Let’s Not Trivialize Discrimination in Iran

Maryam Kousha and Peter Tatchell
WCP leader Maryam Kousha addresses protesters in London in 2005.  Also pictured is Peter Tatchell.

It is a sad day when self-described progressive gay rights defenders risk their credibility to promote the agendas of Middle Eastern fanatics.  Yet that was just the scenario when Doug Ireland and Peter Tatchell broke with several reputable rights groups to spearhead protests last July against “gay executions” in Iran.  In blog entries that read like tabloid sensationalism, Tatchell in Britain and Ireland in the United States have since repeated unsubstantiated claims they receive from politically motivated exile groups.

The duo’s research largely consists of input from two well-financed bands of Iranian fugitives, the Workers Communist Party of Iran and the National Council of Resistance of Iran.  The second group is more commonly known as MEK, MKO, or PMOI.  Both groups are based in Europe and proudly advocate the overthrow of Iran’s government at the top of their agendas.  Both have for years spread outdated exaggerations about Iran’s spotty human rights record to Westerners in order to make reconciliation with Iran unpopular.  Genuine human rights campaigners need to maintain a healthy skepticism about all savior wannabes, of which the Islamic Republic is but one.

Presumably what makes the fugitives appealing to Ireland and Tatchell is that they give prominent leadership roles to women and therefore seem like ideal anti-fundamentalists.  Despite irrefutable evidence of MEK’s mercenary background, Tatchell describes the militia as “a key liberation movement” on par with Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.  Neither MEK nor any of its leading figures have supported a sexual minority’s struggle against discrimination in their 41-year history.

Nor have gay rights ever had a place on the platform of the Workers Communist Party (WCP), whose numerous front groups in Europe and North America include the Iran Civil Rights Committee, the International Federation of Iranian Refugees, and the Organization for Women’s Liberation.  The Party’s top leaders, Koorosh Modarresi and Hamid Taqvaee, have repeatedly certified that its reason for existence is to “to capture political power.”  Although it is notorious in the expatriate community for censoring its own membership, WCP has helped Salman Rushdie’s defenders and vigorously defended the controversial 2006 cartoons of Prophet Mohammad in the name of freedom of speech.  It has also joined pro-Israel activists who oppose the socialist mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.  It would be utterly naïve to think that the cause of gay rights in Iran could remain faithful to facts in this tense “clash of civilizations” minefield.

Nevertheless, WCP activists prompted Peter Tatchell and a handful of British celebrities to demonstrate in London in October 2005 against “ongoing torture and execution of gay lovers” in Iran.  Doug Ireland joined the campaign, even though precious few of his or Tatchell’s expatriate sources have been to Iran in two decades.

In interview after interview, the Party leadership’s position mimics the pronouncements of well-known Washington neoconservatives associated with the far right Committee on the Present Danger:

  • WCP attacks “pacifism,” arguing that a cleansing war to end “tribalism and fundamentalism” in the Muslim world is better than a peace that allows “political Islam” to grow.  It condemns Islamist resistance to foreign occupations as anti-modernist and praises Israel for being a “democratic” outpost in a regressive region.
  • Reacting to Israel’s war on Lebanon last year, the Party demanded that Hezbollah be disarmed, but did not call for an end to US military deliveries to Israel.
  • The Party abhors what it labels the “cultural relativism” of Muslim civil rights defenders in Europe and North America and their Western “apologist” allies, like London mayor Ken Livingston, who are bent on “returning the world to medieval times.”
  • To rid Iran of Islamic “superstition,” the Party’s political platform calls for the European script to replace Iran’s Farsi alphabet and for English to be adopted as Iran’s administrative and educational language.
  • Party leaders have accused the United Nations of tolerating “fascist Islamic populism” at the expense of universal rights.

Ireland and Tatchell Play Hill & Knowlton

You may remember that in late 1990, as the White House prepared public opinion for the first invasion of Iraq, a multimillion-dollar PR contract from Kuwait’s ruling family prompted “Free Kuwait Day” rallies across America.  Hired propagandists at Hill & Knowlton next arranged for media reports and “eyewitnesses” in congressional hearings that alleged Iraqi troops had thrown dozens of premature Kuwaiti babies out of hospital incubators.  The testimony was eventually revealed to be a fabrication, but not before the senior President Bush devastated Iraq, with congressional approval.  Ireland and Tatchell, aided by conservative journalist Andrew Sullivan and others, are providing the same service to Washington’s empire project as did Hill & Knowlton, for free.  Borrowing from the PR professionals who compared Saddam to Hitler, Tatchell has termed Iran’s leadership “fascists.”

The two activists have not explained why their outrage about terrorist attacks on Western soil has focused on Iran.  After all, no persons or resources of Iranian origin have been linked to the fundamentalist Sunni attacks.  They, like the Israel lobby and the U.S. government, largely spare the US-friendly Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which are known to the rest of us as the breeding grounds of the 9/11 and London attackers.

I am suspicious about the fuss surrounding what Ireland and Tatchell call “gay executions” in Iran for several reasons.

1.  Farsi-Language broadcasts, journals, and websites of Iranian opposition groups of all stripes in exile have very rarely, if ever, alleged that homosexuals are targeted in Iran.  These are sources that, like their Cuban American counterparts, invariably thrive on exaggerated bad news about their homeland.  Maintaining a climate of urgency is how political hopefuls in the expatriate community market themselves as the indispensable alternative to the theocracy in Iran.  Still the Farsi media in diaspora do not claim that homosexuals are especially mistreated in the Islamic Republic.

Several opposition activists I interviewed in Iran recently dismissed Tatchell’s and Ireland’s allegations because, they said, thousands of military age men have been granted exemption from the draft in Iran after the authorities verified their claims of being active homosexuals.  Last year Dutch journalist Thomas Erdbrink, who has reported from Iran for years, interviewed a Tehran physician, Fereidun Mehrabi, who examines the applicants for the exemption (Erdbrink’s report was translated into Persian by a well-known gay rights activist).  Could it be that Tatchell and Ireland are better informed?

2.  Bahman Kalbasi, an Iranian activist who fled to Canada after being detained and beaten in 2001 for reasons other than his sexual orientation, had this to say to a Canadian gay journal last year:

. . . gay sex is thriving in [Iran’s] cities and the powers-that-be generally look the other way . . .  They know all the gay gatherings in the city, where people go.  I’ve been to one party that I’m sure they knew about.  Over 60 kids were having orgies there. . . .  [Y]ou can party within your private sphere . . . as long as you don’t make it political, as long as you don’t start coming together and saying, ‘we, as a community, have a right.’

Erdbrink was told by another gay man, “I have never had any trouble with the authorities.  True the police occasionally bust a private gay party, but they do that to heterosexuals, too.  Actually we have more freedom, because our parties do not include girls.”  Dr Mehrabi told the same reporter, “[In big cities] people who do not broadcast their gay lifestyle from the rooftop can live comfortably.”

3.  Earlier this year, a dozen homosexual men and women in Tehran discussed social pressures and official restrictions on homosexual life on camera for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary.  The show was juiced up with flashes of added, unexplained execution scenes and presumed torture victims, and the program host labored to dramatize the subject matter.  But even with the added sensationalism, the filmed interviews and party scenes were, if anything, evidence that homosexual men and women in Iran do not fear for their lives, because practically no one hid from the camera.

My gay friends in Iran laugh at accounts of “targeted” sexual minorities that abound on Ireland’s blog, like this one:

The level of surveillance [of homosexuals] in Iran has reached maximum since the reports of the hanged boys got out . . .  You would be surprised how far I had to go to find out what happened.  Can you believe one of my contacts had to dress up as a woman — with full facial nikkhab — also wearing gloves . . . and go into an Internet cafe . . . only to use Yahoo Messenger he created right there for only — yes — just a one-minute message to me?  He had to travel a day to this Internet cafe to make sure nothing would get back to him.  It is that scary.  People are rightfully scared for their lives.

4.  During two visits to Iran in the past year, I separately asked a dozen liberal critics of the government whether the authorities target homosexuals.  None agreed with Tatchell’s and Ireland’s claim that homosexuals are entrapped and gay prisoners are secretly executed.  I was told by everyone with knowledge of death sentences for crimes involving same-sex intercourse that the men were executed for raping children.  None agreed with Western rumors that some death sentences amount to “honor killings” issued in cases where homosexual intercourse is consensual.

5.  Unlike alcohol consumption and heterosexual love outside marriage, male-on-male sex has been practiced discretely and tolerated widely in the most traditional segments of Iranian society, where the Islamic Republic’s social roots and political constituency are strongest.  In fact, active prejudice against homosexual conduct came to Iran with modernity, as historian Afsaneh Najmabadi told a Harvard audience in 2002.  It is difficult, therefore, to accept allegations that the strictest of old-fashioned Islamic Republic authorities target gays and lesbians solely for their lifestyle.  While it is true that the Iranian legal code makes male-on-male intercourse punishable by death, the standard of proof is so stringent (four eyewitnesses) as to make enforcement all but impossible.  In fact, it is common knowledge that same-sex contact exists quietly among the clergy and seminary students as much as in the wider society.

6.  I am also suspicious about Tatchell’s and Ireland’s campaign because the fuss does not correspond to a detectable worsening of gay life in Iran.  Social constraints in the Islamic Republic were harshest before the late 1990s, but claims of state violence against Iran’s sexual minorities were far less common then in the West.

Even during those bleak years, harassing homosexuals was not a priority for Iranian authorities.  My own sister could not in the mid-1980s get any attention when she presented evidence to Iranian law enforcement officials of her then-husband’s homosexual flings.  In another personal episode, a new immigrant whom I briefly dated in 1992 in Maryland had similarly divorced her husband in Iran after the police repeatedly refused to interfere with his same-sex infidelities.

7.  In recent years the number of Iranians seeking asylum in the West on grounds that homosexual men are officially tortured and hanged back home has grown steadily while the overall number of Iranian asylum applications has declined.  It is common knowledge among recent Iranian arrivals that many heterosexual Iranians with expired European Union, Canadian, and U.S. visas use the “endangered gay” defense solely to be allowed to remain in the West.  Award-winning human rights activist Omid Memarian confirmed these suspicions last year, based on interviews he conducted with Iranians stranded in Turkey en route to Europe.  Extremist expatriate organizations smell opportunity in this desperation.

Exaggeration for Partisan Gain

Long-time Iranian activists in the West recall that as far back as the 1960s and 70s, their competing factions devoted enormous energy to embracing newcomers who, it was hoped, would become political recruits.  Today, the London-based International Federation of Iranian Refugees, and other groups fronting for the Workers Communist Party, continue this legacy with more vigor than most.  (MEK’s recruitment efforts declined sharply in 2003, after the militia lost its sponsor, Saddam Hussein, and had its main military center in Iraq paced under U.S. control.)  WCP helps stranded compatriots with job search, legal advice, and temporary housing while proselytizing to them to join the fanatically anti-Islamic Party.  It also magnifies and exploits the “gay persecution” defense of the asylum seekers to convince Western public opinion that détente with Iran is a betrayal of the people of the country.

The history of expatriates exaggerating the villainy of the Shah should be a red flag to us.  Numerous repentant anti-Shah campaigners of all stripes now openly condemn the exaggerations that they tolerated, made, or helped spread in the 1970s in order to hasten the Iranian Revolution.  Many passionately argue in Farsi-language websites, broadcasts, forums, and journals that overstating the number of the monarchy’s political prisoners and atrocities made it difficult later to organize against clerical excesses.

When I raised doubts about alleged police brutality against women protesters in Tehran last year, among a variety of emailed reactions I heard from two such former activists who said they no longer believed “anything” the Iranian opposition said.  One recalled how his 1978 meeting with a sympathetic Washington politician accomplished little because he foolishly tried to convince the Senator that the Shah’s troops had slaughtered 5,000 demonstrators in Tehran’s Jaleh Square in one morning!  Still, the current crop of extremists campaigning for “freedom and democracy” in Iran are led by ideology to exaggerate, as the remorseful former British MEK activist, Anne Singleton, explains in her memoirs, Saddam’s Private Army.  Tatchel and Ireland seem to blindly follow the herd.

The geopolitical stakes are so high in the Persian Gulf that former secretary of state, Colin Powell, lied about Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction on camera at the UN just five years ago.  We learned later that his sources were politically ambitious Iraqi exiles.  So I see no reason to trust what Tatchell and Ireland hear from their arranged “gay contacts in Iran,” about whom they know nothing and who may well have a personal or ideological grudge.  The elaborate tale of rape and torture invented by one Iraqi “victim” that eager US occupiers (including Paul Bremer and even a retired American judge) and the Washington Post fell for in 2003 should have taught us a little humility.  “Diaries” of fake Holocaust survivors, including The Painted Bird (published 1965) and Fragments (1996), too, won literary awards and rave reviews in the United States, as Norman Finkelstein documented in The Holocaust Industry, because of partisan sympathies.

I grew up in the 1960s with a steady literary diet of tales of horror that demonized the former Soviet Bloc decades after the kind of massacre that wiped out half of my father’s clan had ceased in the U.S.S.R.  Years later still, acting on personal curiosity, I learned that much of what I took to be “the truth” about the communist threat was in fact Western propaganda aimed at masking U.S. aggression in Indochina, Central America, and elsewhere.

With that in mind, I see no reason to give more credence to Tatchell’s and Ireland’s favorite bloggers and unseen “witnesses,” referred by scripted exile groups, than to the UN Committee Against Torture, which in 2003 found “no active policy of prosecution of charges of homosexuality in Iran.” I am also reluctant to follow Tatchell’s and Ireland’s lead because a number of reputable gay rights NGOs on both sides of the Atlantic have pointedly shunned the campaign led by these extremists.  We should all be on the alert against politically motivated exaggerations if genuine accounts of discrimination in Iran are to gain legitimacy.  Let us demand of the Iranian opposition the same standard of accountability that we insist the government in Tehran must accept.

The progressive community, a frequent target of red-baiters and self-righteous moralists, normally strives to be less gullible than everyone else.  We are not the market that AM talk radio was created for.  We should all think like Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.  She said in an email to the gay community, “It’s interesting that this case has suddenly drawn such a rapid and strong response when these [alleged Iranian] abuses have been going on for years without a peep from US-based LGBT groups.  Why now?  Why just Iran?”

Based in Washington DC, Rostam Pourzal writes regularly on the politics of human rights.   MRZine has also published Pourzal’s “Market Fundamentalists Lose in Iran (For Now)” (3 August 2005); “Open Letter to Iran’s Nobel Laureate” (27 February 2006); “Open Letter to Iran’s Nobel Laureate: Part 2” (9 March 2006); “The Shah: America’s Nuclear Poster Boy” (25 May 2006); “Iranian Cold Warriors in Sheep’s Clothing” (20 May 2006); “MEK Tricks US Progressives, Gains Legitimacy” (12 June 2006); “What Really Happened in Tehran on June 12? Did Human Rights Watch Get It Wrong?” (18 June 2006); “Iran’s Western Behavior Deserves Criticism” (24 June 2006); “Iranian Anti-Censorship Crusader Accepts Censorship at Amnesty International” (19 July 2006); and “An Israeli Attack Can Shatter the Relative Safety of Iran’s Jews” (28 July 2006).

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