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Dying for democracy
Akbar Ganji and the movement for freedom and ending religious rule

August 6, 2005

Akbar Ganji is dying in a hospital in Tehran. He is not a prophet. He is not calling for a revolution. He is not doing George Bush a favor. He is a man who speaks his mind and is willing to die for it. But he must not die. We must do everything we can to force the authorities to let him go home.

Ganji is not everyone's favorite dissident. He quotes Khomeini, he looks up to Ayatollah Montazeri, and his circle of friends and allies includes leading religious reformists such as Saeed Hajjarian and Abdolkarim Soroush. Because of his solid religious foundation and credentials as a keen supporter of the Islamic Republic in earlier years, some doubt his transformation into a democrat.

Also there's the issue of timing. Naturally some are worried that the Ganji affair may weaken Iran's position in this sensitive stage in negotiations with Europe over nuclear technology. Another concern is that the adverse publicity created by Ganji's hunger strike will not only fail to do anything for the pro-democracy movement but will give another excuse for the Bush Administration and the neo-cons to portray the IRI as a vicious police state with deadly nuclear ambitions.

Ganji's words and, more importantly his actions, leave little doubt in my mind that his belief in democracy and the separation of church and state are genuine. His forward ideas are an important part of the continuing evolution of the religious establishment.

If Iran were a free state, if the reform movement had not been crushed and the conservatives had played by democratic rules and allowed everyone to challenge their seat of power, Ganji could have been a natural successor to Khatami. Even better, we could have listened to Shirin Ebadi as our president delivering a speech at the UN General Assembly in New York, instead of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But Iran is not a free state. The core religious establishment not only resisted reform but consolidated power during the Khatami era. With the election of Ahmadinejad, all visible and invisible branches of state, with one exception: the Expediency Council led by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, will be dominated by allies of the Supreme Leader.

The faction represented by Ganji is refusing to play under these suffocating conditions. He rightly points to the constitution as the source of the problem because it explicitly grants sweeping, unchecked powers to the Supreme Leader. These fundamental flaws have been around since the dawn of the Islamic Republic, but attitudes towards it are changing fast within the younger generation.

When Khatami came to power, expectations were high. People believed he was the right man to reform the system. He was one of "them"; understood fellow mullahs; knew how to slide the democracy pill down their throat. Eight years later, the regime's repressive political and religious grip shows no sign of loosening up.

That's why so many have lost hope in reform. If it didn't happen under a cleric as popular and highly ranked as Khatami, it certainly won't happen under Ahmadinejad, who has made it clear that he is here to strengthen the bond between the government, the legislature, and the judiciary (plus, of course, the military and security apparatus, as well as a big chunk of the economy via unregulated foundations) under the control of Leader Khamenei and his yes men.

That's why Akbar Ganji is on a hunger strike. He no longer has any significant allies in government. He is so politically isolated that ironically the only prominent establishment figure pressing to save his life is Rafsanjani, the man who lost much of his reputation because of Ganji's exposé on political murders in the 90's.

Ganji rightly sees that religious conservatives have succeeded in taking over all centers of power not just by interpreting laws in their own favor, but by rigidly standing by their warped principles, bullying the religious reformists, shutting down newspapers and imprisoning critics. They say their Islam is the absolute truth and that the Quran should rule all aspects of our lives under a religious leader.

Ganji is taking a stand against all of this. He wants a secular democracy to replace this theocratic "sultanate" and openly says Leader Khamenei "must go".

Whether Ganji lives or dies, his message will live on. It will live on because Ganji is not alone. He is not the first and will not be the last to call for an end to religious oppression. Iran's prisons are filled with writers, critics and activists of every creed.

Ahmad Batebi was a student holding a bloody t-shirt in a demonstration against police brutality. He has been in prison for seven years, along with the Mohammadi brothers. There's the journalist Siamak Pourzand, who is 74 and in poor health, imprisoned for several years. There's the human rights lawyer Nasser Zarafshan, sitting in Evin prison for no good reason. He's now joined by Ganji's lawyer, Abdolfattah Soltani, arrested a few days ago.

There are numerous others we hardly ever hear about because no one represents them or they have been locked up far away from Tehran where human rights observers visit most often. At this very moment writers and activists are being rounded up in Kurdish towns for "inciting" protests against a gruesome murder in Mahabad. There's no question a good percentage of them will not see home for a very long time.

Parastoo Foroohar is still chasing the Intelligence Ministry agents who hacked her parents to death in 1998 for opposing undemocratic, religious rule. Several other high-profile murders of writers around the same time have remained unsolved. Last year photographer Zahra Kazemi was killed by a blow to the head during interrogation in the presence of Tehran Prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi.

And the cherry on top: President Ahmadinejad is widely rumored to have taken part in the assassination of moderate opposition politician Dr. Kazem Sami in the early 1980s and Iranian Kurdish leader Abdolrahman Qassemlou in Vienna in the early 1990s. True or not, they are certainly believable given this regime's brutal record.

The list of crimes is long and odorous. The 1988 mass murder of political prisoners; prolonging the 8-year war with Iraq, the persecution of religious minorities, especially Bahais and Jews; stoning people for sexual acts, denying women their humanity and taking away their rights and opportunities, promoting a culture of hate and violence... what else? Need more reminders of the reasons why this regime deserves no sympathy?

It is for these reasons and much much more that a large portion of the opposition inside and outside Iran is lending support to Ganji. Not because George Bush asked them to.

The Bush Administration as well as Europe have and will express concern for Akbar Ganji's life (although as little as possible to avoid upsetting the nuclear negotiations). And the neo-cons will support anyone who opposes the mullahs. But who doesn't? America's right-wing and Europe's liberals are not at all the only ones siding with Ganji. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are not issuing weekly reports about gross abuses in Iran on the orders of Condi Rice.

To be fair, the Islamic Republic is not Iraq before the American invasion. Iran's theocracy is not as repressive as Saddam Hussein's regime. There are broader debates and greater political activity in Iran today than in many other Muslim countries. And Iran is a military threat to no one, despite all the boasting about developing long-range missiles and beefing up defense. Overwhelming evidence shows Iran's military is in poor shape in terms of equipment, training and morale. It cannot be a realistic threat to Israel or any other state.

And yes, the Islamic Republic is not Hell, exactly. In fact you can have a very pleasant life there, with all the Western amenities and vices, if you shut your mouth. The problem is that close to three quarters of the country is under 30. This young population, thanks to globalization and greater access to international media through radio, satellite TV and the Internet, has been far more receptive to modern values than the religious establishment.

These young men and women will do everything in their power not to grow old under the cruel and archaic rule of the Islamic Republic. Every hunger striker, every prisoner of conscience, every non-violent effort to better our lives deserves our support. We know who they are fighting. We know we are in the right.

In the meantime, there's no question Iran is on the brink of a major military confrontation with the West. Sandwiched between two countries under American invasion, Iran could easily turn into a Neo-Iraq, with thousands of civilian casualties, mass devastation, civil war and ethnic strife.

Tehran has just turned down a proposal for European help in developing Iran's nuclear energy program in exchange for a permanent halt in uranium enrichment. There will be more push and pull in the next few months. The U.N. Security Council will get involved. Russia and China will block any resolution allowing military action against Iran. But the Americans (or more likely the Israelis) will go ahead and bomb key Iranian nuclear research centers anyway.

That scenario is a very real possibility but it hardly makes me feel sorry for the Islamic Republic. Much of this crisis is self-inflicted. Iran, as a member of the international community, has the right to nuclear power. And all the facts (not assumptions and accusations) seem to suggest that Iran has been truthful about not trying to build a nuclear bomb.

But the Iranian government, by its own actions over the years, has created a climate of domestic and international fear. The world wants to be absolutely sure that Iran, under this regime, will not build a nuclear bomb. It is the prevalence of this deep-seated fear, coupled with the terrorism unleashed by Muslim extremists elsewhere, that makes it easy to paint Iran as an imminent threat, as Saddam's Iraq was with imaginary WMDs.

We love to condemn Bush and Blair for the bloody mess they have created in Iraq. And rightly so. The war was unjustified. Iraq will not see peace anytime soon. But that does not make Saddam a hero. If a journalist was on a hunger strike in Saddam's Iraq, we would not hesitate to defend his demand for freedom, even under the threat of foreign invasion.

Akbar Ganji and all those who are fighting and suffering for the cause of freedom are not responsible for calamities that may befall Iran because of the Islamic Republic's own frightful reputation. The threat to Iran does not come from defenseless individuals who want a better life, who want to live free from religious and authoritarian rule, and who want to be at peace with their own people and the world.

As an Iranian-American I am very concerned by the militarist policies of the Bush Administration. But as an Iranian, I am more concerned about what Khamenei and the Islamic Republic ARE doing to Iran than what Bush MIGHT do to Iran.

George W. Bush does not kill and imprison critics in Iran; the president of the United States does not muzzle the Iranian press. America is not jailing Iranian bloggers or blocking access to the Internet; the Great Satan does not punish women if they refuse to cover their head; Western imperialism is not curtailing the rights of Jews, Bahais, Kurds and other minorities in Iran. Tony Blair and the British empire are not imposing Islamic rule -- in one of its most vicious forms -- on the people of Iran. These are all taking place with the blessing of his holiness Ayatollah Khamenei and his clerical clan.

As an Iranian, I see this theocracy as an aberration; an ugly distortion of all things pure and spiritual. Iranians are not violent people. No nation is. But they are constantly being fed and confronted with a violent ideology that claims to be resisting domination by the greedy Western infidels and invaders.

The fact is, however, Iran's religious leaders themselves are amassing wealth on a colossal scale. The Mostazafan conglomerate, created when hundreds of farms and factories were confiscated after the revolution, shamelessly plunders the country's wealth in complete secrecy without any independent audits only because the law says that the government has no right to dig into the affairs of organizations under the supervision of the Supreme Leader.

Which is worse: The possibility that America might invade Iran, take its oil fields and plunder its wealth, or the reality of the Islamic Republic mistreating its good citizens on a daily basis -- for 26 years?

This is a mess that Iranians will clean up themselves. The concept of democracy and accountability and a free press and basic rights for men and women are widely accepted (although in varying degrees) among Iranians inside and outside Iran. Democracy has become the most common word in the statements of all political forces, from monarchists to communists, nationalists and religious reformists. Even the Islamic Republic loves to call itself democratic, qorboonesh besham man!

Now that more or less everyone has warmed up to the virtues of freedom and democracy, we have to make an effort to make it happen. We have to demand it. We have to exercise it. That is what Ganji and so many like him are doing in the best way they know, without resorting to violence.

This is the democratic fight of the Iranian people. This is how democracies are built, by the people for the people, not by American soldiers for Uncle Sam.

You know, I know, everyone knows that Ganji is no crazy lunatic. None of his demands are unfair or violent or unusual. He is a bright example of our struggle to be free. Few will go as far as him to make a point, but it is a point well-taken and I have nothing but admiration for him. May he live and be free.

For letters section
To Jahanshah Javid

Akbar Ganji

Jahanshah Javid



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