon others?”

In continuing his remarks, he referred also to the history of Islam in support of his comments. “Despite the fact that the history of Islam is not an exact manifestation of Islam and this history contains certain distortions, nevertheless in the same history we find freedom of belief, religion and conviction – not only for the followers of other religions, but also for materialists who did not fall under investigation – nay rather they were freely and openly allowed to debate Islamic thinkers.”

The history professor then considered the oppressions in Islamic history as political oppressions, which remain unrelated to religious identity, as they were an issue of [political] domination. He said, “All the critics and oppressors of the tyranny and oppression of the Bani Umayyah, whether Shi‘a or Sunni, became objects of harm and injury.”

While saying “ideology, hegemony and wealth are instruments for suppressing society”, Aghajari explained that in Islamic societies this issue – namely suppression – takes place under the rubric of religion.

In continuing this discussion and raising another point, he referred to the book, Millal va Nahal [people and bees], and stated, “Certainly, the treatment of heterodox thinkers in the history of Islam in the Middle Ages was more humane than the same group in European history.” He then continued his remarks,

In the past, political groups often occupied the same “identity space” as religious groups, and for this reason, political conflicts would be commingled with religious conflicts. Today, however, this commingling of identity has given way to a separation of identities. Today, religious identity is a global identity and is divorced from geographical boundaries; it is a form of correlation of belief and faith. But what remains as a true and immutable identity is nationalism and citizenry. The Islamic nation and the nation of Iran are both identities: one is a religious unity and the other is the unity of land and nationality.

Therefore, he considers that the mixing of these two identifies is very dangerous.

Referring to the history of the last one hundred years, and emphasizing the oneness of the rights of the people of this land as enshrined in the Constitution after the Islamic Revolution, Aghajari stated, “If anyone acts treacherously towards this covenant, then we cannot expect its authority to endure. In this foundational law, freedom of belief has been recognized and the followers of other religions have been permitted to enjoy the rights of being Iranians.”

He added, “The experience of the last three decades has brought advances in the deduction of religious law and jurisprudence, at least among new-thinking clerics.” He referred to the view of Ayatollah Montazeri regarding the rights of citizenship of the Baha’is and said, “Here we are talking about how the realm and the right of citizenship is not just civil rights. This expression has the meaning and implication that the realm of Iran is a single entity and belongs to all the people of Iran. The people own this realm and rule over it. Therefore, each and every one of them is a citizen of this land.”

In emphasizing the role of government towards the nation and saying that all the members of the Iranian society enjoy the same equal rights, Aghajari stated:

Today we have reached this concept of liberty in which freedom does not mean mere majority rule; this is because this deduction can become antagonistic to liberty by itself, and lead to totalitarianism. Therefore along with this objective, the right of minorities based on principles of human rights must be considered.

While expressing joy over the fact that the concept of citizenship was entering the discourse of religious jurisprudence, he hoped that in the future we would witness the emergence of clerics with a new vision of humanity. He asked, “How is it that in Iran those who deprive “Others” of the right to participate in the government, the right to vote and the right of free expression, religion and speech, expect that other countries should nevertheless grant the same freedom and rights to their [minority] co-believers?”

Aghajari considered this type of view and method as contradictory, because if Others are suppressed in Iran, then in effect the Shi‘as have issued a blanket license for the entire world to suppress their co-religionists [i.e. other Shi‘as]. Consequently, Aghajari concluded that the main foundation of majority rule must be built on human rights for all.

Another section of Aghajari’s talk was an exploration of these questions:

Why are we today confronted with this paradox that some are worried over religious conversion [away from the Shi‘a creed], and in order to confront this phenomenon are willing to appeal to the law of apostasy, while at the same time Islam is fast growing in the heart of Europe? Why in Iran do we have to force our people to wear the hijab [head and face covering for women], but in other societies girls freely chose to wear the hijab? Where in history do we find that a lasting faith can be built on flogging, compulsion and execution? Should not those in control of the levers of power reexamine their methods, and recognize that their unjustified demands are the primary reason why people are turning away from Islam?

In another part of his presentation, the history professor considered the phenomenon of fear of Islam in Europe, as separate from terrorism, and stressed, “A singular process which cannot be resisted is the diffusion of a religion.”

Aghajari then raised the following question, “Would the use of force have a positive effect in confronting youth who are converting to Christianity or in the spread of the Baha’i religion?” He added that based on the logic of the Qur’an, a conviction that is not borne out of liberty is not a belief. Islam means choosing freely and intelligently. Even though God expects people to believe in Him, nowhere in the sacred Qur’an do we find a verse sanctioning the execution of those charged with apostasy.

In exposition of this theme, such questions were raised as, “Who is the apostate?” “What is apostasy?” “Would someone who searched and selected a belief system be considered an apostate?”

In addressing these issues he stated, “In defining apostasy, many clerics have considered the elements of ‘ignorance’ and ‘rebellion’ as intertwined. Therefore, real apostasy is not converting to another religion for the sake of truth, even if the person has committed an error. This is truth-seeking, and anyone seeking the truth may make a mistake.” He then posed the question: “Should we kill a truth-seeking but mistaken individual?”

In continuing, Aghajari pointed to the view of some clerics who have expressed apostasy not as a religious belief but rather as a political action, and said, “Apostasy has existed as a political concept in all post-modern societies. Fortunately, our new-thinking clerics have taken important steps in this area as well. In the religious rulings of many of clerics, apostasy has no punishment and is subject to no penalty. Many clerics even have conditioned the implementation of corporal reprimands on the presence of the Sinless Imam [i.e. the Hidden Imam].”

In pointing to the changing times and conditions, Aghajari referred to historical analogy and said, “At that time [i.e. the time of Muhammad], political factions and religious groups were mixed.” For this reason, he said, regarding some clerics’ reliance on the death penalty in the early days of the spread of Islam that this sanction [i.e. the death penalty] was not because of a change in belief, but rather due to committing treasonous political acts.

At the end, he spoke of the turning to a reactionary reading in religion which is in opposition to the fundamental human rights of the people. However, he thought it important to emphasize that the suppression of heterodox thinkers was not dictated by religious logic; rather it was the necessity of power. “The logic of force and domination is different from the logic of religion.”

At the conclusion of Hashem Aghajari’s talk, it was time for the families of political and religious prisoners to speak regarding these prisoners. [This portion is left untranslated as it did not bear on the main theme of this conference — translator.]

[This report was posted on Saturday, 4 October 2008, at Gooya online: http://news.gooya.com/politics/archives/2008/10/077278.php and appears above in translation. Siyyid Hashem Aghajari (b. ~1957) is an Iranian historian, university professor and a critic of the Islamic Republic. He was sentenced to death in 2002 on the charge of apostasy for a speech he gave on Islam urging Iranians to “not blindly follow” the clerics. In 2004, after a domestic and international outcry, his sentence was reduced to some time in prison.]

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