Face to Faith
After the revolution: a Christian report on Iran
Saturday November 25, 2000
I have just led a church delegation to the Islamic republic of Iran. It aimed to engage in inter-religious dialogue, monitor human rights and support Christian and other minority communities.
Change is occurring in Iran; there is foreign investment, women are visible and, at least in the cities, the dress code has been relaxed. In some respects, the position of women is better than before 1979. Religious and ethnic minorities are also a little more relaxed, and appear to be freer than in the early revolutionary years. There seems to be a policy of fostering inter-faith dialogue.
But, it has to be said, the United Nations' special rapporteur has noted a worsening of the human rights situation, especially in relation to the trial of Jews for espionage, the situation of the Bahais - with some marginal improvements - and the press clampdown.
Most people we met were aware that the expectations of the early days of Khatami's presidency and the new majlis (parliament), had been unrealistic, and that change must come more cautiously and gradually. There is a struggle going on for the nation's soul between an old guard that wishes to preserve the purity of the revolution's ideals, and those who want the values of an ancient civilisation reasserted and who would like Iran, once again, to open up to the outside world.
We found an eagerness for this kind of contact. The deeply-rooted mystical and anti-clerical aspects of Iranian Islam are coming to the fore, once again, as is the desire for a diverse and tolerant society.
The meetings with those responsible for education, including clerical education, showed a deep awareness of western intellectual and social currents. Traditionally dressed ayatollahs and Hojjatul-Islams showed a lively interest in, for example, post-modernism and the deconstructionists. The implications for hermeneutics which this raised in relation to sacred texts, and the ways in which traditional exegesis was responding to these challenges, were matters of mutual interest.
Such attitudes could be very significant if they influence the study of the Koran and the traditions. There has been some translation of Christian theology, and a desire to do more. Scholars appeared open to advice, centres for interfaith dialogue are developing, and there was a desire that non-Muslim faiths should be taught by adherents of those faiths, and that research and teaching in this area should not be used for apologetic or proselytising purposes. Some scholars desire a view of plurality faithful to Islam, and open to dialogue and learning.
Lawmakers are interested in the moral basis for western law. They appeared well-informed regarding the dangers of merely following public opinion, crude forms of utilitarianism and the over-emphasis on the individual. Most wanted to affirm Islam's teaching, and for its principles to be embodied in law, but they were aware that such applications must take into account contemporary circumstances.
Senior figures suggested that parliament was the best forum for deciding how Islamic principles should be applied; the examples given were about the promotion of monogamy and the development of penal law. The role of reason in relation to revelation was stressed. It may well be that those traditions of Islam, both Shia and Sunni, which give reason a role in the interpretation of revelation, will be in the vanguard for the development of Shariah or Islamic law, on which so much else depends.
The suggested parliamentary role has implications for the clerically-dominated theocracy, with pressure on the council of guardians to take a more progressive view of Islamic law. Much depends on how tension between the majlis and the council of guardians is resolved.
Senior figures are now opening up conversations with religious minorities, and are conspicuous at these communities' events. There is even an acknowledgement that some movement of individuals between faith communities is inevitable.
At the same time, members of these communities continue to report intimidation. Some need to have their legal status recognised, and confiscated properties returned and repaired. Government needs to clarify the balance between community and individual rights; there is a tendency to privilege the former.
One reason for greater tolerance may be the emi- gration of skilled people - including Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. To halt this brain drain, society has to be more open, rights respected and the press allowed to exercise its functions. Many of those who left Iran should be allowed to return.
Interest in an international dialogue stems partly from the desire of Iran's rulers to end the country's isolation. But we need to point out that no civilisation is entirely homogeneous, and a dialogue is needed also within civilisations. Iran has many ancient religious communities. Their contribution to Iranian culture should be acknowledged.
We saw much to suggest that both kinds of dialogue are beginning. But immediate improvement is needed in the situation of minority communities, the judicial system must be seen to be fair, punishment rehabilitative and the press free to investigate and criticise. Otherwise, dialogue will be fruitless and the country could return to the dark days just after the revolution. But there is also the possibility of much fruit both for Iran and for the rest of the world.
Those reformers are taking risks and need support. The slow pace of change may be frustrating for outsiders, but patience is an ancient value in Iran. As the country's premier poet, the 14th-century Hafiz of Shiraz, said: "Patience and success are old friends:/ From patience's sedate walk/ Comes victory's triumphal march."
The Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali is the Anglican Bishop of Rochester
©Copyright 2000, Guardian Newspapers Limited