Sunday, April 27, 2008

The imprisonment of Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji

Here is an excerpt of the book “Persian Pilgrimages,” by Afshin Molavi, which discusses Iran's imprisonment of journalist and pro-democracy activist Akbar Ganji.

Page 154 – 158
Back in Tehran, I received a telephone call from a colleague in the Iranian press. “Ganji has been jailed,” he said. “This is the beginning of a crackdown. Be careful what you write.” He bade me a hurried good-bye and hung up the phone.

Akbar Ganji, a wildly popular prodemocracy journalist, had grown legdenary for his scathing attacks on Iran’s powerful conservatives and hardliners. Most who followed his case expected his imprisonment. No one could speak out so boldly with impunity and go free. Still, news of the jailing sent a chill through Iran’s reformist journalists and the prodemocracy movement. Ganji’s bravery lifted the movement to a higher level. Where would it go now?

I knew Ganji only slightly, having interviewed him a few weeks before. We had met in the newspaper-lined basement of an apartment building in Tehran. Yellowing copies of the weekly Rah-e-Now (New Path) --- Ganji’s newspaper prior to its being shut down by Iran’s hard-line judiciary --- formed neat stacks along the white concrete walls. When I entered, he sat alone, reading a book in the carpeted room. He turned away from his book and sprang to his feet, a small man with a light brown beard and brown, dancing eyes. I concealed a tinge of surprise. I suppose one expects national heroes to be tall.

He greeted me warmly, embracing me as if I were an old friend. “Welcome,” he said, smiling. “It is nice to meet you.”

A small stack of his best-selling book Darkroom of the Ghosts leaned against some newspapers. In the book he brands Iran’s conservative clerics “religious fascists” and links a small clique of hard-line clerics and intelligence agents to assassinations of up to eighty dissidents and writers since 1988. The chilling book also contains brave passages defending free speech and democracy.

Ganji pioneered a new journalism in Iran: brash, aggressive, intellectual, fearless. He crossed red lines routinely. He received death threats from government-affiliated thugs almost daily. When we met, I found to my surprise that none of the usual hangers-on or security types surrounded him. He tarried alone in a basement office, reading a book, despite the fact that a few months earlier his friend and colleague Saeed Hajjarian had taken a bullet in the head. He offered me a seat at a long, rectangular brown table. “I am not looking to become a martyr,” he said. “I have a family, and I enjoy life. However, I realize that sometimes in life one must be prepared to fight and pay the consequences, if necessary. If we really want democracy in Iran, we must be willing to fight for it. There has been a great deal of talk in this country. It is time to act.”

He then talked at length about the revolution. He said it was a fine example of a vigorous and determined act by the Iranian people, but it ultimately failed. “Our revolution was an act for freedom, but we did not follow through properly. We ended up with tyranny and fascism. We Iranians have been fighting for freedom in one form or another since the beginning of the twentieth century. Today, as we enter the twenty-first century, we still have not tasted long periods of freedom. We still see a free press as a privilege, rather than a right. I hope to see Iranians one day come to expect these things.”

Ganji, like many of today’s reformists, came to these views after the revolution. In the early days of the revolution he would have turned his nose up at the title of democrat. He then belonged to a radical Islamic leftist faction, the sort of people who took Americans hostage. A vehement anti-imperialist and vigorous pamphleteer, he wrote often of foreign exploitation in Iran. He saw solutions in Islam, in a return to a native identity, even though he acknowledged, then and now, that Iran has several identities. He fought in the war with Iraq. Later he joined Iran’s intelligence services.

“Around 1984 or 1985 I was becoming disillusioned,” he said. “I saw a pseudofascism and political tyranny emerging in Iran. Anyone who asked questions was branded ‘antirevolutionary’ and ‘against Islam.’ In my opinion, Islam was being abused by a fascist system.”

He harped on this theme often. A personally religious man, he found the abuse of his faith in the service of tyranny unacceptable. “A certain faction in Iran,” he said, referring to conservatives, “has turned religion into ideology, faith into fascism. It promised us heaven, but it created a hell on earth.” The last line was a Ganji trademark, one that was often quoted. “Every religion has had its dark moments with inquisitions and narrow-minded prejudice,” Ganji said, “but this moment we have had in Iran goes against the spirit of Islam and all major faiths.”

Did he agree with the Islamic philosopher Soroush that politics pollutes religion? As a corollary to this thought, did he believe in the need for the separation of mosque and state?

“Most of today’s religious intellectuals,” he said, “greatly admire Soroush, but he is a philosopher, and we must deal with practical political realities. We believe that Iran must embrace the principles of political modernity: civil society, free press, democracy, rule of law. These are principles of secularization.” He used the English word with a Persian accent: “sekularee-zaseeon.”

He did not answer the questions outright, and I did not press him. They were red line questions, and at a first meeting, he may have felt uncomfortable addressing them.

He continued. “Most of us, the religious intellectuals, believe in a Popperian view of the world.”

The Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, author of the landmark political study Open Society and Its Enemies, was a favorite of Iran’s reformists. Popper makes a powerful defense of democratic liberalism and a devastating critique of the philosophic underpinnings of totalitarian systems. Like many Iranian intellectuals of Ganji’s generation, Popper in his youth was a Marxist. By 1945, when he published Open Society, describing how Marxism as a theory soon failed on the weight of empirical evidence and degenerated into pseudoscientific dogma in the defense of totalitarianism, he had abandoned Marxism. Ganji saw parallels in Popper’s view of Marxist history and the evolution of Iran’s Islamic government.

“In a sense that is what happened with our Islamic revolution,” he said. “We had a theory --- that Islamic government could provide us with just rule --- but then there was a great deal of pseudo-Islamic dogma added in defense of totalitarianism.”

His voice paused, as if to go on, but the phone interrupted us. The German embassy waited at the other end. One of Ganji’s aides handled the call. Ganji’s visa was ready, he was told. He could pick it up when he wanted.

“There is a conference in Berlin on our reform movement,” Ganji explained to me. “I’m not sure what it’s about, but I shall make my points,” he said, smiling. “Why don’t you drink some tea?” He leaped up from his chair, catlike, but I insisted that he not trouble himself. We wound up our conversation with talk of my travels in Iran. “Have you been taking pictures? We have some beautiful sites, don’t we?”

The following week Ganji went to Germany. The conference turned into political dynamite for those Iranians who attended. Iranian opposition figures in Europe came to the event, where they openly ridiculed the rulers of the Islamic Republic and attacked Ganji and other reformists as lackeys of the Islamic Republic, trying to preserve the system through reform instead of trying to defeat it through revolution. At times the conference degenerated into a circus. One woman, protesting the veil, took off all her clothes and stood naked in front of the Iranian delegates. A man, also moved to unclothe, joined her. Another woman got up and started dancing in protest against the prohibition on the public display of dancing in Iran.

When Ganji returned from Berlin, conservative newspapers slammed him for attending a conference side by side with opposition figures that sought to overthrow the government and “morally lax” ladies who ridiculed Islamic traditions. Undaunted, Ganji continued his open onslaught against Iran’s hard-liners and his vigorous advocacy of democracy. He pulled few punches. Throughout his rise to legendary journalist, Ganji amazed Iranians with his bravery. He did not smile, kiss the leader’s hand, and say things behind his back. He said them openly, brazenly, defiantly. He felt no need to hide his views behind ambiguous language, allegory, symbolism, or satire. He did not want to be Gholam Ali.

Eventually hard-liners had heard enough. One of the charges leveled against him was his attendance at the Berlin conference. After a show trial that Ganji dismissed openly as illegitimate,” the judge handed him a sentence of fifteen years on January 12, 2001.