Leaving Islam




Iranian academic’s tribulation paints a diabolic image of the ruling clerics

 A. H. Jaffor Ullah

 The nation of Iran is in the news lately but for all the wrong reasons.  First, it was the news about a rigged national election in which the liberals were barred to participate; democracy was maligned very badly by that act.  Second, came the news that Iran was trying to build a “Green” nuke by hook or by crook; that news gave Iran a black eye amongst it peers in the international community.  Third, the news of Iranian academic, Hashem Aghajari, receiving a five-year prison term for using derogatory language against the mullahs made the headline; which brought a deluge of condemnation from outside world.  Fourth, on July 24, 2004, an Iranian court has acquitted the defendant in the murder of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, a case that has severely threatened diplomatic ties between Canada and Iran.

This article will only deal in the Iranian government’s dealing with the case of a lecturer at a university, Mr. Hashem Aghajari, who had received a stiff sentence for speaking his mind.  This sentencing of a liberal academic by Iran’s harsh judiciary has opened a can of worms.  The country’s stature was maligned, clerics were vilified, and dissidents were baffled by court decision. 

First things first, the case against the academic from Hamadan, the west-central province of Iran.  Mr. Aghajari’s 2002 speech touched a raw nerve at the heart of clerical rule in Iran because the teacher asked question relating to Shi’ite Muslim doctrine in which ordinary believers are obliged to emulate a senior cleric qualified to interpret the Koran.  With a tinge of sarcasm Mr. Aghajari had commented, “Are people monkeys to emulate someone else?”  This comment by the academic had brought ire among Iran’s ruling clerics.  Not only was Aghajari arrested, he was issued a death sentence by a provincial court in Hamadan.  This in turn had sparked some of the largest and noisy student protests in years; it fueled international concern about restrictions on free speech in Iran.  Under mounting world pressure, the blasphemy verdict was finally overturned by the Supreme Court in June 2004.  Even some of Iran’s senior clerics had opined that the sentencing of Aghajari was too harsh.  Then a retrial was held in Tehran earlier in July 2004.   

The recent verdict by the Tehran court sentenced the history teacher, Aghajari, to five years in prison for insulting Islamic values.  Pending an appeal, the court had agreed to free Aghajari, the reform minded activist, on bail of 1 billion Rials ($117,000).  To this ruling, Mr. Aghajari said, “I am only a university professor and all I can afford to pay as bail is my 20-year-old Paykan.”  The lecturer was referring to the ubiquitous national car (Paykan) that only sells for around 6,000 dollars new.  Mr. Aghajari also said, “I do not have anything registered in my name, so it is up to them to accept it.  Otherwise I will remain in prison.”

Aghajari's wife, Zahra Behnoudi, was upset hearing the new verdict, which was light as compared to the capital punishment meted out two years ago.  She said her husband should have been acquitted.  She told a Reuters’ correspondent, “Why should a professor be given a prison sentence for making a speech?  If he had been acquitted we would have felt that wisdom had prevailed in the judiciary.”  With a blithe disregard to freedom of speech the court also banned Mr. Aghajari from holding public office or taking part in any activity requiring state permission, such as teaching, for five years after his prison term is completed. 

Mr. Aghajari is still defiant.  In his final oral defense to the court earlier in July 2004, he spoke out strongly in favor of democratic reforms and criticized those who put the clergy on a pedestal.  The lecturer is a feisty man who said, “Some think that touching a clergyman's robes will cure people or is a blessing ... (But) clerics are not sacred.”  The small town lecturer is a war veteran who lost a leg fighting in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.  To show his difference with the Iranian Mullah as far as Islam is concerned he said that he supported an Islam that brings about freedom and is compatible with democracy and human rights.

The news of Mr. Aghajari’s trouble with the Iranian clerics had made headlines in July 2004.  The news had also reached The U.S. State Department.  On July 24, 2004, The State Department’s spokesperson and Assistant Secretary, Mr. Richard Boucher was asked a question by a reporter.  The question was the following: “This morning, there's a news report that a academic, Professor Aghajari, has been sentenced to five years for calling Muslims who blindly follow cleric leaders "monkeys." And, I guess, would that be in relation to what we've been speaking of the last day or two as retribution?” 

To the above question Mr. Boucher replied: “I think, you know, without reference to particular remarks that the individual may have made, we certainly see this fits the pattern of harassment and difficulties created for people who try to speak out, the lack of public _expression in Iran, the lack of the ability for people to speak out on topics that are of concern to them, and we've been concerned about the state of human rights in Iran and, you know, we know there have been demonstrations, there have been outspoken people, but we also see that they're being pursued often when they do and this is another example of that. Okay.”

Iran was a very modern nation up until 1979.  The King of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi, had instituted a program of modernization a la western model throughout 1960s and 70s.  The clerics and many Muslims had made invidious acquisitions against the Shah over the issue of modernization of Persia.  The chief critic of Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini, was exiled first to Turkey in 1964, then to the holy city of Najaf, Iraq and from there, to Paris in 1978.  While Khomeini was outside Iran for 15 long years, through pamphlet, he roused the Iranians to oust Reza Shah Pahlavi.  In February 1979, Khomeini returned home victorious to institute theocracy in his motherland.  The modernity was out and Shia brand of Islam was in.  The Iranian Mullah persecuted many socialists who helped the clerics to drive out Shah of Iran after they hold thousands of kangaroo courts.  One of the socialists, Mr. Bani Sadr, who was elected to the office of President of Iran after the revolution, with Mullahs blessings, found himself at odd with the clerics.  They crushed Bani Sadr who first went into hiding and then flew out of Iran to Paris in July 1981 by an Iranian Air Force plane piloted by a dissident Iranian.  Quite a few associates of Bani Sadr were hanged and killed by the Iranian clerics after Mr. Sadr had left his motherland.

Iran fought a bloody war against Iraq soon after the revolution in 1979.  Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989.  Since then, Iran showed some tendency to relax the Mullahs’ grip on power.  The Iranian people elected a reform minded cleric, Mohammad Khatami, to be theirs president. However his policies of reform have led to repeated clashes with the hardline and conservative Islamists in the Iranian government, who control powerful governmental organizations such as the Guardian Council whose members are appointed by the Supreme Leader.  As of late, the pendulum however had shifted in favor of hardline clerics.  The parliamentary election of February 20, 2004, is a case in point.

The recent election was a watershed in the modern history of Iran.  By limiting the number of electoral contestants, the 12-man Guardian Council barred around 2,500 reformers from standing for election.  It should be noted here that the election of the all-powerful Guardian Council itself is anything but democratic.  Hard-line mullahs control the composition of the Council and so it was easy for them to decide who would stand for the national election.   

Iran has received some adverse publicity because they ran a very undemocratic election in February 2004.  Now 5 months later, in July 2004, the Iranian judiciary by sentencing Mr. Aghajari to serve 5 years in prison for his “slighting” remarks against the clerics made rooms for more condemnation. 

Now that the tribulations of Mr. Aghajari in the hands of Iranian justice system has drawn attention from outside world, much remains to be seen what happens next.  Stay tuned.  The retrial is going to be an embarrassment for the Iranian clerics, to put it mildly.  The war hero, Mr. Aghajari, is a fighter all right.  He is giving the judiciary of Iran, who are dominated by clerics, a run for their money.  The clerics grossly underestimated Mr. Aghajari’s tenacity.  A cultivated mind won’t take no for an answer, I suppose.


 A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA


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