Playing with death in Iran
Iran's most important political prisoner, the journalist Akbar Ganji, is close to death after nearly 50 days on a hunger strike, but most of the world has not even heard the news. Nor have most Iranians. The press, which was operating in an atmosphere of relative freedom and independence at the height of the reform movement several years ago, is today too intimidated to publish the bedside letter distributed this week, in which Ganji says unequivocally of the country's supreme leader: "Mr. Khamenei must go." READ MOREWestern reporters seems to have forgetten that the Iranian media has been banned from reporting the news on Ganji.
Ganji's letter intentionally evoked memories of an earlier time: Many here still remember how Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, from exile in Paris, declared unequivocally that "the shah must go!" — and repeated it until those four little words produced the Islamic Revolution. Ganji, of course, is not Khomeini, and 2005 is not 1979, but the appeals share the same spirit. Only a willingness to speak out, to disobey, to brave the anger of the authorities will pressure the reluctant regime to heed its critics.
I first met Ganji on a chilly winter day in 2000, at a crowded intersection in downtown Tehran near his newspaper's office. Every passerby recognized him, for before he was interned in prison and forgotten, Ganji was a hero. His articles that linked powerful officials to the murders of dozens of intellectuals had held Iranians spellbound. He pulled back the shades on what he called the "dark house of ghosts," describing a country where assassins killed their victims at night and slipped, unaccountable, into the shadows. His reports helped force the regime to pull back its death squads, by making killing in the Islamic Republic less cheap and less easy.
As the cars wheezed past us, Ganji smiled. He knew, he said, that something bad might happen to him: "I call this playing with death."
A few months later, he began serving a six-year sentence for what he had written. He disappeared into Tehran's notorious Evin prison, but the scandal he uncovered lived on. In its reach and import, it resembled nothing so much as Watergate, resulting in a serious rift in the government between the sitting reformist president and his powerful conservative predecessor, Hashemi Rafsanjani.
In prison, Ganji was denied phone calls home. He developed asthma and a hacking cough, but somehow managed to keep himself at both the intellectual and tactical forefront of the drive for change. While incarcerated, he published a taboo-shattering book calling for a full separation of mosque and state, declaring what many in Iran now believe but are too nervous to say: Islamic reform is yesterday's debate, and the reign of the ayatollahs must give way to representative democracy.
But how to make that transition? Most reformists wring their hands, bemoaning the absence of ways to express discontent in Iran. In his letter, Ganji encourages Iranians to be honest with themselves and to admit the country's problem is "not a lack of knowledge about democracy, but a lack of preparedness for paying the cost." For those wary of painful personal sacrifice, he recommends "noncooperation with the despot."
Disgruntled regime officials should be open about their discontent, he says, quitting government rather than slinking off into the labyrinth of the Islamic Republic's institutions, like the new post on the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution that awaits outgoing President Mohammad Khatami.
No one is allowed to visit Ganji in the state hospital where he is being held. As of Friday, he continued to refuse a feeding tube, and to demand his unconditional release. Doctors say his kidneys will fail soon, perhaps by the time this is published.
For centuries, Iranians have believed noble kings or charismatic ayatollahs can rescue the nation from itself or invaders. Perhaps Akbar Ganji will one day be seen as such a hero. But for now, his fellow Iranians aren't even hearing about him.