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How Not to Toast a Tyrant

Paul Marshall & Nina Shea

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won’t be given a prestigious academic podium this time in New York when he returns to address the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, but neither will he be given the kind of reception befitting a dangerous tyrant. In fact, he will receive another propaganda gift perhaps more valuable than last year’s Columbia University forum.

Courtesy of new General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto, who is Nicaragua’s foreign minister, and a coalition of left-wing American Christian groups, he will be the guest of honor at a private iftar dinner to celebrate the end of Ramadan. The September 25 event at the Grand Hyatt Hotel has all the trappings of a Cold War solidarity event. Joining D’Escoto as hosts are some companeros from the former Catholic priest’s Sandinista days: The World Council of Churches, the American Friends Service Committee, the Mennonites, and the US section of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.

Given these hosts’ track record of downplaying Communist crimes in Soviet days, Ahmadinejad will, likely without contradiction, portray Iran’s government as a progressive third-world champion, defending the world’s oppressed, resisting American hegemony, and, by dint of the dinner itself, accommodating of religious pluralism. His well-publicized anti-Semitic rants, Holocaust denial, and threat to wipe Israel off the map will be dismissed as inconsequential by these Christian “peacemakers.”

This dialog comes the same month that the U.N.’s nuclear agency announced that it has reached a “dead end” with Iran due to Tehran’s refusal to cooperate and, moreover, that Iran has made substantial progress in developing its nuclear capability. The gathering sends a reassuring message there is little to fear from Ahmadinejad’s government.

But fear is precisely what this government instills at home. Apart from its nuclear ambitions, Iran is intensifying a domestic program of radical Islamization on a scale not seen since the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. The West is beginning to comprehend some of the horrors of Iran’s laws— two women in Tehran are currently due to be stoned to death on allegations of adultery. But not well known is that, simply because of their beliefs, Iranians are imprisoned and killed for apostasy and blasphemy. Since, in theocracies, politics is conflated with religion, these laws crush political dissent as well as religious non-conformity. Their victims are the very people who stand against Iran’s agenda of revolutionary Islamization, the underlying impediment to secure peace.

The interfaith dinner coincides with the Iranian parliament’s adoption of a mandatory death penalty for “apostasy.” Among its primary targets are the co-religionists of Ahmadinejad’s New York hosts, and the Bahai minority. Other targets are dissident Muslims who, because they criticize the Iranian government, are jailed for supposedly insulting Islam itself.

On September 9, the Iranian parliament, by 196 votes for, seven against, and two abstentions, voted to make the death penalty for apostasy compulsory (previously, judges could waive capital punishment). The bill now goes to committee before a second vote and final approval from the ayatollahs on the Guardian Council. The first victims of the new law may well be Christians. Just last week, two Christian men, Mahmood Matin Azad and Arash Basirat, who had converted from Islam, were charged with apostasy. This follows the arrests last summer of 16 Christians in Isfahan and 10 in Shiraz.

The bill also targets heresy, a charge often used against Baha’is, Iran’s largest non-Muslim minority. If passed, it could threaten some 350,000 people with the death penalty. Bahais are already subject to a campaign of repression. Seven leaders were arrested this spring and, on August 3, the Iranian press reported that they “confessed” to running an illegal organization with ties to Israel and other countries in order to undermine the Islamic system. Bahais are excluded from universities and “sensitive” jobs such as “catering at reception halls,” “childcare,” and “real estate,” as well as cultural areas.

Most of those prosecuted for apostasy, though, are Muslims. The ministry of intelligence is currently arresting dervishes, but more widespread is the crackdown on reformers who criticize clerical rule. In 2007 three student activists, Ehsan Mansouri, Majid Tavakoli, and Ahmad Ghassaban, were convicted of “insulting Islam.” Prominent Shiite dissident Hashem Aghajari was arrested originally for saying “Muslims are not monkeys to blindly follow the clerics.” At his trial, he said his punishment was for “the sin of thinking.” In 2002, due to international pressure, his death sentence for blasphemy was commuted to five years imprisonment, an option the new law forbids.

Iran’s criminalization of apostasy and blasphemy is integral to its ideological arsenal. Peaceful reform becomes ever more remote when Muslim dissenters are silenced. They are the Iranian equivalent of the Sakharovs, Solzhenitsyns, and Sharanskys who gave lie to Soviet propaganda claims. It is no small irony that the courageous Iranians are undercut by some of the same groups who pursued “peace” with the oppressors of that prior generation of human-rights defenders.

If Western religious communities want to show solidarity with Iranians, they should do so with the religious minorities and courageous reformers imprisoned by the regime. If Ahmadinejad sincerely wants interfaith dialog, he should start by releasing Azad, Basirat, Bahai leaders and Muslim reformers from prison and dialog with them.

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