A chance for change in Iran

Iranian President-elect Hasan Rouhani at a June 17 news conference in Tehran. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP ) Winston Nagan is a professor … Continued

Iranian President-elect Hasan Rouhani at a June 17 news conference in Tehran. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP )

Winston Nagan is a professor of law and the founding director of the Institute for Human Rights and Peace Development at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and a former chairman of the board of directors of Amnesty International, USA (1989-91).

Avoid any kind of socializing with the “deviant and misleading sect.” These are the words in the fatwa of July 29, 2013, issued by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, against the Baha’i Faith. Its release was so close to the August 4 inauguration of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, that it could be reasonably viewed as a pre-emptive move to block any plans of the new president to reduce the persecution of religious minorities in Iran, especially Baha’is.

Rouhani has sparked considerable speculation about the future of Iran. Who is he? What will he do? Is he a true “moderate” or a “conservative”? Will he align himself with Khamenei’s most recent attack against the Baha’is? Or, will he be the same voice of hope for Iran’s oppressed minorities when, while campaigning, he stated that religious minorities should have the equal rights of citizens? One thing is clear: his assumption of office presents an opportunity for significant change in tone and perhaps even policy. Although Iran’s nuclear aspirations capture headlines, also of great concern are Iran’s human rights practices, particularly regarding religious freedom and those who defend those rights.

In Iran today, there are hundreds of prisoners of conscience. Among the most noted are three human rights lawyers, Mr. Abdolfattah Soltani,
Ms. Nasrin Sotoudeh, and Mr. Mohammad Ali Dadkhah. Their crime: defending prisoners of conscience.

Soltani co-founded, along with Dadkhah and Ms. Shirin Ebadi, the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Tehran. He was detained in 2011 while defending the seven leaders of Iran’s Baha’i community, who were imprisoned for their faith. Soltani was sentenced to 13 years in prison and banned from practicing law for 20 years. While in prison in 2012, he was awarded the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Award.

Similarly, Dadkhah defended Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was, at one point, sentenced to death for his Christian faith, but was ultimately freed. Dadkhah was detained in 2011, sentenced to nine years in prison, and banned from practicing law for 10 years.

Sotoudeh, noted for defending religious minorities, was sentenced in 2011 to 11 years in prison and banned from practicing law for 20 years. In 2012, while in prison, she was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament. In addition to these brave prisoners, other lawyers, such as Ebadi and Ms. Mahnaz Parakand, are currently in exile for defending the rights of Iranian citizens.

Religious freedom may be the most important front in the struggle for human rights in Iran, for it is the freedom that most deeply challenges the regime’s vision for an ideologically homogenous theocracy. Each of these lawyers defended religious minorities, and Ebadi, Soltani, Sotoudeh, and Parakand defended members of the Bah ‘ Faith, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority. Baha’is have been a favorite target of the regime and are routinely arrested and imprisoned. Since January 2011, the number of Bah ‘ s in prison has doubled, from roughly 56 to 112, and the number awaiting trial, appeal, sentencing, or the commencement of their sentences increased from roughly 230 to 435.

Among the Baha’is currently in prison are the seven members of the former ad hoc national leadership group. They were responsible for tending to the basic needs of the Baha’i community, such as dealing with marriages, divorces, and funerals. They were imprisoned on baseless charges, including espionage and corruption on earth, and were defended by both Ebadi and Parakand before these lawyers were forced to leave the country. In May of this year, they completed the fifth year of their 20-year sentences, the longest sentences given to any prisoners of conscience in Iran to date.

With harsh sentences handed down to Baha’is, Christians, and the lawyers who dared to defend them, Iran sent a clear message about its restrictions on religious freedom. Now is Rouhani’s chance to make good on his campaign pledge by ending this abuse. Khamenei’s fatwa will make the new president’s task more difficult. Indeed, the fatwa could even be a signal of worse things to come.

Accepting religious pluralism the clear implication of Rouhani’s campaign pledge — would greatly strengthen Iranian society. Considerable evidence has been amassed in recent years, most notably in rigorous studies by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, showing a strong correlation across the globe between religious freedom and social stability. If Rouhani and the clerical elite leading Iran’s government are truly concerned with the well-being of the country, they would do well to begin by granting greater freedom, including of religion.

Winston Nagan
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  • truthnotlies

    Its interesting to read views displayed about Iran by people that have neither seen the country post revolution nor really know the meaning of freedom of religion in Iran. A country that has been accused of anti-semitism (yet is the only Muslim country in the region with a Jewish population greater than Israel, with Jewish members on its parliament), terrorism (yet the only terrorist attacks have been perpetuated against them i.e. the assassination of Iranian Intellectuals over the past 30 yrs, the blowing up of a passenger jet by the American Navy in Iranian waters killing 300 people). Yet the American allies in the region have the same intolerance to the Shia minority, towards semites, towards women, and most importantly towards opposition groups. Bahai’s are just as free to practice in Iran as Shias are free in Saudi Qatar Bahrain etc etc. It does not make one right and the other wrong yet it leaves to wonder that if American public is so caught up on the freedoms that these nations afford their people why are we not discussing all the religious oppression in the region that is done via America and Israel to maintain whats left of their influence over the wealth of natural resources in that region. All countries even the United States oppress religious freedoms and its time we stop pointing the finger lest we judge ourselves by the same standard. At best your opinion reflects where your income is coming from Mr. Nagan.

  • wpc09

    One measure of oppression is how it is used to deflect legitimate criticism. Your online alias would more appropriately change the parts of your handle to put truth last. Baha’is are not free to practice their religion in Iran. no amount of claiming otherwise can wipe away the deaths of thousands of Baha’is in Iran since the mid-19th century, the execution or murder of more than 200 Baha’is since 1979 (including women and teenage girls, hanged for teaching Baha’i children’s classes), the expropriation of all Baha’i properties and centers, the bulldozing of cemeteries, the denial of business licenses, prohibition on providing higher education to any Baha’i, the harassment of children and youth in schools, firing from positions in government agencies, the demands for repayment of pensions, the failure to prosecute any crimes committed against Baha’is (whose blood may be shed with impunity), and now an order that Muslims not associate with Baha’is. I fail to see how this reality is a lie, since I know so many Baha’is from Iran who suffered these things and many Baha’is in Iran who suffer them now.

    This article is about the Baha’is. If you wish to write a thoughtful article about the treatment of Shia Muslims, please write it. But do not presume to have the authority to dismiss the targeting of Baha’is as a distraction. It is anything but. The treatment of Baha’is is the leading edge of how everyone else is treated in today’s Iran.

  • Pegasus

    Who is preaching human rights to whom?

    Who is the United States fooling?

    Concerning human rights, justice and the dignity of people, the United States:
    * was established on the blood of some 10 million (up to 18 million according to some experts) Native human beings;
    * has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with young Black males six times more likely to be in prison than young white males, and non-whites comprising 65% of inmates;
    * has repeatedly used torture, water boarding, sleep deprivation, humiliation, stripping, hooding, and other cruel, inhuman and degrading tactics in its Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and other prison camps elsewhere;
    * has an economy that has caused at least 10 recessions since WWII, some 50 million Americans to subsist on Food Stamps, at least 3.5 million homeless people, a shrinking middle class, and the widest income disparity among the so-called Western Democracies;
    * has some 50 million Americans without any medical coverage whatsoever, has no universal health care plan for its citizens, who spend twice as much per capita on medical care as do citizens of other Western nations with national health plans;
    * spends some $700 billion a year on war, almost as much as the military spending of the rest of the world combined, while politicians insist universal health care is too costly;
    * affords corporations legal personhood, giving them much greater influence in elections and with members of Congress than ordinary citizens;
    * and, has the most heavily armed society in the world with 90 guns per 100 citizens, and buys over half the world’s annual output of small arms
    * The Snowden and the Manning issues have exemplified outstanding ways of managing human rights of American people. No wonder Russia has given a slap on the face of moralist idiots of America, when America spares no efforts in giving sermons on human rights to Russia.

  • David Dahl

    Bahai is not a religion, it’s marketing and money making tool similar to Moonies or Church of Scientology.

  • ThomasBaum

    Since the title of the article is “A chance for change in Iran” and that Iran is an Islamic Republic than about the only honest “chance for change” is if it stopped being an Islamic Republic or if the basic tenets of Islam were discarded.

    There are two forms of lying to non-believers that are permitted under certain circumstances, taqiyya and kitman. These circumstances are typically those that advance the cause Islam – in some cases by gaining the trust of non-believers in order to draw out their vulnerability and defeat them.

    Seems as if the religious authorities in Iran must believe that Iran is strong enough to not employ “taqiyya and/or kitman” whichever would be applicable in this situation concerning religious liberty.

    I suppose that this is why some think that others have “watered down” their faith.

    No one anywhere in the world should be able to force their faith, no matter what that faith is, on another.

  • wpc09

    Your distorted view cannot come from actual experience with the Baha’i community or study of the Baha’i Faith. The Baha’i Faith only accepts monetary contributions from members. There are no secret rituals, no high-cost training schemes, no efforts to cut people off from their families.

    The Baha’i Faith is a world faith whose purpose is the spiritual unification of the human race. Baha’is believe that there is one God, Whose reality cannot be encompassed by the human mind. God reveals Himself periodically through Manifestations of God, such as Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and now Baha’u’llah. Baha’is pray, fast, make pilgrimage, engage in service to humanity. If that is not a religion, then it would seem that Judaism, Christianity and Islam also do not qualify.

  • wpc09

    So you are saying that because the United States also needs moral reformation that Iran should be allowed to continue its persecution of its largest religious minority?

  • Amirchik

    It is enough to familiarize oneself with the secret memorandum of 1991 that aimed at establishing a policy on “the Baha’i question” to judge whether Baha’is in Iran are free to practise their religion.

    Perhaps, you’re referring to the many ordinary Iranian citizens — both secular and religious — who think of Baha’is as productive members of society and support their efforts to contribute to Iranian society.

  • Visfor Voy

    Expecting one religious order that is in power, to accept ANY other religious order and allow them into the same trough to compete for “followers”, would be like the Apple store selling the Samsung Galaxy. Or like, never.

    Expecting this Iran to allow Bahais or any other religion to compete in a market they currently monopolize isn;t going to happen.

    Especially when the holiest site in Bahaism, the tomb of Its founder, Bahullah is located in Israel.

    Are you insane, expecting any slightest “chance for change”? Here’s your answer, no chance in hell.

  • sasss31

    Shame on those apologists blaming the Bahai people instead of voicing their support for their human rights. The Bahai people are good people whose only crime is that they “came after Islam”. The Bahai people deserve to live in freedom and human dignity without fear of executions, arrests, and tortures. The Bahai people are good people and I speak as a non-Bahai Iranian. Shame on this regime, shame on their apologists.

  • Hezuez Huckleberry

    50 prominent Iranian political prisoners wrote a letter last week asking the U.S. to lift sanctions against their country, saying it is collective punishment of the Iranian people.

    Shame on apologists for sanctions like sasss31 who spend every day promoting sanctions against the Iranian people and claiming this is what the Iranian people want.

  • Hezuez Huckleberry

    Opposing sanctions against the Iranian people doesn’t mean one apologizes for the Iranian government. Shame on you for your slanderous tactics, which you dish out all of the internet.

  • Hezuez Huckleberry

    The best thing the U.S. could do for human rights in Iran is end the sanctions, as 50 prominent political prisons urged last week, and let Iranians trade with the rest of the world, rather than being economically imprisoned by the U.S. government in their own country.

  • leibowde84

    It is better for the rest of the world if Iran is not powerful. They are a theocratic dictatorship, set on destroying the “westernization” of their country. That is pretty much the same as being against progress and cooperation with the rest of the world. Why should we help Iran?!

  • leibowde84

    The sanctions are not supported because of the desires of the Iranian people. On the contrary, the sanctions were put in place as a protection for the rest of the world. The Iranian dictatorship’s focus on western destruction and prescribing Islam for it’s people cannot be tolerated by the rest of the world.

  • leibowde84

    If we cut them off from financial stability, they will eventually be forced to change.

  • leibowde84

    At least it isn’t radicalized/extremist Islam. I would take Scientology as the state religion over Islam any day.

  • leibowde84

    There is a very big difference between the freedom of religion for individuals and the freedom of a government to be based on a single religion. The latter is unacceptable and should be stopped. The former should be constantly fought for.

  • WorldView

    Iran is not a theocracy and it is not a dictatorship. It is not a theocracy because Shiism has not hierarchy. As for being a dictatorship, did everyone forget the recent Iranian presidential elections where over 72% of the electorate voted?