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Reporter Q&A: Akbar Ganji

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Published: 20 Nov 2007

Akbar Ganji, Iran’s most prominent political dissident, is a well-known journalist, author and former Revolutionary Guard turned activist. He spent six years in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison, where he undertook a hunger strike and produced a series of influential political manifestos and open letters calling for the secularization of Iran and the establishment of democracy through mass civil d

Akbar Ganji, Iran’s most prominent political dissident, is a well-known journalist, author and former Revolutionary Guard turned activist. He spent six years in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison, where he undertook a hunger strike and produced a series of influential political manifestos and open letters calling for the secularization of Iran and the establishment of democracy through mass civil disobedience. McGill’s Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism will welcome Mr. Ganji for a public lecture titled ‘Iran, Human Rights, and the Nuclear Question: What are the Connections?’ on Thursday, Nov. 22, from 4:30 to 6 p.m., at the Faculty of Law’s Moot Court.

He recently spoke with the McGill Reporter’s Pascal Zamprelli.

Reporter: As a student at that time, what kind of changes did you hope the 1979 revolution would bring to Iran?

Akbar Ganji: Like all revolutionaries, we were hoping to establish a new society with a new deal. At that time, we were looking for justice.

Reporter: You even became a member of the Revolutionary Guards. What made you eventually decide to leave that group?

AG: The Guards was originally a people-powered force that was formed to protect the revolution – the revolution that we all had agreed on and that we all had worked hard to achieve. But what we wanted out of the revolution never came – it didn’t turn out to be the way we thought is should. Consequently, we distanced ourselves from it.

Reporter: What went wrong?

AG: The government violence after the revolution was one of the things that went wrong, in which even the opposition was cooperating as well. The government became severely oppressive and that wasn’t what we expected from the revolution. I can’t say they betrayed it, as this is the nature of a revolution. Any revolution, when socially studied, most of the time results in the same sort of clashes after the power is transferred. The revolutionaries, after the revolution, separate into two groups and they will start fighting among themselves, and the process of violence starts. If you study, for example, the French, Russian or Chinese revolutions, you see similar trends and patterns of violence after the revolution.

Reporter: What then would be a more effective way of bringing about change?

AG: Anything but revolution. Non-violent disobedience and civil resistance is the way to go.

Reporter: Tell me about your time in Evin prison and how you went about continuing to make your message heard despite being incarcerated.

AG: It has happened before in history with revolutionaries or opposition members – from Nelson Mandela to Gramsci. They all managed to get their words out and it’s simply a matter of the nature of the job. Political prisoners will find a way to get their words out, especially because things have changed since the time of Mandela. The revolution in communication has changed the nature of it; it’s made it much easier for communication and relations between the inside and outside of a jail to be sustained.

Reporter: What specific methods did you use?

AG: I can’t tell you the details of that because it might cause problems for other people who cooperated with me. The fundamental issue is that as soon as the message is out of the jail, then everybody will find out, thanks to new technology. When it’s an e-mail, it’s all over the place. That wasn’t there 50 years ago.

Reporter: What was it like to undertake a hunger strike? Where did you find the willpower to go through with something like that?

AG: We all have goals that we fight for and I was standing by mine. The aim to reach a goal was driving me – and that goal was combined with hope. They had closed all avenues of opposition to me: I couldn’t make a phone call, I couldn’t see a doctor. And they would tell me that even when my six-year term was over, they wouldn’t let me go. So I had no other chance, and at that time this was the method that turned out to be successful. The special circumstances that existed allowed that message to become global and go beyond borders – political circumstances inside and outside Iran allowed this transition of message and helped it become international news. In many cases, others might not have such an opportunity, even if they do go on a hunger strike, to have it become such international news.

Reporter: Today, what is the role of Iranian civil society in bringing about democratic and human rights reform in Iran?

AG: Without civil society, you will not have democracy. The more powerful civil society is, the more hope for democracy exists. We do have an active civil society in Iran, but one problem is that it is not united. And it doesn’t have leadership. But obviously, dissatisfaction is widespread. We do have many of the prerequisites needed to be at the forefront of a democratic transition.

Reporter: In particular, what role could students play?

AG: Students are playing a very important role and the student movement is one of the most powerful elements of civil society in Iran. It’s by far the most powerful and active in comparison to other NGOs and movements in Iran.

Reporter: Is there any hope that the 2008 legislative elections in Iran will be a catalyst for change?

AG: Not exactly. I’m not sure about that because the government will disqualify all the reformist candidates. There is a possibility that they will allow some very conservative reformists to run, which doesn’t represent that much of a hope.

Reporter: But do you expect to see democracy in Iran in your lifetime?

AG: For sure. In fact, I am alive with the hope that it will happen and that’s also based on a realistic analysis of what is happening. Iranian civil society’s active role and participation is going to be vital in this transition.

Reporter: If Iranian civil society is central to bringing about change, what complementary role should the international community play?

AG: The international community could be very helpful for the transition to democracy. In their relations with Iran and their international relations, they should make human rights and democracy their priority. And Iran’s regime should be condemned because of its gross violations of human rights. There has to be express support for the people’s resistance and for their active participation in this transition to democracy. But this support must be a moral support, not a financial one. It must not be material, but substantial in terms of morality.

Reporter: So support from the international community must be moral rather than financial, but what about military action?

AG: That would be 100-percent disaster. There is no way that you can bring about democracy with militarism. The disaster of Iraq is before us. Democracy is not like cars – you can’t export it.

Reporter: What do you say then to those who argue that either economic sanctions or military actions are necessary to affect the Iranian regime?

AG: Well, first of all we say look at the disaster in Iraq. Before, if we wanted argue [against militarism] we didn’t have such an example; now we have a living example. There is no democracy in Iraq. Human rights are violated and Iraq is in shambles. Hundreds of thousands have died, security is non-existent, and $500 billion has been spent so far of American taxpayers’ money. We simply don’t want our country to turn out like that. [Laughing] I could go on if you want…

As for the economic argument, any sanction that is somehow, directly or indirectly, affecting the people of Iran is one to be condemned and is ineffective. Instead, the international community should be putting pressure on the regime to dismantle its forces of oppression against civil society.

Reporter: What are the larger implications of change in Iran for the peace process in the area and for peace in the Middle East?

AG: Iran is the gateway to democracy in the Middle East. If Iran has a democratic regime, this will be a major blow to fundamentalism in the Middle East. It’s not just that they would lose ideological support from the Iranian government; they will also lose their financial support coming from that government.

Reporter: What do you hope to hear from the outgoing US administration and from the one that will take over in 2009?

AG: First, that they will keep their hands off Iran militarily. The language of threatening Iran and threatening to act militarily should be dropped. They have to start negotiations with the Iranian government. They have to start normalizing relations with Iran. And they have to realize that the transition to democracy is an onus on Iranian people and is the responsibility of Iranian people and Iranian civil society, not the American administration.

Reporter: What do you make of the US’s recent congressional resolution calling for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to be designated a foreign terrorist organization? Is that helpful?

AG: I can’t see how this helps the democracy movement in Iran. The Iranian government – with or without tensions with the United States – will continue to oppress civil society in Iran. But when the tensions rise to a higher level, this will turn into an added excuse to oppress and limit civil society. So at the height of tensions, it is always harmful to civil society. That’s why we want tensions to calm down and we don’t see this move by Congress to be helpful at all.

Reporter: Much of the rhetoric tied to that resolution and to Iran revolves around the question of nuclear capacity. What is the view of the reformist movement and civil society in Iran with respect to the regime obtaining nuclear weapons?

AG: A lot of members of civil society are against the nuclear policies of the government. At the same time, they see it as preposterous for this to become an excuse for any sort of military attack on Iran. First of all, Iran doesn’t have an atomic bomb. Even by the estimations of the Israeli and American intelligence services, Iran is three to five years away from any real possibility of having a nuclear bomb. Therefore, the discussion is really not about Iran having an atomic bomb at this point. It’s a discussion about the possibility of Iran gaining the potential for a nuclear bomb in the distant future.

Reporter: And this diverts attention from the real debate?

AG: Yes, indeed. The real problem is human rights.

Reporter: What message do you hope to leave with Canadians on your current speaking tour?

AG: That Canada should turn human rights and democracy into a first priority in terms of your relations with the Iranian government. Democracy and human rights should not be victims to your trade relations with Iran and you must instead help civil society in Iran. For example, Canada is taking a very hard, unrealistic and incomprehensible stance towards Iranians who want to enter Canada for one reason or another. The Canadian embassy in Tehran is implementing stiff rules that are basically disqualifying many of the most intellectual and most educated from entering the country. Open your gates and let the smart, successful Iranian students come and pursue their lives in Canada. Many of the opposition members who want to leave Iran, even for a visit, are having difficulty getting Canadian visas.

Reporter: What are your thoughts on winning the John Humphrey Freedom Award?

AG: Not the least of it is the fact that Canadians fist of all have such individuals in their communities. And the fact that they have established such prizes – a prize in the name of someone like John Humphrey – shows that they see human rights as a priority. The more powerful the concept of human rights becomes internationally and the more the international community is active in pursuing human rights – that is good news for us. And the fact that they have awarded this prize to an Iranian is an indication that they are sensitive towards the developments in Iran and that is very much welcomed. I am receiving and accepting this prize on behalf of all Iranians who are fighting for democracy and human rights.

The John Humphrey Freedom Award is awarded annually by the organization Rights and Democracy and is named in honor of the McGill law professor who was principal drafter of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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