September 25, 2007

Iran, Islam, and Human Rights

Yesterday I wrote (and today I updated) about some of the terrible things the government of Iran does to its people. Iran has an unusual governmental structure. Formally, the government is called the "Islamic Republic of Iran" and much (although not all) of its law is taken directly from the Koran. The power-sharing relationship within the government is very complex, as described by the CIA:

chief of state: Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini-KHAMENEI (since 4 June 1989)
head of government: President Mahmud AHMADI-NEJAD (since 3 August 2005); First Vice President Parviz DAVUDI (since 11 September 2005)
cabinet: Council of Ministers selected by the president with legislative approval; the Supreme Leader has some control over appointments to the more sensitive ministries

also considered part of the Executive branch of government are three oversight bodies: 1) Assembly of Experts, a popularly elected body of 86 religious scholars constitutionally charged with determining the succession of the Supreme Leader - based on his qualifications in the field of jurisprudence and commitment to the principles of the revolution, reviewing his performance, and deposing him if deemed necessary; 2) Expediency Council or the Council for the Discernment of Expediency, is a policy advisory and implementation board consisting of permanent members, who number over 40 and represent all major government factions and include the heads of the three branches of government, and the clerical members of the Council of Guardians (see next); permanent members are appointed by the Supreme Leader for five-year terms; temporary members, including Cabinet members and Majles committee chairmen, are selected when issues under their jurisdiction come before the Expediency Council; the Expediency Council exerts supervisory authority over the executive, judicial, and legislative branches and resolves legislative issues on which the Majles and the Council of Guardians disagree and since 1989 has been used to advise national religious leaders on matters of national policy; in 2005 the Council's powers were expanded, at least on paper, to act as a supervisory body for the government; 3) Council of Guardians of the Constitution or Council of Guardians or Guardians Council is a 12-member board made up of six clerics chosen by the Supreme Leader and six jurists selected by the Majles from a list of candidates recommended by the judiciary (which in turn is controlled by the Supreme Leader) for six-year terms; this Council determines whether proposed legislation is both constitutional and faithful to Islamic law, vets candidates for suitability, and supervises national elections.

Supreme Leader appointed for life by the Assembly of Experts; Assembly of Experts elected by popular vote for an eight-year term; last election held 15 December 2006 concurrently with municipal elections; president elected by popular vote for a four-year term (eligible for a second term and third nonconsecutive term); last held 17 June 2005 with a two-candidate runoff on 24 June 2005 (next presidential election slated for 2009)

The Majles is the unicameral parliament (the word apparently translates to "consultive assembly"), a 290-seat body dominated by religious conservatives.

Most importantly, the Council of Guardians screens out candidates from eligibility for election, so most of the "moderates," secularists, and other politicians who would take positions disagreeable to the ruling elite are never on the ballot in the first place.

So what you have in Iran is a hybrid -- day-to-day government and most civil matters are handled by a popular, indirect democracy, which has some substantial internal checks and balances and while it may not be friendly to the U.S. or the west generally, we can't really complain that the form of the government is not republican in structure or disenfranchising to the average Iranian, who seems to have as much power over this civil government as do westerners over theirs. Elections to the parliament and presidency seem to be not any more rigged than elections in any other country and in the past, presidents have been elected who did not please the Supreme Leader. There is substantial criticism within Iran of the government and its leaders and the policies it pursues, at least with respect to Iran's economy. This is all for the good.

But sitting atop this is a self-appointing Muslim theocracy that controls who has access to the civil government and the ability to re-write anything the civil government does. And when the criticism of the government becomes too pointed, the journalist or academic who is behind the criticism is often hauled off to some dungeon somewhere and tortured.

While the religious arm of the government looks like it is under indirect popular control, in practice, the Council of Experts is a self-appointing body of clerics and the Council of Guardians are a self-appointing body of military leaders. Remember, it was the creation of a revolutionary military force, allied with the clerics, that set the 1979 revolution in motion and overthrew the Shah of Persia in the first place.

And then you have the basiji, the paramilitary force that serves as "morals police" who occupy an informal position within the civil government and seem to be controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, the successors to those revolutionaries who carried the guns that displaced the Shah's government. The many hands-on human rights abuses in Iran seem to be perpetrated by basiji and not the civil government, which turns a blind eye to the activities of this thought police.

So, it's an ambiguous situation. There is democracy and criticism of the government. Just not too much of it that the real and ultimate control of the government by the military and religious elites is ever actually threatened. On the books, it seems like a reasonably progressive and open society.

But the reality on the ground is quite different. In public, at least, women wear robes that conceal their body and many of them wear veils. Religious police discourage public displays of affection between men and women, and as I linked yesterday, women who publicly show themselves as anything but asexual servants of their men can pay for that mistake with their lives. "Honor killings" are a hallmark of rural life. Critics of the government risk their liberty and torture, and possibly death. So do gays.

Apologists for Islam beg to point out that the regulations of women's public behavior, honor killings, and the rest of these things are contrary to certain provisions of Shari'a law, point to passages of the Koran that seem to urge humane treatment of others, and finally resort to foisting the blame for such appalling behavior on local culture rather than on religion. Such behavior is unknown in some Muslim countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, for instance. They also point out that treatment of women in non-Muslim cultures can be bad -- some African cultures still practice female circumcision, for instance, and the Hindu custom of sati seems horrific to outsiders.

But I notice that the bulk of the torture, persecution, and killings based on personal attributes seem to be more or less exclusive to countries that are Muslim. And while such things have happened in non-Muslim countries, it does seem to happen only within Muslim immigrant communities there (there have been stories of such incidents in Italy, Brazil, and France). The kind of persecution faced by gays in the United States pales in comparison with what gays go through in Iran or Pakistan; here, if a gay man is killed for being gay, the authorities will prosecute the perpetrators of that act for committing murder. Elsewhere in the world, the killers would be quietly celebrated as guardians of the community's moral uprightness.

In short, if you're concerned about human rights, and in particular freedom from state-sponsored violence resulting from one's personal choices, you would not want to be in a Muslim nation. You would prefer to be in a secular Western democracy.

My big question is whether Islam is unique in this regard. Fanatic Muslim fundamentalists have been permitted to seize absolute power in many parts of the world, and this is the awful result. The idea of a Christian nation treating its people this way seems odd -- but maybe it isn't. The Inquisition executed witches until 1782 and heretics until the middle of the nineteenth century. Sodomy was punishable by death in Puritan England and in colonial Massachusetts Bay. Just a few years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention urged women to adopt subordinate roles and to defer to their husbands as part of their Christian duties. It would not take long to comb through the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, to find all sorts of passages that offer a religious justification for human rights abuses not dissimilar to what we see in Iran (if only the persecutors were to be of the right religion, of course).

So it's not as though Christianity is substantially tolerant by comparison, either inherently within its doctrines or practically as seen through history. I would suggest that the brakes put on the mostly Christian cultures of the West, which prevent these kinds of awful behaviors, is secularism. For westerners, secular ideas of human rights, secular ideas of equality, secular ideas of tolerance, are ingrained in our culture and written into our foundational laws. The reason Muslim countries present us with such uniformly horrible pictures of the treatment of people who aren't "normal" (meaning they are not heterosexual Muslim males) is because these nations have either discarded or never had the kinds of governmental restraints imposed by enlightenment secular philosophy.

Generally, to the extent that such restraints existed in the first place, they came about as part of the colonial governments that had conquered them in the past (Britian, France, and Portugal in the historical past and Britain, the USSR, and the USA in the twentieth century) and have been eschewed in favor of the reliance on Shari'a law. But religious law is intolerant, cruel, and unforgiving, and without the moderating check of secular government, this is what it produces. I decline to compare and weigh the relative horrors of life under the Spanish Inquisition as opposed to life under the thumb of Iran's Supreme Leader. Instead, I point out that those kinds of horrors are rare and punished severely by secular Western governments.

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