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Battle of symbols
Human rights alone need to be our goal

By Nema Milaninia
May 5, 2003
The Iranian

Iranians have been accustomed to our dichotomous political nature. Whether we call ourselves "Persian" or "Iranian." Whether we hang the "Shah's flag" or that of the "Islamic Republic." These words and symbols become reflective of the polarization of political views held by most Iranians around the world.

However, in retrospect, these symbols really only represent the human rights abuses which have plagued Iranians for generations and a source of barrier which to this day we struggle to overcome. It would be foolish for us to assume that life under the Shah and prior to the revolution was not burdened by abuses. The Shah's secret police, the Savak, were notorious abusers of human rights, while the Shah himself was a leader not popularly elected by the people but rather one imposed by foreign powers.

However, it would be even more foolish to argue that the same does not occur now where people are persecuted and jailed for their views, where Bahai's were persecuted and displaced for their religion, and where the element with the most political, judicial, and military control is backed by the minority of the population.

Unfortunately, the battle of symbols has become a symbolic gesture of the conflict amongst us Iranian-Americans. That is to say, instead of surveying the debate through a human rights paradigm, Iranians instead argue about governments without taking into consideration of the fine line in between, mainly that the past and the present governments have and continue to abridge fundamental rights.

In life, truth can be interpreted in different ways, sometimes misinterpreted. What matters is that we recognize what rights are being violated and discuss through under the context of reform or change, nor by grasping to political ideologies. For this I call for a shift in paradigms. One away from the debate between the Shah and the IRI, but rather one focused solely on rights.

It must be noted first and foremost that I do not believe that a specific political institutions is correlative to human rights. History has proven that democracies can also be despots as majorities can be tyrannical. Can we truly say that the United States, "the oldest democratic state" has a history of freedom given its possession of slaves, cultural and racial discrimination, and the violation of other basic freedoms despite having a Bill of Rights?

And let us not forget that even now Iranians, America's most educated, productive, and
apathetic minority has been barred from visiting, being educated, and entertaining this country This despite being a people most supportive of American values and despite being the only country in the Middle East to not be connected with September 11 and the only people within the region to hold a vigil in condolences with the victims of that moment.

But the United States has evolved and changed like all countries continue to do so because the psychology of the people themselves evolved. That is, a gradual shift occurred wherein human rights became more and more important as a moral foundation. The civil rights movement of the 60's, struggles during the Vietnam War, and now the debate over environmental and humanitarian aid take precedence in the public conscious because everyday the culture recognizes how inviolable these rights are.

Over the past two weeks I have traveled through Iran probing public consciousness on human rights, Islam, and other matters. More importantly, I sought to see if there is an emerging human rights paradigm amongst the people and the religious institutions. It is clear that human rights have become the focal point by which Iranians, be they student, revolutionary, solider or even cleric, explain their discontent and discord.

My studies have showed that voice is certainly there but quieted and restricted. For Iranians around the world that shift still needs to be created. Human rights alone need to be our goal. More importantly human rights need to be the tool toward our goal. We must, as a community, be dedicated toward voting, protesting, speaking, writing, and debating for our rights by taking advantage of institutions like the National Iranian American Council and organizations that promote political viability for Iranians.

Certainly the question of democracy and Islamist regime will be tied into the focus on human rights and Iranians should participate in those debates with both intellectual vigor and foresight. But we should never lose sight of our fundamental goal, the protection of rights which we are due by the very nature of being human given to us both naturally and
divinely. As human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe, it is up to methods of justice and truth to rally the masses.


Nema Milaninia is a Graduate Student, International Human Rights Law at the American University in Cairo.

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