Islamic Rights or Human Rights: An Iranian Dilemma

Iran has manifested ambivalence about how its Islamic ideology affects its adherence to international human rights law. Iran's 1979 constitution acknowledges human rights but imposes Islamic qualifications on these, setting the stage for collisions between two competing and incompatible systems of legitimacy: international law and Islamic law. Because the permissible scope of the Islamic qualifications on rights is left undefined, the qualifications leave the state free in practice to determine the scope of human rights. Iran has also joined Saudi Arabia in promoting the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights, which allows Islam to override rights in similar fashion. Iran's appeals to "Islam" to justify its rights violations are problematic, because the association of rights violations with its official Islam undermines the regime's sole basis of legitimacy.

Despite supporting distinctive Islamic approaches to human rights, Iran continues to pay tribute to the authority of international human rights in various ways, including trying to deny how Iranian policies and practices actually deviate from international norms. Iran has sought to disguise its persecutions of religious minorities and has also attempted to justify its treatment of women by arguing that Iranian laws enforce indigenous cultural norms. At the 1993 Human Rights Conference in Vienna, Iran adopted a nuanced position, officially accepting the universality of human rights while asserting that human rights concepts could be enriched by drawing from the experience of all cultures and the teachings of religion.

Iran remains torn between the conflicting demands of its Islamic ideology and its consciousness of the prestige of international human rights, and the dilemmas of its human rights policies seem a long way from being resolved.

Ann Elizabeth Mayer
Current Issue: 
Past Issue