Eye of the storm: Bianca, free Akbar Ganji

How could newspapers that portray Bush as the biggest "violator of human rights" endorse his call in favour of Ganji?

amir taheri (photo credit: )
amir taheri
(photo credit: )
It all started as a rather pleasant, if not exciting evening. We had heard a speech from British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw once again trying to "explain" the evil of Islamofascim in pseudo-theological, rather than political, terms. But that had been compensated for with a poem from the great mystic poet Roumi recited by Iranian journalist Nazanin Ansari. Apart from the usual contingent of "the great and the good" most of the 800 or so people present were media people and their friends, come to cheer or boo as the Foreign Press Association in London distributed its annual prizes. The evening was of special interest to me not only because I had been one of the judges but also because so many of the news stories, articles, and radio and television programs submitted for consideration dealt with issues that, in one way or another, had something to do with Islam and the Middle East. In fact almost two-thirds of the prizes eventually awarded went to items dealing with those issues. But there as an even bigger reason why I was interested in the occasion. The FPA had decided to award its very first prize for a dialogue of cultures and civilizations to Akbar Ganji, an Iranian investigative reporter who is on a hunger strike in Teheran's dreaded Evin Prison. Together with several colleagues I had been trying for months to persuade the Western media to take an interest in Ganji, a former Khomeinist revolutionary who is now campaigning for human rights and democracy. But we never got anywhere because of one small hitch. US President George W. Bush had spoken publicly in support of Ganji and called for his immediate liberation. And that, as far as a good part of the Western media is concerned, amounts to a kiss of death. How could newspapers that portray Bush as the biggest "violator of human rights" endorse his call in favour of Ganji? To overcome that difficulty, some of Ganji's friends had tried to persuade him to make a few anti-American, more specifically anti-Bush, pronouncements so that the Western media could adopt him as a "hero-martyr." TWO YEARS ago similar advice was given to Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was made to understand one stark fact of contemporary life: You will not be accepted as a champion of human rights unless you attack the United States. Ebadi accepted the advice and used her address during the prize ceremony in Oslo launch a bitter attack on the US as the arch-violator of human rights. To the surprise of many Iranians she eulogized the 400 or so alleged terrorists held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but made no mention of the thousands of political prisoners, including some of her own friends and clients, who languish in the mullahs' dungeons throughout Iran. Would Ganji adopt a similar tactic in order to get media attention? The answer came last January, and it was a firm no! The result was that Ganji, probably the most outspoken and courageous prisoner of conscience in the Islamic Republic today, became a non-person for the Western media. Even efforts by Reporters Without Frontiers, and by the International Press Institute (IPI) among other organizations of journalists, failed to change attitudes toward Ganji. Hundreds of editorials have been published in major Western publications in sympathy with the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. But, to my knowledge, there has been none in support of Ganji or the thousands of political prisoners held by the mullahs. SO IT was heart-warming to see the FPA honor Ganji as a champion of freedom. An audio-message from Ganji's wife, smuggled out of Iran, was broadcast, creating the evening's most memorable moment. But things went pear-shaped when a petite lady dressed all in black was invited to come on stage to make a symbolic offer of the award to an absent Ganji (the mullahs had not even allowed Ganji's wife to travel to London to attend the occasion). The lady in question was introduced as one Bianca Jagger, whose title is UNICEF ambassador. What her day job is, however, is a mystery to me. In any case, she started by telling us about her recent trips to Teheran and Damascus, presumably the two capitals of human rights she likes best, and how she had been told "by officials and others" that she and other Westerners had "no moral authority" to talk about human rights and freedom. She went on to say that it was all very well to remember Ganji, but that that should not prevent us from remembering "those held in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and all other secret prisons" the US is supposed to be running all over the world. The rest of the little speech had nothing to do with Ganji and everything to do with the claim that the US is drawing an almost sadistic pleasure from practicing torture. I couldn't believe my ears. Here was this caricature of a "UNICEF ambassador" equating Ganji, a man who has fought only with his pen, with men captured, arms-in-hand, on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. Those men at least had access to lawyers and could be visited by the Red Cross. Ganji's lawyer himself became a prisoner after trying to defend his client. Nor has the Red Cross or anybody else been allowed to visit Ganji. I was also surprised that the UNICEF ambassador had no difficulty in equating the United States, which, after all, is a democracy with checks and balances, with the Islamic Republic, in which a self-styled Supreme Guide claims to rule on behalf of God. IN HIS Nicomachaean Ethics Aristotle warns against any confusion of categories when it comes to good and evil. Translated into modern discourse this means that imposing a moral equivalence in the name of multiculturalism - or the Nietzschean scheme of transcending good and evil - is a sign of crass immorality. Having swallowed my anger, I gave the UNICEF ambassador a piece of my mind. She seemed surprised. No one had ever told her such things, especially not in a polite society of dinner jackets and long robes. "Is Ganji the same as the alleged terrorists in Guantanamo Bay?" I asked. "Well, yes, I mean no, I mean yes," she mumbled. "But they are all prisoners, aren't they?" Having witnessed the verbal altercation, a colleague from the BBC filled me in on the background of the UNICEF ambassador. It seemed that she had once been married to a British pop singer. And that, of course, is enough to qualify you as a UNICEF ambassador touring the world, attacking the Western democracies and flattering the tyrants of Teheran, Damascus and Havana, among others. Well, it was a good evening - though, as the lady's singer ex-husband once crooned, I got "no satisfaction."