Alive with hope

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McGill Reporter
November 22, 2007 - Volume 40 Number 07
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Alive with hope

Iran's top dissident sees a future of democracy and peace

Caption follows
AKBAR GANJI: Prominent Iranian activist

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

He is referring to Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, which he had enthusiastically embraced as a 19-year-old hoping for change, "but what we wanted out of the revolution never came."

Ganji witnessed first-hand what went wrong, having become a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, a "people-powered force" that was supposed to "protect the revolution we had all agreed on and that we had all worked hard to achieve." Rapidly disillusioned with the new regime's penchant for violence and oppression, he would become a vocal critic. His new persona emerged—that of Iran's most prominent dissident, journalist, author and activist.

Ganji is in Canada on a speaking tour hosted by the organization Rights and Democracy, which has awarded him its annual John Humphrey Freedom Prize, named in honor of the McGill law professor who was principal drafter of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. He will be sharing his unique insights on campus today, November 22, at the Faculty of Law's Moot Court, from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m.

His message will be one he has worked tirelessly to promote, often enduring great hardships simply to deliver it. While locked away from 2000 to 2006 in Tehran's ill-famed Evin prison—having been found guilty of "propaganda against the regime and its institutions"—he managed to leak important political manifestos onto the Internet.

That he can provide no more specific detail on these leaks "because it might cause problems for other people who cooperated with me" is a stark reminder of the personal risks involved.

"Political prisoners will find a way to get their words out," says the man whose stay at Evin included a four-month hunger strike to draw much needed international attention. "The aim to reach a goal was driving me," he says, "and that goal was combined with hope."

His goal is democracy and peace in Iran, and he is now free to deliver his message.

"Iran is the gateway to democracy in the Middle East," he insists. "If Iran has a democratic regime, this will be a major blow to fundamentalism in the Middle East," which will lose both ideological and financial support.

As for how this is to be accomplished, he has learned from past mistakes. "Anything but revolution," he says with a laugh. "Non-violent disobedience and civil resistance is the way to go." He adds emphatically that the responsibility for reform rests with Iranians, and change must come from within if it is to be lasting and effective. "Iranian civil society's active role and participation is going to be vital in this transition," he says. "Without civil society, you will not have democracy. We do have an active civil society in Iran, but one problem is that it is not united. But obviously, dissatisfaction is widespread. We do have many of the pre-requisites needed to be at the forefront of a democratic transition."

If Iran's own civil society must be the driving force for change, there remains an important function for the international community, but Ganji stresses it must play a supporting rather than a leading role. "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. The international community should be putting pressure on the regime to dismantle its forces of oppression against civil society."

The United States government, for example, "has 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. Any sanction that is somehow, directly or indirectly, affecting the people of Iran is one to be condemned and is ineffective."

A military strike, he adds, "would be 100 percent disaster," noting that Iran is still years away from becoming a nuclear threat. "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."

For Ganji, such rhetoric in fact diverts attention from Iran's real problems—lack of democracy and human rights—and he notes disturbing similarities to the language that led to another ill-fated conflict. "There is no way that you can bring about democracy with militarism," he says. "The disaster of Iraq is before us. There is no democracy there, human rights are violated, hundreds of thousands have died, security is non-existent, and $500 billion has been spent so far of American taxpayers' money. I could go on if you want," he chuckles. Ganji's point, though, is serious and straightforward: "We simply don't want our country to turn out like that. Democracy is not like cars—you can't export it."

But make no mistake; Akbar Ganji believes he will see democracy in Iran in his lifetime. "For sure!" is his immediate and enthusiastic response when asked. He then offers a particularly meaningful reflection, given all he has been through: "In fact, I am alive with the hope that it will happen."

Iran, human rights and the nuclear question: What are the connections?; Nov. 22; 4:30 p.m.-6:00 p.m.; Chancellor Day Hall, 3644 Peel Street, Moot Court.

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