You may have been stressed out during finals, but at least you didn’t have to take your tests in handcuffs.
That’s what Mojtaba Saminejad, a student at Tehran’s Azad University, had to do on Jan. 21. Saminejad was sentenced to two years for nothing more than “insulting the Supreme Guide.”
In a country referred to as the “largest prison for journalists in the Middle East,” Iranians face stiff penalties for exercising their right to free speech. Since April 2000, nearly 100 newspapers have been shut down because bold journalists dared to challenge the regime.
One of the most prominent among them, Akbar Ganji, is currently serving his sixth year in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. He was thrown in jail for publishing articles implicating the regime in a series of murders, but his resolute defiance has made him the most famous political prisoner in the country. Last May, Ganji went on a hunger strike to protest his incarceration. In deteriorating health, he released a defiant statement: “No one should be imprisoned—not even for a second—for expressing an opinion.”
Journalists are not the only ones who suffer under today’s Iranian government. Women, homosexuals, and minorities also face a bleak existence. According to Human Rights Watch, four Iranians were publicly hung last year for engaging in homosexual acts. Females no longer have their lips sliced off for wearing lipstick, but they are barred from holding positions of significant power. (Eighty-nine women had their candidacy for presidency rejected simply because of their gender.) Minority populations, for their part, routinely face restrictions in expressing their identity: Members of the Baha’i religion are often prevented from attending universities, and some Baha’i have been imprisoned solely because of their faith.
Why should Harvard students care about the suffering in Iran? And what can they do about it? Human rights advocates always run into a number of formidable hurdles in addressing any crisis abroad. Many of us struggle with difficult questions about what exactly constitutes a violation of human rights and whether it is appropriate for us to be the moral arbiters for a distant culture. And so on, until we have plagued ourselves with self-doubt. Certainly, the unelected clerics of Iran depend on enough of us doing that. But those of us who are sincerely concerned with the plight of Iranians cannot satisfy ourselves through further abdication. It is crystal clear that something has to be done.
Even people halfway around the world can accomplish something important for Iran. In an interview with a German newspaper, one of Iran’s leading reformers, Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, said, “The conservatives always cave in to a lot of foreign criticism, and when there is no foreign criticism, they do what they want. I predict that in the future, if there is no international pressure, there will be even more crackdowns, arrests, and imprisonments, but if there is international concern these things will be reduced.” Haghighatjoo’s remarks have been echoed by scores of Iranian reformers, who depend on outsiders to hold the regime accountable in ways they cannot.
For those of us who want to take action, there are two things we can easily do here at Harvard. First, we can educate ourselves about Iran and raise awareness about the struggles our counterparts face on a daily basis. Seventy percent of Iranians are under the age of 30, and 50 percent are under the age of 20—much of the country is made up of young people like us.
Second, we can leverage the power of Harvard University to let Iranians know that they are not alone in their struggle. By organizing events to show support for the Iranian people—some of which just might gain enough media attention to reach them via Internet (Farsi is one of the most-blogged languages)—we can give them hope in their time of need and provide vital moral support for their cause.
For these reasons, a coalition of students has united to sponsor the Iran Freedom Concert this weekend. Many campus organizations, including an unusual alliance between the Harvard College Democrats and the Harvard Republican Club, have come together with a leading Iranian student activist, Akbar Atri, to do our small part to put this issue on the map here in Cambridge. Harvard will be leading an international campaign—spanning from Georgetown, Duke, and the University of Pennsylvania to Oxford—of students expressing solidarity with Iran’s students and citizens.
Our show of support is the very least we can do for our counterparts in Iran.
Nicholas B. Manske ’09 lives in Pennypacker Hall. Alex M. McLeese ’09, a Crimson news editor, lives in Pennypacker Hall. Harvard’s Iran Freedom Concert will take place this Saturday at 8 p.m. in Leverett House.