At the invitation of the Committee to Pursue Arbitrary Arrests and concurrent with Eid-e Fetr [end of Ramadan celebration] a group of human rights activists and families of political and ideological prisoners gathered at the offices of the Organization of Iran’s Graduates for a ceremony entitled “Freedom of Ideas and Rights of Religious Minorities” and to protest the legalization of death penalty for apostates and recent clashes with members of other religions.
At the start of this conference Hassan Assadi, the spokesman for the Committee to Pursue Arbitrary Arrests and the organizers of the conference said the goal of this gathering is to “promote a progressive and compassionate view of Divine religions based on peaceful co-existence among all people”.
Stressing the right to freedom of religion as a fundamental human right in international laws, he said: “In recent months cases have been reported to the Committee to Pursue Arbitrary Arrests that show an increase in judicial confrontations with members of other religions or those who have converted to other religions. Today’s meeting is in fact to discuss views that show this backward interpretation of religion and that it does not meet the requirements of the modern world.”
But as the main speaker of this conference, Dr. Hashem Aghajari, professor of history at Tarbyat-e Moddaress [Teacher Training] University said: “Our compatriots who follow other religions should know that discrimination is not limited to them. We are dealing with a hierarchical system that, in addition to non-Muslims, discriminates against those who do not believe in any of the Divine religions and Muslims alike. Today we can see that in this land and in the name of Shi’ism there are limitations for Sunni Muslims. This discrimination has extended even to Shi’i sects when Sufis and Imami Shi’is and the Dervishes have seen the destruction of their religious centers in recent years.”
Hashem Aghajari said he was sorry that this discrimination against those who think differently or follow a different religion is done in the name of religion and Islam. He said: “Today we are seeing an extremely limited definition of “us” and “them” of government and people, to the extent that only a small minority from the vast array of Muslims and Iranians, those who adhere to a special understanding of Islam and Shi’ism, and within Shi’ism only those who adhere to the principle of faqih [religious jurist] and velayat-e faqih [principle of rule of religious jurist], and even within this circle those who adhere to a fundamentalist interpretation of religion can enjoy rights. And all this limited interpretation is happening when the Holy Book of Muslims, the Qur’an, the prophetic tradition, the life of the prophet and religious leaders and Imams, even the history of Muslim societies shows that they accepted and welcomed other thinkers and followers of other religions.”
He then referred to the ratification of the Islamic punitive law in the Majles in which for the first time the concept of “ertedad” [apostasy] and punishment for “mortad” [apostate] has been discussed. He said this is a novelty and ratification of this law will give justification for pressures against our compatriots in the name of defending religion.
Posing the question, where in religion do we find authorization for suppressing ideas, Aghajari said: “There is no connection between ideas and compulsion in the Holy Qur’an. The Holy Qur’an clearly states that there is no compulsion in religion. Therefore, based on the verses of the Holy Qur’an, we cannot, on the pretext of responsibility, use force and compulsion in imposing religion and preventing the freedom of choice.”
For this reason Aghajari says uniformity in ideas and beliefs is only possible through compulsion and propaganda. According to him, if God wanted to he would have created a single umma [community] with a single belief, but he created different ideas.
He continued: “Those who want to create uniformity through force instead of persuasion, and sometimes in the guise of the law, are standing in opposition to the logic of the Qur’an. Nowhere in the Qur’an do we find authorization for force to impose an idea.”
Aqajary then concluded: “People are created different and they think differently. Everyone is seeking the truth but no one can impose his truth or belief on others through compulsion to create uniformity.”
Stating that the situation of followers of other religions is very clear in the Qur’an, this professor of history then said: “The Holy Qur’an orders us to live in peace with other religions.” Referring to the tradition of the prophet in dealing with other religions, Aghajari said: “Which of the wars of the prophet was to impose an idea by force?”
On the strictness and severities in the history of Islam, Aghajari said: “These severities were more political not religious in nature; they had to do with political dominance. All critics and opponents, Shi’i or Sunni, were oppressed by the Ummayads [first caliphs in Islam].
Referring to the last one hundred years and the emphasis that the post revolution constitution has on the rights of all people in this land, Aghajari said: “If anyone violates this covenant then he cannot claim legitimacy through this document. In this law the freedom of thought is acknowledged and the followers of other religions are to enjoy the rights that all Iranians enjoy.”
He said the experiences of the past three decades show progress in the area of the shari’a [Islamic law] by the progressive faqihs. He especially referred to the views of Ayatollah Montazeri about the Baha’is and their citizenry rights and said: “Here we are talking about the land. Citizenry rights are not just civil rights. This means that Iran is a land that belongs to all the people of Iran. These people own the land and rule the land therefore each and everyone is a citizen of this land.”
Continuing, Aghajari stressed the issue of government versus people and that all members of Iranian society have equal rights. He said: “Today we have arrived at this understanding of freedom that it is not just the rule of the majority because this logic can lead to acts that violate others’ freedoms and to totalitarianism. Therefore along with the rule of the majority what becomes important is the rights of the minority based on fundamental human rights.”
This religious researcher said he is happy that the concept of citizenry is entering fiqh [religious jurisprudence] and hoped that in the future we would have a fiqh in line with modern man. He asked: “How is it that those in Iran who do not allow the “other” to participate in the ruling establishment, do not respect their freedom of ideas and religion and speech, expect that their co-thinkers be given the same freedoms in other countries?” Aghajari said this viewpoint is contradictory in nature, “if this kind of oppression of the “other” is allowed in Iran then we are giving the authority for the same kind of oppression around the world.” Aghajari then concluded that the red line of the ruling majority should be fundamental human rights.
In continuing Aghajari posed some questions, including “Today we are facing the paradox of those who are worried about people changing their religion and to deal with this they resort to the law of apostasy. At the same time Islam is growing rapidly in the heart of Europe. Why must we force women to wear the hejab [Islamic veil] while in other societies women freely choose to wear the hejab? Where in history do we find that the endurance of a faith is achieved through lashes, force, and hangings? Shouldn’t those in power revise their policies and know that these actions are one of the main reasons for people running away from Islam?”
Posing the question, is using force the way to deal with the young converting to Christianity and the expansion of Baha’ism, Aghajari said: “Based on the logic of Qur’an, a faith that is not chosen out of freedom is not really faith. Islam means free and informed choice. Even though God wants man to believe in him but in the Qur’an we do not have any verse that authorizes the punishment of death for an apostate.”
In describing this issue he posed more questions: Who is an apostate? What is apostasy? If someone chooses a faith after doing research on it is he an apostate? He continued: “Many of our jurists have defined apostasy by referring to ignorance and animosity. Therefore apostasy is not accepting another religion based on truth, even if the person has made a mistake. It is seeking the truth and any human being seeking the truth may make a mistake.” Thus, he asked: “Do we kill a person who is seeking the truth but makes a mistake?”
In continuing Aghajari referred to the views of some jurists who have said apostasy is a political concept not an ideological one and said: “Apostasy can be found in the politics of all pre-modern societies. Fortunately some of our progressive jurists have taken important steps in this area. In the fatwas [religious edicts] of many jurists there is no punishment for apostasy. Many jurists have even said the requirement for carrying out a punishment is the presence of an immaculate Imam.”
Referring to the change in times and the issue of semi-proof, Aghajari said in those times the political and the ideological were combined. That is why when some people refer to the punishment of death in the first years of Islam it was not because of an ideological change of heart but for political treason.
At the end of his talk Aghajari talked about a contracted reading of religion and that this kind of interpretation is in conflict with fundamental human rights. He said suppression of those who believe in other faiths is not out of the logic of religion but the logic of force and power. He concluded: “The logic of force and dominance through power is different than the logic of religion.”
After Aghajari’s talk, Asadi Zeydabadi referred to Hashem Aghajari’s death sentence for apostasy after his speech in Hamedan and said the speech in that episode should be a message to those who want to enter apostasy as a crime in the country’s judicial system. He addressed them and said: “It is better that you do not ratify a worn out law that society today does not accept.”
Seeking Help from the Head of Judiciary
Also at this conference, Mansour Osanlou’s mother who was too sick to go to the podium, asked Mazrzieh Mortazi Langaroudy, member of the society for defense of prisoners, to read a note to those present about the latest condition of his son.
Marzieh Mortazi Langaroudi referred to the bylaws of prisoners in Iran. Considering the positive points in these bylaws, as recounted by the wife of Mansour Osanlou, Langaroudi talked about the efforts by his family in asking for a temporary release due to his medical condition, something which has not occurred so far despite their efforts.
Osanlou’s medical condition was another issue discussed at this gathering. Putting hand cuffs and chains on his feet when transferring him to the hospital was something that many families were affected by and protested.
Thus, along with Parvaneh Osanlou, Mansour Osanlou’s wife, who had asked Ayatollah Shahroudi to help her family, Mortazi Langaroudi also asked Shahroudi for his help in reviewing Mansour Osanlou and other political prisoners’ condition.
After presenting a report on the condition of this labor activist [Osanlou], the issue of the Kurdish activists’ hunger strike in prison came up. Giving a short description of their condition due to the concerns of human rights activists became the next topic of discussion at the gathering.
Kurdish Prisoners and Hunger Strike
At the request of the organizers of the conference Mohammad Ali Towfiqi, the political and civil activist, gave a short description of the bad condition of these prisoners, especially Hedayat Ghazami and Sabah Nasri, the two Kurdish students. He said: “Without a center-periphery look and while supporting these prisoners, national forces should ask that they end their hunger strike and pursue other ways to bring attention to their problems.”
Then Asad Zeydabadi, as representative of the Committee to Pursue Arbitrary Arrests asked these prisoners to end their hunger strike on the occasion of Eid-e Fetr.
Threatening Families of Political and Ideological Prisoners
Wife of Alireza Sarrafi, the minority rights activist in Azarbayjan, also described her husband’s situation for those present at the conference. She talked about threats against the family after the arrest of her husband.
At this moment Mansour Osanlou’s mother who had come and stood by Alireza Saffari’s wife because she was upset, asked the people present at the gathering to try harder to find out about the condition of prisoners and for their freedom.
The problems that were created for some Iranian families who had traveled to Iraq to visit their family members who are living in Ashraf camp was the other issue discussed. One of these people who had participated in this gathering on the afternoon of Eid-e Fetr, gave a short report on the condition of his child who is a prisoner. Yazerlou talked about big collaterals he had to put down for her spouse and child. She talked about her child’s physical condition in prison and that he is awaiting a trial on 15 Aban [5 November].
[Nader Karami of Rooz Online has published a report of the Conference on Freedom of Ideas and Rights of Religious Minorities, which was held on Monday, 6 October 2008, at: http://www.roozonline.com/archives/2008/10/post_9439.php. Prof Hashem Aghajari spoke at this conference and his comments are shared above in translation by an anonymous contributor.]