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States of Mind: The Idea of Iran | The Nation

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States of Mind: The Idea of Iran

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Horst Faas/AP ImagesCelebrations at Persepolis marking the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire

About the Author

Negar Azimi
Negar Azimi is senior editor at Bidoun, an arts and culture magazine based in New York.

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In the world of celebrity dissidents, Akbar Ganji may be Iran's most famous. A slight man with a tuft of hair atop a mostly bald head, he is perhaps best known for the seventy-three-day hunger strike he endured in 2005, near the end of his six-year detention in Tehran's hilltop Evin Prison. Ganji was born in 1960, and like many men and women of his generation, he agitated against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi from a tender age. After serving in the young Islamic Republic's Revolutionary Guard during the grueling Iran-Iraq war, he served as an attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Turkey, where, among other things, he was encouraged to spy on restive Iranian students in Ankara. But as he journeyed deeper into Iran's political interior, Ganji grew increasingly disenchanted with what this new Islamic Republic had become. The values for which the revolutionaries had ostensibly fought, from freedom of thought and expression to the freedom to participate in fair and transparent elections, had been smothered. More and more, this regime made it clear that it would not tolerate critics.

Ganji eventually left government and became a journalist. By the mid-1990s he was publishing courageous investigative essays in reformist newspapers, Kiyan and Sobh-e Emrooz the most prominent among them, about the excesses, financial and otherwise, of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's regime. Most notable were Ganji's dispatches about a series of ghastly murders of dissident intellectuals during the presidency of Rafsanjani's successor, the incongruously smile-prone and mild-mannered Mohammad Khatami; Ganji's reporting eventually implicated high-ranking officials within the Ministry of Intelligence and other security agencies.

The state Ganji had once defended with his life locked him up in Evin in 2000 on multiple charges, ranging from spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic to endangering national security. By the fifth year of his sentence, Ganji was penning what he called letters "to the free people of the world." In the second of these letters, dated July 2005, he referred to the country's all-powerful Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who is more or less elected for life, as a sultan, urging him to step down and calling for a new, secular constitution. That same year, Ganji began his stubborn hunger strike, and soon enough images of the rail-thin prisoner on the brink of a premature death, his eyes rolled back into their lids, landed in e-mail accounts worldwide--including my own. His plight was taken up by various crusaders from the international human rights movement, while the coiners of the phrase "axis of evil" anointed him a hero ("America stands by you," at least one Bush-era White House press release declared). Having served his prison sentence, Ganji left Iran in 2006--supposedly for a short trip. He has not returned, instead joining the growing ranks of Iranian dissidents based in think-tank havens like Washington, DC.

Ganji recently published a slim volume born of his time in prison. Immodestly called The Road to Democracy in Iran, it opens--chillingly--with the words "Today, June 29, 2005, is the nineteenth day of my second hunger strike." The book is not a collection of prison notes, however, but rather a sketch of a future Iranian state, one that would have the most basic human rights principles at its core. This is not Ganji's first prison manuscript. In 2002 he penned the opening notes of his six-part "Republican Manifesto," in which he lamented the trampling of individual rights in contemporary Iran and made his best case for a secular democracy. Ganji's touchstones are Karl Popper and Immanuel Kant. He may owe more to the Age of Reason than to the Koran.

Like many Iranians of his generation, Ganji was at one time an ardent follower of the late Ali Shariati, a fiery and charismatic figure who put forward a reading of Shiism that evoked Marxism and shades of revolutionary Third Worldism. Shariati flourished in the heady climate of early 1960s Paris, as France's turbulent war with its Algerian colony raged. He collaborated with the Algerian National Liberation Front in its revolutionary struggle, was coddled by Marxist scholars, translated Sartre into Farsi and cavorted with Frantz Fanon. He returned to Iran in 1965 and soon thereafter began delivering rousing lectures to budding revolutionaries at Husseinieh-e Ershad, a blue-domed religious institute in central Tehran that has since become inextricably tied to Shariati's image. Shiism, Shariati told his listeners, has a core set of values that stands to resolve many of society's ills. He distinguished this original Shiism from the pernicious faith he saw propagated by the clerics around him, what he contemptuously referred to as "Safavid Shiism," after the Safavids, who established Shiism as Iran's state religion in the sixteenth century. Cassettes of Shariati's lectures were distributed en masse, and Shariati, inadvertently or not, became a primary intellectual architect of the Islamic revolution to come. He was arrested in 1974--accused of being everything from a Wahhabi to a Communist to a SAVAK collaborator. Upon release he traveled to England, where he subsequently died of a heart attack (his supporters believe he was eliminated by the shah's secret police).

The Road to Democracy in Iran testifies to Ganji's movement away from Shariatism toward a firm belief that religion cannot possibly survive as the foundation of a modern democracy. Nor can culturally specific conceptions of rights, whether African, Confucian or Islamic in nature. "We are not relativists," he writes. Rather, a chastened Ganji insists that democracy can only be rooted in a universal recognition of the most basic human rights--perhaps most prominent, the right to shape one's fate. Ganji goes on to ponder the role of the intellectual in bringing about this brave new order ("We must struggle"), but in the same breath he warns that "human rights will not be achieved through academic polemics." He decries the more fundamentalist readings of religion, though he stresses that modernity and religiosity are not mutually exclusive. (Kant's dictum of religion existing only within the confines of reason seems most fitting here.) In one chapter, Ganji singles out for criticism the pains and injuries, both physical and psychological, that women endure in the name of Islamic tradition and history: rape, coerced sexual relations, mandated hijab and even limits on their mobility. Being a Muslim, he insists, "means accepting the essence, and not the historical aspects, of the religion."

Though seductively pithy, Ganji's manifesto occasionally gets bogged down in abstractions, vagaries and clichés. The "West enjoys cultural and spiritual hegemony," he writes in one of many unexplained non sequiturs. Indeed, his habit of invoking clashes between "western civilization" and Islam runs the risk of reinforcing the very polarities he frequently criticizes. He denies that he is an essentialist but then goes on to locate modernity exclusively in the West and reduces Islam to its premodern forms. And though he points out that religion is amenable to myriad interpretations, he doesn't summon any concrete examples of what a progressive Islam could look like.

In one crucial respect, Ganji and the clerics who rule the Islamic Republic today are coevals: both share a firm--and occasionally maddeningly chauvinistic--belief in Iran's unique destiny. "We do not believe that historic change occurs in leaps," Ganji writes. "We must make it clear that we are against war, against foreign intervention in Iran, and against solutions imposed by outsiders." For the clerics, Iran's unique destiny is, at least in part, linked to the country's Islamic lineage. Disenfranchised Iranian monarchists in and around Los Angeles are in the destiny business too: they tend to carry on about how one of the country's first rulers, Darius I, once laid claim to the largest empire the world has known, stretching at its peak from Macedonia into Egypt and east to the Indus River. They point out that despite a procession of Muslim Arab conquests in the seventh century, the Persians managed to hold on to their language, even enjoying a poetry renaissance in the centuries that followed, with Sa'di, Hafez and Rumi among its luminaries. For their part, nationalists of all stripes stress that Iran was the source of one of the most influential critiques of the West--the late twentieth-century intellectual Jalal Al-e Ahmad's concept of gharbzadegi, or intoxication with all things Western. Despite their points of divergence, these stories testify to the remarkable endurance of the very idea of Iran, less a cultural, religious or geographical entity than a remarkably resilient state of mind.

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