By Golnaz Esfandiari, Kambiz Tavana, RFE/RL
Inspired by Czechoslovakia's renowned Charter 77, a group of Iranian intellectuals have penned a new document that aims to unite the Iranian people around a common human rights and civic agenda.
"Charter 91," so called because this year is 1391 under the Persian calendar, enshrines basic rights and rejects violence. It also provides a blueprint for a future democratic Iran under which the rights of all minorities, including homosexuals, are protected. Religion is separated from the state, under the document, and freedom of speech is protected.
"In order to transit from dictatorship and despotism and reach democracy, we Iranians need to review and rebuilt our political culture," the charter reads.
Articles of the charter are dedicated specifically to women's rights, justice, natural resources, and the environment, in which the rights of animals are addressed.
"All Iranians should have equal rights," reads one passage. Another one says that Iranians should have the freedom to choose how they appear in public.
The charter also says that the judiciary should be independent and that justice should not lead to violence and revenge.
The main architect of the document is prominent Iranian-Canadian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, who has written extensively about the culture of nonviolence.
Jahanbegloo says the idea of the charter came to him after the mass protests that followed the 2009 presidential election, and the state-engineered crackdown that followed.
"Some, including myself and young people, were asking ourselves why Iranian society has been engaged in a culture of violence and revenge," Jahanbegloo says in explaining the reasons behind the charter.
"We have to believe that, in order to achieve a mighty society from a political point of view, we need to have strong moral principles and a civic culture. And behavior cannot be imposed from the top; society has to achieve it through a process. I hope this charter will be helpful."
Jahanbegloo, who was detained in Iran in 2006 before moving to Canada after being released on bail, says the goal is to distribute Charter 91 among Iranians and generate a national debate about the rights and values included in the document.
One of the signatories of Charter 91, Professor Nader Hashemi, who teaches Middle Eastern politics at the University of Denver, believes the timing of the document is "perfect."
"Iranians who are upset with the state of politics in Iran need some hope for the future," he says. "And I think this charter provides the hope for a better Iran; for a future Iran that will be more peaceful, more democratic and more respectful."
Charter 91 has a website and a Facebook page through which Iranians can learn about its principles and grant their approval.
The document has already been signed by some 100 Iranian intellectuals, human rights activists, and women's rights defenders -- all of whom appear to be based outside the country.
But for Charter 91 to have an impact within Iran, it needs to gain the support and approval of those living inside the country. And there lies one of the greatest challenges facing the document.
According to Hashemi, it is very important that it doesn't become merely a charter for Iranian exiles and expats. Hashemi acknowledges that for anyone in Iran, signing the document would be hazardous, but he also says the government has reason to respond with restraint.
"What would be interesting -- obviously it's a huge risk -- [would be] for the Islamic republic of Iran to arrest someone and put them in jail because they simply put their name on a document such as this, which calls for basic human rights, basic rights that the Islamic republic often claims it supports," he says. "It would be a huge embarrassment for the Islamic republic, so we have to wait and see what happens."
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Tehran-based journalist and supporter of the opposition Green Movement describes the charter as a "very fine" document. However, the journalist said he believes it lacks a statement about Iran's territorial integrity. He says he is unlikely to sign it.
"All of those who have signed it are outside the country, which makes it difficult for me to sign it, even though they have my full sympathy," the journalist says.
Copyright (c) 2012 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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