July 9, 2009
A True Iranian Reformer, and His Movement?By Andrew Bostom and Alyssa A. Lappen
Pooya Dayanim is an intrepid lawyer, writer, and human rights activist who served Muhammad Khatami a subpoena for his role in the torture and detention of innocent Iranian Jews, while the former Iranian President attended a Council on American Islamic Relations dinner in Arlington, VA on September 8, 2006. Late Sunday July 5, 2009 Pooya sent me an e-mail conveying a remarkable press release from the secular Iranian Marze Por Gohar (MPG) Party (The Glorious Frontiers Party-taken from the first line of the "O' Iran" National Anthem. [O Iran, O Glorious Frontiers]).
The press release announced that Roozbeh Farahanipour, a prominent leader of the July, 1999 Iranian student uprising, and other leaders and members of the MPG were returning to Iran to organize demonstrations commemorating the tenth anniversary of July 9th. Arguing that competing Islamic Republic of Iran factions were, "...trying to confine the present movement within the tight Islamic and Constitutional limits, preventing cries for free elections and a democratic Iran being heard...,"the announcement released by the MPG-which advocates a secular, democratic republic-urged Iranian students and the general public to re-invigorate the suppressed June election protests with en masse demonstrations throughout Iran on July 9th.
Who is Roozbeh Farahanipour, and what is so striking about his apparent return to Iran?
Farahanipour, a trained lawyer, was the publisher and chief editor of a monthly journal dedicated to Iranian studies (emphasizing Zoroastrianism), from 1994 to 1998. Simultaneously, he also founded the "Roozbeh Publishing" to further disseminate research focusing on pre-Islamic Iran.
Soon after his monthly journal on Iranology was banned, Farahanipour became the chief editor of the weekly Nedayeh Ghomess ("The call of Ghomess," Ghomess being one of the capitals of ancient Iran). Only five issues of Nedayeh Ghomess had been produced under his editorship when, upon attempting to publish the names of 57 serial murder victims, his efforts were prevented by the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security of Iran and other affiliated elements of the Iranian government. Subsequently, Farahanipour, joined by some of his Nationalist peers organized the "Hezbeh Marzeh Por-Gohar" and "The National Society of Journalists," in July of 1998, serving on the executive committees in both organizations. Defiantly independent from the Islamic government and its affiliates, these organizations encountered intense opposition, threats, and violent suppression from militias associated with the Islamic Republic.
Under Farahanipour's leadership, the Marze Por Gohar Party spearheaded the pro-democracy movement of July, 1999. Shortly after The Ministry of Intelligence proclaimed the MPG an "illegal Party," while denouncing Farahanipour as "one of the leaders of the unrest."
Farahanipour was seized from his home during a raid by armed Islamic militias. Farahanipour spent 26 days in solitary confinement while being brutally interrogated by the Ministry of Intelligence and the revolutionary court. As recounted in a brief memoir of his imprisonment, while en route to the first interrogation, Farahanipour heard one of the Islamic regime interrogators utter, "..my, my, my this one is a goner, he's turned into a Zoroastrian, is in contact with Zionists Jews, has indecent relations with the opposite sex, works with Afghans, even the Armenian saboteurs love him." Thus Farahanipour concluded, "I thought I was about to be executed." Ultimately spared, Farahanipour was temporarily released on bail. But following eleven months of additional interrogations and court proceedings, and considering the plight of other activists who without exception received unusually long prison sentences, he decided to flee Iran.
Farahanipour's compelling personal biography, and uncompromised writings and public statements (examples here, here, and here), demonstrate his firm commitment to profound reforms-indeed a wrenching transformation of Iranian society-utterly rejecting both any strain of the Shi'ite theocratic rule (most notably its present incarnation), which has characterized Iran since 1502, and Iran's more benevolent (if still brutal) and transient experiment with a Western leaning, secular-oriented but autocratic "constitutional" monarchy, from 1925 to 1979.
The July 5, 2009 MPG press release also encouraged journalists to contact MPG Advisor Faryar Nikbakht, and pursuant to that invitation, Alyssa Lappen interviewed Mr. Nikbakht, yesterday, July 8, 2009. During the interview, Nikbakht further elucidated the MPG's ideals and goals, consistent with what Farahanipour has expounded previously. Nikbakht's thoughtful responses about the prospects for reform in Iran contrast starkly with the unfettered emotionalism on display elsewhere. Odd, non-sequitur speculations about the murderous former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi somehow morphing into an acceptable politician, are conspicuously absent from Nikbakht's statements. Instead, although hopeful, and imbued with measured optimism, Nikbakht acknowledges the very inchoate nature of the contemporary Iranian reform movement, and openly professes having no idea about the extent to which MPG's vision for a truly secular, democratic Iran is shared by the Iranian populace. However, one of Nikbakht's most lucid responses demonstrates that he rejects the anti-women's rights agenda of Mousavi's equally odious wife (this erstwhile "Lady Byrd" Mousavi)-an ugly agenda which has been almost entirely ignored by mainstream pundits. Alyssa Lappen's interview is presented below:
Alyssa A. Lappen: Does the Marze Por Gohar (MPG) party advocate fully replacing Iran's current Sharia-based constitution with a secular document, rejecting Islam and Islamic requirements for civil laws to align with Sharia? For example, do you reject any legal inferiority for women and non-Muslims?
MPG Advisor Faryar Nikbakht: The answer is yes. However, it has to be emphasized that it is not a position against beliefs --- but more like a separation of church and state.
AAL: So then, the MPG party supports equal rights for women.
FN: Yes, certainly. Women compose half of the human species, our society included. It is simply unacceptable [to have] laws and a society in which mothers and sisters do not enjoy the same rights [as men]. It is unacceptable even [by] 20th century [standards, and this is 2009].
AAL: Does MPG reject the 1990 Cairo Declaration of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) --- the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Islam that Iran's Islamic Republic spearheaded? Does MPG favor true models of equality like the US Bill of Rights and 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which aren't subservient to shari'a?
FN: I am not too familiar with this [Cairo Declaration]. But ... any document that would endorse discrimination in any way among the people is unacceptable. Certainly. Yes.
These kinds of attempts are made very consciously to erode the popularity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is increasingly accepted by people worldwide. It is a conscious attempt to reverse history. Any document that discriminates based on gender --- on beliefs, on religion, on race and so on --- is unacceptable. Certainly.
AAL: I suppose if you are a Mullah that would problematic.
FN: Yes. And not only for Mullahs. Also for people with fanatic beliefs in their religion and ideology, who don't want other people to share equal rights.
[But] even among Muslims, [in Iran there is] huge discrimination. [O]nce the fanatics are in power, even regular Muslims --- traditional, regular people --- always live under some kind of threat due to enforcement of extra legal issues....
AAL: MPG's advocacy of secular change seems completely opposed to the ideology espoused by Mir Hussein Mousavi.
FN: He is a loyal child of the [Islamic] revolution. While he was Prime Minister [Oct. 1981- Aug. 1989], [Iran conducted] the biggest massacres of political prisoners and [imposed the most] censorship. For a guy like that to become a hero for freedom [in less than one month] sounds very fishy.
However, the post-election movement was very welcome to millions and millions of Iranians, including us.
AAL: How much support does MPG have in Iran?
FN: MPG is only one of many opposition parties that have struggled for at least 10 years to establish democratic principles among Iranians and young people. However, it is not a card holding party. Within Iran's [current] system, it is almost impossible to have any legal party --- to have a regular organization and activities. Therefore, MPG is not big in the sense of old, traditional parties. It is [only] one of many opposition parties active in Iran.
AAL: What is your sense from contacts in Iran? If new elections were held tomorrow, how much support would MPG garner?
FN: First, I am not an MPG member. I am an advisor --- an MPG spokesman so long as [party co-founder] Roozbeh Farahanipour is on his dangerous journey in Iran to mark the 10th anniversary of the July 9, 1999 student uprising.
But I guess if Iran held new elections tomorrow, MPG would not get a huge vote. You need free flow of information and legal status to work, to get funding, just to proceed normally in politics. Iran's only big parties right now are officially sanctioned by hard line rulers, supporting the fanatical discriminatory constitution. And a lot of sanctioned parties, [have been] denied legal rights even as we speak --- let alone parties in the real opposition.
AAL: As difficult as it is to read the situation, do you think the people would support regime change?
FN: Well, we do not have exact numbers. But I would say most people in Iran would be content with some reform. The regime shows reluctance to [cede] the smallest demand. People realize that even [those] short term expectations are not attainable [under] this regime. It can be said that the vast majority of people are not actively in the streets for total regime change. They have smaller expectations and demands, which is very natural.
AAL: In other words, any change would be gradual.
FN: Yes, [even] raising the expectations [for change] will be gradual. In times like this, however, [that process] is much faster. [Expectation] grows by leaps and bounds. Certainly in the last three weeks, people's expectations have grown [as much as might normally take] 20 years in a calm, controlled time. People have gone from total acquiescence and passivity to the borderline of regime change.
People have called for removal of supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], who [heads] a theocratic ruling team. In some places, around universities and in Tehran, they have voiced very harsh slogans against the Islamic regime. In Tehran this week, they were shouting, "Death to Islamic Republic." There are not millions saying this. But this is the first time it has been heard. Groups of young people have local organizations and go through the streets. But these slogans have never been heard before.
AAL: Could a regime change actually make things worse?
FN: It has [already] gotten worse. In the short run it will get much worse. [To ensure Ahmadinijad's] survival, [in the face of mass] defiance of the supreme leader [and public] demands, [the regime] has begun a wave of crackdowns unprecedented [in the last] generation. More and more people are arrested every day. More and more laws are ignored. The Revolutionary Guard announced [July 7] that they're in change of Iran's security --- above the courts and laws and local authorities. It has gotten worse.
[B]ut in the long run, I cannot believe that this [regime] can stand. I believe [that] the [newfound] courage people have obtained [since June 12], the force they've seen and felt, the power of their huge demonstrations --- and because of world attention --- this kind of military rule will not stand for long. There will be waves of demonstrations and defiance. I believe [things] cannot [return to what they were] four weeks ago. Probably after this crisis, even if the regime stays alive, things will change considerably.
AAL: Do you honestly think that Islamic rules would be relaxed?
FN: Yes, that would be a part of [the change]. Every day the regime is under rising pressure from below and other countries. Already, in the past years, some [Islamic] practices --- from stoning [women in public], to hanging [people] by crane ---- were abandoned or [moved] behind walls. This is [still] happening right now in other cities. Last week, they hung 5 or 6 demonstrators in the western city of Kermanshah. But these things have already been reduced, or at least hidden from public view. In the future, after a short period of harshness, this [relaxation] trend will continue.
AAL: Will MPG insist that Iran be a Persian state --- where Shia Islam presently remains predominant, but not supremacist --- so that Iranians of all faiths, and open agnostics or atheists will acquire full and equal social participation, with full and equal rights?
FN: Certainly. We want separation of church and state. [But besides] what MPG prefers, Iranian Muslims have had such huge doses of extreme religion forced on them that even people without political foundation --- just for the sake of personal freedom --- are now tilting to less and less religion. Coercive religion has been there for too long. So many Muslims in Iran do not even pray any more --- not because they do not believe. They are sick and tired of pretenses [and coercion].
AAL: Will MPG repudiate requirements that non-Muslim women wear veils, and protect all women --- especially Muslim women --- from coercive attempts to enforce veiling?
FN: Coercive veiling is against our beliefs. Women should be free to go without a hijab or wear a hijab if they like. However women want to [dress], they should be free.
AAL: Persia was once predominantly Zoroastrian. Would MPG encourage a Zoroastrian revival?
FN: A government should not, and may not, advocate or discourage any religion. Everyone should be free to practice their religion. The government should not fund or propagate any religion. Such a government would [only] replace the present one.... Iran's government now funds their own leaders and even population increase. So long as people support them, [the mullahs] engineer demographics. If any government were to encourage a different religion, that would be equally unfair.
AAL: What is the MPG position on the Mujahedin E Khalq (MEK)?
FN: This is my personal opinion. If the MEK wants to get on the train for democracy, they'll have to open up and change their organizational mode [from seeking complete control]. It's still a very rigid, disciplined, old style [Islamic socialist] party. They need to be less isolated and protective of their internal issues, easier to work with, and more attuned to the lives of ordinary, normal people.
AAL: Do Iranians now reject rigidity?
FN: The general Iranian population, of course, wants more liberalism and modernity in their lives.
AAL: It was courageous, --- some might say foolhardy --- for Farahanipour to go to Iran now. What does he think he can accomplish?
FN: Farahanipour was one of the original 1999 student uprising leaders. He sees his child has grown. He returned to visit his child on the 10th anniversary. He hopes to encourage and lead any part that he can, in the same fashion as before. He is calling for freedom, for free elections --- and not just following the Mousavi wave, who are trying to confine this event to their own Islamic and factional criteria.
AAL: So now what?
FN: We are waiting tonight and tomorrow [July 9] to see if the 10th anniversary of Iran's student uprising will be a massive protest --- or sporadic hit and run demonstrations.