Intellectuals and Civil Society under Fire

The more pressure Iran's foreign policy brings down on the country, the easier it is for the government to stir up citizens' suspicions of both internal and external enemies. The victims are intellectuals, artists, and journalists. By Bahman Nirumand

The Iranian president Ahmadinejad (photo: AP)
By positioning himself as a tenacious opponent to the US and its allies, Mahmoud Ahamdinejad tried to bring the masses of Iranians into line in terms of ideology

​​"The latest news and information on the government's plans attest to policies that are extremely detrimental to all areas of art and culture, giving rise to the fear that Iranian culture is in for some difficult times," was how the Iranian Writers' Association summed up the current situation on August 16.

"Censorship of literature and the press, filtering of websites, the confiscation of satellite dishes and censorship of film and theatre are mounting day by day."

The association is deeply concerned and warns the initiators of such policies that they may never be able to wash themselves clean of the "shame of having hindered the intellectual and cultural development of the living generations and of having jeopardized the Iranian cultural heritage and brought about its decline."

The situation of the country's intellectuals, artists, writers and journalists has indeed worsened dramatically since the monopolization of power by the radical Islamists around President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

False confessions elicited by torture

While the country's leaders still more or less tolerate the meager freedoms Iranian civil society struggled to gain in the Chatami era – such as less restrictive dress codes and a relaxation of the rules for public conduct between men and women – in order to squelch any further civil rebellion, they have clamped down even harder on intellectuals and artists.

Not only politically critical content is censured, but also anything that even hints at renewal, openness and diversity, at enlightenment and modernization. Intellectuals and those working in the cultural arena are once again being publicly denounced and tortured into making false confessions.

The internationally famed philosopher and cultural researcher Ramin Djahanbeglu was arrested at the airport this May before boarding a flight out of the country. Only after several days had passed did the judiciary reveal that he had been detained due to his contacts with "foreign elements" and charges of spying.

Two months later, secret service head Mohseni Ejehi claimed that interrogation had revealed that Djahanbeglu had been recruited by the USA to organize "a gentle revolution" in Iran. On August 17, senior public prosecutor Dorri Nadjafabadi reported to the press that Djahanbeglu had admitted to everything and consented to having recordings of his confessions broadcast on television.

Mistreatment leads to death

Such public denunciations are nothing new. A few years back, there were even TV series in which popular artists, writers and intellectuals were depicted as traitors, Western puppets and corrupters whose primarily goal was to undermine Islam and the national culture. Apparently, these methods are about to be taken up again.

Bahman Nirumand (photo: dpa)
Bahman Nirumand, born in 1936 in Iran, is today based in Berlin, Germany

​​Extreme torture is once again the order of the day in Iranian prisons. The most recent victim was Akbar Mohammadi, who died on August 13 as a consequence of mistreatment while in custody. Ahmadi was one of the many demonstrators arrested during the student uprisings in Tehran in the summer of 1999.

Both his lawyer and his parents knew that he had been tortured. Two days after his death, his father stated in an interview with Radio Farda, a Persian-language station on foreign soil, that he had feared his son would not survive the abuse.

The regime's brutal handling of individuals is designed to spread fear and to intimidate and silence critics and cultural practitioners.

Journalists not immune

A journalist who preferred not to be named presented the following statistics to the Internet newspaper "Roos": A file is kept at the revolutionary court on one third of all journalists working in Tehran. One in five journalists has been imprisoned at least once. On average, journalists don't work longer than seven months for a newspaper, either because the newspaper ends up being banned or because the justice system or secret service recommends that the journalist be fired.

The lack of security offered by their occupation and the fear of losing their means of subsistence at any time have led most journalists to censor their own work more carefully. Hardly anyone dares anymore to overstep the invisible boundaries set by the regime.

The government's attacks are aimed not only at individuals, however, but also increasingly at non-governmental organizations, which form the most important basis for Iranian civil society.

In early August, the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, the president of which is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, was declared illegal and officially banned.

Just a few days later, the government declared the election of the board of the Journalists' Association invalid, because the candidates loyal to the regime had not managed to gain a post. Finally, the Attorneys' Association has also been targeted by the radical Islamists. "What's Wrong with the Attorneys' Association?" was a recent headline on the ultra-right-wing daily paper "Resalat."

Bringing the masses into line

The more the regime manages to mobilize the masses for its foreign policy aims, the easier it is to increase pressure within the country.

The Iranian Nobel prize laureate Shirin Ebadi (photo: AP)
In early August, the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, the president of which is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, was declared illegal and officially banned

​​The nuclear conflict, the threat of sanctions by the USA and the EU in an attempt to force Iran to forego its internationally given right to the enrichment of uranium – a right that has in the meantime be elevated to a matter of national honor, along with the general demonization of Iran by the West and similar developments, give the radical Islamists just the ammunition they need to bring the masses into line in terms of ideology, religion and nationalism and to demand their solidarity with their country.

This is the context in which Ahmadinejad's invective against Israel and denial of the Holocaust must be seen.

Satans big and small

The war in Lebanon as well, which was celebrated for several days in Iran as a great triumph for the Hezbollah and major rout for Israel, has also been utilized by the Islamists to their own advantage.

The euphoric mood spread by means of television and radio was intended to convey to the populace the feeling that their government was on the right path and fully able to stand up to the "big Satan" USA and the "small Satan" Israel.

Revolutionary leader Ali Chamenei addressed the following praise to the Hezbollah fighters: "I greet you, brave brothers and defenders of the faith; I kiss your hands and arms."

The Islamists' strategy is to spread fear, incite hatred and stir the public's hostility more and more against enemies both outside and within. But this strategy can only be effective if the country is in a permanent state of crisis.

How else can one explain the fact that Tehran, despite all the dangers menacing the country, has nevertheless failed to put an end to the constant provocations, such as the recent exhibition of Holocaust caricatures?

Bahman Nirumand

© 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

Nuclear Negotiations with Iran
Collision Course with the International Community
With his hardline tactics and populist rhetoric, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has maneuvered himself into isolation – both from the international community and from conservative government circles in Teheran. Bahman Nirumand reports

Commentary Nasrin Alavi
Tehran's Red Card to Human Rights
The presence of Tehran's notoriously repressive prosecutor-general, Saeed Mortazavi, as a delegate to the United Nations's new Human Rights Council in Geneva is an international scandal, says Nasrin Alavi

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Marks One Year as President
The Year of Living Dangerously
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn into office on August 3, 2005. One year on, Peter Philipp looks back on Ahmadinejad's impact on his country and on the wider international community.