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Religious Freedom in Iran and Lebanon

The Middle East (which spans from Egypt to Iran and down to Yemen on most maps), is one of the most religious regions in the world. Due to the Arab Conquest in the 7th century, most of the countries have roots in Islam (Roskin, p 458-459), but over time they have developed to have varying degrees of religious tolerance, have split into different sects (mainly Sunni and Shia Islam), and have incorporated religion into their governments in different ways. Two examples of countries in the Middle East that are currently in stark contrast to one another in regard to religious freedom, tolerance, and culture are Lebanon and Iran. This paper compares the varying religious laws, restrictions, and local attitudes regarding religion in Iran and Lebanon and attempts to answer the question: Why is Lebanon able to achieve religious diversity and freedom while Iran is not?

The official title of Iran is the Islamic Republic of Iran. In theory, the name might indicate that the country is a republic with democratically appointed leaders who vote to represent the needs and desires of the people. The Iranian constitution has a lot of sections that also indicate that the country has an official religion but is free and tolerant of all religions. For example, in chapter 1 article 12, it outlines that Islam is the official religion with the Ja’afari school of thought (the predominant form of Shia Islam in Iran) but that five other schools of thought of Islam are acceptable and people are free to practice those other schools and that their other affairs (including marriages, divorce, inheritance etc.) will be legally recognized (Iran, Islamic Republic of. 1979). Article 13 goes on to say that, “Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education” (Iran, Islamic Republic of. 1979). There are also guidelines in article 14 on how to treat those who stray. “. . . the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and all Muslims are duty-bound to treat non-Muslims in conformity with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights. This principle applies to all who refrain from engaging in conspiracy or activity against Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran” (Iran, Islamic Republic of. 1979). A final example comes from chapter 3, article 23 which says, “The investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief” (Iran, Islamic Republic of. 1979). These examples from the constitution indicate the country is mostly free and tolerant in theory. Unfortunately, in practice the previous examples couldn’t be further from the truth.

According to several freedom indexes including Freedom House, Iran ranks as one of the least free countries in the world. The State Department’s 2018 release of the International Religious Freedom Report on Iran provides several examples of egregious human rights violations. One of the main examples is the penal code which outlines punishments that are a direct contradiction of the previously mentioned sections of the constitution. Examples include, the death sentence for proselytizing, for insulting the prophet (sabb al-nabi), and being in opposition against God (moharebeh) (U.S. Department of State. 2018). The report states, in relation to the approved minority religious groups and groups from the approved schools of thought from the constitution that supposedly had their “human rights respected” instead, “The government continued to execute individuals on charges of moharebeh, including two Kurdish minority prisoners at Rajai Shahr Prison on September 8” (U.S. Department of State. 2018). The report further detailed several other specific instances of people from minority religious groups being forced into confessions, denied legal counsel, beaten, tortured, and executed (U.S. Department of State. 2018). On a less extreme level, the report also outlined several instances of harassment and discrimination in day-to-day life both from the government and on a social level for minorities, like having their businesses shut down, having their religious materials confiscated, being denied education opportunities, and being fired from their jobs (U.S. Department of State. 2018).

Lebanon has its share of problems of religious intolerance, but overall, it has a completely different situation than Iran. The biggest difference being the religious diversity that cohabitates within the country. According to the State Department’s 2018 release of the International Religious Freedom Report for Lebanon, “Statistics Lebanon, an independent firm, estimates 61.1 percent of the citizen population is Muslim (30.6 percent Sunni, 30.5 percent Shia, and small percentages of Alawites and Ismailis). Statistics Lebanon estimates that 33.7 percent of the population is Christian. Maronite Catholics are the largest Christian group, followed by Greek Orthodox”, along with several other christian sects (even Mormons!) . . . as well as other religions, like “ . . . 5.2 percent of the population is Druze . . . There are also small numbers of Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Hindus” (U.S. Department of State. 2018). Although there is not always perfect tolerance and peace (which will be mentioned later), it is important to the country to maintain diversity and even has guidelines in its constitution to maintain equal representation in parliament. In section II, article 24 it states, “The Chamber of Deputies consists of elected representatives . . . representative seats are distributed according to the following rules: A. Equally between Christians and Moslems B. Proportional between the sects of both sides. And C. proportional among districts” (Lebanon, 1926), and unlike Iran, there is actually equal representation in parliament, true to its constitution.

As mentioned prior, there are some problems with tolerance in Lebanon. The previously mentioned report also outlined a few instances like interreligious marriages not being validated in some cases, a foreign terrorist group controlling a territory, and some Christian cities expelling Muslim Syrian refugees from their cities (U.S. Department of State. 2018). Overall, the report was short and the instances pale in comparison to the religious intolerance in Iran. Local attitudes differ significantly in Lebanon when compared to Iran. A Pew Research study interviewed Muslims in Lebanon and found that, “Lebanese Muslims stand apart . . . Lebanon’s Muslims are considerably more secular in their outlook than Muslims in other countries” (Rosentiel, Tom. 2006). The findings it’s referring to are questions about importance of religion and whether they consider themselves Muslims first or Lebanese citizens first. The results for both questions were significantly lower than those of surrounding countries.

When inquiring about the problem of religious freedom in Iran, it is important to take a look at its history, especially in recent years. Iran is an old country with ancient roots, a strong identity, and a rich culture. The text outlines how, starting around the 1700’s, Britain and Russia began to emerge and while having “semi-colonial status”, western ideas began to pervade their government (Roskin, p 459). By the mid-20th century, with a rather strong western influence, a very pro-western Shah (along with his lavish lifestyle and corruption), and the threat of a completely secularized society, the people feared a total loss of identity and many were starving and living in poverty because of the corruption and greed of the Shah. As a result, unrest that had been brewing for quite a while turned into a revolution in 1979 (Roskin, p 459-463).

Authors Brian Grim and Roger Finke, of Cambridge, explain how this chain of events led to religious fundamentalism and ultimately to the current situation in Iran. In their book, The Price of Freedom Denied, They explain that during the enlightenment period in the West, the separation of religion and law became very important but that “it was very different than the basic approach to law in Islam” (Grim and Finke, p 166). It goes on, “Islamic law developed along four general schools, but the common element linking the four is the concept that although a political realm can operate separately from religion, political actions should not contradict or do anything forbidden by Islamic law” (Grim and Finke, p 166). It goes on to explain what was previously mentioned about the rise in colonialism and pervading western influences, “By the turn of the twentieth century, Europeans administered almost every Muslim-majority territory” including not just the Middle East but also Northern Africa, South East Asia and Indonesia (Grim and Finke, p 166). Contrary to what most people in the West are afraid of and think other people should be afraid of, “Religious freedom was not a rallying cry – independence from the colonial powers was” (Grim and Finke, p 173). Islam was the piece of their identity that they could hold on to. The book explains that the more the Western influence pervaded their culture, the deeper into religious fundamentalism the people went to try to counteract it. The revolution of 1979 and creation of a new government ensured that no Western influences would be able to corrupt them and that their identity would remain secure (this was one idea at least).

It is much more simple to understand why Lebanon values religious freedom and is able to have diversity than it is to understand why Iran does not. In his book, Lebanon, A History, author William Harris details the history of Lebanon spanning from the Arabic conquest in the seventh century, to the arrival of the Maronites (eastern Catholics), reformations of the religions and conflicts between them. The geography of Lebanon ended up being an advantage for minority religious groups throughout the ages who sought refuge in Mount Lebanon. There have been wars and conflict in the past, but many religions have had roots in Lebanon for centuries. The book describes the current national identity as being separate from religion, “the country has overall features of Arabic ethnicity and dialect, acceptance of religious diversity, common family traditions, and shared pride in one of the world’s finest cuisines” (Harris, 2012). While Lebanon does have a history and influential ties with France and the United States, they have developed peaceful religious cohabitation in their own way, without sacrificing their national identity.

In conclusion, the differing historical backgrounds have played a significant role in how the current societies in Iran and Lebanon view religion and incorporate it into their governments. Iran is in an extremely complicated situation with its citizens suffering serious human rights violations at the hands of their government. It doesn’t seem likely that the United States would be of much help because of how terribly wrong it went the last time we got involved. Perhaps Lebanon could be a great example to Iran of how to make it work in their own way while respecting customs, preserving identity but also incorporating freedom and democracy.



Finke, Roger & Grim, Brian J. (2011). The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Retrieved April 14, 2020 from:

Freedom House (2020). Countries and Territories. Washington DC. Retrieved April 19, 2020 from:

Harris, William W. (2012). Lebanon: A History 600-2011. New York: Oxford University Press.  Retrieved April 15, 2020 from:

Iran, Islamic Republic of (December, 1979). The Constitution of Iran. Retrieved April 19, 2020 from:

Lebanon, (1926). The Constitution of Lebanon. Retrieved April 19, 2020 from:

Rosentiel, Tom (July, 2006). Lebanon’s Muslims: Relatively Secular and Pro-Christian. Pew Research Center Retrieved April 18, 2020 from:

Roskin, Michael G. (2016). Countries and Concepts [Kindle Version]. Pearson.

United States Department of State (2018). Lebanon International Religious Freedom Report. Retrieved April 14, 2020 from:

United States Department of State (2018). Iran International Religious Freedom Report. Retrieved April 14, 2020 from:


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