Giving ‘Freedom’ a Bad Name

This week marks the third anniversary of the start of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” That disastrous invasion was justified by a misinformation campaign full of stories about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, links with al-Qaeda, and human rights violations. Three years later, the first two accusations have proven spurious, and the U.S.’s credibility to address the third issue has become deeply suspect. Abuses in Iraq are, as a top human rights UN official in the country recently argued, “certainly as bad” and extend “over a much wider section of the population than” under Saddam Hussein.

Yet once again the halls of Washington ring with calls for “regime change,” this time in Iran. On March 7, Vice President Dick Cheney threatened ominously that “all options [are] on the table.” The hawkish U.S. Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, warned of “tangible and painful consequences” for Iran and lobbied the use of “all available means to stop the threat of the Iranian regime.” Last week, President Bush reaffirmed his disastrous doctrine of pre-emptive war in practically the same breath as his condemnation of Iran.

Against this war-mongering backdrop, last Saturday a few Harvard students organized an “Iran Freedom Concert” with the supposed aim of promoting awareness about human rights violations in Iran. According to the concert’s website, the organizers took no stance “on policy issues like foreign intervention.” Their message was “simple”: “Civil rights must be respected by any Iranian government, and freedom must become a reality for all Iranians.”

This statement is at best naïve, at worst disingenuous; although the student organizers of the concert may have had innocent intentions, the concert’s primary supporters had much more suspect motives. The concert, according to its website, was organized with “guidance and logistical support” from the American Islamic Congress (AIC). Supporters of the concert may be surprised to know that the AIC was a vocal supporter of the Iraq invasion. In 2002, AIC director Zainab al-Suwaij stated her position clearly: “The real question is not whether to liberate Iraq, but why we have not done so already.” In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, al-Suwaij wrote: “On behalf of Iraqis who cannot speak openly with reporters or who have given their lives trying to free Iraq from Hussein’s brutal rule, let me say clearly: American, British and other allied soldiers are a sign of hope and liberation.” The AIC director has continued to celebrate the American misadventure in Iraq, even as the occupation there grows more gruesome every day.

Furthermore, the main guest featured at the Iran Freedom Concert, activist Akbar Atri, strongly endorsed the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq at the event. He had already discredited himself among Iranian reformists earlier this month when he appeared before Congress as a self-appointed representative of the student movement to ask for American support for regime change in Iran.

If the organizers were interested in drawing attention to Iran, perhaps they would have contacted an Iranian student organization. In fact, not a single member of the Harvard Persian Society (primarily undergraduates) or the Harvard Iranian Students Association (HISA) (primarily graduates) was asked to support the concert. Only when a translator was needed did the organizers bother to contact HISA.

The need to defend human rights in Iran is as indisputable as the regime’s long record of torture and suppression of basic freedoms. The rights of women and ethnic and religious minorities are routinely repressed. Prominent activists, such as Akbar Ganji and Roya Toloui, are routinely attacked for dissident opinions. Yet these same human rights activists oppose foreign interference and invasion (including the U.S.’s ongoing economic sanctions), because outside pressure is counterproductive and undermines positive, grass-roots change. Foreign interference destroys civilian lives, institutions, and infrastructure, and provides a pretext for heightened repression. Solidarity with Iranian dissidents must be sophisticated enough to avoid manipulation by the neo-conservative agenda.

Make no mistake, the first victims of any U.S. aggression against Iran—completely left out of the agenda of the “Freedom Concert”—would be on-the-ground Iranian progressives. “We are under pressure here both from hard-liners in the judiciary and that stupid George Bush,” human rights activist Emad Baghi told the Washington Post last week. “When he says he wants to promote democracy in Iran, he gives money to these outside groups, and we’re in here suffering. The pressure is on people who are trying to promote human rights inside the country. I feel [Iranian President] Ahmadinejad and President Bush are like two blades of a scissor.”

Given the U.S. government’s ability to ignore the abuses of its allies, writes Shirin Ebadi, Nobel laureate and human rights activist, “It is hard not to see the Bush administration’s focus on human rights violations in Iran as a cloak for its larger strategic interests.” According to Ebadi, “The possibility of a foreign military attack…represents an utter disaster for [our] cause.”

In light of the ongoing human rights disaster in Iraq, progressives of all stripes should be wary of the hollow invocation of democracy and freedom by those who have no interest in either. The “Freedom Concert’s” ties to off-campus pro-war organizations, and its own deafening silence on the question of invasion fails to avoid this very trap.



Alireza Doostdar is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies. Maryam Monalisa Gharavi is a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature and a member of Alliance for Justice in the Middle East.