2001-05 Human Rights and Cultural Relativism
Extract from WPI Briefing No 13 (16 May 2001), translation from Farsi of a Radio International transcript first published in International Weekly number 53 (11 May 2001).
Ali Javadi’s Discussion with
Azar Majedi and Koorosh Modaresi
Ali Javadi: These days, some from the 2nd Khordad camp [also known as the Reformists] base their definition of civil rights on the Islamic Republic’s constitution. Does this stance warrant serious discussion?
Koorosh Modaresi: I think that this is not a serious discussion. The Islamic Republic and its constitution cannot be the basis for civil rights because the constitution denies the most basic rights from freedom of expression and thought to the right to organisation.
Azar Majedi: Additionally, the issue is that the Islamic Republic’s constitution is based on Islam. Islam limits and restricts all rights. For example, women’s rights are defined within the Islamic framework. Islam and being Moslem is assumed and everything else is defined in relation to this. This issue alone means the complete violation of individual, social and civil rights. The pivotal position of Islam undermines freedom, equality and individual rights.
Ali Javadi: In the area of civil and individual rights, many political institutions maintain that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international declarations are the first basis of civil rights. From your viewpoint, is the Universal Declaration that formula which can safeguard civil rights?
Koorosh Modaresi: Let me initially raise one point. Human rights are not a ‘divine’ phenomenon, apparent from the origins of history to its end. The question of what human rights are depends on the social, ideological and philosophical systems of various movements in various historical periods. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, we see movements, which belong to this epoch with certain interpretations of human rights and we see movements that belong to several centuries ago and have other interpretations of human rights, like Islamic movements. Therefore, when we speak of human rights and a specific Declaration, we must examine the movement that has produced it and how that movement defines human rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a product of bourgeois-liberal thought. According to this viewpoint, human beings are respected as atomized individuals and are responsible for the conditions under which they live. They are respected in that they have equal legal rights but the conditions needed to realise legal equality – equal economic rights – are ignored. Clearly, compared to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises individual rights and freedoms is a more positive and advanced phenomenon and is based on a more progressive interpretation of human beings and their environment. When examined closely, however, as I initially noted, we see that it is basically limited to the legal rights of individuals.
The Declaration does not discuss the economic conditions necessary for the realisation of legal equality. Freedom of expression and organisation are recognised in this Declaration, but this legal equality cannot be realisable because of economic inequality. For example, the worker and employer are recognised under this law; workers can be exploited and made redundant. Also, the possibility to access and influence mass communications and politics is completely incomparable between the rich and poor. Here equality for the masses is nothing more than a mirage. From a Communist and working class perspective, such conditions violate the most basic rights of a large segment of humanity. The economic sphere has been left out of the Declaration of Human Rights and therefore there is no guarantee for the realisation of even the rights declared.
Ali Javadi: There is a trend, which states that civil rights cannot be universal because people are not the same; they have had different histories and lives, and live in diverse societies with different cultures, thereby drawing certain conclusions about human rights. What is your response and criticism?
Azar Majedi: In my opinion these are attempts to silence those who struggle for freedom and equality and justify the situation. This assertion that is also discussed under the framework of cultural relativism, has mostly been promoted during the past couple of decades. Half a century ago, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was put forth, cultural relativism was not an issue. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written amidst Cold War rivalries in opposition to the Eastern bloc, though the Soviet Union’s constitution recognised more progressive rights and put forth a more advanced model.
With the advent of cultural relativism, we are now witnessing the undermining of universal rights, and different definition of rights relative to different societies, histories, cultures and religions. This is in fact a move backwards. Cultural relativism is being used to justify the lack of rights, exploitation and repression in the West, in Western public opinion and among people who live in countries like Iran. It claims that Islam is people’s religion and what happens within the Islamic framework is acceptable or that women should not demand freedom in ‘Islamic societies’ as they must respect their culture. This is nonsense and must be firmly rejected. These are completely reactionary and backward ideas. Civil rights, freedom and equality are universal concepts; that people worldwide are struggling for equality and freedom and to overcome rightlessness is a confirmation of this fact.
Ali Javadi: What were the grounds for the development of cultural relativism? Why would the bourgeois movement, which produced the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights, now argue for cultural relativism and against the universality of human rights? What are the economic and social causes of this?
Azar Majedi: This has partly to do with the collapse of the Eastern bloc and state capitalism, which was called Socialism. As I said, the Soviet constitution, which was written after the October revolution, contained more progressive rights for its citizens. The fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent assault of the Right and free market effectively prepared the grounds for this backward move. Post-modernism was put forth as the philosophical justification for cultural relativism.
Furthermore, the invigorated growth of Islamic movements and their spectre of terrorism over European countries after the establishment of the Islamic Republic gave further practical justification for cultural relativism for Western societies and its ideologues. In the two recent decades, Islamic movements have become widespread, taking power in several countries or becoming powerful opposition groups in others. The struggle against these reactionary movements and the absolute rightlessness that they have subjected people to has been one of the most serious struggles of the last two decades.
The growing political power of Islamic movements, fear of their blind terrorism and specifically the Western bourgeoisie’s need for this movement to control progressive and labour protests have been the political grounds for the growth of cultural relativism. Of course, today, little by little, the reactionary and backward nature of cultural relativism is becoming more widely recognised in public opinion.
Ali Javadi: Koorosh Modaresi, what is your opinion on this issue?
Koorosh Modaresi: The most important aspect of this argument is drawn from Post-modernist philosophy, which has taken shape in the last twenty years. This coincided with two phenomena; one was the beginning of the collapse of the Eastern bloc and support for the kind of Socialism it was advocating. This alternative gradually lost its attraction and consequently lost its dangers for the West. The second factor was the maturing of the 60s-70s generation and their absorption into mainstream bourgeois society. Western ideologues and academics needed a philosophy to which they could refer to in order to justify their retreat from their previously declared position on certain rights and the universal nature of rights. Furthermore, the movement in America and Europe, which took shape during the 60s and 70s and demanded widespread freedom and a certain degree of equality, was reaching its end. A major section of that movement was absorbed into mainstream bourgeois trends and needed to justify itself, thereby defending a philosophy, which considers rights as relative and does not specify what is right or wrong. For example, civil rights are a relative concept to them. As a result, not only is it unnecessary to oppose the lack of rights of the majority of the world, but also it is racist to do so. They have discovered that the suppression and humiliation of certain races and human beings is an aspect of their culture. They say: they are Moslems and deserve nothing more. This theory is a reflection of Post-modernism, which treats rights as relative. In my opinion, rights are universal. Rights like children’s happiness and education, the right to work, prosperity, unconditional freedom of expression, etc. are rights that cannot be denied for living in a corner of Africa or under the rule of the Islamic Republic.
Ali Javadi: Historically, we have witnessed that in some societies or movements, individual rights are paramount over societal rights and in other cases societal rights are absolute and paramount over individual rights. How do you see the relationship between individual and societal rights? In the political system that you advocate what position does individual rights have?
Azar Majedi: In Western societies where mostly the liberal ideology is dominant, societies are based on individualism and in this sense have no responsibility towards the individual. Individualism is based on competition and private property. The individual is responsible for her/his own happiness and destitution and future and fate. Society has no responsibility towards them. In state capitalist societies where the collective and society were paramount and individual rights were undermined, the violation of individual rights was justified on the grounds that society was supreme and paramount. But we are not faced with a bi-polar situation. Society is responsible for freedom, welfare and equality of individuals and individual rights to happiness, and economic, political and social development must be recognised.
Koorosh Modaresi: I think that the separation of individual and societal rights is false. The rights of individuals and society are concepts that are completely related to each other. When they talk of society, they are not referring to all of society and people’s interests but to the dominant class. In capitalist society, the individual is an atomized human being who apparently makes decisions and is responsible for her/his fate; in its extreme form, society has no responsibility towards the individual. Of course, this is worthless rhetoric. The capitalist had the right to shut down a factory or workplace, making thousands unemployed in an instant and destroying many lives in the process. The question is whether society or the redundant worker is responsible for the ensuing poverty the worker faces. What I am trying to say is that this division is formal and does not resolve the relationship between the individual and society.
In our political philosophy, society is completely responsible towards its individuals. I believe that individuals will respect society to the degree that society respects them. Societal rights are preserved to the extent that society has the capacity to guarantee individual rights. For a society to be based on equality, freedom, and happiness, it must rid itself of all the relations that make the realisation of individual rights impossible. Society can then fulfil such rights and the contradictions between the rights of the individual and society would disappear.