Liberal Martyrdom in Iran

An academic takes on the ayatollahs.

It's a pity that so much of the attention given to the Islamic world is lavished on its thugs and psychopaths, because its men and women of courage are largely overlooked.

The case of the Iranian academic Hashem Aghajari is an impressive example. In June, Aghajari, a popular history professor who belongs to a left-wing opposition group, gave a public lecture calling for political reform and "religious renewal." Each generation, he argued, has the right to interpret Islam anew; no one should "blindly follow religious leaders" of the past. The result was that he was charged in Iran's religious courts with apostasy; on November 6 he was found guilty in a closed-door trial. He was sentenced to be hanged.

Iran's restrictive and brutal Islamist government has lost the support of much of the populace, and the Aghajari verdict immediately threw the country into turmoil. Outraged pro-reform members of the national parliament exchanged bitter accusations with the conservative clerical judiciary (the parliamentary speaker described his reaction as one of "hatred" and "disgust"), and students in Tehran and elsewhere staged daily street demonstrations in support of Aghajari. Iran's political stability, shaky in any event, quickly became an issue.

Within a week of the verdict, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appeared on national television threatening to use the hard-line popular militias to impose order. "The day the three branches are unable or unwilling to settle major problems," he told the country, "the leadership will, if it thinks it necessary, use the popular forces to intervene."

Aghajari had the right to appeal his verdict, which presumably would have allowed a deal to be worked out to defuse the crisis. (Other controversial death sentences have been reduced on appeal.) But in a dramatic turn of events, Aghajari refused to appeal. According to his lawyer, Aghajari said that "those who have issued this verdict have to implement it if they think it is right or else the judiciary has to handle it." In other words, he had determined to risk his life so as to force Iran's judicial establishment to confront its own barbarity.

In the meantime, Aghajari's family reported that he was suffering in prison. According to Amnesty International, his right leg, amputated at the knee as a result of the Iran-Iraq war, had become infected. He was unable to stand or walk, even to the prison bathrooms. Nevertheless, he was prepared to sacrifice himself in the name of liberal principle, an act of potential martyrdom that contrasted dramatically with the acts of the unspeakable but celebrated ghoul "martyrs" who detonate themselves to kill children in strollers.

One of the most striking elements of the turmoil surrounding Aghajari involved Tehran's students, who continued their demonstrations for two weeks. The New York Times reported that they engaged in such chants as, "The execution of Aghajari is the execution of the university!" Students gathered at the end of their demonstrations to sing a popular nationalist song called "Ey Iran," thus invoking an Iran that transcends clerical rule. These protests gradually widened in their focus, becoming the biggest student disturbance in several years.

Some students reportedly called for the resignation of the nation's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, out of frustration with the slow pace of reform in the face of entrenched conservative rule. Students even publicly criticized Ayatollah Khamenei, a dangerous tactic that had not occurred during any previous anti-clerical student uprisings.

Support for Aghajari was in notable contrast to what has been happening in recent years on campuses elsewhere in the Islamic world. Prominent academics, such as Egypt's Nasr Abu Zeid, have been driven from their jobs and even from their countries by Islamist judicial and intellectual bullies who have been terrorizing scholarly life. (In Abu Zeid's case, Islamist jurists even intervened in his marriage, declaring it null.) Iran's students, on the other hand, appeared anxious to be rid of their failed revolution entirely and return to liberal values. As one prominent student told a student press agency, "We must reach a stage in our destiny that we have lawful rights and freedoms."

After a week of upheaval, Khamenei ordered that Aghajari's case be reviewed, a signal that the death sentence probably would be reduced. (Aghajari had also been sentenced by the same secret court to 74 lashes and a long period of internal exile.)

Students, however, responded with yet more demonstrations. As one of them told foreign reporters (there was no coverage in the local press), "Our problem is not only the revision of the death sentence on Hashem Aghajari, but freedom of speech and freedom in general."

Khamenei then let loose the hard-line militias. Hundreds of armed thugs invaded campuses to disrupt demonstrations and beat students, injuring some of them severely. Militia members taunted the students as "enemies of the revolution"; students taunted them in turn, calling for "Death to the Taliban in Kabul and Tehran."

The Aghajari case has been replaying earlier dramas of secularism's painful encounter with Islamist clerics, whether they are Shi'ites, as in Iran, or Sunnis, as is the case in much of the Arab world. The example most like Aghajari's is also among the most celebrated of its kind, involving Egypt's great scholar Taha Hussein. In the 1930s, during Egypt's all too brief "liberal interlude" that ended with the rise of Nasser, Hussein too was accused by clerics of apostasy. But he was defended by the university community, which in those years embraced freedom of thought and even political liberalism.

Although Hussein was driven from his scholarly work by Egypt's prime minister in 1932, he was able to return two years later. It was a famous triumph: Students returned him to his office on their shoulders. When Hussein died in 1973, his casket was borne along the route of his triumph. Unlike Aghajari, however, Taha Hussein didn't face execution for apostasy in the 1930s; it would have been unthinkable.

Although Aghajari's death sentence backfired on the clerics, Iran has had numerous other cases of liberal opposition that ended in death. One of the most terrible involved Homa Darabi, a prominent woman doctor. Darabi refused to wear the restrictive chador while working with patients and as a result was eventually hounded from her teaching post, her hospital appointment, and her private practice. In 1994, after an extended period during which she felt she could not leave her house, Darabi entered a crowded Tehran square, removed her long overcoat and scarf, and drenched herself with gasoline.

"Death to oppression! Long live liberty!" she shouted, then set herself afire. Having hounded her in life, Iran's clerics smeared her in death. According to them, Homa Darabi died a madwoman.

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