Every year during his visit to the United Nations General Assembly, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad holds a series of strategic dinners and meetings. This year, one of his dinners in New York was held for American anti-war, social justice and peace activists, and I attended it.
I firmly believe in diplomacy and dialogue and am disappointed each year with the growing lack of international cooperation and failing leadership. We saw the same thing surrounding Ahmadinejad’s trip to the UN. The United States and Iran refuse to talk to each other so they talk around one another hoping that their messages will get delivered to those they are seeking to court. Lost in translation between these two countries and the static political posturing they use are the people of Iran and the United States.
While I didn’t know if I would have the opportunity to ask any questions or raise any issues at the meeting, I was hoping that I would be one among many that would challenge Ahmadinejad over Iran’s human rights violations.
Unfortunately, after over one hour of speeches from other activists in the room, I found myself feeling disappointed and dismayed. One after another, the guests at the dinner delivered prepared statements, posing no questions or challenges to the Iranian delegation. Mostly, people expressed outrage over U.S. foreign policy. They lauded Ahmadinejad as a hero for standing up to the bullying of the United States government and likened the meeting to Malcolm X’s encounters in Africa with revolutionaries fighting against colonialism. Many apologized for decades of dire U.S. policy towards Iran, while calling for self-determination for Iran and confidence in Ahmadinejad.
Speech after speech failed to address any calls for solidarity with the brave young men and women in Iran who took to the streets and demanded their rights in the face of government suppression. Iran has upwards of 500 political prisoners and the highest rate of capital punishment in the world. In the last year government critical newspapers have been shut down and countless journalists imprisoned. An estimated 44 people were killed in street protests in the last year.
I recognize that many in the room were not there to excuse the Iranian government’s brutality, but their silence was striking. A fundamental role we have as American peace and social justice activists is to oppose our government’s threats towards Iran, while building solidarity with the Iranian people. Activists calling for solidarity at the dinner acted as though we stood in a town hall with our Iranian counter parts; however, the fact is we stood in a room with the Iranian state, not its people.
Students, human rights defenders, and common folk currently languish in Iranian prisons for doing the very thing we did on this night – criticize their own government. This reality is the only thing that gave me the courage to stay at this dinner. I stood up and expressed my concern for my Iranian counterparts by stating, that attorneys in Iran like Nasrin Sotoudeh, and student activists like Bahar Hedayat and Majid Tavakoli have been imprisoned for criticizing Ahmadinejad. I went on to suggest that Ahmadinejad honor fundamental human rights and proposed a moratorium on executions and insisted that law be upheld in the judiciary. I spoke just a dozen feet away from him and looked at him the entire time. As I named the Iranian activists he put his head down and began writing.
Nothing I did or said was radical or out of line. But in the aftermath of the other attendees’ shocking adoration for Ahmadinejad and their shameful silence as to the Iranian government’s human rights abuses, I felt extreme and alone.
I refuse to be an apologist for any government’s moral bankruptcy—including my own. As a lawyer, I speak out for immigrant rights and attacks on civil liberties and I do not believe that we have any chance at a real and lasting dialogue if we see our struggle through the prism of any state. We need to find a better way to speak truth to power, whether that power is here at home or just in town for the week.
Some will say that first and foremost we must not impose our viewpoints on Iranians. They will also say that the protests were orchestrated and carried out by western spies. But I know people in Iran, friends, loved ones, and ordinary Iranians who were beaten in the streets, hospitalized, and arrested because they exercised their right to protest their government.
I add that Iran, like nearly every other state, is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it has consistently violated. This covenant expresses what most people inherently know their rights are as human beings. It upholds the right of all people to self-determination, to freedom of expression, to receive and impart information, and to the freedom of assembly.
Who have we become as a peace and social justice movement when we accept and repeat as fact Iranian state propaganda dismissing the recent uprisings in Iran and the continued bravery of activists defending their rights? Just as J. Edgar Hoover likened civil rights activists to communists in order to de-legitimize them, so too has the Iranian government used the accusation of western spies to dismiss the relevancy of any resistance. They have thus stated that thousands of people voicing dissent and protest do not have the will to serve as their own actors. It is a grave failure on the part of peace and social justice activists to assume this position and belittle our Iranian counterparts. We must not turn our focus away from the Iranian activists we aim to work in solidarity with.
I believe strongly in the old adage “speak truth to power.” I was taught long ago, through the antiwar and peace movement—the very community that was at this dinner—that our job must include speaking up for those who have had their voices suppressed when we have the ability to do so. It also means having the knowledge and experience to have a nuanced conversation about the obstacles we face and not simply taking part in the self-censorship, deference to power, and accepted frameworks that have come to define any discourse in politics and diplomacy.
We have a tremendous task ahead of us. Many people have sacrificed a great deal in both countries to do this important work. Iranians took tremendous risks not only on the streets of Iran, but also with the videos and messages they delivered across the internet so that we would know the truth about their resistance. We believe in their right for self-determination and our voices must demand it. We owe them better than this.