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Beggars of the state

Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji talks with Katajun Amipur on the possibilities for democracy in his country

Akbar Ganji, born 1959, is an Iranian journalist and writer. Initially a supporter of the 1979 revolution, he later became a critic of the regime. After participating in a Heinrich Böll Stiftung conference on Iran in Berlin in February 2000, Ganji was accused of endangering national security and was thrown in jail. He went on a hunger strike for more than 80 days in 2005, in the lead-up to presidential elections and was finally released from jail in March 2006. Having been named honorary citizen of many European cities and awarded distinctions for his writing and civil courage, he is now on tour in Europe.

Katajun Amirpur: In the last years, virtually all political analysts have reached the conclusion that Iranian youth and Iranian society want democracy. And now these election results. Have we Western journalists and Western-oriented intellectuals been under a false impression all this time?

Akbar Ganji. Photo Mansour Nasiri.

Akbar Ganji: No. The election results have other, understandable reasons: people like myself boycotted the elections – and did the right thing. But because part of the population did the same, a lot of potential votes for the reformers were missing. Added to that was the fact that the reformers weren't very effective during their time in office, they failed to fulfill their promises and didn't offer any resistance. So the people turned away from them. Another reason is that the reformers could not agree on a candidate. Had that not been the case, the reformers would definitely have won. On top of that: people have a very negative view of Rafsanjani. They see him as a symbol of corruption, the epitome of repression. Anyone going up against Rafsanjani was bound to win. And anyway, Ahmadinejad managed to win votes with populist rhetoric: he promised the people wealth and justice, he said he would fight corruption and re-distribute the country's wealth.

Do intellectuals like yourself not regret the boycot?

No. I see the victory of Ahmadinejad in a positive light because, ironically, it could ultimately lead to a victory for the refomers. If the conservatives and not the reformers had already come to power in 1997, much would have been cleared up years ago.

Does that mean that we can be happy that Ahmadinejad has come to power, because now we know where we're at? And now a unified resistance will form?

Yes in my opinion, it's good that this has happened. Now the fronts are clearly defined.

Seven years ago, during our last interview, you said that you were unconditionally optimistic about the reform process in Iran. In the meantime, you've spent six years in jail, but you're still full of optimism. Where do you find this hope?

In sociology, we answer the question of whether a society has the prerequisites for democracy with the categories of structure and acting person. And we analyse the relationship between the structure and the individual. At the structural level, Iran fulfills many of the pre-requisites for a democracy: an urban population, a middle class, a high level of literacy and advanced education. But the elites, the intellectuals, have to agree on the necessity of democracy: that democracy is the only instrument to solve the existent problems.

So what's the problem?

Oil. Oil is the greatest hindrance to democracy in all oil-producing countries. Instead of promoting the development of these societies, oil, this gift from God, has held them back. Because we don't work. We just devour the money. If the state had to live off my money, it would have to consider my demands. But when money just falls into the lap of a state, that state doesn't need its people. We need the state but it doesn't need us. We are beggars of the state, we devour its bread. So no class can develop that's independent of the state. Civil society and democracy require the separation of state and society. To create a civil society that has influence and can hold its own against the state, we need free enterprise. But we don't have that. Instead, 85 percent of the economy is controlled by the state. That's our weak spot. And not just ours. We share it with all oil-producing countries

Are there further weakspots?

Yes. Our intellectuals were not prepared to pay the price of democracy. Democracy was a luxury good for us. Human rights and freedom are luxuries for us. In order to get them, we have to pay. We have to fight, actively resist, go to jail.

But intellectuals alone can do little and the population is tired. After a revolution, a war, and all the failed attempts to reform.

The people are not tired. Our intellectuals have to realise that they won't get democracy for free. They have to stand up for what they've said and show in practice that they're ready to pay the price. Then the people will follow them. The reformers in Iran, on the other hand, have said we want to have it like that, without exercising any resistance. Khatami and the reformers have not honoured their commitment, they haven't exercised resistance. So the people say they're all cowards.

There is much talk of the connection between unpolitical events, like the excitement after a football game, and the Iranian reform process. Does enthusiasm for football really accelerate reform?

Not directly, of course. But the ruling regime in Iran wants absolute unity, that means a unified way of thinking, of dressing, of speaking. Anything that challenges this unity is helpful to democracy. If it says, speak this way and I speak differently, I challenge it. If it says, dress like this and I dress differently, the same. If it says, you can only believe in this ideology and I believe in another one, that supports democracy. Society should be like dough. The regime wants to knead the people in its own way, they should be like marionettes. So they can play with them. If we oppose them, that's a step in the democratic direction.

What role does the technological revolution play?

The technological revolution prevents totalitarianism from winning. In the Internet age, nobody can keep a message secret, and that makes totalitarianism impossible. An example of the power of this technological revolution is how the international community learned of my condition when I went on hunger strike. Within the system there were people who wanted to inform the broader public about my situation in order to help me. They took pictures and published these on the Net.

What can the West do to support the reform process?

When you talk about the West, you mean the governments. We don't want anything from governments. We are looking to the NGOs. And we want people to know what the Iranian reality is, for people to know what's going on in Iran. The intellectuals, the media and NGOs in the world have to draw attention to the human rights abuses in Iran. We need moral support. I emphasize: we don't want intervention, we only want the moral support of the global community for our fight. And the last thing: Western countries have always sacrificed human rights, democracy and freedom for their economic interests. And in so doing, they have contributed to the repression of Iran. We want people to force their governments to recognize human rights violations in Iran, not to look away.


This article originally appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on June 29, 2006.

Dr. Katajun Amirpur is a journalist and scholar of Islamic Studies of Iranian and German heritage. She lives in Cologne.

translation: nb

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