Review: A case study on religion and human rights

Human Rights, the UN and the Bahá'ís in Iran
by Nazila Ghanea
George Ronald / Kluwer Law International
Oxford / The Hague

The coming of the new millennium has also brought a surprising upsurge in religious feeling around the world. Secularism, once thought to be the rising tide of modernism, seems to have been only a cresting wave.

Sadly, one side effect of the surge in religiosity has been an accompanying magnification of religious intolerance and even violence. The list of problem countries is too large to enumerate here, but the manifestations of this intolerance and violence can be seen on virtually every continent — and on a global level extend to the much-discussed "clash of civilizations."

In this context, the recent book Human Rights, the UN and the Bahá'ís in Iran by Nazila Ghanea takes on heightened significance. Not only does it carefully examine the specific "case" of religious persecution faced by Iran's Bahá'í community, it also insightfully analyzes how the international community has dealt with the difficult intersection of human rights and religion.

The situation of Iran's Bahá'ís has been well-covered, both in these pages and in the news media worldwide. It is widely known that since the Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979, more than 200 Bahá'ís have been killed, hundreds have been imprisoned, and thousands have been deprived of jobs and education — all solely because of their religious belief.

However, the case of the Bahá'ís also represents one of the most successful examples of international intervention in the arena of human rights. In 1982, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights passed the first of some 19 consecutive annual resolutions expressing "concern" over the situations of human rights in Iran with specific mention of the Bahá'ís. These were followed with similar resolutions in the UN General Assembly.

Although the Iranian government has never directly acknowledged the impact of these declarations — or the accompanying international outcry in the media and in national parliaments and legislatures — the rate of killings dropped sharply within a few years, as did the number of Bahá'ís in Iranian prisons. Sadly, other manifestations of the persecutions against Iran's Bahá'ís continue to this day, including restrictions on access to education, the expropriation of property, denial of employment, and limitations on the rights of worship and assembly.

Dr. Ghanea, a lecturer in International Law and Human Rights at the University of London, meticulously analyzes the course and substance of these UN resolutions from 1980 to 2002. (Nearly one third of the book's 628 pages is devoted to appendices that document, year-by-year, each UN resolution on Iran and the situation of the Bahá'í community there.) On this score alone, the book is a valuable document for anyone concerned with how international human rights machinery can be made to function successfully.

But perhaps of wider interest are the analysis and conclusions offered by Dr. Ghanea as she considers what the Bahá'í case means to the entire international human rights regime as it relates to religious intolerance.

Dr. Ghanea notes, for example, that the whole notion of human rights arose largely as a secular movement, and that the international discussion of it has come mainly in the last half of the 20th century, in the post-World War II environment.

And because of the secular beginnings of human rights theory, she writes, questions about how religious intolerance and persecution fit into it have in many ways been problematic and/or pushed to the sidelines in the development of international human rights law.

She notes that, historically, religious conflict has been a source of violence and "human rights" violations, often when one religion has asserted itself as morally superior to another. Accordingly, the idea of human rights has been "put it forward as a unique language of morality, to be contrasted sharply with the self-referential subjectivities of specific belief systems," Dr. Ghanea writes. "The assumptions underlying this perspective seem to be that the only way human rights norms and standards can ever hope to be 'universalized' is through such secularism."

Yet, she suggests, in today's complex world of "believers and non-believers, and a variety of cultures, religions and races," it is virtually impossible to sever human rights law and theory from the question of religion and religious belief — and it is, in fact, counterproductive.

Instead, she writes, religions "should be encouraged to pour their visions and moral resources into the progression of human rights, whilst allowing 'room for neutral norms and values independent of such traditions.' If either a human rights ideology or religious commitments are interpreted in a totalizing manner, they will exclude one another — to the detriment of both projects in the long term."

Moreover, she writes, at the heart of the intersection between human rights and religion is the question of "how religions expect to be treated and how they treat others."

"The most interesting dilemma that emerges is that of new religions that emerge from the midst of previous religions," she writes. "Such groups perceive themselves as having established a new belief community whereas the 'parent' community sees them as a distortion and blasphemous offshoot of their group. Human rights are thus often critically denied them as they epitomize the most threatening and dangerous form of the 'other.'"

And in this regard, the Bahá'í case in Iran takes on special significance as "a fascinating yet brief insight into passionately held but fundamentally opposed cleavages between the cultural revolution in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the international human rights community."

Her chapters charting the back-and-forth between international human rights experts and Iranian diplomats in various UN forums make this point in a way that is at times almost comical, were it not for the seriousness of the issue.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Iranian representatives sought to dismiss the Bahá'í case as anything but an example of genuine religious persecution. At various points, they accused Bahá'ís of being Zionists (because the Bahá'í World Centre, through historical circumstance, is located in Israel), of being criminals (falsely accusing Bahá'ís of immorality and drug-abuse), or simply of being so small as to be irrelevant.

In 1991, for example, the Iranian government issued a statement saying that the number of Bahá'ís in Iran came to "less than one thousand" (despite well-acknowledged figures putting the Bahá'í population of Iran at over 300,000), while at the same time, apparently to rebut charges that Bahá'ís were denied access to education, noting that some "500 Bahá'í applicants" took the entrance exam for higher education in 1990.

"According to this statement," writes Dr. Ghanea, "over 50 percent of Iran's Bahá'í community had taken part in the 1990 university entrance examinations! If the purpose of these moves had been to reassure the international community about the situation of the Bahá'ís, it seems that it fell short of its objectives."

Ultimately, then, Dr. Ghanea's book offers a fascinating glimpse at some of the core issues regarding religion and human rights and how they are currently playing out on the world stage. The lessons it offers will be of increasing importance in a world that is at once so rich in its religious and cultural diversity — and so divided in its understanding of how it is possible for all to live together in peace.