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Akbar Ganji on trial. Photo by Vahid Salemi / AP

Dictators create heroes
Heroes appear when there is no way to stop the oppressor

By Amirali Baniasadi
November 20, 2000
The Iranian

In two different yet similar acts, two well-known intellectuals perform quite differently on Iran's microcosmic stage. Akbar Ganji, a prominent journalist, stands up in court and criticizes the rear-guard establishment with a frontal assault. By disclosing isolation and mistreatments he had gone through, he seriously damaged the international reputation of the politicized/conservative judiciary.

In the second act, when the curtain goes up, Ebrahim Nabavi apologizes for his previous deeds. In addition, at the core of his apologies he abandoned his assumed position as a "hero." Quite aware of the priceless trophy he was giving up, in his letter, Nabavi mentions explicitly that he does not want to be a hero. His humorous appearance in the courtroom seems to rule out any chances of depression and confusion on his part.

At the same time, many have praised Ganji's brave bold gestures. Like Socrates, Ganji is not the first to use the court stand as a platform for truth and activism; remember Golesorkhi and Daneshyan under the Shah, and Amir-Entezam after Revolution?

The late Mehdi Bazargan, in response to the judge in his 1963 military trial, referred to the "1953 Coup events" as "Shooresh-e favaahesh" ("The riot of whores.") His straightforward answer cost him years in jail. Many others have been vocal in closed court, yet remain unknowns. Agitators and critics take huge risks as catalysts of change.

Nabavi's message causes us to ponder the predicament of surrender under pressure. Many nameless activists have gone through the same phase. Different individuals have different thresholds for isolation. They carry their historic purpose/ mission as far as they can. Once the burden exceeds their capacity they give up. To this extent, it's quite understandable.

In another recent example earlier this year Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, Tehran's abandoned ex-mayor, did the same. He asked for a pardon and was freed from jail. He had the same reasoning; he did not want to be a "hero." Just like Nabavi, he had been praised and celebrated as a pro-reform activist, but could not afford the price.

In the present day so-called civil society lexicon, "heroes" doesn't carry the same meaning. That's why those who capitulate, justify their apologia by developing theories denying the role of outstanding activists/intellectuals in social events. They picture "heroes" as the ones who deserve to be blamed for all the unwanted events happening in the past.

Heroes, as Nabavi calls them, are extremists who pass speed limits and end in accidents, harming the poor passengers! This perplexing concept needs to be debated further in investigation of the role of agency in the process of social change.

But where do heroes really stand? Addressing the above question is essential for all those involved in the reform movement. A key issue here is to understand what circumstances give birth to heroes. Ironically, behind every hero is an anti-hero. Heroes appear when there is no way to stop the oppressor, other than by going beyond the ordinary.

When expressing opposing political expression is so costly that only extraordinary people could afford getting involved, heroes find the chance to appear on the scene. In the absence of justice and liberty, when a ruling system resists correcting its limitations, and increases pressure on citizens, heroes are the only candidates to step forward and point to distortions and injustices.

Dictators, ironically give birth to heroes. The story of Moses and the Pharaoh is constantly repeated in history. Where would a hero be in a democratic society, where requiring social rights is not a life-threatening task? Also, one should also be aware of the cultural grounds in un-democratic societies. A totalitarian system strongly depends on the praising official media to establish its legitimacy; therefore the social psychology is in need of the appearance of heroes.

Moreover, imagine where we would be without heroes. Erase Mossadegh from our history, and read it again. Take away Ali Shariati, and see where we stand. On the international level, is there a civil rights movement in the U.S. without Martin Luther King and Malcolm X? Where is Egypt without Naser, or India without Gandhi or Nehru?

Heroes are those extraordinary people who make sacrifices and become agents of historical and social change. Those with lower the threshold of pain could withdraw at any stage, but it's unfair to criticize other fellow travelers who carry it to the destination with bear feet.

Unless we come up with a self-criticizing ruling system where power is decided and revolved by people's will, the making of heroes is inevitable. They will appear over and over again. They deserve every bit of respect they gain no matter where or when they are born. It would take a while for the reform body to understand the exact cost of being involved in hard-ball politics, and being at the receiving end; once they do, we would hopefully face fewer disappointments.

Mehdi Akhavan Sales once hoped for an Eskandar, if there was no chance for a Nader. We are a very fortunate nation to have so many brave figures and activists in this very important era of our history. They will definitely play an important role in realizing our old dreams. Let's rediscover the virtues of our heroes. Let's remember; let's be a witness.

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