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Don't ask, don't tell
When does silence become collaboration?

January 21, 2002
The Iranian

Collaboration and appeasement were terms that you learned in Political Science 101 course in college. They were mostly taught, these concepts, in the context of World War II. The Europeans like the British Chamberlain, were accused by history of tolerating and adopting a policy of ''appeasement'' towards Hitler and Nazi Germany which is seen as having contributed to the rise to power of the Third Reich. Collaboration was the forte of the French.

Like the notoriously obliging French women who welcomed the Nazi invaders, the Vichy government of France was seen as the picture boy of collaboration. For years after the end of the war the French were pointing fingers at each other that screamed,"collaborateur" or ''collaborators".

The term, therefore, always rang French in my mind as something that belonged to another place in time. I did call my parents collaborators for not having picked up and left Iran instead of remaining silent in the face of the Shah's tyranny. I think a people that has survived, indeed at times thrived, under tyranny for as long as we have, perfects the art of appeasement. But collaboration is a concept that was more obvious in the WW II and especially French context. To this day I know Europeans who admit with shame to having a relative or relation in the distant past who was a Nazi collaborator.

Now, seeing how some of our learned Iranians abroad are burying their head in the sand, I have come to ponder those terms, collaboration and appeasement, afresh. These Iranians make the French of Vichy seem like angels. I mean even now when there is a reform movement and attempt at uprising, even now, they, the Iranian intelligentsia abroad, keep their head in the sand and write about everything under the sun but the political situation in their own country.

Here are these supposed scholars of history or politics writing essays about little shrines and archeological ruins, as you would in a travel diary without so much as even lightly brushing the surface of the reality of the boiling political atmosphere that exists in Iran. The country's majority of young men and women are clamoring for change, risking their lives by demanding change and trying to push wider the suffocating limits of toleration in our country and our professors and graduate students ponder the beauty of tourist attractions?

Our journalists who voiced their opinions are in jail and then you write about personal problems while traveling the old country? I mean come on give me a break. If the privileged, young and bright who have nothing to lose other than their next trip back cannot come up with anything critical to say about the regime then who will? Who is going to champion the cause of those students in jail, those women who have second class status and those intellectuals who have given up their lives for reform.

I understand those with spouse and children whose livelihood is in Iran and are hesitant to speak. I understand those too old or too jaded to care. What I do not understand is intelligent, young, free of family any pressing monthly bills, students and teachers of politics and history, who write about Iran all the time but avoid criticism like it was the plague. They avoid writing about the truth, they look the other way. They use their powers of description to talk about the beauty of a minaret or the sadness in some beggars eyes. They avoid writing about the truth that our country is under the oppressive thumb of a decrepit and archaic theocracy.

I am not saying that I am guilt free myself. For years after the revolution I remained silent. Always happy that although stripped of my family wealth and belongings I could still come and go as I pleased. I traveled often to Iran until recently. Ever since 9/11, and even a little before (see "The first stone"), I have let my pen go. I have decided that it is my duty to go on a rooftop and scream at the top of my head about this regime that has suffocated us for so long. I made a conscious decision to say what was on my mind.

Being a mother and a bit too old to be a revolutionary I, for fear of the theocratic regime, have decided not to go back again. I am afraid to go back because of what I write. But this self-imposed exile is a small price compared to what my freedom fighting compatriots have risked. I consider myself their cheerleader. Not as brave as they, but at least willing to cheer from the sidelines. This I am afraid is more than many compatriots abroad are willing to do.

I am not claiming that writing about matters other than politics is wrong. I am just saying that too often the truth is avoided by those in a position to make it heard. It would be nice to hear a little less subtle criticism of the regime form these intellectuals living abroad. They act with much less courage than their colleagues at home. Some of these writers and thinkers do even write about politics but they do not go near the ones in power.

I mean if you claim to have a right to bash Reza Pahlavi, which I certainly believe you do, then you should also take a stance about the regime and the repressive forces in Iran. Or do you only bash he who cannot make you mamnoo-al-vorood? It is simple, if you think you are a political being, and you do choose to write against one figure then you should not spare the worse of them. You should say something about the present regime, about the situation in Iran.

They will say Iranians inside Iran, the youth, are the ones who should bring about indigenous change not us abroad who are too far from home in time and ethos. To them I say are we not morally obligated at least to cheer them on? Are we to ignore them because we believe we are not one of them? Is freedom not what they want and we here enjoy?

I feel with my right to vote comes an obligation to speak my mind, to give my two bits of criticism. This I see as an obligation that comes with the sense of citizenship that I have for that country. If I should feel like I cannot go back to my beloved Iran again it is a small loss compared to what the Forouhars endured. This is how I think others should think too. Many do but more do not. We have to see that with the privilege of a vote comes the obligation not the right but the obligation to criticize.

Writing about Iran and not talking about the oppressive nature of the system is like going to Nazi Germany when the Jews were being sent off to Aushwitz and writing about the great vacation you enjoyed drinking beer and visiting the castle's in the mountains of Bavaria. It smacks of appeasement and collaboration.

If you go to Iran and are a writer, a historian, or whatever kind of scholar with a pen and a forum and you choose not to write about the problems that face our nation, you are a collaborator. If you think you are a political writer, a professor of politics and write about everything but how the regime treats the youth in Iran, you are a collaborator. Remaining silent in the face of so much blatant abuse of rights is collaboration. Especially if you live abroad and have nothing to fear.

This burying the head in the sand amazes me more when it comes from women. We, as women, are especially oppressed and are burdened with lowly status in Iran. It amazes me that a woman can go back and be a journalist/writer of sorts and not comment about how it is for women in Iran. How can one be a writer who considers herself Iranian and not write about those realities so well portrayed in Milani's "Two Women"?

Did these people visit the same country that Milani lives in? Or are they so keen to go back that they swallow their pride, as a woman as a youth, whole? At what point are we responsible for what we do not say? How are we different from those French who collaborated? Do you not care about how History will judge us?

We are worse because even from the comfort of our homes, from the privileged seat of the universities we attend, we do not risk a word of anger or dissent. We hide behind our little lives, our little projects and discuss personal problems like they were everyone's and avoid writing about the truth. We self censor. There is no human rights in our country. We still stone people to death, our brave students languish in jail without a trial and someone thinks they should write about their personal relationships in the context of a sight seeing trip back home?

Whatever happened to students and professors who had ideals? Without them the previous revolution would not have taken place. Without them this reform movement is limping. Where is our sense of obligation to the country we call our own? It is not a choice free speech it is a duty. If you do not demand it is never, ever just given to you on a platter. The best way to demand free speech is to exercise it.

I hear from a friend who attended the Middle Eastern Studies Conference in San Francisco a few months ago, that there was no mention of 9/11. Not much anyway. They seems to be saying collectively, let's just dig deep into the Ghajar or Safavi archives, that way no on will ask us how we feel about the ''t'' word: Terrorism. Let's talk about homoeroticism in the harem of some long ago king and not about the intolerance that homosexuals face right now in our home town.

Let's forget about the torture of students, the treatment of women, the incredible intolerance of differences, and the lack of freedom that plagues our motherland let's instead write about a concert we went to instead. Let's be so subtle in our criticism that no one can hear it. Let's write beautiful tasteful essays about love and lust and chelo kabob and stay away, stay away from anything negative about the regime.

When we write for ourselves, for our community, in , let's safely discuss the chelokabobi or an old film we liked. Let's use our ability to express ourselves to talk about everything Iranian -- about all those authentic ''Iranian moments" we had on our trip back -- but not about Iran, her struggling, youthful and restless self. Let's write about how that ship did not really have Iranian arms in it. It is safe to bash the West.

When we do write about politics let's just bash Reza Pahlavi. The only thing that can happen when bashing him is just some hate email in your box. Let's write volumes and long essays about how he has no charisma, and no experience and is not fit to call for a referendum. But oh no never a word out of our mouths about Khamenei. God forbid. Let's talk and write about Iran all the time but never about how is Iran? Poor old tired, raped and pillaged Iran. Not a word about the butchery committed by these Islamist fundamentalists who would rather shut us women in the house and rape and abuse us till kingdom come and call it Halal.

No, we pick on our would-be Shah, who is, like many of us mostly behind a computer monitor, and quite harmless right now. We do not believe in inherited merit but we do believe in inherited flaws! Want to vent out your youthful urge to criticize, pick on poor Reza Pahlavi. He does not have a SAVAK yet. But of the thriving Hezbollah in Iran, of the murderers of the Forouhars and Bakhtiars, and of butchers like Khalkhali, not a word. Hushhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Not the loss of life or limb or children and inheritence. Not the loss of million of dollars in business but the loss of a simple research trip back to Iran is enough to shut us up.

I go through this struggle myself every time I pick up the pen. I tell myself why not write about your trip to LA or that concert you saw. A lot of times I do write about personal matters or remarkable trips but I always make sure that I come back to my obligation as a citizen. My obligation to say it like I see it. More of us especially those more learned and in positions of influence than I should voice their discontent with this regime.

We need a dialogue amongst ourselves. Only then can we hope to forge one with other civilizations. I have a feeling if all of us wrote how we felt about this regime then more of us could say what is on their mind. I say to all of my colleagues and compatriots who write in this forum let's all go scream it on a mountaintop; we should have had enough already.

The U. S military should look at Iranians abroad for inspiration about their ''don't ask, don't tell'' policy we have surely perfected the art. Every time one of us chooses not to talk about the wrongs plaguing our country we help turn the key one more time on lock that keeps that compatriot journalist, that young student in jail.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Setareh Sabety

By Setareh Sabety

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