Ayatollah Khomeini, who took power after the 1979 Iranian Revolution (overthrowing the shah and humiliating the United States in the process), remains Iran’s eternal guardian. A huge force of Revolutionary Guards and riff-raff moral police stand ready to defend this grim status quo, to the death if necessary.
On the other hand, we have the citizens of Iran themselves. In a city such as Tehran, a sprawling metropolis of the kind that could only be compared to Mexico City, Rio De Janerio or Calcutta: Iranians are buying and selling videos; producing films, plays and books; tuning into satellite television; making and consuming alcohol; and making the best of a strict dress code.
Hidden among the general populace is perhaps the most important minority in the entire Middle East - a region often drowning in hellish sectarian warfare between different religious sects - Atheists and Agnostics. Those that do not or cannot believe. Apostasy is not codified
in the Iranian penal code, but as always, exceptions can be made. As my anonymous correspondent informed me, “Some of us are based in Iran, obviously due to this life threat, we are afraid.”
The correspondent in question is an administrator of the Facebook group Iranian Atheists and Humanists
. They stand for, among other things, a democratic and secular Iran and also to support and represent Iranian people who seek to live without religious or superstitious beliefs. From here onward, I will be referring to this comrade as ‘Omar’, a nod to the great Omar Khayyam.
The most famous contemporary case regarding Iran and apostasy would be the case of British-Indian novelist, Sir Salman Rushdie, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa
. On Valentine’s Day, Khomeini issued his divine ruling
for the life of a novelist, living in a foreign country, for writing The Satanic Verses – a novel that highlighted a rather questionable episode in the life of Muhammad, Islam’s prophet – offering money, in his own name for Rushdie’s head. As a result, Rushdie went into hiding for many years with constant police protection, under the pseudonym Joseph Anton.
In addition, the Iranian government have used death squads against converts
, including major Protestant leaders, with the situation exacerbating under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The regime is currently engaged in a systematic campaign to track down and reconvert or kill those who have changed their religion from Islam, usually under ludicrous pretexts. Such a case
would refer to Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who up until very recently faced the death penalty for apostasy. Thankfully, on September 8th 2012, he was released; officials ultimately lowered his charges from apostasy to evangelizing Muslims, which carried a three-year term (Nadarkhani had already served 1,062 days in prison).
Another component of Iran’s schizophrenia dates back to the 1980s, to the horrendous Iran-Iraq war. Depraved clergymen sent floods of “human wave” troops to the slaughter en masse. It’s no coincidence that Iranian physicians are the world’s leaders in treating those whose lungs have been eaten away by poison gas, or whose skin has been scalded by chemical bombardment (a potent and constant reminder of the megalomania of Saddam Hussein). The body count for the Iran-Iraq wars totalled approximately one million young Iranian lives.
Despite this horror show culling of the young, Iran is a young country once more. In an attempt to balance the war deficit, the mullahs offered material incentives for women to bear children in large numbers. A ‘baby-boomerang’ effect of this, if you will, is a huge number of young, frustrated citizens, who live in the balance of an incredibly cruel Shia fundamentalist theocracy, and their own faith. “Most of our young people live their lives in a confusion of beliefs. They do not know what to believe”, explained Omar, “Some of them are religious, but only agree with their religion to a certain extent. Some are theists, while some are ignorant. The problem is that most of the people cannot categorise themselves properly, simply due to a lack of knowledge.”
Following the 2009 Iranian presidential election, protests erupted
against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in major Iranian cities and around the world. The ‘Green Revolution’ – a nod to Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s campaign colours – was a sign to many Western analysts that the Iranian theocracy was reaching supernova status, and would soon be ushered out, and replaced by a democratic government. Ultimately, the movement failed. “The definition of democracy for Iranians is far different from what we know as its standard definition…in the past, Iran was ruled by monarchs who were mostly dictator/totalitarian, so this culture of having power and suppressing the weak is kind of routine between Iranians. So, I would say that at the end of the day, if there’s going to be a democratic party, it would only be democratic to a certain extent.” Explained Omar, highlighting a rather depressing aspect of Middle Eastern politics.
Some people feel that the only way Ahmadinejad and Khameini will be overthrown is via military intervention by the United States. Omar warns against this action, saying that, “most of Iranians are deeply against the invasion of Iran, because of our long and rich history. Iranians should be seen as a very patriotic people, especially when we talk of war”. Regardless, the Shia theocracy seems to be covertly moving toward the attainment of messianic weaponry. If, or when, Iran unveil a nuclear weapon, there will almost certainly be military action taken against them.
“The nuclear issue in Iran has divided people into many different groups,” said Omar, “some intellectuals see the nuclear weapon as a very dangerous tool for Islamic governments to have. They argue by looking at what the Iranian regime has done in the past to its own people and due to their ideologies that it is not a very good idea to be armed by nuclear weapons. Some people though, believe that it is Iran’s right to have such technology while it is surrounded by American military bases.”
Just this week, Ahmadinejad made a rather erratic speech
at the UN general assembly, during which he made a very transparent reference – and threat - to the state of Israel (referred to as ‘the Zionists’):
“Continued threats by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to military action against our great nation is a clear example of this bitter reality. A state of mistrust has cast its shadow on the international relations whilst there is no trusted or just authority to help resolve world conflicts.”
He was, of course, referring to Israel’s very clear line - they will prevent Iran from attaining messianic weaponry by any means necessary. It wouldn’t be the first time that Israel have done so, either. In 1981, Israel bombed
(and subsequently disabled) the French-supplied Osirak reactor, disarming Saddam Hussein and doing what, somewhat ironically, Iran had failed to do a mere few months prior.
Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric on the existence of the Jewish state has been the subject of much controversy. He’s made numerous references to Israel as a ‘germ’, or ‘cancerous tumor’. He’s called, repeatedly, for the annihilation of a UN member state, all while propping up despotic regimes like that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
A major cause of Arab hostility toward Israel relates not only to their occupation of Palestinian land, but to a religious claim to holy land. I shall not divulge into the Israel-Palestinian matters too deeply here, but at a minimum, it can be agreed upon by all that two people, of roughly equivalent size, have a claim to the same land. A two-state solution seems almost too obvious a conclusion. But, as always, religious fundamentalism reared its ugly head when it was the least needed. How do Iranian atheists feel about the existence of Israel? “My personal view regarding the state of Israel is very positive and supportive. However, problems arise when there’s a religious ideology in policy-decisions, which causes problems. I believe both Israel and Palestine should be ruled by a secular, fairly elected government and people in the region must learn to live together. Fortunately, Atheists know it perfectly, and have shown it during times past.”
Finally, ignoring debates of the justness or otherwise regarding the removal of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist autocracy in Iraq, or the Taliban in Afghanistan by the United States and her allies, Omar had the following to say, “it was a very decent action to remove them from the region. However, their approach to make both countries safe and stabilized is totally wrong…bringing American democracy to these regions and forcing it upon people who are living in a completely different phase is wrong, and will not work. One has to do this step-by-step. People need to be educated and free to choose their paths, by comparing good and bad. The enforcement of US policies is simply exacerbating the problem, giving the Taliban a chance to come back into power later on.”
Freedom, after all is a subjective quality. The joys and benefits of liberal democracy, as enjoyed by the United Kingdom (my country of birth) are not necessarily universal. What if ‘freedom’ in the Middle East means ‘to be a good Muslim living under sharia law’? As American classicist Bruce Thornton stated “for liberal democracy to develop in the Middle East, it will take much more than merely removing autocrats and holding elections. It will take a critical mass of Muslims themselves figuring out how to reconcile traditional Islam and sharia law with notions like universal human rights, tolerance for minorities, separation of church and state, and all the bedrock principles of liberal democracy.”
It is worth remembering that the United States, while praising the Arab Spring’s ousting of ‘soft’ dictators like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, or Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, it continues to look the other way as the Saudis send in tanks
to brutally crush uprisings in Bahrain. The reason for Israel and the US’s seemingly unwavering support for Saudi Arabia is not just to keep the oil flowing, but part of their plan for the containment of Iran.
The question of freedom for the Iranian people is an open-ended one. Meanwhile, sadly, millions of people live their lives in a state of suspended animation, unable to overthrow the despotic theocracy themselves, and not wanting military intervention to do it for them. People like Omar live in a constant fear due to their beliefs. For what was Persia famous? For its poetry, philosophy, architecture, back-gammon, gardens and wine. We can only hope, for secret apostates like Omar, that the Iranian people recover some of this Persian spirit, before it’s too late.
"The Koran! well, come put me to the test--
Lovely old book in hideous error drest--
Believe me, I can quote the Koran too,
The unbeliever knows his Koran best.
And do you think, that unto such as you,
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew,
God gave a secret, and denied it me?
Well, well, what matters it – believe that, too!”
- Omar Khayyám. The Rubáiyát (Richard Le Gallienne translation)