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Hunger strike

Iran's Don Quixote
Akbar Ganji has defied that claim and forced us to reflect on the glaring disconnect between what we say we want and what we are willing to do for it


August 3, 2005

The beautiful thing about electronic media is the freedom of choice it affords to its viewers and readers. Given the resources, we are allowed to determine the content we receive that informs us about the world. Conservatives have their talk shows, progressives have their media, and in-between there is a veritable orgy of entertainment media available to anyone with a television or internet connection. Reality TV shows allow us to lose ourselves in another, albeit staged reality.

When a news program does a four minute feature on someone saving the life of a dog in Ohio, we can readily forget about the previous three minute segment on the destruction in Iraq. Commercials punctuate our programming and give us fodder for superficial chitchat with friends and strangers alike. Pop-up blockers allow us to move mostly unencumbered from site to site on the internet, and when we get bored or overwhelmed, we can simply change the channel or turn off our computers and televisions. 

This freedom comes with a price; confronted with an unending onslaught of information, nothing seems urgent or important anymore. The demands of our daily lives coupled with the countless venues for information and entertainment have reduced our attention spans to that of a goldfish, whose memory is cleared every time it blinks. Our options for media have turned us into a society of chapped-fingered channel changers and mouse clickers, with minds that retain information like an old stove retains a permanent thin film of grease to its surface. 

Perhaps this is why the plight of Akbar Ganji has not made as dramatic an impact as it should be making. He represents perhaps the most empathic recent case of dissent against the Islamic regime in Iran. Ganji, a former Revolutionary Guard and government intelligence spy who is now locked into a mortal combat against the regime he helped create, has become the latest Judas of the clerical establishment.

Using his prominence as a journalist, Ganji helped call attention to the state-sponsored murder of journalists and dissidents within Iran, which propelled him toward his fascinating and morbid last stand. What makes his case so compelling, so moving and deeply troubling is that Ganji has not said anything remarkable or surprising; he simply stated the sentiment that most Iranians intrinsically understand and guard in their core, that the Islamic regime can never be a truly representative democracy and must change.

For that act, Akbar Ganji will lose this battle and pay with his life. He certainly will not be the first Iranian to die for his beliefs nor is he unique in that his impending death will be at unjust and officially sanctioned hands. Ganji is the latest offering to the Iranian pantheon of martyrs, joining a long and storied community that includes innocent children, teenagers accused of immoral behavior, Khosro Roozbeh, and the many others whose names never made it to the domain of public knowledge. Iranian history is abounds with tragic heroes, but is painfully short on good leaders.

I have heard different people questioning whether Ganji's death will be in vain and what his struggle will actually accomplish. Is he our Don Quixote, foolishly dedicating his existence to fighting windmills and for a cause unappreciated by the rest of us? Considering the levels of apathy and hopelessness that characterize the vast majority of Iranians both in and out of Iran, Ganji indeed seems to be an outlier, an anachronism no one can relate to--a general fighting without an army. Put bluntly, Akbar Ganji may die at any moment and it still doesn't change a thing.

But his death will not be in vain. Akbar Ganji has determined that without certain inalienable rights, life is a farce. He has dedicated his life and chosen his death to convince the rest of us to stop pretending life is worth living otherwise. Images of his physical deterioration, his courage, and his seeming insanity to carry on force us to confront realities we have become comfortable avoiding or not questioning, and have perhaps prompted an uncharacteristic pause in the fatalism of the vast majority of the Iranian population.

No longer can people toss off rhetorical firecrackers stating that no one is willing to suffer in order to achieve change. Today, and for the past 52 days, Akbar Ganji has defied that claim and forced us to reflect on the glaring disconnect between what we say we want and what we are willing to do for it. For me, the question has become: is life an issue of simply surviving the time allotted to us between birth and death, or is it an opportunity to create a meaning for ourselves?

In the vast galaxy of electronic media, Akbar Ganji has invited the voyeurs among us to watch his reality show until the very end. In our lethargy, some of us uncomfortably wait for the inevitable conclusion to this darkly idealistic standoff, while others are too troubled to bear witness. It is easy to understand how some people may have difficulty stomaching this situation, but more troubling are those of us who after seeing this awful reality, have decided to simply change the channel.

For letters section
To Roozbeh Shirazi

Roozbeh Shirazi

Akbar Ganji



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The Legend of Seyavash
Translated by Dick Davis

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