A way of life

Advocacy for a Culture of Human Rights and Responsibilities

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A way of life
by Majid Baradar
12-Sep-2009
 

The essay that follows should be read in light of its being a work in progress. There is much evidence in Iran's history to substantiate this assertion that the origins of the principles of democracy and human rights are not exclusively Western. I invite you, all readers, to participate with us in the expansion of this essay by offering your relevant comments, knowledge and expertise, including documentation of the sources of your information (mbaradar@12Petals.org). I extend my gratitude for any and all contributions offered for meaningful collaboration.

The writing of this article has been a remarkable team effort. During this work I have received outstanding contributions from Sahar Driver (doctoral student in the Social and Cultural Anthropology Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies) who in various consultations acted as a sounding board on content offering her critical perspectives on human rights discourse as they relate to Iran, and Carol McWalters (freelance editor, B.A., magna cum laude, English literature, San Francisco State University) for her academic, interpretive and studious writing/editing. I also wish to extend my warmest appreciation to all individuals offering their heartfelt uninterrupted professional and academic support in reaching out for a culture of human rights and responsibilities, most notably Ardalan Payvar (Artistic Director - Graphic Design and Fine Arts, California Polytechnic State University of San Luis Obispo, Tact Design) and Shahriar Marachi (Web Design and Development - founder of Digital Mark Studios, B.S., Neuroscience and Physiology UC San Diego). For Sahar, Carol, Ardalan, and Shahriar, I have high regards. Last of all, the sole responsibility for the contents of this essay lies with me. -- Majid Baradar

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Historical evidence shows that the cultural principle of human rights, which in a general sense is the right to pursue life-sustaining goals, interests, and beliefs freely and responsibly, transcends the boundaries of the East and the West. Around the world, however, different cultures have placed either greater or lesser emphasis on the individual or collective aspect of human rights. Some Eastern cultures embrace the concept that it is the individual who has a responsibility to contribute to the rights of the collective whole, and in so doing, an individual realizes his or her human potential.[1] In those parts of the world where it is considered that the realization of human potential necessitates that an individual be “as far as possible free from restraints not self-imposed,”[2] we often find that the form of government that sustains such a belief is democracy. And in a democracy, “rulers and people [are] bound to each other by reciprocal obligations.”[3] A democracy may be perceived, then, as a social contract[4] in which the freedom of human rights is inseparable from the responsible exercise of those rights.

This essay does then acknowledge that human rights may be seen as a global principle and practice, but will endeavor wholeheartedly to reach out to the Iranian people and while providing a useful elucidation of human rights and responsibilities, will show that it is not only essential but also historically appropriate that the Iranians’ constitution ultimately be secular and democratic in order for their rights to be upheld. Moreover, this discussion of human rights and responsibilities and constitutional democracy leads to the concomitant exploration of genuine modernity in Iran, with modernity defined, in an introductory way, as a cultural, civil, and philosophical framework based on, but not limited to, the secular humanism of the democratic social contract.

The political practice of upholding the dignity of individual and collective human life may have originated in ancient Persia with Cyrus the Great, who “was admired as a liberator rather than a conqueror because he respected the customs and religions of each part of his vast empire.”[5 ] Let us then look at why Cyrus who honored his people’s prudent and spirited wish for the inalienable human rights of mankind is hailed as having created the first charter of human rights.

“Cyrus the Great entered the city of Babylon in 539 BCE, and . . . on the first day of spring, he was officially crowned.”[6] The historical, political, and philosophical significance of his coronation day is revealed in Cyrus’s reading of “The Charter of Freedom,” essential translated segments of which follow:

I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs, and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them [while] I am alive... I will impose my monarchy on no nation. Each is free to accept it, and if any one of them rejects it, I never resolve on war to reign... I [will] never let anyone oppress any others, and if it occurs, I will take his or her right[s] back and penalize the oppressor... I will never let anyone take possession of moveable and landed properties of . . . others by force or without compensation. [While] I am alive, I prevent unpaid, forced labor. Today, I announce that everyone is free to choose a religion. People are free to live in all regions and to take up a job provided that they never violate others’ rights.[7]

It is perhaps extraordinary that in Eastern antiquity Cyrus perceived his relationship with the people inhabiting his empire to involve mutual obligations and freedoms; he is thus apparently one of the first creators of a social contract based on ideals that are now considered essential to democracy. Dr. Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University, and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, notes that Cyrus’s declaration of human rights “predates the Magna Carta by more than a millennium.”[8] According to Professor Richard Frye, Cyrus, in his magnanimity and tolerance “assumed heroic features . . . His personality as seen by the Greeks influenced them and Alexander the Great, and as [his] tradition was transmitted by the Romans, may be considered to influence our thinking even now.”[9] How fitting it is then that the United Nations, in 1971, recognized Cyrus’s decree as the first charter of human rights.[10] Equally important, Cyrus’s declaration reveals Persia’s first step into realm of modernity; the implications of Cyrus’s declaration, its date and content, are then also a step toward dispelling the misapprehension that modernity and human rights are Western concepts that came to Iran only because of colonialism.[11]

Dr. Milani’s findings from his studies of tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-century Iranian literature provide another step in showing Iran’s particular connection to democratic ideals, hence also to modernity. Although such concepts as the separation of house of worship and state, individual rights, skepticism, rational reasoning, limitations of governmental authority, idea of progress and the validity of the popular will in deciding the parameters and details of legislation are often acknowledged to have originated during the European Renaissance, Dr. Milani states that certain works of Iranian literature do reveal inchoate notions of those very ways of thinking about governmental policy.[12] The existence of such concepts in early Iranian texts is clearly not merely a matter of academic import; for Iran the civil and cultural implications therein are tellingly significant: the principles of democracy must not be dogmatically denounced as exclusively Western. And Iranian modernists who endeavor to create a genuine democratic Iran are not to be illogically condemned as followers of Western social philosophy; these modernists are pursuing the enlightened traditions of their own country.[13]

In his collection of essays entitled Lost Wisdom, Dr. Milani states that “from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, a large group of Persian writers and poets, historians and philosophers, astronomers and mathematicians—from Khayyam and Kharazmi to Beyhaghi and Biruni—created what has been called ‘the most glorious era’ in the history of Persian culture. The intellectual hallmarks of this era included many of the ideas that usually herald the advent of modernity in a society, [such as] rationalism, empiricism, skepticism, the idea of a ‘social contract,’ development of a national language, the evolution of simple prose [inferably, prose that is finely honed, thus engagingly understandable] . . . and finally, the emergence of individual sensibility in works of art.”[14] Interestingly, in the words of Hegel that goes back much farther than those centuries, “The Persians are the first Historical people.”[15] And, Dr. Milani eloquently reaffirms that “Iran ….is a country, in the words of Hegel, the light of reason first began to shine.”[16]

In his studies of the life and works of Sa’di, Dr. Milani finds that this twelfth-century Persian writer was an “enemy of dogma and false certitudes”[17]; such sentiments as those suggest that Sa’di was a champion of enlightenment and in this sense predated by six centuries the European Enlightenment, a “philosophical movement characterized by rationalism, an impetus toward learning, and a spirit of skepticism and empiricism in social and political thought.”[18] Sa’di may then also be perceived as a symbol of modernity and thus provides further refutation of modernity’s exclusively Western origins.

As “individualism . . . is a cardinal element of modernity,”[19] it is noteworthy that “in Sa’di we can discern early attempts at recognizing and empowering the individual. In fact, his effort to shape his narrative only through the prism of individual sensibility started long before these developments begin in the works of such Western masters as Shakespeare.”[20] Of particular significance is that “Sa’di . . . insisted on writing in Persian, using a language close to the vernacular.”[21] In considering individualism as an emphasis on the value of every person’s unique sensibilities and gifts in connection to the society to which he or she belongs, it is not surprising that the “gradual appearance of the vernacular in the hitherto rarified realm of literary language”[22] is perceived as “another sign of modernity,”[23] for such use of the spoken language makes literature inclusive rather than exclusive, hence democratic—a form of art that educates and inspires using “language understandable to the masses.”[24] Dr. Milani indeed asserts that “this linguistic turn is in fact a concomitant part of . . . democratic change in society.”[25]

There is further historical and cultural significance in Sa’di’s writing, for “in some parts of the first book of [his] Golestan, one can even discern early hints at a ‘social contract’ theory of law. Sa’di clearly believed in the fundamental equality of all human beings. In what is probably his most often quoted line of poetry, he writes, ‘limbs of a body are we, sons of men/ made from the same clay, born of the same origin.’”[26] Dr. Milani notes that Sa’di “suggests that the power of the king is directly ‘dependent on the support of the people—a king must be just in order to attract the support of the people.’”[27] All of these discerning interpretations of Sa’di’s writing show the inherent connection between modernity, democracy, and enlightenment as well as the roots of such ideas in Persian history and culture. Additionally, in looking at individualism and individual rights in the context of a social contract one sees an integration of ‘I’ and ‘you,’ and ‘I’ and ‘we’ that reflect the “interdependency”[28] that is basic to a culture of human rights and responsibilities.

The importance of other kinds of integration, that of genuine modernity and tradition and of conciliating perceptions of the East and the West are apparent in Dr. Milani’s discussion of the ideals of his uncle Seyyed Fakhr al-Din Shadman. He reveals that Shadman believed that for the Iranian people, achieving modernity is not a matter of “submissive assimilation of Western culture,”[29] rather, Iranian modernity involves creating a new identity,[30] that “must not . . . relinquish the past.”[31] Dr. Milani elaborates on this necessity, saying, “Only out of the solid earth of Iran’s myths, history, and culture can a new identity, at once rooted and dynamic, be nurtured.”[32]

Without doubt Ferdowsi, with his epic Shahnameh, helped to preserve Persia, Persian language, and Persian identity. In this light, for all Iranian modernists including Shadman, the Persian language is fundamental to the Iranian identity[33] and thus essential to the achievement of an integrated modernity. Dr. Milani explains that “language is not merely a tool of thought, but an essential component in it.”[32] And because, as Shadman asserts, modernity is an “‘intricate task [that] demands clear and precise thinking,’”[35] a “‘clear and articulate language’”[36] is requisite to the achievement of genuine modernity. Dr. Milani tells us that Shadman believes, “an autonomous language, capable of conveying new ideas and old sentiments, connected to the cultural heritage of the country and capable of navigating the waters of modern scientific narrative is . . . a precondition of not only an autonomous identity but of a vibrant intellectual tradition.”[37] “‘Language . . . is the twin and symbol of thought,’”[38] asserts[ ] Shadman. And Dr. Milani adds, “Only with the help of a critical faculty, itself dependent on a subtle and supple language, can we come to know both Iran and the West and appraise the positive and negative aspects of modernity.”[39] In such an appraisal, Iranians can infuse modernity with the illumination of Persian literature, for as Shadman declares, “‘Persian poetry embodies the height of human wisdom and beauty.’”[40]

In creating a self-assured identity that reflects their own cultural heritage of human rights and responsibilities and in moving towards genuine modernity, Iranians may find that they have a “crucial link”[41] with the West, a connection bespoken by “their common quest for human ideals like democracy and freedom.”[42] Thus with self-respect and open-mindedness, the Iranian people can, as Shadman is said to recommend, “come to grips with the universal values that are at the root of modernity and its democratic form of government.”[43] They can determine the “appropriate shape of [their] government . . . only through an integration of these fundamental values within the specific context of Iranian history and culture.”[44]

A culturally and historically appropriate definition and practice of government can be created only after what Shadman designates a “‘great debate,’” Dr. Milani adding, an open, wide, and earnest discussion, engaging people from all walks of life. . . .”[45] Such a debate must include an evaluation of the “idea and practice of freedom”[46] intrinsic to democracy so that modernity in Iran will, as Shadman considers imperative, include a “‘system that safeguards freedom and ensures that [while] everyone enjoys the fruits of freedom and liberty . . . freedom does not become license to trample on the rights of others.’”[47]

Because “undisciplined freedom [is] an abuse of liberty,”[48] responsibility and genuine freedom are inseparable. This inseparability is fundamental to the ‘social contract’ vital to both democracy and modernity and is explicated in a nation’s constitutional prescriptions and guarantees that formally create a democratic government. And in the Iranian culture of human rights and responsibilities that accompanies modernity, a constitutional bill of rights is essential. It can be argued that original Iranian nation and the Persian culture was founded and strengthened on the principle of bill of rights. Symbolically, such an explication of rights proclaims the dignity of each and every Iranian’s life while creating a social and civil framework of our rights, which in turn engenders a sense of mutual respect, reciprocity, and individual and collective responsibility. The very existence of a constitutional bill of rights provides the basis for the safeguarding of human rights and facilitates a just means of interpreting the meaning and practice of such rights in a given context.

As democracy is a representative form of government, citizens must be guaranteed in their bill of rights the right to vote in fair and public elections that take place at regular intervals. Voting can be perceived as an extension of Shadman’s notion of an inclusive debate; the right to vote makes Iranian constitutional democracy a reflection of the dynamic secular humanism of modernity. Moreover, as skepticism and rational thought are essential components of modernity, voting is a right that Iranian citizens must exercise responsibly by casting an “informed vote.”[49] The protection of this right lies in its being taken seriously, not as an abstraction, but as an act to be performed intelligently, so the full meaning of the right to vote can flourish. To uphold the democratic form of government that enables this right, every enfranchised citizen must be committed to the responsible performance of her or his right to cast a vote.

Further consideration of modernist’s concept of the importance of civil discourse that comprises diverse viewpoints brings forth other rights that must be included in the Iranian bill of rights: freedom to peaceably assemble, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. And it must be added that the right to express one’s views openly should not harm another person’s dignity by using derogatory racial or religious terms;[50] expressions of bigotry and prejudice corrupt the right of expression itself. Freedom is not license, and in this context means as “an undisciplined freedom, constituting an abuse of liberty.”[51] Iranian modernity, the Iranian culture of human rights and responsibilities, must reflect the open-mindedness of the Iranian people.

In the course of the equitable exchange of diverse viewpoints to determine the appropriate details of their governmental prescriptions and guarantees, the Iranian people may well certainly consider including the right of privacy to their constitutional bill of rights. The need to “be secure in [one’s] person, in [one’s] house, papers, and effects” [52] is surely one of the most fundamental of all human rights. Dr. Milani believes that “respect for the ‘private realm’ as an inviolate arena and attempts to expand it are a sure sign of modernity and a healthy measure of democracy.”[53] One aspect of expanding the protection of the private realm involves consideration of the feminine perspective. Professor Ife notes that “women suffer human rights abuses more in the privacy of the home than in the public domain. . . .”[54] Thus, it appears to emphasize in an Iranian constitutional bill of rights the “right to be free from harassment . . . in the household”[55] would testify to a remarkably forward-thinking viewpoint, a model of perspicacity. In his essay “Modernity and Blue Logos, Rediscovering the Feminine,” Dr. Milani asserts, “In every society, women’s freedom is the ultimate measure of liberation and progress.”[56]

Dr. Milani’s analysis of Blue Logos leads him to infer that Shahrnush Parsipur, the novel’s author, is endeavoring in her narrative “to reconcile Iranian society with the feminine side of its soul”[57] Such a statement, along with Dr. Milani’s other scholarly interpretations of Persian literature and his own and other modernists’ revelations about language and cognition make it clear that studying and reading Persian literature can be a rich source of inspiration, greater self-knowledge, and ever-deepening social awareness for all Iranian people as well as one of the best ways to enable Iranian children, adolescents, and young adults to discover their cultural identity and its relationship to modernity and human rights. Their human rights’ studies can thus be personal, contextual, and relevant.

Additionally, Professor Ife declares that the very way students are treated in educational institutions is the most memorable human rights’ education that they can receive.[58] Thus, schools in which there is a celebration of social diversity and diversity of interpretive opinion, student government with both philosophical and practical meaning, and a democratic system of just redress for inappropriate student behavior would further enable Iranian youth to grow into such citizens who will sustain and enlarge Iranian modernity and its culture of human rights and responsibilities.

In this essay’s exploration of the Iranians’ achievement of modernity, it becomes clear that such an attainment is itself an education in human rights and responsibilities. Among the democratic ideals that accompany modernity, one of the most important is the social contract—the inseparability of rights and responsibilities. Implicit in this reciprocity is the interdependency of human beings, which extends beyond civil parameters to every aspect of the lives of all Iranian people. The very ways each and every Iranian comports himself or herself in daily activities and daily interactions with others becomes the visual language of the social contract. Behavior in the home, for instance, and in the workplace, in the street, in the marketplace, in academic institutions, in the realm of commerce, in recreational activities, such as dining out, attending a lecture, play or the showing of a movie; while walking, bicycling, or driving—these behaviors bespeak the dynamic humanism of modernity which is inseparable from a culture of human rights and responsibilities.

Following in the steps of Cyrus, Ferdowsi, and Sa’di, among others, the Iranians can experience their modernity as a living enlightenment. And in their open-minded acknowledgment that the East and the West are “linked,” as noted above, in “their common quest for human ideals like democracy and freedom,” the Iranian people can easily perceive that a culture of human rights and responsibilities extends beyond the boundaries of their own nation. In honoring their cultural legacy of rational and compassionate thinking, Iranians, in achieving true modernity, can be open to conciliating interactions with their international ‘partners in freedom.’ A global culture of human rights and responsibilities necessitates the eradication of seeing ‘others’ negatively, as competitors or enemies. As Professor Ife asserts, “linking human rights with human responsibilities emphasizes our interconnectedness as human beings.”[59] And as enlightenment and democracy are concomitant components of modernity, so then the Iranians’ achievement of an integrated modernity would enable Iran to participate more fully in a global culture of human rights and responsibilities.

And because our interdependence is global, it is essential to see the inseparability of individual and collective human rights and responsibilities. Such recognition must take into account the power imbalances at work from person to person and community to community. It is not to advocate for an equalization of values, practices, and rights but an equitable playing field that recognizes the immense differences between those with more power and those with less, whose rights must be protected with greater diligence.

Now, more than ever, it is the responsibility of every person to bring the culture of human rights into his or her life, home, and daily relationships with family, friends and neighbors—while perceiving that those friends and neighbors span the globe. This culture of human rights should be cherished as a way of life.

Endnotes

  1. Professor Jim Ife, Head, Centre for Human Rights Education, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia, “A Culture of Human Rights and Responsibilities” Alice Tay Memorial Lecture, Parliament House, Canberra, 25 May 2005; j.ife@curtin.edu.au (In his lecture, Professor Ife also states that the socialist viewpoint is concerned with individual rights and collective responsibilities while the communist perspective idealizes the concept of collective rights and collective responsibilities.)
  2. The Columbia Encyclopedia, 15[th] ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p.743.
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid.
  5. ibid.
  6. Cyropaedia of Xenophon, The Life of Cyrus the Great: “Cyrus Charter of Human Rights,” edited by Shapour Suren-Pahlav. For more information, see www.spenta productions.com “In Search of Cyrus the Great—Cyrus Kar—Spenta Productions.”
  7. ibid.
  8. Abbas Milani, Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran (Washington D.C.: Mage Publishers, 2004), p.12.
  9. Iran Chamber Society, “The Cyrus the Great Cylinder”, edited by Shapour Ghasemi; see footnote 7 for that article). http://ancienthistory.about.com (accessed February 10, 11, 17, 2009).
  10. Cyropaedia of Xenophon, The Life of Cyrus the Great: “Cyrus Charter of Human Rights,” edited by Shapour Suren-Pahlav.
  11. Abbas Milani, Lost Wisdom, Rethinking Modernity in Iran, pp.10–11.
  12. “Modernity in Iranian Literature; A Conversation with Abbas Milani” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOWyLbxtc (accessed February 10, 11, 17, 2009; paraphrase of Dr. Milani’s assertions and findings).
  13. ibid.
  14. Abbas Milani, Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran, p.38.
  15. Georg V. Hegel, The philosopher of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York, 1991), p. 173
  16. Abbas Milani, Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran, p.155
  17. ibid., p.37.
  18. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition (Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1959), “enlightenment”; “The Enlightenment,” p.482.
  19. Abbas Milani, Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran, p.42.
  20. ibid., p.42.
  21. ibid., p.44: see also footnote 36, p.44.
  22. ibid., p.44
  23. ibid., p.44
  24. ibid., p.45
  25. ibid., p.44.
  26. ibid., p.49: see also footnote 52, p.49.
  27. ibid., p.49: see also footnote 52, p.49.
  28. Professor Jim Ife, “A Culture of Human Rights and Responsibilities”; see endnote 1 above.
  29. Abbas Milani, Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran, p.64.
  30. ibid., p.67.
  31. ibid., p.67.
  32. ibid., p.67.
  33. ibid., p.74.
  34. ibid., p.74.
  35. ibid., p.74: see also footnote 42, p.74.
  36. ibid., p.74: see also footnote 42, p.74.
  37. ibid., pp.75–76
  38. ibid., p.76: see also footnote 48, p.76.
  39. ibid., p.76.
  40. ibid., pp.67–68
  41. ibid., p.9
  42. ibid., p.9.
  43. ibid., p79.
  44. ibid., p.79.
  45. ibid., p.79.
  46. ibid., p.78.
  47. ibid., p.78: see also footnote 57, p.78.
  48. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition (Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1959), “license,” p.845.
  49. Professor Jim Ife, “A Culture of Human Rights and Responsibilities”; see endnote 1 above.
  50. ibid.
  51. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition (Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1959), “license,” definition 4.

  1. The Columbia Encyclopedia, 15[th] ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p.641.
  2. Abbas Milani, Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran, p.104.
  3. Professor Jim Ife, “A Culture of Human Rights and Responsibilities”; see endnote 1 above.
  4. ibid.
  5. Abbas Milani, Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran, p.142.
  6. ibid., p.141.
  7. Professor Jim Ife, “A Culture of Human Rights and Responsibilities”; see endnote 1 above.
  8. ibid.

***

The 12Petals Media Group strives to be a union of visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, cinematographers, playwrights, socials entrepreneurs and more, all coming together to produce pieces that promote and encourage respect for those rights protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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