Iran – How to deal with Khamenei’s open letter to the youth in the West?

On January 21, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei wrote an open letter addressing the youth in the Western world. He invited them to read the Koran and to go to the sources to achieve a better understanding of what Islam is all about. The letter – I think – has a perfect tone and language.

A few hours after the letter was published I’ve received an invitation from my friends in Iran, whom I travelled and worked with last April during our Peace Pilgrimage to Syria (via Iran), to answer a few questions regarding this very letter. Mmmmhhh, what to do? I was somehow in a double windmill – I love the country, it’s beautiful and the Iranian people are warm, welcoming and very well educated. I always sense a kind of education in the humanities and classic traditions we in the West have almost lost. And for all of this I love this country. I also have to say I like the way Iran and its leaders act in the current Middle East conflict zone – in comparison to the U.S and the West they do have a strategy and position – whether one like it or not. Iran took its stand and is acting wisely. But there are also things I really don’t like about Iran – high among them the way they treat women (women need permission from a male if tehy want to travel!!!), the way they “force” foreign women to wear the hijab, the way they practice freedom of expression and the way they censor (there seem to be a decline in censorship these days as well) and especially the way they treat people who do exactly what Khamenei is asking the Westerners to do. Double-dealing?

So I didn’t want to offend them but I also thought one should support this initiative to reach out and understand each other better …

To make a long story short; I didn’t answer but I decided to publish a letter Amir Maasoumi wrote to one of our delegation members of the Peace Pilgrimage to Syria – Amir was asked if and how one should reply to this letter … below is his answer. I’ve chosen to publih it because it’s reflection the same tensions I felt … So please take Amir’s take instead of mine!

Amir is born in Iran. He is now living with his family in Montreal. He is a peace activist and intellectual.

Thanks Amir for having giving permission to re-print this.

Khamenei addressing Iranians

Very dear …

Thank you for your kind e-mail.

I have read your exchanges with …

I’m not at all surprised by this reach-out of Khamenei and the efforts and initiatives being made to gain support for it – especially support from well-known international peace and social justice activists; the prominent Western celebraties. I also know that they’ve contacted other friends and colleagues. A clear-cut answer to your question is “Do you think it would be helpful if I wrote something on this development?” is not easy to give!

I’ve read the letter of Ayatollah Khameneii the moment it was published. It’s a very good letter with a truly surprising invitation, thesis and approach. But the important question in this context is not related to any good words or wishful thinking. Unfortunately the experience has taught us that beautiful words and ideas do not go very far in the real life of the Iranians. There is a “double discourse”; soft speaking and harsh acting are the very nature and deeply rooted in the identity of the Iranian pragmatic politicians.

We – you and I – are the people who celebrate peace and dialogue. And we live up to it. Therefore any occasion to establish the contact between them and us will reduce the tensions, will build the bridge and encourage the dialogue towards durable peace. It is the most welcome for all of us. But a real and genuine dialogue, a dialogue based on respect for one another is something different. A dialogue with clear objectives and not a dialogue which is exploited for political means while in reality life as usual continues, it sometimes even gets worst. Or did Israel’s continuous talk about dialogue, negotiation and peace with Palestinians change anything in the daily lives of millions of Palestinians? No, their horrifying tragedy, the occupation, massacres, apartheid and ethnic cleansing are going on – in fact it’s getting worse. And everybody knows it, sees it – but nothing stops it. Or do the same warmongering attitudes of all other US, EU and NATO’s ‘’human rights and peace lover’’ leaders make any sense?

Please allow me to be more clear.

You know that I’m working in this field since more than 3 decades. In the aftermath of 9/11 early 2000 when President Khatemi (a “reformist” who is actually almost banned in public, muzzled and practically in danger in Iran) made the “dialogue among the cultures and civilizations” the central axe of his foreign policies, it was then when I asked him in an open letter: “Why do not we start at home, in Iran, the inera-Islamic dialogue with our Sunni minorities, the Sufis (the mystical dervishes) … and the inter-religious dialogue with others such as Bahaiis, different Christians denominations etc … ? I do not mention here the cultural dialogues, the relations with cultural and linguistic minorities within the country … Why do not we start this dialogue at home?” For instance more than two million Sunnis in the mega city Tehran do not have one Mosque and are not allowed to build one. They are Muslims as well. And they are by far the largest minority in this country. At that time the supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameneii and his powerful institutional and individual supporters were totally against Khatemi’s policies. Against any kind of dialogue! And now – at least officially – they take the same stand.

At the same period, I received an invitation from the U.S Senate Foreign Policy Comity as well as the General Consulate of the U.S in Montreal to help to build the relations and create “dialogue groups” with Muslim communities in the U.S and Canada. My answer was simple and clear: “A genuine dialogue is based on mutual respect amongst equal partners. It starts by and materializes in concrete actions. Dialogue is much more than sitting around a table and chatting. And it is definitely not possible when at the same time one side is persistently looting and burning Iranian homes, killing Iranian families and destroying our countriy…!” I also remember, at the very same period, G. W. Bush manoeuvring repeatedly with the same rhetoric of “dialogue with Islam and Muslims” in his speeches and declarations … Well, in order to address all these recuperations, these empty discourses “on dialogue” aiming particularly to thwart a real desire among the peoples for a genuine “dialogue in action” and as the alternative to permanent confrontation, to the “global wars” based on lies and manipulations. I published several papers and gave numerous lectures on the minimal requirements of a reel dialogue. Unfortunately they are all in French. Please see an example here.

As to me, I do not have any problem to inter in dialogue even with my “enemies”. But I do not want to be manipulated. I do not want to “serve” and become the instrument of the agenda of others which has nothing to do with “dialogue and rapprochement”. In contrary it very often goes in opposite direction. Thus, before saying “yes” to their invitation I would like to ask several simple questions why these notorious and persistent “opponents of dialogue” became so suddenly the new apostles of it – but only with the foreigners.

How come the regime expresses its wishes, its warm and irresistible desire for a constructive dialogue with the Western youth but it refuses to do so with its own? In Persian, we have a very good expression. It says: The lantern which is needed at home is not even allowed to be given to a Mosque!

How come, they invite and ask the Western youth to read the Koran and discover the true meanings of Islam without any intermediary, without interferences and influences of the negative propaganda or violent readings and practices of some groups … , but when the Iranian youth or Muslim intellectuals do the same thing, they go to jail, to exile, or they will be tortured or executed?

You know why?

Because they are not honest! Because for them, the only “authority” who has the right to talk about Islam is the clerical establishment, and the only authorized readings of Islam are their readings. Not even the readings of all other clergies out of th einner circle of power, even the most prominent once like late Ayatollah Montazeri; the designated successor of the “leader of the revolution” Ayatollah Khomeini, was discarded from power and died in house arrest. This is a very disgusting hypocrisy. The last young intellectual has been executed only four months ego, simply for his innocent interpretation of a very anecdotal Koranic verse, without any social or political implication, was Mohsen Amir-Aslani. He is one among the almost five hundreds executions since the new president Rouhani (so called moderate) has been elected – more executions than hardliner Ahmadi-Nejad had in the same period of time.

Well, if some Muslims among these “young Westerners”, after their own quest for the true meanings of Islam, reach the conclusion that Islam it not a convenient spiritual path for them and as the result they decide to convert to another religion or simply become atheist, what will be their sentence? Are they considered as “apostate” or “abjurer” as the case may be, with “capital punishment” applicable to them as demanded by Iranian so called “Islamic” based laws? If not why do not they abolish these inhuman and archaic “sacralised” jurist-opinions-of-another century and release all “new-Christians” and other conscious and faith based prisoners from Iranian jails? Why is the “freedom of conscious” only reserved for others? Why do they continue to apply these inhuman punishments to the Iranians?

Most of these young Westerners are very joyful and happy! They love to listen to music. They love to dance. Will they be questioned and eventually punished for doing what they love? If not, why are these simple activities judged as a crime when Iranians do it? Why must the Iranian youth pay such a high price for doing the same things? Being happy, dancing in private, film it and eventually share it on YouTube?

From a “theological” point of view the Ayatollah’s proposition, as I said before, is even more interesting. It has high significance and implications if it’s real and not only for short term political marketing operations or cosmetic purposes. Recognizing the legitimacy of everybody’s right to go directly to the “sources of Islam” and having his/her own understanding of the sacred texts – which is a basic principal of Islam. A principal that Iran is insincerely denying in the name of Islam since centuries, implies de facto that the entire clerical establishment (especially the Shiite branch of Islam) is nothing more than a guardian of the traditions without any “divine” power, without any specific authority to guide or control forcefully the lives of other believers. It implies that they don’t have any monopoly of the Islamic discourse or privilege access to the “unique and true sense of Islam and its texts” as they always pretended to have. In this case, the position of the “Supreme guide”, justified by the theological assumption that he has direct link and “connection” to the “last hidden Imam” and ‘’ his representative on the earth, with all his divine authorities, doesn’t have any base nor any raison to be. Therefore and in order to be coherent, at a very first step, these people must amend the Iranian Constitution and simply abolish the “Supreme guide’s” position with all its disproportionate and despotic powers. Even further, they must rewrite and reform the theological and ideological corpus of the theory of the “Absolute Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists” – the very core of the regime and the system.

On the other hand, how come that the famous Iranian philosopher and theologian Abdol-Karim Soroush (we can see him also in some episode of the “Salam Iran a Persian letter’”, a film based on my life) who suggested exactly the same ideas more than fifteenth years ago – has to live in exile? I’m neither talking about “radical pluralistic anti-clergy theologians and thinkers” nor about the human rights activists, leftist students, lawyers, dissident intellectuals – no. I’m talking about Soroush, a semi-liberal Muslim thinker who was for longtime amongst the “collaborators” and official intellectuals of the Iranian regime. Well, if the Iranian regime is really ready to accept this simple point or at least having a serious dialogue about it, then why they do not start this dialogue with people like Soroush? With Shirin Ebadi and many many others?

How many Christians, Baha’is, Sunnites, Dervishes even Shiites and among them the Ayatollahs with deviant readings of Islam and Koran have we in Iranian jails? Is it not better to start first or at least at the same time the respectful and constructive dialogue with them as well?

The two Candidates of the 2009 presidential elections: Mir Hossien Moussavie (with his wife), the “beloved” PM of Khomeini in the eighties and Mehdi Karroubi, a clergy and ex-president of the Parliament, also very close to Khomeini are currently under house arrest. Since 5 years, without any charges or leave alone a trial. Each one backed by millions of voters and supporters, especially by the youth and women. So, why not release them and start a dialogue with them and by doing so addressing the Iranian youths who massively voted for them?

I could go on and on and on …

Dear …, as I wrote to you and Shirin Ebadi in last April, after our second humanitarian and peace missions to Syria via Iran: “(…) This schizophrenic duality, this institutionalized hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, generally progressive and defendable in foreign policies but very repressive, reactionary, autocratic and violent within its own boundaries, this unimaginable inhuman and paternalistic contempt towards its own people must stop! Iran can’t continue to pretend to be a part of the “axis of resistance” against U.S imperialism and Zionism on the one hand while on the other hand doing the same things, acting with the same logic against their own people. Exactly the same way their “opponents” in the opposite axis are doing to other peoples and nations. …

… the respect of human dignity and human rights in general and the rights of women and minorities in particular lacks dramatically in Iran. Millions of men, women, especially the young generation, have paid with their lives to achieve the minimum of respect, dignity and freedom. And the sacrifices are going on. As I told you before, in this country apparently the freedom of expression and choice exist but the freedom of “after” expression and choice, does not! And this is not a funny rhetoric game. It’s an unbearable reality of daily life in Iran! One must live in this country to understand it. One has to feel it!(…)”

I firmly believe that these guys are manipulators – very clever and skillful manipulators (The Persian Vizier!). And we have to be very careful in dealing with them. I think the idea of a respectful letter to the Supreme guide in support of “his initiative” is a good thing but in my humble opinion this letter must include at least the crucial and basic questions mentioned above. And it should include as well the issues of the fundamental rights, discrimination and apartheid against women, minority rights, politically controlled and arbitrary judiciary system, executions, torture, freedom of expression and “after-expression” – among many other issues. Otherwise, we are an instrument of the propaganda and manipulation of the regime who will not hesitate to use the gained credibility it has gained to accentuate the repression against its people.

With my best wishes.