Recap: Akbar Ganji in Edmonton

Sunday afternoon, I went to see Akbar Ganji speak. Ganji, a well know Iranian journalist and dissident, was in Edmonton to deliver the closing keynote address at Towards ‘the Dignity of Difference’ conference being held at the University of Alberta.

The Audience
A view from near the back of the room.

In his youth, Ganji supported the Islamic revolution, later serving in the Revolutionary Guards Corps. He eventually became disenchanted with the regime, turning to journalism. He came to prominence investigating the murder of dissident authors in Iran. He was eventually jailed by the regime, and gained worldwide attention for his 80 day hunger strike in 2005, while in prison. He was released the following year and now lives abroad.

Speaking in Farsi (with a translation delivering his remarks in English), Ganji delivered a talk titled “Iran and the West: Confrontation or Dialogue?”. Conference organizers handed out a supporting paper, which I have loaded here. Ganji remarked earlier on that he was deviating some from the advertised topic, and focused more on the situation in Iran, and the history since the revolution 30 years ago.

Akbar Ganji

Regarding dialogue between Iran and the west, he outlined some problems (such as the Green Revolution’s view of the government as illegitemate), but argued for engagement from the west regardless. He made an excellent point, noting that isolation of countries such as Cuba and North Korea hasn’t brought about change, contrasting this with the approach of the European Community with Turkey. By bringing Turkey into the fold, they can exert pressure and demand higher standards in terms of human rights, for example.

Ganji then continued to make a well thought out argument for a secular government in Iran. 30 years ago, Iran lacked the pre-conditions for a successful transition to democracy; he believes they exist now. He also believes in opening up Iran to foreign investment; he pointed out how China opened their economic borders 30 years ago and have led the world in economic growth since.

Akbar Ganji

In essence, he is arguing for a true liberal-democratic state. Secular, with free elections and the respect of human rights as a foundation. He issued critiques of governments in the middle east and the west, arguing that the fundamentalists in Iran, Israel, and the United States (until this year), in effect, kept each other in business. His claim that you can’t have dialogue between fundamentalists prompted the professor sitting behind me to audibly utter “bullshit” to his two colleagues beside him.

While most of his arguments on Iran were standard fare from academics, he made some salient points. He reminded us that the problems in the Middle East cannot be solved in isolation. What happens in Gaza affects the situation in Iran, and vice-versa. He argued for the value of social networks, which he sees happening in Iran. Without a trace of irony, given the location, he argued against filtering these social networks through a single political party, since that would be detrimental to the political culture. His most poignant criticism came at the end, when he criticized groups like Hamas and Hezbollah for winning an election, then changing the rules so future elections wouldn’t be competitive. In his words, “democracy has an expiry date”. You must be able to go to the polls and have confident that your vote will count and the government may change.

I would have enjoyed this talk much more had Ganji focused on his personal story, particularly his journalistic efforts and his time in jail. Most of the talk consisted of standard points and arguments on Iran. If there’s a takeaway from that end of his talk, it’s a re-emphasis of the value of dialogue, and of understanding the culture you’re trying to interact with and understand. I just wish Ganji had gone more in depth with that, and told us more of his story. That would have helped us understand Iran more than his general arguments did.


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