Thursday, November 25, 2010

Interviewing for Democracy

This last Sunday I watched Fareed Zakaria’s GPS. Part of his program was devoted to an interview with Mohammad Javad Larijani. Mr. Larijani was visiting the UN as the head of Iran’s Human Rights Commission. Mr. Larijani along with his two brothers, Ali Larijani who is the speaker of the parliament and Sadegh Larijani, head of the Judiciary, are part of the influential power brokers of the Islamic Republic. It was disappointing to see Mr. Larijani dodging the questions and arguing his way out.

I always get the same feeling watching other programs like Charlie Rose interviewing Iranian officials. It seems they all miss some crucial questions. Their interviews focus on the issues taken out of the news headlines. The Iranian officials well versed about the headlines have readymade responses with their own comparisons taken out of other news headlines. After watching these interviews, like Mr. Zakaria’s or Mr. Rose’s, I have to scratch my head: what was the point of the interview other than providing a platform of subterfuge to these officials.  Granted one purpose of these interviews could be for finding and opening lines of communication with the Iranian government and I think it is worth pursuing, but my above objection remains.

Zakaria’s interview had three parts, human rights, election and Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.  One of the questions posed to Mr. Larijani was about Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an imprisoned Iranian woman convicted on allegations of having non-marital relationship with a man. She has been sentenced to death by stoning, a medieval form of crime and punishment whereby the convict is buried up to the chest or neck and then is stoned by the crowd. Larijani basically responded that there is nothing wrong with stoning and the form of punishment and its severity is a matter of cultural acceptance. Mr. Zakaria did not have a follow up except to say that this is a cruel and unusual punishment.

On principle Mr. Larijani is right, the severity and the form of punishment is a matter of social acceptance. After all in the US capital punishment is generally, although less so these days, is an accepted form of punishment. This conforms to the frontier mentality. A mentality of “hang them up high” and “lock them up and throw away the key” that yet persists in this country. Capital punishment in the US is the result of an outlook that is in a rush, cannot afford or does not want to spend time to deal with the crime as a social problem. Europe has done away with capital punishment and its penal code is geared more toward reforming the perpetrator of the crime. The European penal code tends to move away from revenge which the state exacts on behalf of the victim or on behalf of the social disgust toward the criminal. On this basis Europe is very critical of the US penal code and considers capital punishment as outdated, a cruel and unusual punishment.

More or less Europeans’ criticism of American capital punishment is ignored in this country. Can the Islamic Republic ignore the Journalists’ criticism the same way the US is ignoring the European criticism? After all Iran as a whole is culturally behind the modern societies by decades if not more. To be consistent and fair we have to say that Mr. Larijani is right and the penal code has a lot to do with the cultural acceptance.

But there is a crucial issue which is being ignored in all these interviews. In Europe and the US there is a strong protection for freedom of speech, assembly and press. These freedoms permit the broadest discussion of these cultural norms; they can be debated and challenged. Every implementation of capital punishment in the US is accompanied by protests and candle light vigils and the whole issue is discussed, dissected and subsequently polled to demonstrate the changes in the public opinion.

There is no freedom of speech, assembly or press in Iran. There is no discussion about the stoning and its relevance in Iran. As a matter of fact, you cannot discuss any issue of substance without persecution or threat of persecution by Larijani’s brothers and other oppressive state institutions.

The freedom of thought and the freedom of the press are the crucial and pivotal problem of the Iranian society and should be the corner stone of every question in any interview of substance.

Mr. Larijani during his interview claimed that Iran is the greatest democracy in the Middle East. Of course there are elections in Iran where the candidates are handpicked by another handpicked entity called Council of Guardians. Is this democracy? Yes, it could be considered a form of representative process. But any representation without freedom of the press to examine and challenge that representation is nothing but a mockery of democracy.

These fundamental rights of freedom of thought, expression and press have given the Western societies a transparency that makes the interaction between them so fluid and the lack of these fundamental rights makes the interaction between Iran and the rest of the world so rigid.

The nuclear dispute follows the same pattern. A democratic Iran would not have a nuclear dispute; it would be a non-issue as it is between the US and the rest of the Europe.

These rights, freedom of speech, assembly and press should be the corner stone of all questioning of the Iranian officials and also the pivot of the foreign policy of the western democracies. Not only is the Islamic Republic very vulnerable when confronted with their violations of these democratic rights but the Iranian society more than any other country in the Middle East is ready to use these rights to tackle its problems.

Finally Mr. Zakaria in his introduction of Mr. Larijani compared Larijani family to the Kennedy family in the US. If it was a joke I did not get it.

No comments: