Minorities are no primordial categories but instead are continuously constructed through ideological assumptions, legislative as well as social and political processes in a given society. Generally speaking, a religious minority is to be characterised as a numerically smaller group in regard to the majority. Depending on the existing state or society in ancient or modern times, majorities and minorities may be created according to religious, ethnic, linguistic or other indicators. Relations between a self-defined majority in a society/state and its (imagined) minorities – however they may be defined – are often characterised by (purposeful) incomprehension and misunderstanding. Also, questions arise as to the rights members of minority groups enjoy in a given society: Are they regarded as equals, are they ascribed particular rights, or are they seen as not fully belonging to the state, the nation and the society?
Various political or religious ideologies dominant in Iran at a given time also depict taboos, themes not to be discussed, words not to be uttered and subjects not to be openly addressed. In modern times, the official discourse in Iran depends on political imperatives and quite easily adapts to changing political contexts. Likewise, counter-discourses like the anti-Aryan narrative in the 1940s, might challenge official discourses and their construction of minorities. As the papers to be presented in this panel will show, incomprehension and misunderstanding are not limited to modern times. In ancient Iran, Armenians tended to the “othering” of Persians, while Greek “minorities” in the Achaemenid Empire were divided between contesting loyalties. In modern Iran, the question of “rights” or “equality rights” in regard to Iran’s multi-confessional population was and is discussed in diverse historical contexts: When Reza Shah Pahlavi was forced to abdicate in 1941, and in the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Minorities” might be made “invisible” in the Islamic Republic or they might be made “visible” by looking through official biographies of Shiite clerics. Also, “minorities” may play an important role in foreign relations.
In its constitution, the Islamic Republic of Iran refers directly to Qur’an and Sunna regarding the rights and duties of “protected religious minorities.” Only acknowledged “minorities,” that is Zoroastrians, Jews, and Armenian as well as Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, are free to perform their religious rights and are allowed to act according to their respective canons. As stated in Article 14 of the constitution, the government as well as all Muslims are obliged to “treat non-Muslims in conformity with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights.“ According to the constitution, their “human rights” are respected as long as they “refrain from engaging in conspiracy or activity against Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran.“ Present-day Iranian political scientists tell us that religious mi-norities enjoy “complete justice” in Iran and that their human rights are respected by the con-stitution. Obviously, the core concept of human rights does not conform to UN conventions or international law. This in itself is not surprising, since Muslim organisations and governments have often called into question the universality of human rights, accusing them of being “Western” and countering them with their own “Islamic” human rights. If the paradigm is Islamic law as it is understood in the Islamic Republic of Iran, there can be no “understand-ing” in regard to international human rights or the claim for dignity and respect by members of “minority” groups. In light of the many accusations brought forward by UN representatives and human rights activists, Iranian scholars, being part of the official discourse, react rather defensively and perhaps purposefully misunderstand and misinterpret those concepts of hu-man rights that are formulated by international institutions. In my paper, I will discuss if “religious minorities” in Iran do actually have the “right to have rights” (Hannah Arendt). I will also pursue the question of what kind of rights are conceded to them and whether they are assessed in regard to their actions and opinions. Since the Baha’is, as the most endangered “minority,” have lost all civil rights in Iran, they may not even have the “right to have rights.”