Monday, June 23, 2008

San Jose Human Rights Seminar on Iran

Everyone who went to the recent San Jose Human Rights Seminar on Iran got a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). During the presentations there was much discussion of religion, and it is possible to review the event by comparing the UDHR to a much older declaration in the Bible.

There are ten commandments in the laws of Moses, and three times as many in the UDHR. The first four laws that came down from the mountain aren't at all about how humans should treat each other; rather they establish the authority of the lawgiver:

1. I'm God.
2. Don't worship any other god.
3. Respect my name.
4. Every seventh day is "God day." [see note 1]

After God uses up almost half the space on the tablet with pictures of his police badge and gun, he finally gets around to saying we shouldn't rob and murder each other.

By comparison, none of the articles of the UDHR claim the power to enforce. The first article, for instance, simply says, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

There is no reference to authority because the code isn't meant for individuals; it is meant for states. Lawgivers themselves. The only god able to lord over these super beings is History. This is reflected in the preamble to the UDHR, which basically warns:

1. I'm History.
2. Respect human rights and your reward shall be peace and joy.
3. Violate human rights and your punishment will be war and a pissed off population.

The conference itself was a showcasing of restrained but powerfully articulated anger. Smoke and rumbling from Mount History.

Religious minorities:
Bahais are the most severely persecuted religious minority in Iran. Their leaders are jailed or executed. They are denied access to higher education. Employers are pressured to fire Bahai employees, and lawyers are intimidated into refusing Bahai clients.

Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians have nominal freedom under Islamic law to practice their religions. But IRI laws are cleverly designed to whittle away at these rights. One conference speaker, Dr. Jaleh Pirnazar mentioned an IRI law where if one member of a family in a religious minority converts to Islam then all the rights of inheritance go to that person, disinheriting the other family members. These sneaky persecutions slowly institutionalize our culture's traditional mistrust and contempt for members of minority religions.

The audience questioned critically whether defending the right to religion does not go against the secular grain of human rights. After all, which of these God based institutions wouldn't do the same to Muslims if the situation were reversed? The answer seems to be that if the UDHR is powerful enough to liberalize Islam, then it would also restrict intolerance in other faiths.

At one point in the panel discussion Neda Shahidyazdani, speaking for the Bahi, told a story that transcended even the articles of UDHR. A Muslim man broke into tears after handing over the body of an executed Bahai to the victim's mother. He said he wished he were not part of a system that would commit such crimes. Is it not a human right to live in a society where one does not contribute to crimes of conscience? As an American I feel this violation of my human rights every time I remember my taxes are paying the salaries of torturers in Guantanamo prison.

Women's rights:
The Million Signatures Campaign to stop gender discrimination in Iran is currently at the frontlines of the human rights efforts in Iran. IRI laws discriminate against women regarding polygamy, divorce, child custody, inheritance, blood money, court testimony, travel abroad, public appearance, and other issues. Women's rights activist Fariba Davoodi Mohajer made a strong play for leadership of the dissident community by pointing out that the vigor in the women's movement could energize other movements too damp to ignite.

She's right! Current political winds are backing women's movements. The universal upheaval in gender attitudes reminds us of the dramatic days when class wars were reshaping the world. During her "can do" style PowerPoint presentation Davoodi Mohajer outlined the successes of the campaign in reaching, educating, and activating Iranian women, setting an example for organized action against unfair laws.

Daringly, Davoodi Mohajer chastized the traditional leftists for ignoring women's rights in their agendas when the Left held the world's attention. The shoe is on the other foot now, but has the lesson been learned? I wonder how much cooperation exists between the women's movement and, say, the labor movement. Conversely, how many signatures is the labor movement collecting towards the million?

There is tremendous support for the Million Signature Campaign outside Iran, including a recent youth demonstration in Geneva that helped pressure the IRI to free some of the campaign's activists from prison. Other diverse dissident groups in Iran could pitch in with resources, and get profitable returns on their investment by supporting the internationally favored women's movement.

Which brings me to a great new Farsi word Dr. Mansour Farhang used during his talk on cooperation. Faraajenaahi, coined by Iran scholar Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak means "non-partisanship", a desperately needed word and concept for Iranian activists.

Admittedly, cooperation is sometimes unpleasant. For example the Million Signature Campaign does not seek regime change, only changes in the law. This may deter regime change supporters from participating in the effort. Yet another word that is fairly new to our ancient language may be of some help. The word Siaasat used to mean "good administration." But when the concept of citizenship evolved around the 1906 constitutional movement, Siaasat started meaning "politics" [see note 2]. This word democratized negotiating, coalition building, power brokering, and yes, distasteful alliances. So everyone can get in the mud now, not just ministers and kings. In a sense, politics is democracy, and getting dirty is a privilege not a dishonor.

Nevertheless, for the virtuous and the principled, The faraajenaah nature of the Iranian Society For Human Rights makes it an ideal vehicle for coalition building, and the most formidable tool yet for a multi-pronged democratic assault on the IRI. In fact we know the IRI is threatened by the human rights weapon because, it has responded by creating its own center for human rights studies and holds its own conferences on the topic.

Despite the ushaven faces and the retro taste in fashion, IRI supporters are cutting edge politicians, and know how to avail themselves of democratic teamwork when needed. Their common Shiite faith isn't their only instrument of unity. As for the opposition, the moral strength of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights is a good replacement for faith in God, but the rest has to come from smart politicking. In this God versus Man contest, the winner will be whoever forges the strongest union. May the best man win.

Note 1: This is the Torah grouping of the Ten Commandments. There are other groupings.
Note 2. See State And Society in Iran by Homa Katouzian page 6.

No comments: