Saturday, July 23, 2005

Iran: another crack in the wall

As I cruise the internets, I find practically nothing about Iranian affairs. Maybe there is too much on everybody's plates, but what unfolds in Iran is as imporant to developments in that part of the world as what happens East and West of that overwhelmingly Shiite-run country.

The more I read about politics and society in that part of the world, the more I don't understand. It is tempting to look at what happens there through a Western lens. One thing is certain. Despite the powerful image that all totalitarian systems project, there is definitely opposition to much of what is taking place socially, politically, and economically. Unlike countries with a tradition of loyal opposition, any form of criticism there is tantamount to rebellion and is apt to be dealt with even more harshly that we deal with criminals.

Case in point is the matter of Akbar Ganji, a 46-yer-old dissident now imprisoned in Iran.

[I very much want to urge others to start and continue doing their homework on Iran, because in the uncomfortably near future, one way or another, that country is going to become the next big story. It's not easy going. There are names and references that none of us has ever heard of, background information that only seems to have caught the attention of a few academics, journalists and a handful of English-speaking expats. Add that paucity of information to a Byzantine history and a savage regime and you face what seems to be a wasted effort, one yet to hit the radar of most reportage.]

Since 1979, when the mollahs seized power in Tehran, an estimated 2.3 million Iranians have spent some time in prison because of their opposition to the regime. In a sense anybody who is somebody in most walks of life has had some experience of prison in the Islamic Republic. And that includes the Shi’ite clergy. More mollahs have been imprisoned in the past 27 years than members of any other social group in Iran. The revolutionary regime has also executed over 100,000 of its real or imagined opponents and driven a further 4.5 million people into exile, without a second thought.

So, why has Ganji received special attention?

Why is the establishment so afraid of him?

When Ganji first began to act as a dissident in 1996 many regarded him with suspicion. After all he had been a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard for over a decade before joining the Intelligence and Security Service. In that capacity he had even served a stint at the Iranian Embassy in Ankara “keeping an eye” on exiled dissidents.

So are the Khomeinists sore that one of their own has decided to turn against them?Many Iranians believe this to be the case.

That explanation, however, is not satisfactory. Over the years, countless other Khomeinists have become critics of the regime in one way or another. Most of the “students” who held the American diplomats hostage in Tehran in 1979-80 are now among the loudest critics of the regime. Many of the intellectuals who collaborated in “cleansing” the universities and purging counterrevolutionary academics, writers and scholars have also distanced themselves from the regime. One of them Abdol-Karim Soroush has even become a critic of clerical intervention in politics. Another, Mostafa Mo’in, was the candidate of the “reformists” in the recent presidential election.

Ganji’s case is special for a number of reasons.

To begin with, he is almost entirely a child of the Khomeinist revolution in socio-political terms. By social background, family history, and political upbringing he should be the model Khomeinist. He has fought for Khomeinism, both in the war against Iraq and in campaigns against dissidents and armed secessionists.

Few in his generation have more revolutionary credentials. Mortazavi, the prosecutor, who specializes in tracing the slightest flaw in his victims’ revolutionary profile, has been unable to find any in Ganji’s.

Unlike other in-house critics of the regime, Ganji has succeeded in liberating himself, morally and intellectually, from his Khomeinist illusions.

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Play whatever mind game it takes to grasp what is happening here. Pretend it's a plotline of a movie or television drama. Or think of it as background information for a video game. Imagine it is another episode of whateve entertainment medium you like...except this is not fiction. This is the real thing.
What I copied here is not the end of a story. It is background to the start of a story.
I am running into more and more remarks advancing the notion that there is no internal opposition to extremism in the countries of the Middle East, whether they be run by religious extremists, kings or some other form of tyranny. As we know from the stories of life under Saddam, opposition to authority is not seen as a principled, gentlemanly counterpoint. No, opposition to authority is practically suicidal.

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