Inadequate Understanding of Human Rights in Iranian Society

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By Mahmoud Sabahi

Translation by Iran Press Watch

Introduction: Human beings in Iran are “citicaptives” and not citizens!

Attitudes and habits of social and political life in Iran, and the resistance that they display in the face of anything unfamiliar, give you a flashback of Luis Bunuel’s movie “The Exterminating Angel”: the inability to do what must be done is like exiting a hall from a closed door ‒ a closed door which is in fact a symbol of a closed historical and social situation. This film reflects the lives of people who, although they claim to be dissatisfied with their situation, in truth exert no effort to get out of it; perhaps, to the contrary, without being aware of it, they are clinging to this situation with both hands: these are “citicaptives” and not “citizens”. They don’t see that what prevents them from getting out is not a supernatural force, but their own attitudes and habits: attitudes and habits that surrealistically hinder their exit from the hall. They have fallen into the trap of their own mental creations and social roles; this is a preventive force influencing them in a metaphysical and theological way. They are self-alienated people who do not understand that the “key” to this closed door is within themselves, and not in those who show them the key.

A scene from Louis Bunuel's film The Exterminating Angel, 1962
A scene from Louis Bunuel’s film The Exterminating Angel, 1962

The individuals in this film, just like self-imprisoned Iranian people, want to retain their opportunities, privileges, roles, social formalities and ways of life, but they also desire to leap out of this closed social and political situation at the same time. This is a crushing and destructive dilemma that has worn out and exhausted all of them, and finally allows the angel of death to overcome them, without their ever being able to even slightly crack the closed door ‒ a liberating crack ‒ transformative to their bumpy, patchy, and unfair fate.

A misunderstanding: The concept of human rights as a foreign thought

In Iranian society, a certain militant reaction to outsiders’ cultures and differing thoughts or concepts is strongly at play; this is exactly the same wave of collective unconscious desire of Iranian society that political systems, in order to advance their own goals, usually grab onto in order to achieve their political intentions and purposes: using the Historical and mental sensitivities and obsessions of their society, they continuously incite people against anything that looks or smells unfamiliar, so as to ignite within them the fire of threat perception. Of course, it is actually more accurate to say that they add to a fire that has already been kindled, by fanning it so that it burns higher and faster in the plain of ignorance of the society, and drives the fan of the government’s intentions ‒ and this is the biggest factor in the backwardness and suppression of Iranian society: rejection of everything with a new flavor ‒ a form of popularization of the worship of that which is old and traditional. This is the trap that puts Iranian society at odds with new possibilities and opportunities, and fundamentally at odds with cultural and human capacities.

The scope of this fear of the unfamiliar, and clinging to the familiar and old, not only includes the masses; the majority of intellectuals also operate under the same modus operandi. This fear of the unfamiliar has brought them certain values, and has formed their opinion that living side by side with the dysfunctional, violent and unjust Iranian regime is much more honorable than living under the yoke of foreign lands, ideas, and having to accept their human rights.

But who are these foreigners? How can any human culture claim self-sufficiency while disconnected from the rest of the human body? Aren’t all advanced cultures in the world the result of interaction and exchange with the collective human society? Aren’t the concepts and principles of human rights the results of this interaction and collective human experience? If they pondered well, they would discover that what they consider foreign most likely is closer to them than their own veins!

Consider the Persian language: each word and tone of it is from a different language and culture, and this interaction is certainly not one-sided ‒ the Persian language also has a role in the development of other languages. Consider the enormous structure of Persepolis, how architects from other lands and cultures were fundamental in its magnificent construction: having something is not an indication of having given birth to it.

It is true that no great and magnificent phenomenon of human culture has been created in a vacuum; the continuation of human cultural life, just as its economic life, is more than anything dependent on give and take with the collective human body. Without this exchange, the initial economic and cultural developments would remain stagnant and gradually crumble and disappear. It is evident that whatever does not expand eventually collapses. Even an old and stagnant population that is not infused with fresh blood – or in the words of the familiar oppressors and fear mongers: without new foreign blood, the population will recede and lose appetite, and head towards destruction. Therefore, the subject of immigration also should be added to the list of essential human interactions.

Related to the concepts and principles of human rights and human freedoms, the choice of one’s place of residence is stressed, not only because having this choice is conducive to human dignity, but also because this choice is what ensures human dignity.

Thus, the concept of human rights should be interpreted in conjunction and in relation with each other in order to to produce a comprehensive picture in the mind that is understandable.

For example: immigration is a human right that can re-supply and perhaps guarantee other rights; hence, the migrant (counter-intuitively) is not a traitor, but is one who on the one hand is seeking lost rights (more precisely: rights that have been plundered), and on the other hand, is one who provides an opportunity for human closeness and development. He separates from imposed geographical, economic, political and cultural constraints, and joins another collective human body; he thus restores his lost rights and dignity, even if he only partially reclaims them.

The mentality that fears the unfamiliar and believes one should be loyal to family, government and country at any cost, has not yet recognized how one should measure the worth and legitimacy of each socio-political institution. If one feels good about the memories of one’s country, it is because once he felt a sense of security and dignity there, and could meet his needs without fear. But what if the very same country becomes a symbol of human insecurity and frustration? Can it still be called home? If someone is to leave such a home which does not respect him because of his differences, has he betrayed his homeland? Do concepts such as betrayal and loyalty deprive man from understanding and being close to fundamental concepts of human rights, or from being blessed with basic liberties?

To say it decisively: Breaking off any relationship in which one does not feel a sense of honor and security is not only not a betrayal ‒ it is the basic, obvious, and necessary right in life; this relation can be as natural as the relationship between mother and child, or any other emotional, legal, political, historical or cultural relationship.

In other words, human beings have a right to betrayal when they feel alienated, rejected and failed, and betrayal is the name that is given to breaking through people’s rights in order to to dampen questions and opposition forces in the society. Those who have the ability to break away and release themselves from destructive, repressive, and violent relationships are the self-same people who recognize human rights and will not turn their backs to it under the excuse that our society and culture are not yet ready to understand and accept them (and fundamentally their own rights).

Watching an execution

Ignoring actual and potential capacities; conformity of Iranian culture with human rights

By neglecting its actual and potential capacities, Iranian society robs itself of its practical and dormant cultural potentialities to become closer to the principles and objectives of human rights, and in actuality deprives itself from understanding the pathways and bridges that can link the Iranian social and political system to global social and political systems.

What the International Declaration of Human Rights states is not only not a stranger to Iranian cultural foundations; it actually supports at minimum a large part of it. The Declaration of Human Rights was founded on a basis of understanding the inherent nobility of every individual; it means that individuals ‒ regardless of race, wealth, gender, nationality, religion and social status ‒ are entitled to dignity and universal peace and justice and equal rights ‒ and not to be deprived of these rights should also be added to the list.

Mahmoud Sabahi
Mahmoud Sabahi

Despite this, many have misunderstood, thinking that the concepts of human rights are at odds with Islamic culture and traditional Iranian culture and education, so that therefore it is necessary to refrain from allowing the principles and concepts of human rights, which are outside of our culture, to be thought or entered into our society in order to make sure that the unique culture of Iran remains pure and untouched. They speak of cultural, legal, and political differences, and conflicts among local cultures which range from local to ultimately national, versus human rights which is universal. But those who are involved in these types of discussions, more than seeking to understand and identify cultural restrictions, aim to remain in their closed and familiar culture; if this were not the case, and if they didn’t desire to oppress what is not familiar to them, they would immediately recognize the potential of Persian Sufi culture, which is deeply open to anything “other” or “unfamiliar”, and has an open, global mentality.

But more importantly, if they would open their eyes, and especially their minds, they could find the most active, up to date, and efficient human experience embedded in the foundations of the newly founded Baha’i religion: a religion with Iranian origins, but with a global and world-embracing perspective.

This is a religion that has already demonstrated that human rights and peaceful and non-violent living are not only poetic and far-reaching words, but possible to be realized.

This is a religion that has proven that the concept of human rights, more than being a product of western political culture, is actually a product of innate human rights and leanings that any culture can reach within itself through breaking stereotypes, whereupon it will be possible to have an inclusive outlook on the entire human family.

This religion, derived from the repressed and suppressed culture of Iran, has been able to fearlessly open up to the most distant and unfamiliar human horizons, and surpass its own borders as a religion. This religion is a religion that blots out and fades a divisive and power-seeking religious system, and converts religion and religious practices into a meeting-place of people from all over the world. In other words: although this religion is a religion, it has nevertheless overcome religious dogmatism and the tendency to keep a power hierarchy (and a system of building hierarchies), and does not elevate itself over other religions or cultures of the world. It therefore has been able to transcend many geographical, ethnic, cultural and national borders, and establish a standing at the same level of human rights institutions, and also has the utmost collaboration and cooperation with human rights institutions and human rights activists.

Those who know about the Baha’i Faith, and who have investigated and studied it carefully, are well aware that the fundamental tenets of of this religion are in a clear way consistent and even one with the principles and concepts of human rights. It is sufficient to glance at the fundamental teachings of this religion:

  1. The oneness of humanity,
  2. Equality of women and men,
  3. Universal Peace,
  4. Elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty,
  5. Universal compulsory education,
  6. Establishment of Universal House of Justice,
  7. Elimination of prejudice, and so on!

A strong emphasis on fundamental concepts such as universal peace, justice and the equality of women and men in this Iranian religion properly reflects the common understanding of a segment of Iranian society with the principles of the International Declaration of Human Rights; a common understanding that brings the Baha’i community a lot closer to the international community (and Iranian society very far). This is true even though Baha’i community values are derived from Iranian community and society ‒ instead of trying to destroying it, or being ignored by intellectuals, these should be converted to the social and political values of the entire Iranian society. But the alienation and estrangement towards the unfamiliar in Iranian society is such that it still tries to convert the renewal of the Iranian man – which is connected to wide-open horizons ‒ to conspiracy, and reduce it to a creation of foreign nations. No one has ever arisen to kill himself in such a heinous way!

Nevertheless, the Baha’i community, in spite of all the malice and obstinacy brought to bear against it, and in spite of all the pains and wounds on its body, uses non-violent means to achieve its goals ‒ especially the use of education and raising public understanding, which is the fundamental purpose of human rights education as well, in which they try to bring human beings close to the truth and increase awareness. Insults and intimidation, suffering, torture and slavery, humiliation, hunger, violence, war and destruction to life and human dignity will not open a path to a dignified life or to human nobility; perhaps on the contrary, they will close any previously opened pathway.

Wrap-up: When one views some people or some part of the world as alien, in reality one has actually alienated oneself from those people or part of the world. No one in this world is foreign to another, unless someone is alienated from his own human self, and from the world.


One Response

  1. Mina Yazdani

    December 20, 2016 6:22 pm

    Thank you very much for translating and sharing this insightful article. Thanks to the open-minded author!


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