There's No Silencing Iran's Critics
July 26, 2003
National Post Canada
Debate suggests country ripe for revolution
When Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian photographer who was beaten to death by Iranian security officials, was buried in her hometown of Shiraz this week, she immediately became a martyr to a revolution that has yet to take place.
Internationally, her brutal murder was greeted with outrage, but in Iran, it has engendered a mixture of embarrassed disbelief and thuggish indifference.
That's because the country is already reeling. Twenty-four years after Iranians created a "government of God," the revolution that expelled the Shah in a fury of religious sentiment and anti-Western backlash is facing a huge crisis of legitimacy.
Iran is ripe for a new revolution, as debate swirls around the country over how much personal freedom can be allowed in the world's first Islamic theocracy.
A vicious political standoff between elected reformers and un-elected religious leaders who wield unlimited veto powers while controlling the state's security forces and the courts, has created an atmosphere of perpetual turmoil.
In recent weeks, thousands of political activists have been rounded up and packed into Iran's notorious prisons, where they are beaten and tortured.
Students and ordinary citizens took to the streets all over the country in protest. Parents of Iranian dissidents living abroad have been harassed. Children of reform-minded parliamentarians have been interrogated by religious militiamen and journalists have been arrested or had their newspapers closed.
For observers abroad, Tehran's apparent rush to obtain the capability to build nuclear weapons is creating unease, given Iran's reputation as a leading state sponsor of terrorism.
As a charter member of the "axis of evil," Iran touches every major security issue of interest to the United States, from weapons of mass destruction to terrorism, the Middle East peace process and the geopolitics of oil. Now, it looks as if it is about to become Washington's next major foreign policy crisis.
But Iran's domestic discontent could erupt at any moment.
As politicians and religious leaders argue over whether the Islamic clergy should have a monopoly on political power, ordinary people are becoming bolder in asserting their right to shape their country's future.
Articles are appearing in newspapers challenging the clergy's authority to have a final say in government and young people are defying tradition and strict Islamic social restrictions.
Western culture, in the form of banned books, music and movies, is creeping into a country that until recently relished its Islamic austerity.
Iranian teenagers talk of a raucous scene of fast-food joints, forbidden movies, furtive courtships and illicit parties. Socially restricted, disillusioned, full of anger and rebellion, they are desperately looking for relief.
Their discontent is a huge problem for the government, in a country where nearly two-thirds of the population is under 30 and more than half is under 21.
In the early days of Iran's revolution, foreign material was banned from movie theatres, foreign fashions were prohibited and bookstores were cleared of un-Islamic material.
There was even a brief attempt to prohibit the use of Western words in Farsi, banning them from public speeches, ads and books.
Women were ordered to cover up in chadors. Nail polish and cosmetics were banned, and those who showed too much of their hairline under their head scarves were publicly whipped.
The hajib, or dress code, is still mandatory for all girls and women over the age of nine in all public places.
Punishments range from verbal reprimands to 74 lashes with a whip to imprisonment for one month to a year.
Most forms of entertainment are severely restricted. Playing cards are banned, nightclubs are closed and religious vigilantes monitor personal behaviour.
Over the years, tens of thousands of Iranians have been arrested for "social corruption" and millions more have been warned about their behaviour.
On occasion, police in Tehran pull cars over to check if unmarried men and women are travelling together.
They also raid apartment buildings and use military helicopters to look for illegal television satellite dishes. They do not deter many middle-class families, who disguise their receivers as air conditioning units.
The religious conservatives insist they must defend Islamic cultural values, just as they defend Iran's borders.
But their regime, which came to power by smuggling in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's sermons on audio tapes and videocassettes, now feels threatened by technology and cultural contraband.
When the 1979 revolution shattered 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran, it transformed the Islamic world, injecting it with the political philosophy of Ayatollah Khomeini, an austere mystic who had the stern moral inflexibility of a messenger of God.
He replaced the laws of men with clerical rule and his own interpretation of the laws of God.
His legacy has been an anti-Western, inward-looking state with a deep religious outlook and an isolationist's suspicion of international relations.
The concept of clerical rule has been the backbone of the Islamic Republic.
To criticize the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah Khomeini's successor, carries a maximum prison sentence of three years. If the criticism is regarded as an attack on the Islamic religion, it is punishable by death.
The Assembly of Experts, an elected body of senior Muslim theologians responsible for selecting the Supreme Leader, has ruled, "The word of the leader is final and it ends all disputes. This is a fundamental tenet of Islam."
As a result, Ayatollah Khamenei derives his authority not from the people, but from a concept known as Velayati Faqih (rule by an expert jurist), under which he is regarded as God's vice-regent on Earth.
When truth is absolute, there is no room for compromise. Accommodation of any sort is regarded as a betrayal of God.
As a result, Iran's politics stalemated.
When President Mohammad Khatami was swept in to power with 70% of the popular vote in the 1997 elections, he promised major political and social reforms.
The son of a leading ayatollah and a senior cleric himself, Mr. Khatami was once a close aide to Ayatollah Khomeini. In the early 1980s, he was credited with using his influence with Ayatollah Khomeini to save the game of chess, when extremists attempted to ban it on the grounds it was un-Islamic, even though it was invented by the ancient Persians.
Mr. Khatami has a reputation as a cultured, gentle man. He speaks English, German, Arabic and Farsi and wrote a book on philosophy that discusses the merits of Locke, Hobbes and Montesquieu. He insists democratic tolerance and pluralism have an Islamic core and the Prophet Muhammad's teachings rest on a need for dialogue and consent among the governed.
When he first ran for office, he received overwhelming support from young people and women as he talked of creating a "civil society" and striving to temper the revolutionary rhetoric.
Last year, Mr. Khatami proposed two bills designed to curb the mullahs' authority over the judiciary and the electoral process. He even threatened to resign if the bills were vetoed, saying they represented the minimum reforms he needed to carry out his role as President.
Since then, the Guardian Council, an unelected body that vets all legislation, has rejected both proposals, saying they run counter to Shariah law and the constitution.
With little to show for his reform efforts, Mr. Khatami's supporters are becoming increasingly critical of his performance and less tolerant of the religious leadership.
As the struggle over theology rages, it has swept up the rest of Iran in a political showdown over the amount of freedom of expression that will be tolerated.
Hardline clerics control the judiciary, the military, the police, the state broadcasting system, mosques and religious charities that dominate the economy. Despite constant public demands, they are unwilling to cede control of Iran's political agenda.
They regard calls for more public accountability and greater personal freedom as a direct assault on the foundations of the theocratic state Ayatollah Khomeini created.
And when they feel threatened, they do not hesitate to lash out violently at opponents, accusing them of being un-Islamic or influenced by Iran's enemies
The religious leaders have clashed constantly with the reform-dominated elected parliament. Theologians who oppose the clergy's growing role in politics have been jailed or placed under house arrest.
Journalists and political activists have also been swept up in repeated crackdowns.
Lately, the hardline religious conservatives have escalated their campaign of intimidation. Thugs have been used to break up reform rallies, new newspapers have been closed, journalists such as Ms. Kazemi have been beaten, jailed, tortured and killed.
There has also been a sharp increase in the number of public executions and floggings.
At one point early on in the struggle, General Rahim Safavi, the former head of the elite Revolutionary Guards, declared bluntly: "Heads need to be rolled, tongues need to be cut and pens need to be broken."
This sort of thinking resulted in the creation in 1998 of a hit squad from the Ministry of Intelligence that assassinated five dissident writers.
In December, 2000, after reform newspapers exposed their activities, a secret military court tried 18 former ministry officials for the murders; 15 of them were found guilty.
But all members of the death squad were later released, when the religious-controlled Supreme Court overturned their convictions.
Still, Iran's reformers persist in demanding change. Their newspapers continue to run editorials against stoning, publish stories on the return of prostitution and suicide rates of young people.
Above all, they constantly criticize Iran's political system and call for sweeping social, political and economic reforms. firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.nationalpost.com/world/story.html?id=74D9D941-EB94-4FE8-8FA0-754786682A04
Iran claims having arrested five over death of Canadian
journalist in Iran
Jul 26, 2003
TEHRAN - Five people have been arrested in connection with the death in custody of Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi, the public prosecutor's office announced, student news agency Isna reported.
The prosecutor's office issued a statement, quoted by Insa, which gave no details of the identities of those involved but stating they were being held in custody while the inquiry continues.
Relations between Ottawa and Tehran have been at a low ebb since the death of Iranian-born Kazemi.
She died in hospital on July 11 of a brain hemorrhage due to an unexplained blow on the head received while she was in custody in Tehran following her arrest for taking unauthorised photographs outside Evin prison.
Tehran's handling of the case, including refusing to repatriate her body to Canada, prompted a diplomatic incident which saw Ottawa recall its ambassador.
For the Canadians, there remains little doubt that Kazemi, 54, died following ill treatment during her time in detention.
On July 16, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi announced that she "had died of a cerebral hemorrhage after being beaten".
But the report of a board of inquiry concluded that the hemorrhage was the result of a fracture of the skull, without saying how it was caused.
Ottawa demanded that those responsible be put on trial and Kazemi's body be repatriated to Canada, where she had lived for the past ten years. It announced it was recalling its ambassador after Kazemi was buried Tuesday in her home town of Shiraz, at the request of her mother, according to Tehran.
The Iranian foreign ministry on Saturday lodged a formal protest with the Canadian embassy over what Tehran calls the "murder" of a young Iranian near Vancouver.
Keyvan Tabesh, 18, was shot dead by a Canadian policeman on July 14 and Iran has demanded that his killer be brought to justice.
Police in Port Moody, just east of Vancouver, said Tabesh had been killed on July 14 after charging at a police officer with a machete following another incident in which he attacked a car.
Iran's foreign minister Kamal Kharazi on Friday dismissed Canada's account of the killing of Tabesh as "incomprehensible" and called for Ottawa to provide a "convincing explanation" of how he died. http://www.daneshjoo.org/generalnews/article/publish/article_1420.shtml
It seems so many of these editorials and articles make it sound as though it's the reformers vs the mullahs. That the people want or would be satisfied with the reformers in power. They leave out the most important aspect to the "revolution".
I guess because Democracy is a dirty word.