Secular Martyrdom in Iran


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

The case of Iranian academic Hashem Aghajari is a striking example. Dr. Aghajari gave a public lecture in June calling for political reform and "religious renewal," and challenging his fellow Iranians not to "blindly follow religious leaders." The result was that he was charged in Iran's religious courts with apostasy, where he was found guilty Nov. 6 in a closed-door trial. He is to be hanged.

The verdict against Aghajari has thrown Iran into turmoil, with outraged members of the national legislature exchanging bitter accusations with the conservative clerical judiciary (the legislative speaker described his reaction as one of "hatred" and "disgust"), and with street demonstrations in support of Aghajari occurring daily in Teheran. Iran's political stability is actually in question: Iran's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appeared on national television Monday threatening to use the military. "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 has the right to appeal his verdict, presumably allowing a deal to be worked out that could defuse the crisis. (Similar death sentences have been reduced on appeal.) But his lawyer now says that Aghajari doesn't want to appeal. According to the lawyer, Aghajari says 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." He thus appears to be risking his life so as to force Iran's judicial establishment to confront its own barbarity. In the meantime, he is reportedly suffering in prison, where his right leg, amputated at the knee as a result of the Iran-Iraq war, has become infected. He cannot stand or walk, even to the prison bathrooms. Nevertheless, he appears to be prepared to sacrifice himself in the name of his liberal principles, an act of potential martyrdom that contrasts dramatically with the acts of the unspeakable but celebrated ghoul "martyrs" who detonate themselves to kill Jewish children in strollers.

One of the most striking elements of the turmoil surrounding Aghajari, a history professor, involves Teheran's students, who have been demonstrating in his support for days. The New York Times reports that they have been chanting, "The execution of Aghajari is the execution of the university!" Indeed, they have taken to singing a piece of music called, "Ey Iran," which is noteworthy because it was the national anthem under the Shah. These protests have gradually widened in their focus, with some students reportedly calling for the resignation of the nation's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, because reform has made so little progress in the face of entrenched conservative rule.

This is a heartening contrast to what has been happening in recent years on many campuses elsewhere in the Islamic world. Prominent secularist scholars, such as Egypt's Nasr Abu Zeid, have been driven from their jobs and even from their countries by Islamist student and faculty thugs who have been terrorizing intellectual life. Iran's students, on the other hand, appear anxious to be rid of their failed revolution, and to rejoin the modern world. As one prominent student told a student press agency, "We must reach a stage in our destiny that we have lawful rights and freedoms."

The Aghajari case has been replaying earlier dramas of secularism's painful encounter with Islamist clerics. The case most like Aghajari's is also among the most celebrated of its kind; it involved 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.

Taha Hussein didn't face execution for apostasy in the 1930s; it would have been unthinkable. That Hashem Aghajari faces death today is a measure of modern Islamic culture's terrible failures. But that the universities have embraced his cause is an at least an indication of hope. The sorrow-filled tale of liberalism in Iran, as in the Arab world, has had enough martyrs; it doesn't need another one.