Are you one of the in crowds? Did you live inside Iran during the horrible decade of war with Iraq, in those dark times of illegal arrests and execution? Or did you escape the more recent years of mafia economy, high unemployment, poverty, addiction, depression and prostitution? If you did survive all these years of misfortune struggling with the evils of daily living, do you feel bitter about the Iranians who instead chose the easy life of Europe, the USA or Canada?
One of the important consequences of the failure of the reformists has been a reassessment by the Iranian intellectuals and even ordinary people at large of the question of exile or emigration. Many Iranians left Iran on the eve of the Iranian revolution, or shortly after, escaping the radical justice of summary trials, unfair prison sentences, torture or execution. In the 80’s, the authorities always referred to these immigrants as “counterrevolutionaries.”
Soon after the victory of the revolution, the regime extended its witch-hunt to include many who were until then considered to be the “children of the revolution,” such as the Mujahedin, the Communists, the secular left, and Kurdish independence activists. Some of these activists were fortunate enough to escape arrest in the eighties, the years of war with Iraq. And a few of these opposition groups joined Saddam Hussein during his brutal war on Iranian cities and civilians. This unwise and desperate choice contributed to the negative image of emigrants inside the country.
In those days, people still believed that emigrants were either “counterrevolutionary Royalists,” allies of Saddam Hussein, or at best well-meaning elites alienated from the masses. Even those who had not collaborated with Saddam and merely took refuge in the West were seen as people who have abandoned their country during the hard times.
In an ironic twist, all too common for the Iranian politics, the revolutionaries of the 80’s became the reformists of the 90’s. In sharp contrast to emigrants, the disillusioned reformists remained somewhat loyal to the revolution. The presidency of Khatami was presumed to be the proof that they had made the right choice. They stayed and fought when others had run away to preserve their wealth, dignity or national pride. They stayed and took great personal risks to make a democratic system, when emigrants had chosen peace, prosperity, and above all security in their Kebob houses in the US, Canada or Europe.
The reformists made a sacrifice by living under a Rafsanjani monopoly and a Mafia economy when the émigré were busy making a descent living and a future for their kids and family in the West. Even the secular intellectuals who had decided to live under the tyranny of the Islamic Republic were bitter about their emigrant counterparts.
The celebrated poet and cultural icon, Ahmad Shamlou, ridiculed the Iranian émigré.
In the speeches made while visiting Europe and the US, he frequently commented on the absurdity of mixing English words with Farsi in daily conversations of diaspora community, and believed it to be a sign of cultural decay. He considered the inability of the children of the Iranian emigrants to speak fluent Farsi a source of national shame. The Iranian intelligentsia abroad was superficial and decadent. To him and many other Iranians in the 80’s and 90’s, intellectual life existed only inside Iran.
Such ignorance combined with constant Islamic state propaganda against the Iranian ÈmigrÈ made it much easier for the reformists to monopolize the political discourse at the time when all the secular political leaders inside were banned from the press and public. Not only Iranians but also foreign observers were convinced that the intellectual life existed exclusively inside Iran and among the reformists. In their search for influential opinion-makers, the Western media and particularly Europeans focused on the Islamic reformists as the only important players on the political scene. The vibrant émigré community was considered as marginalized observers who could offer no insights.
But 2002 changed all that. The reformists were purged and political reforms failed. Now, the life in the Islamic Republic was not possible even for them. They started to experience exile like the rest of us. This, in part, changed the views of even the reformists about the ÈmigrÈ community. More importantly the youth inside Iran had already started to pay attention to what was going on abroad and people who were living on the fantasy islands of the West, in freedom, dressing the way they desired, going to school and parties and socializing with the opposite sex.
Gradually, the intellectuals inside Iran started to look at the important work that had been produced abroad. This was the moment of awakening for our people. They began to realize that the Iranian emigrants were more than those mindless and superficial characters they saw on the expatriate TV shows produced in Los Angeles. They began to see some of the groundbreaking work that has been produced free of the Islamic Republic censorship.
The work of philosopher, Aramesh Doostdar, dissecting the poverty of the Iranian-Islamic thought, the secular insights of Mohammad Reza Nikfar about an emerging Iranian civil society, the clever historiography of Delaram Mash-hoori singling out the dominance of Islamic discourse as the cause of Iran’s backwardness, the tireless international human rights work of Karim Lahidji, the critical research published in Iran-shenasi and Iran Nameh, the important historical analysis of Homa Nategh, the original literary work that appeared in magazines like Persian Book Review and Baran, the essays of Ali Ferdowsi, Faraj Sarkouhi, Fereshteh Davaran, Abbas Milani, Naser Pakdaman and intellectual reflections and reviews of Kankash magazine, the investigative journalism of Ali Sajjadi, the stories of Shahrnoosh Parsipour, Mehrnoosh Mazarei, and Goli Taraghi, the poetry of Nader Naderpour and Esmail Khoi, and finally the internet community building of Jahanshah Javid and Iranian.com to just name a few.
It was only after the Islamic Republic decided to shut down all the avenues for independent and free expression, and exiled a new generation of reformists that Iranian civil society took a second look at the émigré and their work. It was as if a captive nation suddenly realized that this important body of work could not have been produced under the scrutiny and oppression inside Iran. That those who made the difficult personal choice of leaving Iran suffered and sacrificed just as much as those who stayed. That they went on to write some of the most important texts of Iran’s modern intellectual thought.
If our nation has been looking inward, reflecting on the errors of the past and departing with the Islamic tradition, it is partly due to the important work of this émigré community. For nearly two decades, the regime has tried to divide Iranians, to make solidarity between those living inside and outside Iran impossible.
We all now recognize that we need all of our intellectual resources to overcome this tyranny. That those who are blessed with more safety and security outside Iran must continue to express what is not possible to voice inside the country. That those who live under the tyranny must record and disseminate their observations of the mechanisms of oppression and those who enjoy the safety of the outside, with sufficient distance, calm and access to resources to formulate strategies for non-violent resistance. Together, they must recruit the support of the outside world and do what is impossible to do alone: liberate a captive nation.