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Akbar Ganji: Mandela or Hallaj?

By Kam ZarrabiIntellectual Discourse


The plight of the freedom-loving Iranian dissident, Akbar Ganji, has now gained global attention. His ongoing hunger strike, now into its fifth week at Evin prison in Tehran, has reduced Mr. Ganji to a frail figure nearing a possible tragic end.


Mr.Ganji, as many others, including even some of the highest ranking religious authorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran, believes in certain fundamental human rights and values that are shared by all advanced liberal democracies in the world today. If we could summarize and squeeze into one phrase the essence of these inalienable human freedoms and aspirations that Ganji and, in fact, every liberal minded person demands, it is the right to dissent.


A recent photo of Akbar Ganji

The right to dissent includes the right to free expression of one’s opinions without the fear of persecution. And, it was in the exercise of this very right that Akbar Ganji ran into trouble with the law. His most egregious sin has clearly been his criticism of the foundational principle of Iran’s Islamic revolution, that of the unchallengeable authority of the religious jurisprudent, in other words, the nation’s spiritual leader who is Ayatollah Khamene’i today.


Mr.Ganji is, of course, right in his assertion that such authority assumed by a non-elected individual violates the very principles of democracy or the right of the people to freely elect the nation’s leadership. Furthermore, it is this kind of ultraconservative authoritarian rule that, according to Mr. Ganji and many other liberal, reform-minded, thinkers, is the obstacle to positive and long overdue cultural developmental processes that the nation rightfully deserves.


Here, Mr. Akbar Ganji is expressing a value judgment that deserves to be analyzed in greater detail. At first glance, such opinions and aspirations do truly harmonize with the cherished values and principles prevailing in the modern, enlightened and progressive societies throughout the world. Unfortunately, idyllic visions often prove too simplistic to withstand scrutiny in the real world.


First of all, how far can freedoms of expression be allowed to stretch before certain other fundamental and inalienable rights of a people are violated?  In other words, is the freedom of expression an absolute freedom without limits or bounds?


The events of September 11, 2001, brought new realities to focus right here in the land of the free and home of the brave. Quite suddenly, many cherished rights and freedoms were put on hold because of the emergency measures necessitated by the threats against the nation’s security. Now, after four and a half years, the Department of Homeland Security is expanding certain of its latitudes for monitoring and surveillance of the public, and enjoying wide public support for limiting freedoms of expression and activities that are deemed potentially subversive and dangerous.


The recent terror event in London has likewise affected the public mindset and government attitude toward tolerant permissiveness in that increasingly more multicultural society. There is no question that, in view of risks to national security, certain freedoms of expression will no longer be tolerated; not just in Great Britain, but perhaps in all other liberal democracies of the West. No Imam in any mosque in the United States or Europe will be allowed to engage in sermons that could be interpreted as incitement for terrorism, violence, or any other action that the state might regard as subversive.


The question that comes up is, Who is in the position to determine what constitutes subversive, seditious, or dangerous speech that might promote hatred and violence or lead to the destabilization of the government or threaten national security? Is, for instance, frisking an eighty-year-old grandmother in a wheelchair at the airport a necessary measure in preventing potential acts of terrorism? How about arresting a university professor who might have sent money to an organization in the Middle East that is suspected of connections with a suspected terror group?


The Israeli dissident, Mordechai Vanunu, an anti-nuclear activist and whistle blower on Israel’s nuclear weapons activities, has spent nearly twelve years in solitary confinement and continues to be under careful surveillance and not allowed to leave Israel to this day. His appeals have all been rejected by the Israeli regime because he might, it is suspected, still be in possession of certain classified information. The state of Israel considers Mr. Vanunu a liability and a risk to its national interests.


Why, one might ask, hasn’t the White House “demanded” Mr. Vanunu’s immediate and unconditional release as it has done regarding Mr. Ganji?


Clearly, there is a lot more involved here than meets the eye at first glance.


What was so subversive, anti-patriotic, un-Islamic or seditious about Mr.Ganji’s assertions that the concept of a Velayat-e-Faghih is undemocratic and unjust, to result in his incarceration? Is there anything truly incorrect in maintaining that a non-elected individual has no right to act as the ultimate guide or to play god over the destinies of a people? Where is it written in any Islamic text, the Holy Ghor’an or the Hadith of the Prophet, that one individual can reach the exalted status of an idol to be worshipped as God incarnate? Doesn’t the title “Supreme Leader” ring too much like “Fuhrer” of a few decades ago? And finally, isn’t this kind of glorification an antithesis to the Islamic fundamentals of down-to-earth egalitarian humility as exemplified by the Prophet himself when he declared, I am a human being like all of you?


That said, let us examine the other side of the coin.


Were we to put the issue to a public referendum in Iran, without any restrictions as to the age or degree of literacy of the voters, the resulting expression of public opinion might overwhelmingly support the current status of Iran’s Islamic governance. If we’d prefer a somewhat less democratic approach, we might set the age limit at 21, and require at least a high school education to qualify. In that case, the results would no doubt be quite different. So, if Mr. Ganji is a proponent of true democratic values, he must listen to the voice of the people, all the people, not just the educated elite and the enlightened select.


As it stands, and as the people of Iran have recently elected their new President, the conservative establishment rules over the nation with little chance of any major developments in the societal infrastructure of the country. President Elect, Dr. Ahmadinejad is no doubt among the educated elite; but, is he considered by Mr. Ganji or other democracy activists as an enlightened person as well?


Who could argue that Iran has not been, and is not currently, under the threats of destabilization, regime change, and outright invasion?  Surrounded by hostile forces, labeled as a member of the Axis of Evil, and with the guillotine of severe economic sanctions hanging over its head, Iran’s leadership consider the dangers to the nation’s stability and security quite real and imminent. This is called a clear and present danger in American parlance, a situation that requires extra measures of diligence and vigilance to protect the nation against open and subversive activities, which includes the restriction of certain kinds of free speech and liberal activities – very much like it has and is being done in the United States and now Great Britain.


We could well argue that, much of the blame for Iran’s dilemmas lies with the Islamic Republic’s own incompetence. We could also argue that, the conservative theocratic leadership of the Islamic Republic actually thrives on global antagonisms by finding more justifications for its hard-line policies; in other words, the longevity of the regime is better ensured through continued confrontation with the West. Many observers and analysts, both inside and outside Iran, have argued such points; Akbar Ganji has been one such observer and analyst.


It would be difficult to argue against the universal aspirations of all human beings for liberty, freedom, the opportunity to pursue one’s ambitions and to live a fulfilled life. Mr. Ganji is certainly not unique in having reached such conclusions; his method of approach might be.


At this point, the fate of Mr. Akbar Ganji can take the following courses:



1-     Mr. Ganji shall continue insisting that he is right in his method of approach, and will pay the ultimate price for his persistence. Riots will break out in the streets of the Capital and demonstrations by human-rights activists will be held throughout the Western World. He will be called a martyr for freedom and democratic values but, at least for now, he won’t be buried alongside other “martyrs” who lost their lives fighting for the revolution or the invading enemy.

2-     Under increasing international pressure and internal persuasions, Ganji is released and his demands of being unconditionally freed are finally met. Unconditional means exactly that; it means Ganji may resume his activism and open dissent and criticism of the theocratic establishment without fear of prosecution. This way, Ganji might be on the way to accomplishing what his counterparts in even the most liberal democracies in the world cannot get away with these days. Might we be looking at a Caucasian Nelson Mandela, perhaps?!

3-     Mr. Ganji might come to the appreciation of the fact that he is not an elected representative or the spokesman for the nation, either. Neither was Trotsky or Che Guevara. Yes, nations do need heroes, brave souls who risk life, limb and dignity to make their voices heard. But, with freedom comes responsibility. Championing the cause of dissent at a time that the nation is under siege casts a dark shadow of doubt over even the sincerest motivations.


No one can doubt Akbar Ganji’s patriotism or his religious standing as a true Moslem. But, he is not alone; there are many, many, Ganjis who have similar hopes and aspirations for a future democratic, progressive and prosperous Iran. Good intentions, however, must be accompanied by good judgment. Becoming an overnight media champion in the Western press hostile toward Iran, or serving as a venue for forces that are actively trying to create greater divisions among the Iranian people, is certainly not using good judgment.


If Mr. Ganji’s cause is indeed a noble cause, if his motives are truly honest and sincere, he can better continue his plight and pursue his goals as a living, breathing and contributing force. Starving himself to death is like forcing his own fate as did Mansour Hallaj, who continued preaching, Ana Al Hagh.



... Payvand News - 7/19/05 ... --

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