Take a Hike: Misconceptions and Machinations Keep Activists Incarcerated in Iran
You've probably heard about the three hikers being held in Iran since last summer. Their case has become a political football, highlighting the inherent tensions and absurd machinations of the U.S.-Iran relationship. If you've followed the story even casually, you also likely have an impression of the hikers as either being dumb and naive or spoiled kids deserving of their fate. These perceptions are actually well off the mark, and in some ways have served to perpetuate their plight. Incarcerated for nearly a year now, we might finally consider taking a moment to set the record straight, and in the process come to appreciate the dedicated activism of these remarkable individuals.
First, a bit of background. Four friends who have made it their life's mission to travel (especially to troubled regions) in pursuit of cultural exchange and human understanding decide to take a break from their work in Damascus and go on a hike. They're told of a beautiful, safe spot not too far away in northern Iraq. For these knowledgeable travelers, who harbor none of the dominant prejudices held by most Americans about the purported dangers of the Muslim world, the location is one that is recommended by numerous friends who have visited there previously. So they set out for Suleimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan, where one falls ill and remains behind at the hotel on the appointed day of the hike. For the other three, the hike started out as a "beautiful time" -- but in short order, the trail would lead unexpectedly to an Iranian jail.
I recently spoke with the "fourth hiker," Shon Meckfessel, the one who stayed behind. He told me that all of the hikers were "well-established in the Middle East," spoke Arabic (Sarah achieved conversational fluency, and Shane a high level of fluency rare among Arabic learners), and had spent the better part of their adult lives "trying to correct cultural misunderstandings" about the region. The fateful hike in Kurdistan was actually "just a trail" and not some tortuous backcountry experience -- "a t-shirt and tennis shoes kind of hike," as Shon put it. Suffice to say, none of them was expecting trouble of any sort, and in fact hadn't even deviated from the one trail they had been told about. "I don't know for sure if they were even in Iran," Shon reflected, further noting that "Iran never came up" during the planning for the hike as a potential border that might be confronted along the recommended trail which they were confident was well within Iraq's borders. "No one ever mentioned that the village and the trail they were sending us to was anywhere near Iran -- we thought it was to the northwest of Suleimaniya, not to the east," he recalls. As if to confirm this sense of geographical doubt and the lack of certainty as to what Shon termed "hazy borders," one of the three that was apprehended subsequently "denied that they had walked into Iran, as they were accused of doing, before stopping himself and saying, ‘We can't really talk about that.'"
What ensued is still a matter of conjecture, but what's certain is that the three hikers -- Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Joshua Fattal, 27 -- were apprehended by Iranian authorities on allegations of espionage. Ten months later, they've been charged only with illegal entry, although Iranian officials still invoke the espionage allegations in public discourse despite the lack of formal charges and a dearth of evidence to support the claim. In fact, even a cursory review of their public record, revealed through online postings and numerous pieces of published journalism, indicates that they have been highly "critical of U.S. interventions in the Middle East," as Shon observes, and strongly supportive of justice for Palestine in particular. Indeed, their efforts were a conscious attempt to overcome the "blind fear on the part of most Americans that actually obliged us to be in the Middle East," he notes, and furthermore that they were influenced by the political realities of a post-9/11 landscape to become "invested in the world." It was in this spirit that Shane began studying Arabic the day after 9/11 in order to be a better antiwar activist. Sarah's work in the Middle East was a logical extension of years of work around the femicides in Juarez, Mexico, and Josh wished to understand the Middle East as he had China, South Africa, and India with the exchange students under his charge as a teaching assistant.
If you look closely at their histories, a pattern of serious reflection and thoughtful engagement readily emerges. Shane had previously filed incisive articles for outlets including Democracy Now! and Mother Jones, looking at issues related to the U.S. military involvement in Iraq; he also authored a cover story for The Nation about death squads in Iraq trained by the same CIA agents who had worked in El Salvador. Sarah had recently written evocative and empathetic articles about people struggling to survive and displaying great dignity in places such as the Golan Heights and Yemen, following her earlier work in locales ranging from the streets of Oakland to the villages of Chiapas. Josh was an old friend from the States who was just joining them in the Middle East, and has been described as someone who is "deeply committed to issues of ecology and truly democratic politics," including "issues such as sustainable agriculture, food justice, and permaculture." For his part, Shon started studying Arabic in 2000, has spent many years working on Palestinian issues including an in-progress doctoral dissertation on solidarity actions, and is the author of "a uniquely intellectual book" documenting his experiences as "a North American anarchist in the Balkans." They are also close friends with Tristan Anderson, an American peace activist who was shot and critically wounded by Israeli troops during a protest in the West Bank, with Shane and Sarah in fact being the first to visit him in the hospital.
All of this indicates their sophistication about and dedication to the myriad causes of justice both in the Middle East and around the world. It also demonstrates a robust public record of working against the tide of U.S. imperialism in the region. These activist-journalists have stood against U.S. and Israeli aggression, and have sought to humanize the people in the Middle East who are striving to cope with it. So why are they being held by Iran on trumped-up allegations? "I'm sure they knew immediately what kind of people we are," said Shon. "I don't know why they're holding my friends, but I'm certain it's not because they think they're actually spies or that they pose any threat to Iran." In fact, in an open letter to Iranian President Ahmadinejad last November, Shon boldly asserted that "by continuing to deprive Shane, Sarah and Josh of their liberty, Iran is working against some of the very causes it supports. Each of these three has a long and public record of contesting injustice in the world and addressing some of the inequities between rich and poor which you have spoken about through their humanitarian work in their own country and overseas."
Why then are they still being detained? Even a recent visit by their mothers that was filled with courtesies and heartfelt pleas ended with the status quo of their confinement remaining intact. A principal reason, as noted by the New York Times, is that the three "have become pawns in the troubled relationship between the United States and Iran." The U.S. State Department has few official conduits to Iran, often relying upon Switzerland as a diplomatic intermediary. This means that every point of contact is infused with the full measure of the tensions between Iran and the U.S., amplifying the stakes and opening the door to political maneuverings. Thus was it recently reported by MSNBC that an Iranian arms dealer being held in a federal prison in Minnesota may be a key to freeing the hikers, but that "so far, the U.S. has rejected a possible exchange." But days later, two Iranian prisoners who had been arrested by U.S forces were freed in Iraq, prompting the Los Angeles Times to speculate that this hinted at "behind-the-scenes deal-making between Iran and the West over the fate of detainees" (including the hikers) who are viewed as "bargaining chips." The Washington Post added fuel to the fire in this cryptic report:
"Some Iranian analysts interpreted the move as a possible diplomatic gesture toward Iran that could increase the chances for the release of one or more of the detained American hikers. In Iraq, however, it was not immediately clear whether the decision to free the two men had anything to do with the case of the Americans, who were detained last summer after crossing into Iranian territory during what they said was a hiking expedition in the mountains of Iraq's Kurdistan region bordering Iran.... A spokesman for the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, Amir Arshadi, said the release had nothing to do with the three U.S. citizens held in Iran. He said the men were released after negotiations between the Iranian Embassy and the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.... In his remarks about the freed Iranians, Kazemi-Qomi made no mention of the three American hikers held in Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has used the Americans' case to call attention to several Iranians imprisoned by the United States, prompting speculation that the Islamic Republic would be interested in an exchange. Iranian authorities strongly deny this."
For obvious reasons of not wanting to be seen as capitulating to "the enemy," both Iran and the U.S. generally deny having any inclination to engage in prisoner exchanges, even as media reports often imply otherwise. (Somewhat surprisingly, Iranian Intelligence Minister Haidar Moslehi signaled in an up-to-the-minute Associated Press report that Tehran might be open to a prisoner swap "once Washington makes a humanitarian gesture toward Iranians in U.S. custody similar to the one Iran made last week toward the [hikers'] mothers," a sentiment likewise expressed in February by President Ahmadinejad that was flatly "ruled out" by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.) The diplomatic hurdles to orchestrating exchanges and the concomitant political wrangling certainly factor into the hikers' continued detention, but there's another aspect at play here that is less apparent and perhaps not quite as intuitively obvious. A large portion of the media coverage of the hikers has created an essentially decontextualized, vapid image of them as (in Shon's words) "some sort of granola-munching, REI-club idiots." This coverage may have been intended to create sympathy by suppressing their radical roots, but all it seems to have accomplished is to "infantilize and disrespect" them, as Shon notes:
"There's a large part of the country preoccupied with reminding themselves why they deserve everything they have, why they belong in the situation they're in, and insisting that others' misfortunes are what they deserve is the best way to argue that. I'm not surprised that they don't recognize that my friends are the Woodward/Bernsteins, the de Beauvoirs, and the John Muirs of our generation -- those folks were dismissed by the same types in their time as well. It also doesn't help that the media has effectively infantilized them, and completely written the work they've done out of the picture."
As if to reinforce this sense of callous preoccupation, consider just a few of the many typical comments on a recent Huffington Post article that reprinted the Associated Press story about the hikers' mothers returning home from their visit to Iran without their children: "I hear North Korea is beautiful in the spring. They should go hiking there next. Morons." "If you are this dumb then I think the Iranians should keep you." "No sympathy here .... of all the F~ing places on earth to hike they Iran Iraq.... you wanna dance you gotta pay the piper."
In this light, we can discern the dominant depiction of the hikers as so dumb that they deserve their fate. Even well-meaning columnists have used the hikers' misfortune as an opportunity to advance their own views about U.S. mistreatment of prisoners, curiously implying that the case against the hikers is stronger than that against many U.S. detainees: "Unlike the three American hikers who wandered into Iran and are held in that country according to its laws, the men held at Guantanamo never wandered into the US...." It's understandable to criticize U.S. treatment of prisoners (as have the hikers themselves) and even to contrast it with the hikers' treatment in Iran, but once again this constructs them more as political pawns or soulless dupes despite their incredibly rich histories as activists, journalists, humanitarians, and ostensible citizens of the world. Indeed, I wonder if the reaction to the hikers' situation would have been different if a simple rhetorical shift had been made at the outset, and they had been referred to as "three American journalists" rather than mere hikers. Or perhaps more to the point, as suggested in a friend's blog, if the spin had been to portray them as three activists "dedicated to working for a better, more just, and more sustainable world."
At the end of the day, whatever else gets folded into their case, at root there are three decent and compassionate human beings languishing in captivity half a world away. In speaking with Shon, he continually referred to the pain of being separated from his friends, the sense of futility in not being able to bring them home, and the frustrations of riding an emotional roller coaster for the past ten months. He also notes that it would be a "terrible irony" if the result of their travails was that it might "discourage people from traveling, when we've spent our lives encouraging people to see the world for themselves." Similarly, he lamented the fact that this episode could lead to increasing tensions with Iran and worse relations with the Middle East in general despite the fact that their entire purpose has been to promote exactly the opposite. "I hope someday this experience can somehow be worked in, consistent with the lives they've been leading," he said.
As a final thought, I asked Shon what he planned to do when his friends are finally released. "I'll drop everything and race to see them," he beamed. "I've been concerned about their mental state, and will do whatever it takes to help them reacclimate and catch up with their lives. I'm sure they'll want to be outside with people they're close to and spend some quality time in nature." After all, they still have a hike to finish -- one that was cut short by the misconceptions and machinations of a world that they've spent their lives working to help heal.