Death Trap of Dissent: A Discussion with Massoud Noghrehkar on the Struggle of Iranian Dissidents Against Oppression.
May 20th, 2008
The ruling ideology of the Islamic Republic, while promising freedom and guaranteed rights for opponents and dissidents of the regime, has produced an appalling track record, the likes of which have not been seen in the modern history of Iran. The murder of thousands of political, ideological, and religious opponents in the prisons of the Islamic Republic as directed by the highest government ranks, and establishment of an organization charged with eliminating dissidents, has blackened the reputation of the regime. The culture of intolerance prevalent in the regimes of the Iranian ayatollahs have eliminated all opportunities for the peaceful coexistence of political parties and diverse opinions, and prevented its civilians from living peacefully with their own religious and political beliefs. The execution or exile of a large group of Baha’is and limitations imposed upon Sunni Muslims, Sufis, and other groups, has revealed the dark side of the Islamic regime to such an extent that some writers, including Massoud Noghrehkar, have labeled Iran as a massacre site of dissidents. In the interview below, Massoud Noghrehkar reveals the various dimensions of encounters between dissidents and the ruling ideology of the Islamic Republic.
Massoud Noghrehkar, exiled writer and researcher residing in the United States has published more than twenty books in the fields of literature and research. His most recent works are the novel “My Tribe” and the historical novel “An Introduction to the Killings of Dissidents in Iran.” Noghrehkar has written more than 100 scientific, political, social, and literary articles, and has also published a collection of short stories and a children’s story in English.
Mohammad Tahavori: You have written many analytical articles regarding the situation of Iranian dissidents after the Islamic revolution and have explicitly referred to Iran as the “massacre site of dissidents.” To start our discussion, I would like to know which group you are referring to when you mention “dissidents?” It seems that in your articles, the term dissident refers to a wide spectrum of religious and non-religious activists. For example, you categorize the Baha’is, who are considered a minority faith in Iran, as a dissident group, whereas most assume that the term dissident refers to non-religious groups that oppose the current religious regime.
Massoud Noghrehkar: I think we first need to define what “thought” is before we can begin to talk about contrary or oppositional thought. To the extent of my understanding, “thought” is a reflection of objective and cognitive realities (individual, societal, and historical mindsets). At the intersection of such mental and nervous system occurrences, such as sensation, cognition, memory, imagination, attention, experience, abstraction, understanding, etc., a process is formed that shapes an individual’s ability to conceptualize and comprehend social and natural events. This ability allows for the existence and understanding of various worldviews, political, religious, ethnic, racial, cultural, artistic, and any other human or social phenomenon.
Dissent entails having different, and possibly opposite, views in the political, religious, national, ethnic, and other arenas. In Iran, dissent has been, and still is, largely political and is generally defined as opposition to governmental and political power. The government, as evidenced by how intolerant it is of political opposition, has instigated this interpretation to such an extent that even now in our society when dissent is mentioned, we automatically think of political dissent. However, dissent can exist in a variety of arenas within our mental realities and can have an effect on human behavior in general. Various forms of dissent include religious and ideological opposition, as well as those along the lines of ethnicity and sexuality. By this definition, religious minority beliefs are also within the boundaries of dissent.
It is important to note that dissent and intolerance should not only be defined in relation to political, religious, and ethnic power. Many who subscribe to diverse viewpoints and are part of groups outside the purview of power can also be intolerant of others opinions and thoughts. The majority of groups, organizations, and political parties opposing the Shah’s and Khomeini’s regimes have demonstrated a pointed intolerance to differing perspectives, even though they are not part of the power structure in the country.
Is it possible to identify the factions that are involved in confrontations between the government and dissidents, or have all their encounters consistently had the quality of a knock-out competition? Has there been any increase or decrease in the number of encounters with dissidents? If so, what have been the reasons for this increase or decrease?
Our history is rife with intolerance, persecution, and the murder of dissidents. It would be useful at this point to provide a brief definition of tolerance.
Tolerance, restraint, and self-control entail patience and forbearance with respect to ideas and behavior that is unacceptable and unpleasant, or toward which negative feelings are formed.
We can ignore unpleasant thoughts and be indifferent to unacceptable behavior, or we can accept them as the right of every human being and be respectful enough to discuss and debate them. However, intolerance is not the same as indifference or disrespect toward different or oppositional ideas. It is the negative reaction to different ideas, a reaction that can go so far as physical eradication of that idea or behavior.
This phenomenon of intolerance and exclusion is part of our nation’s history. This is a reality that has intensified since the Arab conquest of our nation, which led to intolerance and the execution of dissidents by Islamic rulers and newly converted Muslims. However, this phenomenon did exist in Iran before its conquest and the subsequent push towards an Islamic culture. I should, tangentially, mention that this inhuman occurrence of intolerance is not unique to our nation and that, to varying degrees of intensity, has historically been, and continues to be, a global phenomenon that still exists in a large part of the world. However, what our discussion focuses on is the establishment and persistence of this phenomenon in Iran. We can possibly mention this phenomenon, as a global one, in another venue. We should also be aware that during brief periods in our nation’s history, tolerance of dissent—both on the part of rulers, many individuals, and social dissident groups—has existed. Examples include the ruling ideology of Cyrus the Great and the period of former Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh’s rule from 1951 to 1953.
With regard to the factors that have led to intolerance, persecution, and the execution of dissidents, I will return to two factors:
1. Biological and cognitive factors in humans, and
2. Environmental factors, among which religion—and more generally religious and ideological thought and behavior—can be mentioned.
The experiences of the past thirty years demonstrated that the Islamic government has had the dishonor of surpassing all other eras in our national history in the extent to which it executes dissidents. It is a government in which there is no separation between state and religion and its powers and responsibilities. Instead of the separation of powers, which is the foundation of democracy, our country is ruled by a despotic religious authority with a sectarian religious oligarchy at its helm. During this thirty-year period, no sign of tolerance of dissent has been seen within the government or among the rulers. In some areas, protests and struggles have succeeded in reducing the Islamic government’s tendencies toward intolerance and the unjustified use of execution. Of course, during the reign of the reformists (President Mohammad Khatami’s era), there was talk of restraint and moderation in parts of the government and small steps were taken in this direction. At the same time, however, this era witnessed the deaths of many intellectual dissidents on the orders of some other sections of government, which became known as the “serial murders.”
Is the expanding circle of dissidents primarily responding to ideological characteristics of power or is it also a result of the political and social factors involved in the internal power struggles within the country?
All the factors that you mentioned play a role in what you refer to as the “expanding circle of dissidents.” However, among them, ideology and dogma play a larger role for two reasons. The first is that these belief systems are devoid of the capacity to tolerate others, and the second is that they are capable of instigating hostility among various groups. We are witnesses to how systems of belief and ideology—in their lack of acceptance of the rights of other individuals and social groups—have led to the contradictory outcomes of “expanding the circle of dissidents,” while at the same time “forbidding dissent.” In most cases, it is these hostile ideologies that bring about the phenomena of intolerance, persecution, and the murder of dissidents, especially when these hostile beliefs intermingle with social and cultural institutions. Our people have been victims of these types of beliefs throughout history.
During the first decade of the Revolution, a large number of dissidents were executed (although the second and third decades also experienced waves of terror and executions of dissidents on a smaller scale). A large wave of emigration among dissidents also started, leaving behind a much smaller and less vocal group of dissidents. This was further worsened by forced self-censorship in the country. Is it possible to statistically determine the size of this group of dissidents? For example, it is said that between 11 and 14 million Sunnis live in Iran. Is it possible to determine the Baha’i population of the country in the same way? What is their current condition?
It is true that the rate of the execution of dissidents is not as high as the years of 1979, 1981, and 1988, but this should not be interpreted as a change in the nature of the regime. Regardless of the seemingly changed atmosphere of terror and executions, struggle continues within the country. Oppositional struggles on the part of a variety of social groups, arrests, and the existence of a large number of political and ideological prisoners are evidence of this. The regime has shown its unchanging position, not only in the political arena, but also in the realm of religious beliefs and freedom of religion. For proof, one only needs to look at the government’s encounters with Baha’is and other religious minorities. The Islamic regime has brought about the exile and migration of millions of Iranians. The regime has even taken its business of executions and murders outside Iran’s borders. The killings of many Iranian intellectuals and political and ideological dissidents in Europe, America, and many other countries around the world are a special feature of the Islamic Republic.
As for the statistics on murdered dissidents, I cannot relate an exact and definite number. The various facets of secret and open killings are such that it is impossible to quote exact numbers. But, for example, the killings of 1988, during the so-called “new era,” have involved close to 5,000 names. Now if we add to this the executions of 1979 and 1981, the serial murders, those that were carried out outside the country, and murders of religious, ethnic, and sexual-orientation minorities, this number will increase exponentially.
I don’t have exact statistics in relation to religious minorities, especially Baha’is, for the aforementioned reasons, but I would expect that the number of religious minorities, with regard to the rate of population increase, has decreased in Iran. Executions, exile, and migration of religious minorities are some of the reasons for the decrease in these figures.
What is your assessment of the dissidents’ social base? To what extent have they been able to relate to society as a whole and disseminate their ideas? Do you believe that dissenting thoughts are reserved for an elite class and because of this bond between dissidents and the people has not grown deeper?
You do realize that a dissident is not necessarily an intellectual and can indeed be a non-intellectual. Dissidents do not have a unified or specific social base. Various social classes and groupings play a role in bringing about distinct oppositional ideas, and for this reason, the dissidents’ social base is varied and different and dissent cannot be linked to a particular class or social group. The same applies to intellectual dissidents. There was a time when only the left was viewed as intellectual and progressive, and its social base was also defined in such a way. However, this view is no longer accepted today.
The association of intellectual dissidents among society (and the people) has always been weak—both for historic, cultural, religious, and political reasons, also because of the weaknesses and vacillations of our nation’s intellectuals and the intellectual movement as a whole. In-depth analysis of this is beyond our topic of discussion. These factors have prohibited the spread of intellectual ideas to the larger populace and have limited them to this specific social group.
What effect have encounters with dissidents had?
The establishment of the phenomenon of intolerance, persecution, and execution of dissidents has led to the reinforcement of egocentrism, self-aggrandizement, self-justification, hostile and power hungry tendencies, revenge seeking, hatred, dislike, and intolerance of others—exposing inhumanity within society. Among the aforementioned outcomes, extreme self-centeredness will have no consequence other than to move away from realistic and historical truths. This phenomenon has contributed to the strengthening of intolerance in society, an anti-democratic environment, and a weakening of democratic culture. In effect, intolerance leads to the death of the human spirit, a spirit that is naturally drawn to love and understanding.
Consequences of intolerance can also be seen from other perspectives, such as the establishment and fortification of the worst kinds of ideological and religious tyrannical regimes. An example is the current Islamic regime—the discernable characteristics of which are reactionary and intransigent political and religious beliefs. It is an anti-nationalist and anti-populist government that views the people as inferior and subordinate and in need of its supervision.
Life has shown that difference and diversity are the main determinants of political and societal freedom and liberty, and its acceptance leads to human and social progress. The intolerance of dissention is, in fact, a repudiation of this essential principle of existence. Efforts to eradicate these differences, especially in the realm of ideas and beliefs, are harmful and detrimental. Any attempt to create a sense of uniformity of people and human society is not feasible, especially when one considers the defining psychological and behavioral factors of the human race. It must be accepted that the domain of thought, absolute freedom, and conduct is the domain of law. Individual psychology, social psychology, and modern sociology have shown that there exist as many mindsets as there are people in the world. It is difficult to find two people who have identical outlooks, personalities, and states of mind, especially within a social group, class, or an entire society.
It goes without saying that human beings do share some common characteristics, but is also definite and crucial to pay attention to this. Disregard for this diversity and divergence has caused much upheaval in human life.
The type of mindset and ideology that calls for uniformity of thought and publicizes “all togetherness” in religion and politics (aka “all with me”) is really encouraging the posture of “he who is not with me and does not think like me is against me.” This is not a very humane or democratic attitude; rather, it leads to individual, ethnic, and group self-interested behavior which, as I have already mentioned, withers away the roots of love, friendship, and serenity and injects insanity and madness into the veins of society. The Islamic Republic has once again shown that attempts to enforce uniformity of opinion and belief, come at a cost—persecution, insults, humiliation, exile, accusations of heresy, jail, torture, and institutionalized mass executions. These attempts to unify mindsets and belief systems amount to the biggest insult to and abuse of the unique outlook and personality of humans, and constitutes an effort to defeat human thoughtfulness and conduct, replacing it with animalistic (or semi-animalistic) reactionary instincts.
As you well know, Iran, as a member of the international community and a signatory of international conventions and treaties, has pledged to abide by human rights and civil liberties. Has Iran ever been punished for its treatment of dissidents in any international institution including those that come as a result of complaints on the part of dissidents themselves? If so, how much have dissidents achieved using these channels? If not, what are the reasons for not using international mechanisms to investigate violations of their rights? Have they discovered better paths of resistance or have the better paths been sacrificed in these struggles?
My criticisms of the inhuman treatment of dissidents and the anti-democratic nature of the Islamic government began when this government came to power, and immediately revealed its true character. Disapproval and condemnation have always existed both inside and outside the country. Inside Iran, the large number of political and ideological prisoners, and the thousands of executions are continuing proof of this same defiance. Outside the country, the exiles and emigrants are not inactive. Global public knowledge of the Islamic Republic’s crimes is largely due to the effort of these exiles and immigrants whose endeavors have not been without success. Specifically, their efforts to impede executions and serial murders within the country have been somewhat effective, although temporary, in my opinion. Regardless, these efforts are small and incomparable with regard to the tragedies taking place within the country.
Global human rights groups, along with their Iranian partners, have voiced their objections and taken action; however, we cannot ignore their negative reception, on the part of many governments, and the limitations imposed on their activities. Many countries are ready to turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses of the Islamic Republic of Iran when their material gains are at stake, and will only bring these issues up when it benefits them in some way. (We will not forget America’s silence regarding Saddam Hussein’s crimes, and the sudden revelation and broadcast of his criminal history in preparation for a military attack against Saddam’s government.) In my opinion, it is still critical to protest abuses in a consistent fashion. Unfortunately, and this is mostly true outside the country, most protests take place only when the Islamic regime commits fresh crimes inside and outside the country. Otherwise, the protests diminish and the resistance movement becomes sluggish. We must organize in such a way that protests against human rights abuses remain constant and relevant at all times.
We thank you for your participation in this discussion.