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
" -- 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.'"

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
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
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
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
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
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
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
, 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.

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