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What forgiveness?
Reformists need to acknowledge their past

August 10, 2001
The Iranian

Recently, a friend of mine was betrayed by a friend of his. The betrayal was, in my eyes, of the kind that undermines an entire friendship; it was a breach of trust. After an evening or two of apologies, conversations, and tears, the two of them continued their friendship, as if, on the surface at least, nothing had happened. When I asked him how in the world he could continue like this he said: "We forgive our partners for cheating, so why not?

I have a penchant for choosing partners who cheat. None of them actually cheat on me because as educated people, we don't "cheat" (nor do we "lie", or commit any of the other vices of common folks). We have complex and intricate justifications for everything we do. So one partner, while never extricating himself from our relationship, felt that sleeping with others allowed him to get out of the bind that my strong personality placed him in, another after great many declarations of love would take the "I am so weak route, and another, upon declaring himself more mature than me, explained his two-week vacation with an "ex-lover" by saying "I need to do this for myself? Why can't you just understand me?"

And I forgive, or at least I think I do, or am I mistaking forgiving for that act sitting close by, forgetting? Is forgiveness only possible in the shadow of forgetting? Is T.S. Eliot's question: "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" merely a rhetorical one? Can we ever forgive what we deem to be great injustice without forgetting all that led to it? And even more importantly, why would we want to?

Moments of great emotional turmoil, of inqilabs, be they of the individual or the collective kind, often lead to the erasing of the past in the hopes that the future would arrive sooner. In our personal lives, we throw away mementos of loves that have hurt us and re-remember the past with pain and injury injected where up to recently, we saw none. In the life of our nations, we bring down monuments and statues, and re-write history books making villains out of yesterday's heroes. When change comes through revolution, the present is but a blimp existing as long as such acts of violence towards the past remain, and then it is gone, and the future arrives.

But what if change happens gradually? What if between the past and the future exists a present, stretched out, and moving slowly? It is this kind of change that has happened in Iran and it is precisely the fact that the past can not be dragged down and shattered to pieces like a statue in the middle of a crowded square that makes the questions of forgiving and forgetting difficult to answer.

For the skeptics and opponents of the reform movement in Iran (both inside the country and abroad), the revolutionary backgrounds of the likes of Saeed Hajjarian, Akbar Ganji, and of course, Abdol Karim Soroush have become a way of undermining their words of today. How dare they speak of democracy, freedom, and reform, the critics ask, when 20 years ago they were instrumental in the shaping of the Islamic Republic; when 20 years ago they were the thugs that they now denounce?

Soroush seems to be the main object of these kinds of questions. Partly I believe because, unlike Hajjarian and Ganji, he is not in prison, nor hurt, nor is fighting on the "front lines". Partly because he is received outside of Iran as a radical philosopher, one about whom dissertations are written. And partly because his role in the Cultural Revolution and the "purification" of universities undermined precisely the institutions that are now allowing him the luxury of research and travel at a time of crisis for his fellow intellectuals.

Last year in Cambridge, MA, over a cup of coffee when I gingerly brought up the issue of past deeds and possibilities of regret, he responded by saying that he believes fixating on the past brings stagnancy, and that one must focus on the future.

Do we forgive and move on, as my friend did over his friend, as we have all done at one point or another towards our loved ones? The difficulty arises because in many ways, the idea of forgiveness in a political situation such as this seems almost meaningless. Forgive whom for what? Who's doing the forgiving? The accusing? Do we, Iranian-Americans, sitting in sunny southern California with our 24-hour radio that still believes in the redeeming qualities of monarchy, that sees itself and all Iranian communities as victims to be saved by a savior, do we sit and accuse and if we feel like it, forgive the likes of Ganji? Baqi? Khatami? Soroush? Accuse them for not knowing what we know now 23 years ago? Forgive them for acting on their convictions, convictions that were shared by millions, forgive them for acting on their convictions now, even if it contradicts their previous acts?

Yet, if talk of forgiveness seems ridiculous on some level, does it mean that people should not be held accountable for their actions? As Hannah Arendt's brilliant analysis of the Eichmann trial demonstrated, evil can be and often is banal. Many, put in the same situation, would act in the same way. Does that give us license to behave however we want in moments of crisis in the belief that we are smaller than the sum of historical forces around us? Does it give us the right to say, as my partner did: "Why can't you just understand me?" If not, then how do you hold someone such as Soroush accountable to his past actions without rejecting that of his present? How do you move on in a relationship where trust has been breached? Or is this where personal and political relationships stop mirroring each other?

So when we act indignant towards the current reformers, calling forth their revolutionary past, what do we really want? Retribution, justice, or accountability?

I have no doubt that of all three, the first is the sweetest. In moments of anger, we all want our two-timing cheating ex-lovers to get a taste of their own medicine, for them to fall flat on their face. When we are calmer, we tend to voice the above sentiment in terms of justice, people getting what they deserve. But we tend to conflate justice with retribution. Something seems to eat away at us and offend our sense of "justice" when we see the person who had a direct hand in the Cultural Revolution, benefiting from the opportunities provided by an institution of higher learning such as Harvard. And for many outside Iran, there is a sense of having been deprived of their chance to be a factor of change in their country, to matter to it, by having been forced to leave Iran. It feels as if a group of people deprived them of their destiny 20 years ago and now the reform movement, with its clique of ex-revolutionaries and its talk of civil society, is doing it to them again.

It is accountability though that is the most difficult and that both on a personal and a communal level, happens voluntarily and slowly.

It is there that I think Iran's reform movement has been lacking. Coming forth and holding themselves accountable for the early days of the revolution, for the values defended, ideas destroyed, universities closed, and people condemned, is not about accepting blame for events they did not have knowledge of at the time. In times of revolution, talk of blame is meaningless.

The problem is that the current movement suffers from amnesia: It has reset the clock to 2nd of Khordad, 1997. It seems too scared to admit that it itself has a past, that it was not born in 1997 but only came to speak at that moment. It needs to acknowledge its own past not only in terms of the wrongs committed, but the lessons it has learned from precisely those it shunned in the past: The seculars. The post-1997 reform movement has not re-invented the wheel. It has been trained, and educated in Iran's universities through professors who after the Cultural Revolution were ousted, albeit temporarily, from their jobs, or who after the revolution, deemed it necessary to leave the country. It has intellectually fed off ideas translated and propagated by a generation of intellectuals whom while we may consider a failure as a movement, have left, in their retreat, a paper trail of ideas.

While the idea of accusing the 2nd of Khordad activists for the failures of 1979 is absurd, I believe the reform movement can only create rupture with the past by voluntarily coming forth and acknowledging it. Iranians often treat their historical pasts as they treat their personal relationships: Leaders are father figures that we either love to death or we despise. The past has to be for all intents and purposes glorious and if it's not, then we act as if it is. We qahr and aashti with our political and historical figures, acting alternately indignant or magnanimous. But the past of a community, a society, a nation is not an instrument for hefz-e aabroo. It is an inevitable part of the passing of time and should be treated as a part of our identity to be scrutinized and understood.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Naghmeh Sohrabi


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