Rights vs. religion
The politics behind cultural relativism
July 29, 2004
Transcript of a program on TV
International English which aired July 26, 2004.
Maryam Namazie: We received an email from
an irate "concerned
happy Muslim Iranian" critical of your [Bahram Soroush] statements
on the incompatibility of Islam and human rights. He said, "it
is obvious that you hate your own culture and religion and have
a vendetta against anything Iranian and anything Islamic".
He made a suggestion: "If you hate our culture and our religion,
then I suggest that you go and change your faith and tell people
that you have no country and leave us alone!" Now this is
something you hear a lot from cultural relativists; that it's "our
culture" and "our religion". Can you expand on
Bahram Soroush: They are trying to say that there
is one culture and one religion and they put everyone together.
They say the whole
country and the whole population is religious, it's Islamic,
and that they have one culture. The reason they do that, I think,
is because they want to justify certain things, since it's
very straightforward to understand what we are talking about.
are talking about fundamental values, which transcend anything
religious or cultural. They are universal values. For example,
human rights. Those rights are not something that can be conditioned
by cultural considerations. Or the rights of children, which
override everything else - political, cultural or religious. It
is the same
with political freedoms.
Such characterisations and generalisations
don't tell you much. They are unscientific and don't tally with
In any society, you have people who think differently, who
have different political and ideological attachments. Secondly,
think, it serves a certain political purpose. Many of those
who are fond
of such characterisations, at the same time want to give concessions
to certain religions or cultures.
In response to the person
who has written that e-mail, I would say that I don't have the
particular culture or religion
that he is attributing to me. We have criticised the Islamic
regime in Iran, why does he feel hurt?! ...
He's taking it personally!
Soroush: Exactly! 90% of the
Iranian people are against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Are
they 'self-hating Iranians"
too? I think it is a question of differentiating between
and organisations, on the one hand, and the people. That
fact is that in Iran you have a religious sect that has
power. They do not represent the people. I understand that
who have religious beliefs too, but that is different from
what is being targeted.
Namazie: This is something that
comes up a lot when you criticise a cultural practice or norm
You hear people
say that it is offensive to do so and that you need to
respect cultures and opinions. That is something that
you often hear
about from the perspective of cultural relativism. What
is your analysis
Fariborz Pooya: Cultures and religions are not harmless
concepts. They are institutions; a part of the organisation
Usually, people who advocate those views, reduce it to
an individual level
and individual choice. But in reality, culture is part
of the institution of the ruling class. Religion is an
and advocates a certain way of life. As part of society's
organisation and institution, it forms and regulates
society functions. And various political movements and
intervene all the time and criticise it constantly. They
try to improve or change the shape of the society that
So to argue that we need to respect those institutions,
effectively you are saying, keep the status quo; you
don't have the right
to criticise it. However, society does that all the time.
I don't think the problem is limited to individual choice.
1970s and with the advent of the "New World Order" in
later years, fundamental rights, universal rights, have
You have the movement to undermine those
concepts. You have the movement, organised by the states
and by the ruling
to remove the basic standards in society. And as
part of that, suddenly they have found ready-made friends
and religious groups. In Iran, there is an Islamic
government that has taken power and has been challenging those
In the West, you can see how those rights are being
eroded. This is a strong political movement... I don't think
there's anything sacred...
Namazie: ... except
for the human being.
Pooya: Absolutely, the
only thing sacred is humanity. But everything else is subject to
criticism and that is
a very healthy thing for society. Apart from the
there is a political movement that is constantly
hammering and battering
established standards that humanity has fought
for over many
decades and which is largely the result of the
socialist movement and the
progressive and workers" movements. You need to
criticise and stand up against the reactionary movement that
is trying to eliminate these fundamental rights.
not a question
of respecting this movement, but about our strategy
to give it a bloody nose.
Namazie: You mentioned
earlier that there
is a political reason behind the depiction of
countries as having one homogeneous culture.
That it is "our culture" and
"our religion". It's interesting that when you
look at the West, for example, you don't see
see different opinions, different movements,
different classes, religions, atheism, socialism, etc. But
when it comes to
countries like Iran or Afghanistan, it just seems
that everybody is very
much the same as the ruling classes there. Why
is that the impression that is always given?
Soroush: You are absolutely right. When
you talk about the West, it is accepted that
that people have different value systems, that
there are political parties. You don't talk about
But why is it that when it comes to the rest
of the world, suddenly the standards change?
look at society
make sense. But it makes political sense. We
are living in the real world; there are political
ties; there are very powerful interests which
For example, how can
you roll out
red carpet for the
Islamic executioners from Iran, treat them
as "respectable diplomats"
and at the same time dodge the issue that this
government executes people, stones people to
out public hangings,
that this is happening in the 21st century.
It's a question of how to justify that. So, if you
are relative; if you say that in Iran they
stone people to
death and they
veil women because it is their culture, your
conscience then is clean.
This is the reason that we are seeing that
something that doesn't really make sense to anyone, and
which they would
not use to
characterise anyone else in the Western world,
they use it to characterise people
from the third world. In fact it is very patronising,
eurocentric and even racist to try to divide
people in this way; to
say, it's OK for you. For example, to say to
the Iranian woman
that you should
accept your fate because that's your culture.
This is part of the larger discussion of what
of thinking, but the motive is very political.
Namazie: You hear this also from
the progressive angle as well. People who like
what we say -
for example, that
we are standing
up against political Islam - immediately assume
that we are "moderate Muslims". In
the interview that
the incompatibility of Islam and human rights
for example, you clearly said that you were
But it just
doesn't seem to register, even among progressives.
Why is that? I
understand the political interests of Western
governments, but why do
progressives have that opinion of us?
Pooya: Part of it is ignorance. Purely
ignorance. And it's our duty to show the
facts of the society
in Iran and
in the Middle East. To show that, for example,
Iranian society is not Islamic at all. It's
If you remove the dictatorship of the Islamic
government from Iran, within a week or two,
you will see the
depth of secularism
the depth of the anti-Islamic movement.
will see the backlash that will have a
in the Middle
and the world,
and not just within Iran. There is a strong
socialist and workers" movement in Iran.
There is a history
of the socialist
There are fights for workers" interests;
there are fights for improvements of living conditions.
So part of it is ignorance, and it is our
duty to speak to our friends who are misinformed
and to show
life in Iran. That's part of our responsibility.
I don't think we have done enough work
more, and this sort of TV programme and
our publications and
activities are partly geared towards clarifying
this and showing the
Iran and the Middle East.
The other side
of it, as Bahram clearly said, is political
based on religion,
based on nationality, serves certain
political interests. Because then it's easier. You
have similar movements
in Western societies
as well; ghettoising people and dividing
people based on ethnicity, which is part
Maryam Namazie is the host of TV
International English, Executive Director of the International
Federation of Iranian Refugees and Director of the International
Relations Committee of the Worker-communist Party of Iran.