Monday, July 17, 2006

Akbar Ganji Lecture Tour

.......................................................Akbar Ganji in London, July 2006. (Photo: BBC Persian Service)

Akbar Ganji, the imprisoned outspoken journalist who got himself into all sorts of trouble and was finally condemned by the Iranian government when he spoke out in court about the well-known 1998 state-sanctioned murders of Iranian intellectuals and dissidents, was released in March and is now on an international lecture tour that has included Russia, Europe and the US. It's worthwhile to point out that despite all of the demonization of Ahmadinejad, he, unlike the smiling mullah former President Khatami, was not at the helm of a state-enacted murder spree.

In London last Friday Ganji's lecture hall was packed beyond capacity and things seemed positive until the Q&A began. It was then that things got confusing and embarrassing -- for the audience, not Ganji who maintained an impressively dignified command of his lecture and audience throughout.

The hecklers consisted, mainly, of two sorts of people: the royalists with a deep disdain for Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and the long-lost sufferers -- those who'd been in exile in London or elsewhere for many years because of their political activities. This second category of people was angry, bitter and just ready to pounce on anyone who they deemed to have a connection with the IRI. Ganji's past as a member of the Revolutionary Guards provided perfect fodder for them. I call them long-lost because they are, whether they like it or not, in the same boat as the royalists: they are long out of touch with Iran, having not been there in years, sometimes decades.

One royalist, an eccentric by all standards, took his question time to read something from the Koran that most of the audience didn't even understand (since it was obviously entirely in Arabic) and then proceeded to rip the page out of the book. It was then that Ganji made a statement that is noteworthy to all Iranians: "The Shah's mistake was that he disregarded the clergy. But you can't neglect the fact that Iranians are Muslims. When you tear a page out of the Koran, you are insulting many Iranians, you are insulting over 1 billion people, in fact, and you cannot insult peoples' beliefs. I would have said the same to you if you'd torn a page out of the Bible or Marx's Manifesto. We must respect each other's beliefs. I'm not saying it's good to be religious or it's good to be an atheist. I'm saying it is your choice and we want an Iranian society where that choice is respected."

Ganji is right but certainly many members of the audience were slightly unnerved by his appearance and that of the moderator's: they both had the same rather haunted look of those men you encounter in official places and government offices throughout Iran, the hint of a beard, the open coat with no tie, the eyes you inexplicably but instinctively don't trust, and in the case of the moderator, the slightly-tinted eyeglasses even indoors. Ganji himself said "I know many of you wonder why I was not executed, why am I alive and here before you today. But the regime has not executed a political prisoner in years." Is that true? It seems unlikely, though I do hope so.

The point is, there was suspicion but at the same time, Ganji's words offered nothing to question. He made statements on a range of sensitive issues from

--Khomeini's shortcomings which most Iranians callously overlooked before it was too late -- "Our society is patriarchical. It was in Khomeini's Paris speeches" which clearly most Iranians did not hear or understand!

-- to the issue of collaborating with the West to achieve so-called democracy, as in Iraq -- "Look at Chalabi. See what [the West] do with their own agents! There's no point in collaborating with these outsiders"

-- to the nuclear issue -- "It is a human right for Iran to have a nuclear program. The West says it's afraid of the atomic bomb but Iranians are more afraid of another Chernobyl because of the black market materials used in Iran's nuclear progam. We don't even know if anyone has been contaminated or killed as a result of this program"

-- to the issue of Ahmadinejad's diplomatic skills -- "The problem is that Ahmadinejad is even worse than Saddam who managed to divide the Europeans and the Americans on the issue of the Iraq War. Ahmadinejad's horrible diplomacy has actually brought these two together and it is Iran that is under threat of war"

--to the issue of the Iraq War itself -- "Even the US is not happy with what's happening there."

--to the large community of exiled Iranians "Exiled Iranians were forced into exile. A democratic Iran has to be built by all Iranians -- Iran belongs to all of us."

--to the rights of the individual -- "The individual is not significant in our society -- the aggregate is given far more respect but the rights of the individual should be more significant -- the respect f the individual, the right of growth (through education, for instance), the right to choose one's way of life: religion, friends, clothes -- hejab should be a choice not a demand."

--to Islam and Human Rights -- "Is Islam compatible with Human Rights -- this is a several-hour long discussion that will end up being ideological. My point is that Human rights is not a progressive concept is a normal, practical thing, not theoretical or ideological." And he pointed to the example of Turkey as a model for democracy in a predominantly Muslim society "It is possible to be Muslim and democratic. Turkey is way ahead of us because they have a secular government."

--to Iranian history -- "Why have we tolerated despotic governments for over 2500 years? Why? Are we not democrats? No, we constantly condemn each other. There are roots in the family, at school. Democracy has to start from the bottom up."

--to, of course, the issue of democracy which Ganji mostly focused on. His conclusion (and one that was proven by the chaos, disrespect and recklessness of the Q&A session) was quite simple: "Our culture and people are not democratic but that does not mean we don't deserve democracy and universal human rights." And he suggested that Iranians not despair, "democracy is a 20th century phenomenon -- when did women get the right to vote in the UK? When did Black people get civil rights in the US? It's a new development in society." Iran, in short, is not so far behind everyone else.

Ganji says he doesn't want to be a politician, he simply wants to be free to say what he wishes. "I'm a journalist and no one can take that away from me, not because of the IRI but because of the Internet. All of my writings are freely available to be read on the Internet."

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