Various news sites are reporting that four Christians have been sentenced in Iran to 80 lashes each for drinking communion wine at services and possessing a satellite antenna. Behzad Taalipasand, Mehdi Reza Omidi (Youhan), Mehdi Dadkhah (Danial) and Amir Hatemi (Youhanna) were reportedly arrested during a house service in December. These house services are efforts of Iranian Christians to practice their faith in the face of the continued Iranian crackdown on non-Muslims. The cases have been made public in the aftermath of a United Nations report criticizing the denial of religious freedom in Iran.
The report contradicts Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s suggestion that Iran will seek to reduce such punishments.
In the new UN report by Ahmed Shaheed, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, maintained that the denial of religious freedom continues unabated: “At least 20 Christians were in custody in July 2013. In addition, violations of the rights of Christians, particularly those belonging to evangelical Protestant groups, many of whom are converts, who proselytize to and serve Iranian Christians of Muslim background, continue to be reported.”
Notably, Iran’s state-controlled news source Press TV featured an Iranian official from the UN mission saying that Shaheed “has not paid sufficient notice to Iran’s legal system and Islamic culture and considers whatever he sees in the West as an international standard for the entire world.” So, Iran is arguing that religious freedom cannot be defined as the actual exercise of religious freedom. That is just a Western conceit, it appears. It is similar to the argument used to create an international blasphemy standard that the notion of free speech in the West must yield to Islamic sensibilities. It is all part of an effort to portray basic human rights as a fluid and varied concept. We have heard some of the same views on this blog with people accusing us (well, me) of constantly imposing American values in discussing cases from other countries. However, civil libertarians do not advocate free speech or free exercise or free association as “American values.” They happen to be guaranteed in our Constitution but they are basic human rights.
The Iranian effort to redefine freedom of religion in a new Islamic image shows the real purpose behind claiming cultural intolerance in asserting basic civil liberties. In this distorted way, freedom of speech cannot include anti-religious speech and freedom of religion cannot include practice of other religions.
This view is not confined to rogue nations like Iran of course. Our close allies like Saudi Arabia routinely deny the same rights. The Saudis will not allow the construction of a church and, like many Muslim countries, makes both blasphemy and apostasy a crime. The new effort of Muslim countries to create a relativistic standard for basic rights is all the more menacing with Saudi Arabia seeking a seat on the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. A nation that denies basic rights to women, cuts the heads and hands off of wrongdoers, denies freedom of religion, bars free speech, and imposes Sharia law insists that it should help set the standards for human rights in the world. Like Iran, the Saudis argue that these concepts must reflect different religious and cultural approaches.
These efforts should put civil libertarians on notice. These countries are using “cultural sensitivity” and tolerance arguments to negate individual rights. Civil libertarians need to hold the line globally in defense of rights are must be complete and consistent to have any meaning in the modern world.