Dialogue of civilisations or whitewash?


Last month Khatami became the first President of Iran to visit a Western European state: France. The arguments used to justify reversing the boycott of the country are deceptively simple: he has proposed a “dialogue of civilisations”. Yet Khatami did not visit Paris as a private person, but as the second most important person in Iran, after the religious ruler Khamenei’. He did not represent himself. He represented the Iranian State. An apparently civilised country, professing to be the seat of democracy has invited the head of state of another where even the most elementary civil liberties are firmly locked up in the closet.

Why has Iran been a pariah state for 20 years? Public opinion in western democracies had denounced Iran for its support for state terrorism, and because it tramples on the most elementary human rights of its citizens. An antagonistic public opinion acted as the greatest barrier to normalising relations with Iran.

All this apparently changed with the coming to power of Khatami. EU countries vied with one another to woo the Islamic Republic. The excuse for this volte-face was Khatami’s promises for political reforms and his slogans to build civil society, allow “legitimate” freedoms and observe individual and social rights.

The reality

Reality, however, is different. The slogans have proved empty and hollow. Violence against opponents has not diminished. Human rights, of the most basic variety, continue to be trampled. The repressions have indeed taken more savage, more open, more brazen forms. The brutal murder and mutilation of septuagenarian politicians Foruhar and his wife Eskandari, the abduction and murder of Sharif, Mokhtari, Puyandeh and many other writers and journalists are still fresh.

The barbarous attack on the student dormitories by official thugs is only three months old. The call to beat opponents, the clamour for blood, for the “cutting out of tongues and cutting off of heads” are not now whispers behind closed doors, but are screamed in Friday sermons, and across newspaper headlines, to an audience of hundreds of thousands. A “balance of terror”, as a Khatami’s supporter put it, reigns there.

In this atmosphere slogans for civil society, or for the rule of law are more akin sweet music being played to drown out the victims’ screams, or in today’s tableaux, to silence the noise of pens being broken and tongues being torn out.

True friends stand up

Why have European countries about turned? Iran is no small prize, economically and politically. What has prevented such overtures in the past has been public opinion, helped by the stupidities of a regime that condemns - publicly - the citizen of another to death for writing a book. If public opinion is paramount, how should those who profess friendship for the people of Iran react to Khatami’s visit. Or looking ahead, to the policy of “critical dialogue” with the regime in Iran?

We ask: when a president of such a state invites intellectuals and writers to a dialogue, is this not an ugly insult to civilisation? Can any intellectual or person of letters, allow such an insult? Should they silently watch their country host a person who occupies the post of president in a country where the head of political opponents are severed from ear to ear, and where the price on the head of anyone voicing even the mildest criticism of the ruling despotism is death – with the president looking on. Where even internal critiques are hauled in front of a clerical court for preaching plurality of religious interpretations or believing in the relativity of right and wrong!

This is no idle rhetoric. Already student leaders are under death sentence, others given prison sentences of up to 13 years, and hundreds are languishing inside waiting their fate. Many newspapers are closed and others are threatened. Three students, threatened with execution, were reduced to whimpering wrecks in court for writing a tiny satire in a student paper with a circulation of 150.

No whitewash

We believe that a Europe who claims to defend human rights, freedoms and democracy should not allow the likes of Khatami to hide behind the pretence of defending human rights and human dignity, and meanwhile evade confronting the crimes taking place on a daily basis in their country. Or worse, even chide the victims for “going too far” or indulging in “provocative acts”. The whitewash should cease.

We don’t think we are asking too much of intellectuals from France and other western countries, or of progressive forces, to protest at the policy of drawing closer to the Islamic Republic. While Khatami is clearly not Khamenei’, he cannot, and should not be allowed to dissociate himself form the crimes of that state, and remain a president of that very state.

This is the least a people could expect from their friends abroad, a people who a year on are still awaiting the official verdict on who was responsible for the wave of murders last winter, or for the foiled attempt to plunge the bus carrying over 30 writers to a conference in Armenia.

The murderers, and those responsible for beating students remain in the shadows, while the students who were chucked out of dormitory windows and knifed are being tried behind closed doors by the dozen, for protesting at the treatment they received. The ordinary people of Iran are angry that instead of the murderers and hezbollahi thugs, students protesting at the dictatorship and calling for democratic freedoms are being thrown into prison.

Whichever way one looks at this, drawing closer to Iran, the tightening of official ties under whatever exigency, or in the guise of whatever interest, is not in the interest of the Iranian people.

The Islamic Republic should not be rewarded for its murderous acts against its own people. Western democracies must not be allowed to hide behind the slogan of “dialogue of civilisations” to allow the religious despotism ruling Iran to continue to “cut heads and cut off tongues” with impunity.

This is a regime with its back to the wall inside the country. We, as Iranians fighting for our freedom, do not expect it to be allowed to find a breathing space in western lands. For this we look at our natural allies for help.

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