“Some have come forward with a plan for citizenship rights and want to give equal rights to the Baha’is and the Jews and the Muslims and…We can never accept this.”

Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi fired this warning shot across the bows of the Rouhani administration on February 24th. Addressing a group of seminary students and teachers, the hardliner among hardliners did not name names but there was no doubt as to what he was referring: the Draft Citizenship Rights Charter presented by Rouhani’s administration last November.

Yazdi’s ire was not specifically directed towards the rights the charter outlines, but at the principle that all citizens are equal under the law. “All Iranian citizens, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, wealth, social class, race, etc, enjoy citizenship rights and the foreseen guarantees in rules and regulations,” declares the draft charter’s first article. The sentence does not include the term “religion”, most likely intentionally, but the “etc” leaves a lot of room for speculation. Hardliners have been quick to speculate, especially when it comes to the Baha’i community, which has been harassed relentlessly since the Islamic Revolution.

“The standard is always Islam,” Yazdi told the theological school students. “Western human rights and citizenship rights, meaning equality between Muslims and Baha’is, has no relation to Islam. These rights, as described by the West, utterly go against Islam, the constitution and the way of Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini]. The people of this country, who have suffered hardships and have given so many martyrs, would not accept anything that goes against Islam. Of course, even those who are not Muslims must be respected. They have rights, which Islam recognizes.”

“Second-Class Citizenship”

Ayatollah Yazdi says that religious inequality is acceptable. “Islam never considers a Jew and a Muslim as equals,” he said. “Even though Islam has conferred certain rights to Jews, this does not mean that they are equals in every right. Sometimes this is called ‘second-class citizenship’. They can call it whatever they want, but it does not change the reality.”

Here, Baha’is are conspicuous by their absence. Whereas in pronouncements condemning “equality”, Baha’is were included, when it came to “rights” they were not mentioned – not as second-class citizens, not even as third-class citizens. Not at all. 

Human rights activists and liberal commentators have been critical of the rights charter for a number of reasons, labeling it “elegant but useless” and a “hodgepodge of things”, but Yazdi sees the charter as anti-Islamic both in word and in spirit.

A Marginal Fantasy

The spirit, of course, comes from the people who wrote the draft under orders from Rouhani. Addressing the students, Yazdi asserted that those who promote citizenship rights are wrong about Islam and wrong about the history of the Islamic Republic. When citizenship rights supporters cite Ayatollah Khomeini’s respect for democratic practices such as the right to vote, they are misconstruing his words. They believe Khomeini “was a political figure and a national hero who opposed the previous regime because it was harmful for the country and wanted to establish a system which would be more beneficial to people”. But, according to Yazdi, this is simply untrue. “People who think like this are secular and, in their view, good and evil consist of material things,” he said, adding that, for these people, “evil is material backwardness and the absence of well-being, while good is using technology and providing a good life for everybody. They believe religion is something marginal, a fantasy.”

Islam was absolutely central to Khomeini’s thinking, Yazdi said. “When he said that society was facing a great danger, he meant a great danger for Islam. This was something that was not important to many politicians.”

Are the people who want equal rights for all citizens enemies of Islam? asked one student. “They are not really enemies of Islam,” he answered, “but this is how they see the world, especially if the person is educated in England or some other place like that, because in those places they talk of human rights, citizenship rights and other rights with such reverence that gradually the student comes to consider them as the most important issue.” He added that, although he was 80 years old, it would still be possible for him to fall under the influence of Western rhetoric if he travelled to one of these countries. So it was logical to assume a “young person who has no deep understanding of Islamic principles” to be particularly vulnerable to influence.

What about human rights in Islam? asked another student. “Islam is a perfect religion,” Yazdi replied. “It respects not only human rights, but also animal rights. Islamic human rights are based on Islamic laws.”

This is not the first hardliner salvo against Rouhani’s proposed charter, but it is one of the most significant and damning ones. The barrage is certain to continue.

Or maybe England should offer a scholarship to an 80-year-old ayatollah from Iran.

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