Religious Intolerance and Critical Thinking

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Translation by Iran Press Watch

 Mehdi Khalaji 

30 August, 2014

Below is the full text of my talk at the Twenty Forth Conference of the Association of Friends of Persian Culture, on twenty ninth of August, 2014 in Chicago.

Mehdi Khalaji

It’s been a while since talking about religious intolerance has been so critical.  A vast land in the Middle East is burning in the fire of religious conflicts, its people homeless, bereaved, headless and helpless.  The ordinary moments of everyday life turn into rare nightmares born out of an ailing mind, and there is no trace of a bright tomorrow.  In a place which the streets or the houses are not battlefields for women and armed or unarmed men, prejudices and systematic repression of social and political thoughts intensifies and accelerates religious intolerance, and creates victims.  Iran and Saudi Arabia are the two stable countries in the region who commit the most atrocious forms of discrimination against religious minorities.

If someone is to perceive the depth of this tragedy that has beset this part of the world, it would be beneficial to contrast today with the nineteenth century era, and observe the colorful religious diversity that existed in the nineteenth century “Middle East” or the “Islamic world” as it is called.  For example, Arab Christians played a significant role in the transition from the old world to the new world, and even played an undeniable role in the modernization of the Arabic language. However, today, Christians in Iraq are victims of the cruelest kind of religious dogmatism.  They have been pushed out of their birthplace and their dignity has been lost in the massive pain, smoke, sighs, and sulfur.  The Jews in the land that has been their homes for hundreds but thousands of years, hurt from all the abuse, leave the memories of their ancestors, and bitterly head to the lands of the non-Muslims.  The Baha’is, in the land where their Faith was born, and took form, are not safe from the malice of the government and the general social atmosphere, and are denied the most basic citizenship rights.  The “Muslim world” and the “Middle East” lose their own religious quest and with astonishing pace become homogenous.  But where prejudice lurks, doesn’t it eventually lead to Muslims, turning against Muslims?
The battle of Shia and Sunnis – or rather the tensions and violence that finds an expression in religious literature – will cut in pieces the body of the Islamic world to pieces for decades to come. The mass migration of non-Muslims from Islamic lands or repression and systemic pressure on them, is not where this violence ends.  When a Muslim is not able to get along with a Jew or a Baha’i and establish a foundation for coexistence with them, he will be incapable of doing this with other Muslims as well; brother will kill brother and a woman will have no choice but to tear open the chest of her own tribe for a piece of happiness.

What is “Religious Intolerance “?
In the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment Age, the rationalist friends of the encyclopedia, wrote the following in defining the word “fanaticism” and “dogmatism”:  “The blind prejudice which is the result of a belief in superstition leading to behaviors that are ridiculous, oppressive, and cruel, but the zealots, without shame and regret commit such behaviors and even enjoy it, and are proud of it. Consequently, fanaticism is the practical embodiment of superstition.”

In other words, prejudice is a fierce, stormy, vulgar and chaotic manifestation of superstition.  But what is “superstition”? Maybe “superstitions” are beliefs and assertions that are still not analyzed and are not critically thought-out, beliefs of our ancestors or the result of exigencies of today’s regime and those in power, that thus justify the exercise of power and the legitimacy of some against others.

“Superstition” is deceitful, but not innocent; superstitions are directly linked to the regime, and the mechanisms of elite power.  It may appear as thou the subject of the superstition is linked to the heavenly realms or abstract concepts, but in the end, the same supernatural beliefs or abstract notions form the relationships between people of flesh and blood. Therefore, a rational assessment of superstitions and thinking critically about superstition is not a mere intellectual exercise or academic debate, but it is an essential duty towards the realization of justice, freedom and the struggle to find the outward and  hidden forms of oppression and authoritarianism.

Voltaire, in his book “Philosophical Dictionary” correctly wrote: “Religious intolerance agitates the souls of the people and keeps them in a perpetual state of funk, fury, aggression, and anxiety.”  This is how violence and prejudice are daunting names for the same thing and the fanatics are always ready to use superstitious beliefs to break people’s bones, and further expand the frontiers of barbarism.

Voltaire wrote “Philosophers are intimately familiar with this phenomenon, and are aware of its antidote; antidote to prejudice is a philosophical mindset.  To the extent that prejudice agitates the souls, philosophical thinking calms it, and allows reflection on an action before committing it.

Due to the nature of this gathering let me mention what atrocities are done against the Baha’i community in Iran. An important part of this oppression is as the result of religious intolerance. This religious bigotry is not only justified in the Shia religion but has become the basis of the unfair legislation.

The Article XII of the constitution law states: “The official religion of Iran is Islam and the Shiite Twelve Imamat, and this principle is unchangeable forever.”

The Article XIII of the Act reads: “Zoroastrian, Jew, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities who are free to practice their faith within the law of the land.”

Why is it that only the followers of three religions are recognized in the constitution as religious minorities?

At the time of drafting of the constitution, a group of (non-Shia) righteous people who for the most part were from the South of Iran, made a request from the representatives of the Majles (Parliament) who were involved in the drafting of the constitution, for the religious minorities to be recognized in the constitution. They also cited a verse from the Quran that referred to the Righteous.  The representatives said since the Islamic Jurists (elite clerics) do not consider the righteous as followers of the True Religion, they cannot be acknowledged in the Constitution.   Also, there is a mention of the same demand by the Baha’is, but according to the official version of the proceedings of the parliament and constitution, this demand has been met with silence and indifference.

Thus, the only people who can be recognized as “religious minorities” per Constitution of the Islamic Republic are those who are considered in Islamic jurisprudence as “People of the Book”.   Hence, let’s reflect on the definition of “People of the Book”.

In Islamic law, Christians and Jews are infidels, but “People of the Book” are different from other infidels.  Few Elite Clerics have even issued Fatwa’s about People of the Book not being unclean as are the rest of the infidels who are as unclean as blood, urine, and stool.

Understanding of the Islamic Jurists (Elite Clerics) and the Islamic theologians and commentators of Judaism and Christianity is historically inaccurate.   In other words, what they are attributing to the Jews and Christians per Quran and Hadith, is not what Jews and Christians believe about themselves. As Majid Sharafi, the famous Tunisian Islamologist, has stated in an article titled “The Christian Interpretation of Tabari”, indicates that in the Qur’an, the phrase “People of the Book” is sometimes only about Jews, and at times about Jews and Christians together, and yet at times refers exclusively to Christians.  Quran considers the Torah, as the Book delivered from God to Moses, and the Bible, the Book that God delivered to Jesus.  Also in the Quran there is the mention of one Bible not the “Bibles”.  Tabari one of the preeminent interpreters of Islam, sometimes considers Torah and Bible as one book of scripture and sermons:  “In the Bible, the name of Muhammad has been mentioned as the next prophet to come, but the Bible and Torah have been distorted, in other words they have either been changed  or inaccurate interpretations have been added, and false statements has been added as God’s word, or they have denied the messengers of God, or they have deleted Mohammad’s name from it, in order to hide the predictions about the coming of Islam.

We can give a long list of fundamental differences between that which the Jews and the Christians believe about their faith, and what the Islamic concept of Judaism and Christianity is.  If true Judaism and Jewish history is different from that which Muslim Jurists believe, and if true Christian and historical Christianity is different from what Muslim Jurists and commentators claim, then why do they continue to call Jews and Christians “The People of the Book”?  Also, it is unlikely that any of the great Islamic Jurists have any familiarity with Zoroastrianism either, despite all the available technological information today.  In Islamic texts there is a host of historically inaccurate information about Zoroastrians.

Do the Islamic Jurists, consider Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians as official pre-Islamic religions, simply because these came to being pre-Islam and do not challenge Islamic legitimacy?  Is it not true that those three religions, do not consider Islam as a True “religion”?  Is not it the case that there have been historical Crusaders’ wars between Christians and Muslims over land as well as the “sky” and they have shed each other’s blood in the name of Jihad and the Cross?   Are these religions recognized because their followers believe in the oneness of God?  Don’t the Baha’is believe in the unity of God?  What is the differentiating factor between the Baha’i theology and that of Christianity that makes them not be a “Religion of the Book”, or its followers not be considered the “People of the Book”?  “The Book(s)” that Islamic Jurists, attribute to the Jewish or Christian Bible, historically have little resemblance to the Old Testament, New  Testament, four gospels and other Bibles.  The Baha’i Scriptures can be just as unacceptable for the Islamic Jurists as are the Books of Jews and Christians today.

Critical reflection on the phrase “People of the Book” shows that “the People of the Book” is an ideological concept, which bear no rational analysis and the slightest scrutiny can tear it apart into pieces.  This concept only works for imposing limits and discrimination against people of faith, including Judaism and Christianity as well.  The phrase “People of the Book” draws a wall between “community of the society” versus the “others” who must be under the tutelage of the “community of the society”.  Phrases such as “People of the Book”,  “community of the society”, give birth to the “other(s)” and belong to a world where “society”, “nation”, “state”, “humane individual”, “citizen”, “natural rights” and “Human rights” were not yet born, and political theology established the foundation of political and social order.  When no philosophical understanding of the “other(s)” existed and we did not yet  know that eliminating the other, not accepting another, not understanding and not seeing others is not knowing and seeing ourselves.  We still did not know that the fundamental issue related to the existence of ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’, is the issue of the ‘other’, and the fact that there is no liberty and justice without recognition of the ‘other’ and respecting their equal rights to freedoms.  Shiites who are not familiar with the Baha’i faith, will not have a true understanding of their own Shiite identity  over the past one hundred and fifty years; hardly will they be able to defend their own  rights as free citizens.

As a result, defending the rights of Baha’is, is not simply an ideal for Baha’is, but it is a concern for any Iranian citizen, whether Baha’i or Shia, or atheist; because the Iranian citizen must be able to defend their own equal rights and freedoms, how can one achieve this goal without defending the rights of minorities, including the Baha’is?


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