Dr. Mansour Farhang Addresses Human Rights and Democracy in Iran
On Tuesday, March 25, Former Iranian Ambassador to the UN, Dr. Mansour Farhang, gave a lecture entitled "Iran: The Challenge of Theocracy to Universal Human Rights Advocacy" at Georgetown University. The meeting was organized by Amnesty International and "Students for Progress & Development in Iran".
Washington, DC - On Tuesday, March 25, Former Iranian Ambassador to the UN, Dr. Mansour Farhang, gave a lecture entitled "Iran: The Challenge of Theocracy to Universal Human Rights Advocacy" at Georgetown University. The meeting was organized by Amnesty International and "Students for Progress & Development in Iran".
Dr. Farhang, who served under Khomeini until 1982, argued that striking similarities existed between Islamism and Communism. He outlined those similarities in terms of the challenges the two ideologies pose to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Dr. Farhang noted that both Communism and Islamism are modern civilian phenomena that grew out of the post-colonial world. Both ideals are based on a utopian vision of society which can easily lead to a fundamentalist movement. Communism and Islamism also pose challenges to modernity and nationalism. Above all, he argued, both ideologies place a premium on the ends over the means thus making acceptable the acquisition of the ends by any means necessary
The former ambassador, who left his ambassador’s post after feeling betrayed by the direction of the Revolution, also examined the nature of the system of Velayat'i-Faqih. According to Dr. Farhang, Velayat'i-Faqih is a "linguistic innovation" by Ayatollah Khomeini that vested ultimate religious and thus political power in Islamist society in the hands of one person. By virtue of this innovation, suddenly the Islamist clergy in Iran were able to pervade Islam to all aspects of life. Under the Shah, Islam had been very separate from civic and political life. Serving as the ultimate leader, Khomeini was able to incorporate Islam into every morsel of one’s daily activities.
Dr. Farhang argued that even though the idea of Velayat'i-Faqih has been distorted by power-hungry clergies, the Islamists who originally invented the notion genuinely believed that Islam could provide an answer to the perceived social misconduct of society allegedly prevalent under the Shah's regime. Their intention was similar to that of many fundamentalist Christians in the United States, Farhang says. This is the point which distinguishes the modern populist Islam from traditionalist Islam, which does not present as radical a movement as the former.
The lecture also addressed the current human rights situation in Iran. Dr. Farhang argued that the Constitution of the Islamic Republic contradicts the very essence of human rights. The Constitution employs the languages of democracy, such as the separation of powers, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly, but at the end of each article it states that these rights are guaranteed as long as "they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam." As such, Dr. Farhang stated that the question comes down to who defines Islam and its limits. This conflict of democracy and religious authority, in Dr. Farhang's view, makes democracy incompatible with the current Iranian constitution.
Yet, Dr. Farhang pointed that no matter how much Iranian people crave democracy and democratic changes in their life, they will never abandon their faith. In fact a major movement for political reform comes from lower- and middle-class Iranians who are deeply religious. So, how can human rights activists respond to these unique circumstances in Iran? Dr. Farhang suggested three main options: 1) reject the very idea of theocracy, 2) reject the marriage of religion and state, and 3) challenge the regime's interpretation of Islam.
With regard to option 3), Dr. Farhang characterizes the nature of the Islamic regime as being "contingent on the unconditional acceptance of theocracy." In such regimes, public debate on the subject of the regime's legitimacy is impossible from the very outset, since the clergy sees any debate on this matter as a deviation from the "truth". Hence, option 1) and 2) are more plausible in the near future, according to Dr. Farhang.
Dr. Farhang also argues that President Khatami too had "unconditionally" accepted the regime's ideology of theocracy when he entered into politics, because of the regime's requirement that in order to run for a public office, one must be "unconditionally committed to theocracy." As evidence, Dr. Farhang argued that President Khatami has never made a statement in defense of free speech in the sense that it is described in the UDHR. Dr. Farhang asserted that President Khatami's attempts to promote democracy and human rights has ended in "complete failure."
Dr. Farhang concluded, however, by stating that he sees a light of hope in the path to democracy in Iran, claiming that "for the first time in history, there is a nascent democratic sentiment in Iran." That kind of sentiment, or "democratic energy" as he calls it, will undoubtedly embrace the idea of protection of human rights. As a result, in response to a question from the floor, Dr. Farhang claimed that it would be a disaster if the US attacks Iran or tries to coercively establish democracy in Iran. In Dr. Farhang's view, the US should not disturb the fledgling democracy movement in Iran. Rather, the two countries should normalize relations first and then address the human rights issues.
Dr. Mansour Farhang holds a Ph.D in political science from Claremont graduate School in California, and served as an advisor to the Iranian foreign ministry and as ambassador to the United Nations following the 1979 revolution. During his ambassadorship, he wrote and spoke about the threat of religious extremists who had come to dominate the course of the Iranian revolution. He sought refuge in United States in the fall of 1981, following the violent suppression of political dissidents in Iran. He has been teaching international relations and Middle Eastern Politics at Bennington College in Vermont since 1983.