To State or not to State? Freedom of Expression and Belief in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Freedom of expression is an inalienable right with manifold implications in the life of every single citizen in our global village. One such implication involves the right to belief. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines the right to belief: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” It goes on to explain that for every citizen “this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The scope of this right as explained in Article 18 falls within that of freedom of expression and access to information as set out in Article 19 of the same Declaration. To a logical mind, the symbiotic relationship between access to information and freedom to have, change or manifest one’s beliefs — be they sacred or secular — needs little if any examination. Consequently, constitutional guarantees and state policies that promote and protect elements enunciated in Article 19 of the UDHR enhance citizens’ ability to enjoy access to freedom of belief as set out in Article 18.

In line with the Declaration’s right to belief, Article 23 of the Iranian Republic’s Constitution clarifies citizens cannot be investigated, “molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.” However, Article 12 identifies the Twelver Ja’fari school of Shia Islam as the official religion of the country with Article 13 specifically naming Zoroastrians, Jewish and Christian Iranians as “the only recognised religious minorities.” This directly implies that Sunnis and Baha’is, the largest Muslim and non-Muslim religious communities in Iran, as well as Atheists and Buddhists among others, are denied recognition and enjoyment of their full rights.

In reality, Iran’s human rights record over the past 35 years is rampant with instances involving attacks, investigation, imprisonment and even execution of those who hold “a certain belief” different than that identified in Article 12. Iran has put to death not only members of unrecognised and recognised minorities but also thousands of Muslims whose beliefs may differ than Twelver Ja’fari school. Testimonies from countless survivors point to the fact that more often than not individuals are coerced to deny their beliefs, make false confessions or lie in order to access any of their rights including the right to life, education, or work. Such measures on the part of authorities denies citizens the freedom to express and the right to belief. In other words, the intimate link between freedoms of expression and belief is one that is used by state authorities as a single mechanism to suppress words and actions of individuals and communities, and violate a range of their inalienable rights.

In this light, access to information and freedom of expression plays a pivotal role in enabling citizens to enjoy their right to belief and beyond. One means of accommodating such access and freedom is through seeking information in press and media. However, in the case of Iran, Articles 24 and 175 of the Constitution vaguely condition freedom of expression and information in press and media on Islamic “principles” and “criteria”. The Press Law of Iran further defines the parameters of information and expression as dictated by officials and policies that are exclusively and entirely focused on the official religion of the state, and fails to accommodate diversity of beliefs.

In this manner, the freedom to explore, understand, adopt, change or practice one’s belief is limited. Manifestations of the right to belief range from expressing and practicing one’s belief alone or with others, in private or public. It involves observing special occasions, establishing charity organisations, and observing rituals such as pilgrimage or offering acts of service. These and more are rights that individuals may enjoy in accordance to one’s own tenets and not those of one’s government.

In effect, recognition of belief systems without promotion and protection of full and free access to all that the right to belief entails, particularly in those states that identify strongly with a single religion — as is the case with Iran — may serve as a restriction or limitation imposed by the state. Under international human rights law, states cannot use religion as justification for imposition of limitations on fundamental rights. In fact, states are duty bound to protect diversity of expression and of belief systems.

What is often emphasised is that the Islamic Republic’s lack of recognition of certain minorities or treatment of anyone who does not strictly adhere to the state religion is an imposition on the minorities among its citizens. However, a closer examination of the state policies regarding its laws and codes on the rights to expression and belief point to the fact that the Islamic Republic violates the rights of majority of its citizens.

When the state limits the right to expression, when it replaces access to information with systematic censorship and propaganda, it is in effect limiting its citizens’ capacity to explore, choose and adopt their own belief system. At a time when scores of Muslims convert to or identify with basic tenets of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Atheism or other belief systems, measures that fail to accommodate such a movement are tantamount to violation of the rights of majority of the population by a minority state. This does not render the Islamic Republic a theocracy but a form of apartheid state, politicising a particular branch of religion as a tool for oppression of essentially everyone other than those who blindly obey the state.

However, in an age when information is power, the intrinsic relationship between freedom of expression and the right to belief continues to gain importance. As the global community grows ever more dependent on access to information, the right to explore, enjoy, express and exchange or change belief systems is increasingly prominent and popular. Iran is no different. The post-revolution generation of Iranians are seeking information wherever they can and accordingly adjusting and adapting their belief systems so as to render their lives more resilient, meaningful and productive, regardless of the state.  

Tahirih Danesh is an independent consultant working on human rights research, policy and education.Tahirih’s work is focused on the investigation of allegations of serious violations of human rights and international criminal law against minorities based on religion, ethnicity, gender or age; monitoring hate-based propaganda through Iranian media, and promotion of public awareness of issues concerning democracy and human rights in Iran.

She is the Founder and Chief Editor of Iran Human Rights Review (<>), a MarquisWho’s Who in the World biography, and her work on Iran involves collaboration with a number of organizations including the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, Voice of America Persian News Network, Justice for Iran, Article 19, Small Media, Women Living Under Muslim Law and Foreign Policy Centre in London.

She serves on several boards and advisory boards, including Arseh Sevom, the Borani Foundation and the National Alliance of Women’s Organizations. She is an Honorary Research Fellow at Roehampton University and its Crucible Centre for Human Rights Research.


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