Baha’i and Freedom of Religion in Iran: Jack Donnelly vs. Reza Afshari
In 2007 the eminent political philosopher and scholar of human rights, Jack Donnelly, proposed a rather uncharacteristic argument regarding so-called apostates in Iran.
Apostasy means abandoning or renouncing one’s religious beliefs; in Iran, it means in particular abandoning Islam. The religious Iranian regime considers all members of the Baha’i religion to be apostates from Islam. The Baha’i are followers of the 19th century Persian prophet, Bah’u’lláh, whom they consider a messenger of God, along with Jesus, Muhammad and others.
Donnelly argued that “A state… might be justified in denying certain benefits to apostates, as long as those benefits are not guaranteed by human rights…It may even be (not im)permissible to impose modest disabilities on apostates, again as they do not violate [their] human rights.” Thus, he implied, apostates should be protected from discrimination or, even worse, execution. This might be read as a defense of freedom of religion in Iran. However, Donnelly also argued that the state was not obliged to protect apostates “against social sanctions imposed by their families and communities that do not infringe human rights.”
Donnelly based his argument in part on encounters he had had with Muslim students in Iran who, he believed, accepted what he called the concept of freedom of religion but who, at the level of what he called conception (“the limits of the range of application of the principle of freedom of religion”) could not accept a right of apostasy. Thus it appears, these students’ attitude to freedom of religion was “we accept the principle, but not…”: that is, yes to the right in the abstract, but no to the right in the concrete case of fellow-citizens being denied their human rights. (See Jack Donnelly, “The Relative Universality of Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 29, vol. 2, pages 301 and 302).
Noting that the state was not obliged to protect apostates against social sanctions that did not infringe human rights, Donnelly seemed to be suggesting that Iran should adopt the type of religious regime found in Canada or the United States, where such groups as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Amish are free to shun members they consider to have violated their religious obligations or precepts. The government does not interfere to stop such shunning, which it regards as a matter of personal preference. I agree with Donnelly that the Iranian government is not obliged to protect Baha’is against shunning by family, former friends, or neighbors, but it is obliged to protect them when such shunning become, in effect, discrimination, as in universities or places of employment.
In defending “modest disabilities” in freedom of religion, Donnelly did not distinguish between societies that largely respect human rights and those that do not. Countries such as the US and Canada with constitutional principles that respect human rights, with independent judiciaries and legal professions, and with active and free civil societies are ones where restrictions on human rights can be debated, weighed, and ultimately overturned. But in Iran, no one can question such restrictions. Iran is an illiberal state that does not defend Baha’is’ human rights.
The ban on apostasy in Iran is not merely a hypothetical matter; it is a matter of real, urgent practice, as Donnelly’s recent critic, the Iranian-American scholar Reza Afshari, points out.
About 200 members of the Baha’i community were executed from 1979 to 1984. To this day Baha’i suffer from considerable political and legal disabilities, such as exclusion from universities and frequent harassment and imprisonment. Many are now in exile, having suffered grievously from torture, imprisonment, deprivation of property, exclusion from their professions, and execution of family members.
Thus, Afshari finds it perplexing that Donnelly would suggest concessions to Iran’s illiberal regime, as long as the regime adheres (in principle, at least) to the concept of human rights. What precise concessions to actual human rights of the Baha’i, Afshari asks, does Donnelly advocate in the name of a certain respect for cultural differences, as opposed to merely noting the state’s inability or unwillingness to prohibit social sanctions such as shunning? “[H]ere was a chance for Donnelly to explain to skeptics as to what conditions should prevail in that [Iranian] polity for Baha’is to live with the epithet of apostate with ‘modest disabilities’ and still hope that they will ‘remain human beings entitled to all of their human rights’” (See Reza Afshari, “Relativity in Universality: Jack Donnelly’s Grand Theory in Need of Specific Illustrations,” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 4, p. 896).
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It is surprising for a human rights scholar to defend hypothetical “modest disabilities” imposed on a persecuted group instead of issuing a ringing denunciation of those who persecute it. I am friendly with Jack Donnelly, and in the 1980s and 1990s I edited a book and authored several articles with him. But I agree with Afshari in this debate. I don’t think you should discreetly defend “modest disabilities” for severely persecuted groups. If Muslim Iranian students can’t accept the “conception” of human rights for Iranian Baha’i, then they don’t accept the concept of freedom of religion at all.