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Iran: Radio Farda Interview With Dissident Akbar Ganji

By Fatemeh Aman Akbar Ganji (file photo) (RFE/RL) Akbar Ganji, a prominent Iranian dissident and journalist who spent six years in prison, is on tour in Europe and the United States, where he has won numerous human rights awards. Ganji is considered one of Iran's leading investigative journalists. He authored a book, "Dungeon Of Ghosts," in 2000 that implicated many leading conservative figures in the "chain murders" of Iranian writers and intellectuals in 1998. He was arrested after participating in the 2000 Berlin Conference, which led to repressions against those participating from Iran. He rejects all forms of violence and advocates civil and peaceful resistance.

RFE/RL: You speak of regime change and the establishment of a democratic system in Iran. Since you don't advocate a classical revolution, how do you want to accomplish this goal?

Akhbar Ganji: The classical revolution seeks to overthrow a system in its entirety by using violent means and dismantling all the political, economic, social, cultural, and military structures.

There are two problems with this approach. First, it is philosophically impossible. And second, it is practically undesirable. Because you cannot really change all these structures radically and replace them with something new. So it is impossible. It is undesirable because doing so will result in the use of violence, resorting to oppression, intimidation, and assassination of opponents. It is well-known that revolutions sacrifice their own children. In this sense, we do not want a revolution. A revolution is a mistake; and the bigger this mistake, the harder will be to correct it.
"Our reformist friends think that peaceful struggle necessarily means lawful activities. [But] they have tied our hands with unjust and inhumane laws, and we cannot do anything about it. Thus there is no choice other than breaking the unjust law."

The other approach is to go for change but not change all the existing structures. We want to replace the political structure with one that is committed to democracy and freedom. We want to use exclusively peaceful means for this goal. We are against violence and terror.

RFE/RL: So you believe that, in the context of the current political structure, no reform is possible?

Ganji: This depends on how you define "reform." I define it as transition to democracy. Then the question arises whether in the context of the constitution of the Islamic republic [of Iran], such transition is possible. My answer is no. However, others may define reforms in a more limited fashion -- for example, they may want economic reform. Such reform may be possible. However, transition to democracy is impossible under the current constitution.

RFE/RL: One of your criticisms of former President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) was his lack of political will to enforce reforms. But you are saying that no reform is possible within the context of constitution. So was his passivity inevitable, given the restrictions of the constitution?

Ganji: There are two issues here. One is the legal structure of the system in which the constitution gives the ultimate authority to the supreme leader and thereby makes a transition to a democratic model impossible. The other issue is the "real" structure -- the regime as it exists right now. This regime insists on more power than has been granted by the constitution.

If Khatami wanted to do everything with an absolute commitment to the constitution, he would be certainly be unable to achieve anything. Even what he did was less than what he could do under the powers he was given by the constitution.

But the real issue is that after the conservative were defeated so badly [when Khatami was elected as a reformist president in 1997], they were all in a kind of coma. In that atmosphere, we could have done many things. But Khatami squandered this historical opportunity. When conservatives tried to change the press law, Khatami could have refused to sign it. Khatami could have refused to perform the undemocratic elections in which the Guardians Council had disqualified 2000 candidates. He could have resisted the 2005 presidential elections, in which there were widespread irregularities and which gave the militarists access to executive power.

RFE/RL: Perhaps he considered this a declaration of war against the regime, and he may have wanted to avoid violence.

Ganji: Well, we say that we reject violence, terror, and revolution. However, this should not be translated into passivity. [Mohatma] Gandhi, who is the father of the nonviolent struggle, has extracted the thesis of civil disobedience out of his doctrine. Our reformist friends think that peaceful struggle necessarily means lawful activities. [But] they have tied our hands with unjust and inhumane laws, and we cannot do anything about it. Thus there is no choice other than breaking the unjust law. This is civil disobedience, and you will only have to pay the price for breaking the law.

RFE/RL: How do you describe your relationship to the reformists at this point? Is their time over, or do you think you can convince them to follow your path?
"The bottom line is that we want democracy, freedom, and human rights; and we pursue these demands by peaceful means and civil disobedience."

Ganji: I have a very friendly relationship with the reformists. [Saeed Hajjarian, a former deputy intelligence minister widely regarded as a main theorist behind the reformist movement] is one of my best friends. We are friends but at the same time have many differences. I don't think their time is over. Everyone can reevaluate his or her past and try to correct any mistakes committed in the past.

RFE/RL: So you may work together with them again?

Ganji: I cannot rule that out. My main problem with them is that they still want to work within the framework of the constitution. This will not work. Even to establish their democratic front, they have to get permission from the Interior Ministry. What do they do when they don't get such permission? So they will have to cease all their activities.

I believe we should push for democracy without any commitment to the current constitution of the Islamic republic. We promise that we will never resort to violence, but we will not let our hands be tied by the current laws. This is exactly what Gandhi and Martin Luther King did. They were the symbols of nonviolence, but at the same time [they] used civil disobedience to promote their cause.

RFE/RL: The movements led by Gandhi and King were long term struggles during which this culture could take root. They were popular movements, and not limited to intellectuals.

Ganji: No, the elite always starts the movement and the masses follow the elite. It has always been this way. In the Czech Republic, [Vaclav] Havel and other intellectuals were at the forefront, and people followed them. The same applied to [Nelson] Mandela and Gandhi.

Ganji and his wife following his release from prison in March (Fars)

RFE/RL: In the "color revolutions" among former Soviet states, there has always been a basic condition of opening of the political system that made it possible. For example, people did not have to pay with their lives for distributing leaflets. A similar atmosphere was created during Khatami's presidency. One could express his or her opinion. It seems that this condition does not exist anymore under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Is a "color revolution" still possible for Iran?

Ganji: The bottom line is that we want democracy, freedom, and human rights; and we pursue these demands by peaceful means and civil disobedience. It really doesn't matter how you label it. I call it a movement for democratic development in Iran, or a peace movement.

Secondly, we have to distinguish between what one wants and what one can achieve. Realities often tie one's hands. The regime wants to suppress all activities, but internal and international conditions do not allow it to do so. To refer to your example, I do not think anyone would be executed for distributing leaflets. Women gathered recently at the Haft-e Tir Square in Tehran, and many were beaten or arrested; but they were later released. The only person they did not release was Mr. Khoeini. In 18 different counties, people responded to my call for a hunger strike, including in Iran. The Office to Foster Unity (DTV) had a three-day program on this occasion, and only one person was arrested.

I have announced our next plan to be widespread protests for women rights and against sexual apartheid and discriminations against women.

RFE/RL: How concerned are you that you'll be arrested, and how will continue your movement if that happens?

Ganji: This is entirely possible. There is no guarantee that I will not be arrested, tortured, or even killed when I go back home. However, I do not see the circumstances as such that something like an execution would be a high possibility. But we must be willing to pay for the consequences of our actions. Democracy and human rights comes with a price tag. If the activists are not willing to pay the price, nothing will be achieved. However, I do not think the price is as high as facing execution.

RFE/RL: So you think that achievements have been made that are irreversible?

Ganji: I am not referring here to any specific achievements. What I mean is that international structures make it very difficult for totalitarian systems to survive; once a system loses its totalitarian nature, the society becomes a pluralistic one. In such a society, which is no more monotonic, there are many things possible. What can be achieved then depends on people. Karl Marx once said that people build history, but not exactly the way they want to build it. History is nothing but your and my actions. If we are determined, we can get a lot done.

Ganji in July 2005 during his prison hunger strike (courtesy photo)

RFE/RL: You were one of the advocates of boycotting the recent presidential elections in Iran [in 2005]. Even certain reformist candidates came to see you after you got out of prison. Your word carried a lot of weight with some voters and persuaded them to boycott the elections. Back then, you probably did not expect Ahmadinejad to win the election. Knowing what you know now, if you were again faced with the choice between Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, would you boycott the elections again?

Ganji: Yes. I mentioned in my first Republican Manifest that as long as the regime is not willing to accept a referendum, all elections in the Islamic republic must be boycotted. My reasoning was that one should not cooperate with a dictatorial regime and give it legitimacy. When you participate in an election -- either as a candidate or as a voter -- you are actually cooperating with the regime and legitimizing it. I believe in delegitimizing the regime, and therefore I believe that I did the right thing. I am not unhappy with results. In the previous eight years, we were fooling ourselves believing that we could get anything done within this system.

RFE/RL: So you believe that the conditions are better and more appropriate for transition to democracy now than during Khatami's presidency?

Ganji: It depends on how you look at it. It is true that media are under strict censorship, books cannot get published, and political freedoms are restricted. However, this is exactly the source of inspiration for struggle.

During the reform period, there was a glimmer of hope because people thought that by supporting the reformists against the conservatives, the system would be gradually democratized. Our experience showed that this approach will not work. We are now facing an Islamic republic that is exhibiting its utmost power to suppress the democracy movement. In such a situation, people can better make up their minds and press forward with their demands.

RFE/RL: Now that you have toured many countries and have met many opposition groups, how different is what you see from what you expected to experience on this trip? Are you more hopeful, or less?

Ganji: There is an ideal and a reality. When I compare today's reality with what we had in the past, I see a lot of progress. In the past, different groups were not willing to talk to each other. There was no tolerance. The realities of the life and our experience have forced us to sit down together, tolerate each other's views and respect each other. This is a great achievement for the democracy movement. However, we are still far from the ideal.

RFE/RL: Why did you refuse to participate in a meeting that was held at the White House?

Ganji: I was not invited to that meeting. However, I was invited to other high-ranking meetings and decided not to go.

RFE/RL: Why?

Ganji: I have no problem with talking, and I consider dialogue very positive. Mandela met with the first [President] George Bush. When he was asked why he did so, he responded, "To defeat apartheid, I am willing to meet the devil himself." The Prophet Mohammad even negotiated with polytheists. I am not the Prophet, nor is Bush a polytheist. But the question is: Who should be negotiating? This is the duty of the opposition leaders. If we had an organized democracy movement, its leadership should certainly engage in such talks -- not only with the U.S. but with all countries. However, I do not consider myself an opposition leader; I am a journalist and a political critic. I am trying to criticize the political power structure. Even when we have democracy in Iran, I will remain in this position.

RFE/RL: You have repeatedly said that we should let the voice of moderate, peaceful, and nonviolent Islam be heard and complained that media is at the service of the bin Laden type of Islam, with extensive coverage of extremists. How do you think this can be achieved?

Ganji: We have no media. Fundamentalists from all religions can inflame the world wherever they want, and they are helping each other. We, the moderate Muslims, who want to promote peace, moderation, friendship, and democracy, need to build ties with peace loving people in the West -- Christian or Jewish -- and form a united front. We need media who will echo our voice throughout the world.

We have to let people hear the voice of moderate and democratic Islam; the kind of Islam that is for reasoning and not violence. Only in this way can we isolate the fundamentalists and warmongers.

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