Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Free Thinker

Free Thinker
Iranian Dissident Akbar Ganji, at Liberty to Speak His Mind, at Least Until He Goes Back Home

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2006; C01

Akbar Ganji is free -- for now. He does not expect his liberty to last long.

Ganji, a small man with a whisper of a voice, is an Iranian writer who has taken on the world's mightiest theocracy and its thundering ayatollahs. Released in March after six years in prison -- a good chunk of that time in solitary confinement -- he is today the most radical democrat in Tehran. Several hunger strikes have left him with an emaciated body, at one point down more than 55 pounds, to 108. Deep crow's-feet dig dark crevices around his eyes when he smiles, belying his 46 years.

Ganji is a lonely voice in Iran these days, as hard-line leaders' positions are hardening and the reform movement has atrophied. Disillusioned, he has also turned against the very reformers who view him as their hero.

"The regime is driving Iran towards a catastrophe. . . . Iran is today an archipelago of prisons," he said during one of two recent interviews in Washington. ". . . But the path of the reformers is not correct either."

Ganji is brazen by the standards of a movement more comfortable with nuances, nudges and compromise. His investigative articles in Iranian newspapers linked Iran's intelligence ministry to the killings of dozens of dissidents during the 1990s.

He compiled his accusations against the regime in "Dungeon of Ghosts," the Iranian equivalent of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago." His other books chronicled corruption by top clergy. Put on trial in 2000 for defaming the regime and jeopardizing national security, he tore open his gray prison uniform to sit shirtless in court, showing what he said were the wounds of torture.

Food -- the lack of it -- became his weapon. In prison, he almost died during a 73-day hunger strike last year to protest his treatment and incarceration. He was eventually hospitalized.

"There is perhaps no greater exemplar of journalistic heroism in the world today," the National Press Club said in announcing that Ganji would receive its international Freedom of the Press award last month.

"His significance today remains in the example he sets," added Shaul Bakhash, a former Iranian journalist who is now a history professor at George Mason University. "He remains unflinching in his belief that it is the duty of intellectuals to speak out against tyranny and the suppression of individual rights. And he continues to speak out despite harsh treatment in the past and the prospect of further incarceration in the future."

Yet Ganji is no fan of the White House, either.

A year ago, President Bush issued a statement saying he was "saddened" by reports of Ganji's deteriorating health in prison. The White House demanded that Tehran release him for medical treatment, and it appealed to human rights activists around the world to rally to his cause.

"His valiant efforts should not go in vain," the White House statement said. "Mr. Ganji, please know that as you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."

But during his trip to Washington to pick up the award -- his first visit, part of a world tour to speak out on Iran's human rights violations and to collect other prizes, including the World Association of Newspapers' Golden Pen of Freedom -- Ganji stayed as far away from the White House and all U.S. officials as he could, despite intermediaries' overtures.

Bush administration support is dangerous for Middle East democrats these days.

"I was in solitary confinement in prison and had no contact with anyone when Bush announced support for me," Ganji recalled. Interrogators, however, "talked to me as if I had had dinner with Bush the previous evening."

U.S.-backed wars in the Middle East, he added, are not helping democrats in the region.

In a speech at London's Imperial College last month, Ganji warned that Iran's democracy movement does not support military action by either local or foreign forces to produce change. "Violence and force can never by themselves create genuine beliefs," he noted, taking a poke at both Tehran and Washington.

During a conversation in Washington, Ganji reflected: "You people [in the West] have great accomplishments. You brought the world modernity. But no one trusts Western governments now. Many world leaders wanted to meet me. But all the dissidents in Iran asked me not to. This shows the Iranian perception of Western governments."

Ganji, who is married and has two teenage daughters, also scoffs at the $75 million that the Bush administration has allocated for programs to encourage Iran's democracy movement. He said the funds would be better used for Iranian- or Islamic-studies centers at American universities.

Despite the cleric-controlled election last year of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, Ganji argues that the idea of democracy has greater support today than at any time since Iran's constitutional revolution a century ago. The past year -- a time of growing censorship of the press and popular media, forced retirement of dissident professors, and the arrest of student and labor activists -- has deepened rejection of Tehran's theocracy.

"It's the first time that the elite have a consensus about human rights and democracy," he said. "The regime's biggest weakness is human rights. This is the issue on which it loses face with its people. It's the only point on which we can win."

The movement has so far faltered, he acknowledged, because of disorganization, absence of a strong leader and disparate roots -- left and right, secular and religious, monarchists and republicans, expatriates and insiders.

Ironically, they are the same diverse forces that opposed the shah -- until Ayatollah Khomeini's clerical clique offered the banner of Islam to unify them. Many Iranians now argue that their revolution to end more than 2,500 years of dynastic rule was hijacked.

"We still don't have the emergence of a Gandhi, Havel or Mandela," Ganji said.

Ganji did not always oppose the Iranian theocracy. He was once part of the regime he lambastes today.

A prototype revolutionary, Ganji grew up in the scruffy suburbs of south Tehran, a bastion of the 1979 rebellion against Iran's monarchy.

As a young man, he rallied behind Ayatollah Khomeini, served in the elite Revolutionary Guards at the same time as Iran's current hard-line president, then worked in the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, churning out its propaganda.

But Ganji gradually soured on the revolution -- then began trying to undo it.

"We wanted to create a heaven. We didn't want a shah, but we were not clear on what we desired," he reflected in his soft voice, his hands constantly in motion, pulling a label off a water bottle, picking at the clasps on his black cloth briefcase or gesticulating in the air. His nervous anger is in his hands, not his voice.

"The more we had repression, executions, as the revolution started swallowing its own children, I started to see this unbelievable reality, and from the other side I started to read about revolutions throughout history. And I ended up seeing one pattern: that all revolutions are the same, they follow the same rules. . . .

"I realized that repression is in the essence of revolution," he said, smiling. "And I realized that we cannot produce democracy with revolution."

Ganji emerged in the 1990s among a burgeoning group of reformers who challenged rigid theocratic rule and pushed for a freer press. As new independent newspapers started publishing, he began writing articles that probed the regime, corruption by top clerics and the killing of reformers and intellectuals.

His career came to an abrupt halt when he was charged in 2000.

In the isolation of prison, Ganji secretly started writing again. His book-length "Republican Manifesto" -- released in two parts, one in 2002, the other in 2005 -- and a series of letters to the "free people of the world" and top Iranian thinkers were sneaked out of Tehran's notorious Evin Prison and published on Freeganji.blogspot.com.

In a letter on the 43rd day of his hunger strike last year, addressed to his mentor, Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush, Ganji wrote angrily of the ruling mullahs who "hide their corruption under their robes. . . . They know nothing but claim to be the holders of divine secrets."

Iran's theocracy is headed by a supreme leader -- currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- who has veto power over all acts of an elected president and parliament. The ruling cleric, Ganji said, has "the status of a god" and is at the heart of the problem.

"Khamenei must go," Ganji wrote boldly.

In his second manifesto, Ganji outlined a strategy to end theocratic rule through massive civil disobedience and election boycotts. He charged that Iran's elections were "fraudulent" because of "forged ballots" and "orders given from above" to add votes to bolster turnout and the regime's seeming legitimacy.

Invoking the civil disobedience campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, he called on student activists and intellectuals to ignore court summonses for opposition activity that, under Article 500 of Iran's penal code, makes them liable to three to 12 months in prison.

"Citizens must break this law," he wrote. "If this law is broken extensively, the regime will not be able to send many people to jail for expressing their opposition. . . . The uneven path to freedom will be opened by our efforts. Freedom is not free."

He also blasted reformers for timidity and for selling out, because they have been willing to adapt Iran's theocracy rather than abandon it. Reform is no longer viable, Ganji wrote.

Throughout his writing, Ganji quotes Socrates and Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Paine, Baudelaire and Montesquieu.

In accepting his National Press Club Award last month, Ganji said he reports "in order to instigate protest." And he cited Albert Camus' "The Plague," a tale of disease's devastating toll that is often interpreted as a metaphor for repression's deadly impact -- a tale that he applies to his country and others.

"I am with you here today in order to bear witness on behalf of the fallen victims of the plague of violence," he said.

"It recognizes no boundaries," the diminutive writer warned. "One day, incarnated as Stalin, it ran over the vast territories of Russia, one day as Hitler it tormented the people of Germany, the Jews and other people. . . . One day as Mussolini it wreaked devastation on the beautiful landscape of Italy, and another day as bin Laden it wrought havoc on the United States."

Ganji continues his protests wherever he goes. In New York last month, he held a symbolic three-day hunger strike in front of U.N. headquarters to demand that Iran release its political prisoners. Small hunger strikes were conducted simultaneously in 18 cities around the world. "We tried to bring the world's attention to the broad human rights violations in Iran today," Ganji explained. To do nothing, he argues, is to share responsibility for the status quo.

But some Iranian analysts wonder about Ganji's relevance in the face of an increasingly hard-line regime.

"Ganji probably represents the loudest and most courageous voice of dissent in Iran, but it's not necessarily a pragmatic or effective one," said Hadi Semati, a Tehran University professor now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "His combative and aggressive ideas on reform may not be in tune with the broader popular mood. The economic situation and the problems of everyday life and people are their priorities."

Added Najmeh Bozorgmehr, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy: "He's brave, but maybe too brave.

"He speaks for radical reformists who seem to be marginalized in today's Iran. Ahmadinejad's agenda is now dominant in Iran."

Yet analysts also agree that there is no one with wider appeal among the opposition -- even though Ganji does not see himself as a leader.

"No other dissident has emerged in the last 27 years, since the revolution, who has the respect of all the disparate elements of Iranian society, from Revolutionary Guardsmen and basij [volunteers], senior clergy and religious intellectuals, to the secular and religious middle class within Iran and the strong Iranian exile communities in Europe and North America," said Karim Sadjadpour, Iran analyst for the Crisis Group, an independent nonpartisan organization committed to preventing conflict and based in Brussels. "The fact that Ganji is held in such high esteem by all of these disparate actors is really quite remarkable."

At a time when many intellectuals and dissidents are opting for temporary jobs abroad or low profiles at home, Ganji plans to return to Tehran soon to make more noise.

"My place is inside Iran. I have to go back and struggle from inside," he said.

During his last trip abroad in 2000 for a conference in Berlin, Ganji was warned that he would be arrested if he returned. "I went back, was arrested, and I don't regret it," he said.

"I told them from the beginning that it's a two-side cost," he added. "They imprison me and I pay the cost. But when I talk about them, they also pay a cost. And when they imprisoned me for six years, the cost was higher to them."

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