Dying for democracy
Akbar Ganji and the movement for freedom and ending religious
August 6, 2005
Akbar Ganji is dying in a hospital in Tehran. He
is not a prophet. He is not calling for a revolution. He is not
doing George Bush a favor. He is a man who
speaks his mind
it. But he must not die. We must do everything
we can to force the authorities to let him go home.
Ganji is not everyone's
favorite dissident. He quotes Khomeini, he looks up to Ayatollah
of friends and allies includes leading religious reformists such
as Saeed Hajjarian and Abdolkarim Soroush. Because of his solid
foundation and credentials as a keen supporter of the Islamic
Republic in earlier years, some doubt his transformation into
Also there's the issue of timing. Naturally some
are worried that the Ganji affair may weaken Iran's position in
this sensitive stage in negotiations with Europe over
nuclear technology. Another concern is that the adverse publicity
created by Ganji's hunger
strike will not only fail to do anything for the pro-democracy
but will give another excuse for the Bush Administration and the
neo-cons to portray the IRI as a vicious police state with deadly
Ganji's words and, more importantly his actions,
leave little doubt in my mind that his belief in democracy and
church and state are genuine. His forward ideas are an
important part of the continuing evolution of the
If Iran were a free state, if the
reform movement had not been crushed and the conservatives
had played by democratic rules and allowed everyone to challenge
seat of power, Ganji could have
been a natural successor to Khatami. Even better, we could
have listened to Shirin Ebadi as our president delivering a
speech at the UN General Assembly in New York, instead
But Iran is not a free state. The core religious
establishment not only resisted reform but consolidated power
during the Khatami era.
With the election of Ahmadinejad, all visible and invisible
branches of state, with one exception: the Expediency Council
led by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, will be dominated by allies
The faction represented by Ganji is
refusing to play under these suffocating conditions. He
to the constitution
as the source
because it explicitly grants sweeping, unchecked powers to
the Supreme Leader. These fundamental flaws have been around
since the dawn of the Islamic Republic, but attitudes towards
it are changing fast within the younger generation.
When Khatami came to power, expectations were high.
People believed he was the right man to reform the system.
He was one of "them"; understood fellow mullahs; knew how
to slide the democracy pill down their throat. Eight years later,
the regime's repressive political and religious grip shows no
sign of loosening up.
That's why so many have lost hope in reform.
If it didn't happen under a cleric as popular and highly ranked
as Khatami, it certainly won't happen under Ahmadinejad, who has
made it clear that he is here to strengthen the bond between the
the legislature, and the judiciary (plus, of course, the military
security apparatus, as well as a big chunk of the economy via
unregulated foundations) under the control of Leader
Khamenei and his yes men.
That's why Akbar Ganji is on a hunger strike. He
no longer has any significant allies in government. He is so politically
isolated that ironically the only prominent establishment figure
pressing to save his life is Rafsanjani, the man who lost
much of his reputation because of Ganji's exposé on political
Ganji rightly sees that religious conservatives
have succeeded in taking over all centers of power not just by
interpreting laws in their own favor, but by rigidly standing
by their warped principles, bullying the religious reformists,
shutting down newspapers and imprisoning critics. They say their
is the absolute truth and that the Quran should
under a religious leader.
Ganji is taking a stand against all of this. He
wants a secular democracy to replace this theocratic "sultanate"
and openly says Leader Khamenei "must go".
lives or dies, his message
will live on. It will live on because Ganji is not alone. He
is not the first and will not be the last to call for an end to
oppression. Iran's prisons are filled with writers, critics
and activists of every creed.
Ahmad Batebi was a student
holding a bloody t-shirt in a demonstration against police brutality.
He has been in prison for seven years, along with the Mohammadi
brothers. There's the journalist Siamak Pourzand, who is 74 and
in poor health,
several years. There's the human rights lawyer Nasser Zarafshan,
in Evin prison for no good reason. He's now joined by Ganji's
lawyer, Abdolfattah Soltani, arrested a few days ago.
There are numerous others we hardly
ever hear about because no one represents them or they have
up far away from Tehran where human rights observers
visit most often. At this very
up in Kurdish towns
for "inciting" protests against a gruesome murder in Mahabad.
There's no question a good percentage of them will not see home
for a very long time.
Parastoo Foroohar is still chasing the
Intelligence Ministry agents who hacked her parents to death in
1998 for opposing undemocratic, religious rule. Several other
high-profile murders of writers around the same time have remained
unsolved. Last year photographer Zahra Kazemi was killed by a
blow to the head
in the presence of Tehran
Prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi.
And the cherry on top: President Ahmadinejad is
widely rumored to have taken part in the assassination of moderate
opposition politician Dr. Kazem Sami in the early 1980s and Iranian
Kurdish leader Abdolrahman Qassemlou in Vienna in the early 1990s.
True or not, they are certainly believable given this regime's
The list of crimes is long and odorous. The 1988
mass murder of political prisoners; prolonging the 8-year war
with Iraq, the persecution of religious
minorities, especially Bahais and Jews; stoning people for sexual
acts, denying women their humanity and taking away their rights
and opportunities, promoting a culture of hate and violence...
what else? Need more reminders of the reasons why this regime
deserves no sympathy?
It is for these reasons and much much more that
a large portion of the opposition inside and outside Iran is lending
support to Ganji. Not because George Bush asked them to.
The Bush Administration as well as Europe have and
will express concern for Akbar Ganji's life (although as little
as possible to avoid upsetting the nuclear negotiations). And
the neo-cons will support anyone who opposes the mullahs. But
doesn't? America's right-wing and Europe's liberals are not at
all the only ones siding with Ganji. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty
International are not issuing weekly reports about gross abuses
in Iran on the
orders of Condi Rice.
To be fair, the Islamic Republic is not Iraq
before the American invasion. Iran's theocracy is not as repressive
Hussein's regime. There
are broader debates and greater political
activity in Iran today than in many other Muslim countries. And
Iran is a military threat to no one, despite all the boasting about developing
long-range missiles and
up defense. Overwhelming evidence shows Iran's
military is in poor shape in terms
of equipment, training and morale. It cannot be a realistic
threat to Israel or any other state.
And yes, the Islamic Republic is not Hell, exactly.
In fact you can have a very pleasant life there, with all the
Western amenities and vices, if you shut your mouth. The problem
is that close to three quarters of the country is under
30. This young population, thanks to globalization and greater
access to international media
radio, satellite TV and the Internet, has been far more receptive
to modern values than the religious establishment.
These young men and women
will do everything in their power not to grow old under the
cruel and archaic rule of the Islamic Republic. Every hunger striker,
every prisoner of conscience, every non-violent effort to better
lives deserves our support.
We know who they are fighting. We know we are in the right.
the meantime, there's no question Iran is on the brink of a
major military confrontation with the West. Sandwiched
between two countries under American invasion, Iran could easily
turn into a Neo-Iraq, with thousands of civilian casualties,
mass devastation, civil war
and ethnic strife.
Tehran has just turned
down a proposal for European help in developing Iran's nuclear
energy program in exchange for a permanent halt in uranium
enrichment. There will be more push and pull in the next few months.
The U.N. Security Council will get involved. Russia and China
will block any resolution allowing military action against Iran.
But the Americans (or more likely the Israelis) will go ahead
and bomb key Iranian nuclear research centers anyway.
That scenario is a very real possibility but
it hardly makes me feel sorry for the Islamic Republic. Much of
crisis is self-inflicted. Iran, as
a member of the international community, has the right to nuclear
power. And all the facts (not assumptions and accusations) seem
to suggest that Iran has been truthful about not trying to build
But the Iranian government, by its own actions over
the years, has created a climate of domestic and international
fear. The world wants to be absolutely sure that Iran,
under this regime, will not build a nuclear bomb. It is the prevalence
of this deep-seated fear, coupled with the terrorism unleashed
by Muslim extremists elsewhere, that makes it easy to paint Iran
as an imminent threat, as Saddam's Iraq
We love to condemn Bush and Blair for the bloody
mess they have created in Iraq. And rightly so. The war was unjustified.
Iraq will not see peace anytime soon. But that does not make Saddam
a hero. If a journalist was on a hunger strike in Saddam's Iraq,
we would not hesitate to defend his demand for freedom, even under
the threat of foreign invasion.
Akbar Ganji and all those who are
fighting and suffering for the cause of freedom are not responsible
for calamities that may
befall Iran because of the Islamic
Republic's own frightful reputation.
The threat to
Iran does not come from defenseless individuals who want a better
life, who want to live free from religious and authoritarian
rule, and who want to be at peace with their own people and the
As an Iranian-American
I am very concerned by the militarist policies of the Bush Administration.
But as an Iranian,
I am more concerned about what Khamenei and the Islamic Republic
ARE doing to Iran than what Bush MIGHT do to Iran.
W. Bush does not kill and imprison critics in Iran; the president
the United States does not muzzle the Iranian press. America
is not jailing Iranian bloggers or blocking access to the Internet;
the Great Satan does not punish women if they
refuse to cover their head; Western imperialism is not curtailing
the rights of Jews, Bahais, Kurds and other minorities in Iran.
Tony Blair and the British empire are not imposing Islamic rule
-- in one of its most vicious forms -- on the people of Iran.
are all taking place with the blessing of his holiness
Khamenei and his clerical clan.
As an Iranian, I see this theocracy as an
aberration; an ugly distortion of all things pure and spiritual.
Iranians are not violent people. No nation is. But they are constantly
being fed and confronted with a violent ideology that claims
be resisting domination by the greedy Western infidels and invaders.
The fact is, however, Iran's religious leaders
themselves are amassing wealth on a colossal scale.
Mostazafan conglomerate, created when hundreds of farms and factories
confiscated after the revolution, shamelessly plunders
the country's wealth in complete secrecy without any independent
audits only because the law says that the government has no right
to dig into the affairs of organizations under the supervision
of the Supreme Leader.
Which is worse: The possibility that America
might invade Iran, take its oil fields and plunder its wealth,
or the reality of the Islamic Republic mistreating its good
citizens on a daily basis -- for 26 years?
This is a mess that Iranians will
clean up themselves. The concept of democracy and accountability
a free press and basic rights for men and women are widely
accepted (although in varying degrees)
among Iranians inside and
outside Iran. Democracy has become the most common word in the
statements of all political forces, from monarchists to communists,
nationalists and religious
reformists. Even the Islamic Republic
loves to call itself democratic, qorboonesh besham man!
Now that more or less everyone has warmed up to
the virtues of freedom and democracy, we have to make an effort
to make it happen. We have to demand
it. We have
it. That is what Ganji and so many like him are doing in the best
way they know, without resorting to violence.
This is the democratic fight of the Iranian people.
This is how
are built, by the people for the people, not by American soldiers
for Uncle Sam.
You know, I know, everyone knows that Ganji is no
crazy lunatic. None of his demands are unfair or violent or unusual.
He is a
bright example of our struggle to be free. Few will go as far
is a point well-taken and I have nothing but admiration for him.
May he live and be free.