Leaving Islam



The Murderous Mullahs

May 22, 2004
Daily Mail
Ann Leslie

Few Western reporters are allowed to visit Iran. In this powerful dispatch Ann Leslie paints a horrifying picture of a violent and corrupt dictatorship run by fundamentalist Muslim fundamentalists.

We in the West are rightly outraged about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Graib jail. We publicise it. We print the evidence, as the Mail does today. We interview the victims. But how many newspapers in the Muslim world, living as they do under a variety of dictatorships, would dare to publicise the appalling torture that routinely occurs in their own jails? None.

Otherwise they'll suffer the same fate as so many I've spoken to on a visit to the allegedly democratic Islamic Republic of Iran.

Take the young man I met who's been imprisoned and tortured merely for speaking out against the mullahs' Islamist regime. He will doubtless suffer more of the same for speaking to me, a Western 'infidel'. Yet he agreed to meet me secretly in a small wood in the centre of a city park.

He seemed - like every other tortured dissident I met in this bizarre country - extraordinarily fearless about our forthcoming meeting; I, on the other hand, was not. However, I'd so far managed to give my official 'minder' the slip, pleading that I was unwell and wouldn't be leaving my hotel that day.

In fact, I'd already changed hotels since arriving in the cacophonous, heavily-polluted Iranian capital Tehran. I'd been booked into a regime-controlled hotel called the Laleh, which means 'tulip' in Persian. The red tulip is the official symbol of martyrdom here, and this hotel was, I learned, bugged throughout.

The tulips of martyrdom are an obsession here: but the only 'martyrs' who are honoured in this relentless Islamist cult of death are, of course, those who've been 'martyred' on behalf of Iran's despotic (and hopelessly incompetent) clerical regime.

It's a nation controlled by Sharia law and one which many radical Muslims in the West - like the hook-handed cleric Abu Hamza - dearly wish to emulate.

As I tried to spot who, among the strollers in the Tehran park, was one of the ubiquitous secret policemen or Islamic vigilantes, I thought angrily that fanatically deluded young British Muslims should actually try living in a fundamentalist Islamist state - where stoning to death is still the official punishment for adultery (size of stones specified in the Penal Code) , and where 'ridiculing or insulting the government' is, in itself, deemed worthy of imprisonment and solitary confinement.

And where converting from Islam to any other religion is 'apostasy' - and therefore must be punished by death. 'The Prophet Mohammed said that there should be " no compulsion in religion"', I pointed out to a black-turbaned mullah in the holy city of Qom, 'yet you forbid a Muslim to convert!'.

The bearded 35 year old mullah snapped at me: 'You are mistaken. There is no compulsion in religion in Iran'. Try telling that, dear Mullah Sayeed Mir Mohammed, to the family of the young man who was hanged in public for converting to the original Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism. The hanged man will not, of course, be classified as a 'martyr'.

The outside walls of office buildings everywhere in Iran are plastered with elaborate murals portraying officially-sanctioned 'martyrs', including one which I, as a mother, found particularly disturbing every time I passed it. It features the idealised portrait of a young teenage boy who was 'martyred' during the bloody eight-year-long war between Iran and Iraq. Gazing approvingly down on the image of the dead teenager, the ever-present portrait of the cruel, crafty features of the founder of Iran's 25 year old Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini.

He was not only the man who sentenced Salman Rushdie to death for writing a 'blasphemous' book (which the sainted cleric hadn't even read), but who sent human waves of young boys, some as young as twelve, to clear minefields by using their own bodies.

On the way to my meeting with the dissident in the wood I reflected on the fact that radical Islamist clerics always urge other parents' children to undertake 'martyrdom missions', but somehow never get round to urging their own offspring to do the same. In Tehran, the sons and daughters of many of the ruling clerics live in luxury in the city's leafy northern suburbs in former regime houses requisitioned by the Islamic state. None of this 'martyrdom' nonsense for them, then.

Doubtless. were I to achieve the dubious 'honour' of martyrdom the cause of a free press, my grave would be unmarked, as are thousands in the two secret cemeteries, themselves unmarked, which I visited where the victims of the mullahs' mass-murder campaigns lie buried.

In one secret burial area on the outskirts of the city near a vast scrapyard, I noticed that several of the graves had been decorated with coloured shells and fresh flowers.

'If the families know where their loved ones are buried - and most do not - they come here secretly at night to place the flowers. My uncle's body lies there - he was only eighteen when they killed him', I was told by the murdered man's nephew. 'Often we find that even these small decorations have been vandalised by people like the "Helpers of God" vigilantes, who are paid by the leading mullahs'.

So here I was on a hot, sunny day in this Tehran city park, waiting to meet a 'counter-revolutionary' , and I'm feeling not only slightly nervous, but also somewhat puzzled. I've worked undercover in dictatorships before, and I've been aware in all those countries of a pervasive miasma of fear -but that miasma seems to be astonishingly absent here.

All the Iranians I've met have been extraordinarily welcoming, affable, keen to practise their English and to tell me about their favourite bootleg Hollywood movies and officially banned Western pop music- 'Oh, I LOVE Jennifer Lopez!' Satellite dishes are illegal - but most people I met seemed to have access to one.

Even in the holy desert city of Qom, which contains around 40,000 mullahs and seminarians, I was told that, if I want some alcohol (the penalty for possession is being lashed), 'you just have to go to that intersection'.

Several people I met told me raucous (and sometimes filthy) anti-mullah jokes. And all told me, in varying forms, that 'we Iranian Muslims are forced to live under a PERVERSION of Islam!'

Despite this wave of welcoming affability, I had to remind myself that this is a grotesque - and stupidly cruel - police state, which is allegedly run in the name of Allah by a gang of corrupt and murderous mullahs.

This is a state where, at the Friday prayers broadcast live on state-controlled television (which I attended in a curtained-off and segregated women-only section), the preacher, a leading Ayatollah, with a semi-automatic rifle by his side, denounced the West for its moral corruption. And where pre-positioned cheer-leaders urged the worshippers to chant 'Death to Israel!', 'Death to America!'.

The Ayatollah concerned, incidentally, is one of the most corrupt figures in the 'mullahcratic mafia'; it was he who airily justified the mass murder of jailed regime opponents in 1988 (some of whose secret graves I've visited) by joking: 'Well, we don't have enough chickens to feed them all!'.

This is a state which finances - and has itself indulged in - terrorism overseas. This is a state which is suspected of attempting to acquire nuclear weapons, and which has at times given shelter to al-Qaeda militants, including to the man who had himself video-ed cutting off the head of the young American Nick Berg.

A state whose official policy is the total destruction of Israel, and who persecutes any one who speaks out in favour of rapprochement with the 'Great Satan' America.

A state which has handed down eight and nine year prison sentences to two pollsters merely for conducting polls which proved that, among other unpalatable things, around three quarters of Iranians actually want a rapprochement with America, whose 'satanic' culture they not-so-secretly enjoy.

A state which has sentenced an academic to death for 'apostasy' merely for writing an article questioning whether Iranians should blindly follow, 'like donkeys', the diktats of the ruling clerics .

A state which pretends it is an 'Islamic democracy' but whose unelected Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the equally unelected 12-member Guardian Council, can not only overrule laws passed by the Parliament but, preceding the parliamentary elections held in February, was able arbitrarily to disqualify over 2,000 prospective reformist candidates on the grounds that they were all insufficiently 'Islamic'.

But this is also a state of 68 million people, 70% of whom are under 30, which sits on some of the largest oil reserves in the world and which is, as one diplomat put it to me, 'the proverbial elephant in the living room. We all know it's there, but we try not to think about it'.

So why do we know so little about this vast and now, I believe, dangerously volatile country? For the simple reason that the mullahs don't want us to. A Canadian woman journalist who was doing what I'm doing in this park - trying to discover the grisly truth about this regime - was arrested and tortured to death last year in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

As I climbed up a small hill to meet the young dissident I almost fainted from the heat induced by my mandated Islamic Dress Code of black hejab headscarf, black socks and a long shapeless black coat. Oddly enough, I had some difficulty in buying this suffocating, impractical outfit.

Every shop I went into featured 'manteaus,' the black, baggy, figure-concealing ankle-length coats which are supposed to prevent a woman - even one of my age - from inciting the supposedly uncontrollable lust of good Muslim men. Except that the manteaus on sale were not baggy, and not black: indeed, some were remarkably short, colourful and glamorous.

A man in a shop who spoke English explained to the woman shop assistant that 'this lady wants to buy proper Islamic clothes'. The assistant, whose hejab was perched on the back of her head, showing off her well-coiffed hair (an 'un-Islamic' act, according to the regime) retorted: 'Oh, b***** Islam!' I expected the others in the shop to denounce her and summon one of the religious 'enforcer' groups. Instead of which they all - male and female - burst out laughing. The English-speaker explained: 'everyone here takes the p*** out of the mullahs: we despise them all'.

Even when I smuggled myself into a hospital to visit one of Iran's most famous dissidents, the 74 year old journalist Siamak Pourzand - who'd been brought to the ward in iron shackles from Evin prison where he's serving an 11 year sentence - I did not get the feeling that the staff wished to betray me to the authorities.

They clearly respected the proud but broken Pourzand who has been tortured and who is possibly dying. But even in his dire condition, Pourzand insisted on denouncing the regime to me.

This fundamentalist Islamic government is, despite its ferocity, beginning to lose control over its own people, not least because the cleric-run economy is in ruins. One day a bankrupt businessman, working as an unofficial taxi-driver, gave me a lift. On hearing that 'I'm an English convert to Islam' who's going out to the desert city of Qom next day, he exclaimed: 'Please, dear sister, if you go to the Holy Shrine tomorrow, pray to the saints that they rid us of the mullahs soon - as quickly as possible! They just use Islam to oppress us, to keep power and get rich - while we all suffer!'

On finally meeting up with the young man in the wood I assured him that I will disguise his identity. After all, he was first arrested four years ago as a teenage schoolboy for his anti-regime activities and has been repeatedly tortured.

'When it first happened to me I was only seventeen and I was so shocked, I really wanted to die. But now I'm inoculated, so I don't care any more'. So inoculated (a word I was to hear constantly) has twenty-one year old Kianoush Sanjari become that, with the reckless courage of so many young Iranians I met, he simply refuses to keep his mouth shut. For the 'crime' of criticising the mullahs on an international radio station, he was once again arrested and sentenced to five years in prison, reduced on appeal to one year.

And yet, by talking to me - and by insisting I use his name (as all those I interviewed did) - he was risking prison yet again. 'Yes, but international pressure on behalf of political prisoners and dissidents is the only thing that keeps us alive. The mullahs can't kill or torture us all - there are too many of us now. The regime doesn't speak for the Iranian people - we do! Our age group is in the majority!'

Was George Bush right to denounce Iran as part of 'the axis of evil'? 'Yes. In fact we're very much hoping for President Bush's re-election. Not because we want America to invade Iran - we certainly don't - but because we need support against this regime'.

Again, secretly, late at night, having slipped my hapless minder's clutches, I talked to another young dissident, Ali Afshari, a leader of the student movement. He too has been jailed, tortured and forced to make a televised 'confession'. 'The beatings and solitary confinement were not the worst thing - it was my guilty conscience for making that false confession. They completely broke down my personality and then repeatedly rehearsed me in what I had to say. It was the bitterest moment of my life. When I was released I held a press conference denouncing that forced confession, because I would never be able to look in the mirror again if I still had that burden on my soul'.

It is obvious to any outsider that it's only a matter of time before this Islamic regime implodes. Violently? Afshari shrugged: 'I'm afraid it will probably end in violence. The reform movement has reached a dead end and now there is so much frustration that it only needs the slightest spark for the whole thing to explode'.

Another secret, late-night meeting, this time with lawyer Dr. Qassem Sholeh Sa'adi, who has not only been arrested for writing an open letter attacking the Supreme Leader, but has also (he tells me) survived several assassination attempts.

'The apple is ripe and ready to fall - and, if the Americans and the British don't help us to shake the tree, I can assure you that they won't get any slice of the economic action after the regime falls!'.
We have been duly warned.


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