Akbar Ganji: 'The 12th Shia imam was a historical invention' - Middle East Transparent

Akbar Ganji: ’The 12th Shia imam was a historical invention’

Saturday 3 January 2009

Nushin Arbabzadah

’They all think I’m a spy’Once a revolutionary who helped bring down Iran’s monarchy in 1979, Akbar Ganji is now the country’s most outspoken reformist

It’s not every day that I have lunch with a revolutionary. So when an invitation came to do just that with Akbar Ganji, ex-revolutionary turned Iran’s most outspoken reformist, I answered with an enthusiastic yes.

When a popular revolution brought down the monarchy in Iran in 1979, Ganji was 19 years old and in the thick of it. Over the years, I’ve made friends with many victims of this revolution. Some of them were children of leftwing activists turned refugees, others belonged to religious minorities like the Baha’is. There were also the unaccompanied male refugees, teenagers who, had they stayed in Iran, would have been marched across mine fields during the Iran-Iraq war, equipped with a plastic key to open the gate to heaven in case they were blown up.

The majority of the Iranians I met, however, were ordinary people forced out of Iran because their country, history and identity had been hijacked by Shia revolutionaries. I saw many a family break down under the pressure of forced exile. A friend’s mother, formerly a singer, lost her mind. "She points to a bird outside and says, ’look, that’s me, over there’," my friend explained when discussing her mother’s madness. Such stories were common but I had never met the people on the other side – those who supported the revolution even after the attribute "Islamic" was added to it, depriving the communists, socialists and nationalists of their right to shape post-monarchy Iran.

Ganji was my first chance at such a face-to-face meeting. He was an Islamist revolutionary insider who had since turned critic and reformist. I wanted to find out what made him become a revolutionary and what caused the change of mind which led him to six years of imprisonment in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

"Why don’t you drive with us to the doctor’s and do the interview in the car?" Ganji suggested after the lunch. At the meeting Ganji had been busy answering questions posed by a group of academics, mostly Iranians resident in the US. The debate was lively and, at one point, I nearly dropped my fork in astonishment. The 12th Shia imam, Ganji said, was a historical invention born out of a family dispute over the 11th imam’s successor and inheritance. I looked around the room, in vain searching for bodyguards. In most Shia circles, Ganji’s words would be considered blasphemy, putting him in serious danger. But Ganji seemed oblivious, and carried on explaining that both rational reasoning and historical evidence spoke against the existence of the 12th imam.

As he talked, Ganji became lively, throwing Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein into the conversation. Watching Ganji speak, I understood that in his heart of hearts he was an academic. Had he been born in Germany he would no doubt have become a sociology professor, walking up and down the lecture hall, excitedly discussing socio-historical approaches to religion. As it happened, Ganji was born in south Tehran, a working-class district where reading Arendt in Farsi translation could lead to intellectual upheaval in a young student’s mind, turning a revolutionary believer into a reformist dissident.

Iran has a long and proud tradition of philosophical reasoning, and intellectual debate is part and parcel of the Usuli school of Shia islam. But thinking in Iran has rarely been inconsequential. In Ganji’s case, the consequence was six years of prison, a recent fatwa from Tehran declaring him an apostate (Ganji told me he was a Shia but didn’t believe in the infallibility of the imams, "they were just good Muslims, that’s all", he said), and a life in exile often surrounded by fellow compatriots who find it hard to forgive Ganji his early days as a member of the revolutionary guard or Pasdaran.

Inside the car, I switched on the voice recorder and started the interview. Ganji’s answers were abstract but also thorough and detailed. He told me that like many other Iranians, he had joined the revolution to gain freedom, independence and prosperity for Iran but soon found himself disillusioned. The turning point for him was after the first year. He had just read Arendt and Popper and saw the truth of their words translated into action in revolutionary Iran. Staged to put an end to an oppressive regime, the revolution had created a system that was even more violent and oppressive than the one it had overthrown. "I understood that revolutions are by nature violent," he told me. "Revolutions are just that, violent and oppressive, they can never lead to freedom."

Like a revolutionary character from a Russian novel, Ganji remained abstract and intellectual when he talked about his political past and his term in prison, which was his punishment for revealing torture and killing in Evin prison, or the hunger strike that nearly killed him before ensuring his release. Later, in the reception room of a Los Angeles doctor, we discussed the relentless back pain that was caused by spending months in a tiny prison cell. I searched his expression for signs of hatred but only found a smiling face with kind and intelligent eyes. I asked Ganji, "Aren’t you bitter?" He shrugged. "No. It’s not personal, it’s about Iran."

On the way back, the phone rang and I overheard Ganji saying, "If somebody so close to me is so suspicious, what am I to expect of others?" He turned to me, and said, "They all think I’m a spy." By "they", he meant his fellow Iranian exiles in the US.

I later asked an Iranian journalist about this. He said, "Look, if you listen to the average Iranian, even Mickey Mouse is a Zionist, Wahhabist, or imperialist. I don’t personally care for Ganji but at least he has shown courage where many who claim undying love for Iran haven’t even lifted a finger to help her."

After all, what’s so surprising about a revolutionary changing his mind?

The orignial title of this article is: ’They all think I’m a spy’]

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