My own article on the case has been translated into Farsi, and is available on the website of the Iranian Queer Organization.
On the night of October 9 (17 Mehr 1392), the Nabi Akram (Prophet’s) Corps — part of the Revolutionary Guards – raided a birthday party at a community hall in Kermanshah, in western Iran. The website of the city’s basij (religious police) reported it the next day. It said a “network” of “several dozen” people engaged in homosexuality (the derogatory term used was hamjensbaz) and Satan-worshipping (Shaitan parasti) was broken up. The “network” had been “under surveillance of the security forces of the Revolutionary Guards for several months.” Eight people in the group were “homosexually married.”.
There were several foreign nationals from Iraq and some other countries in the region … Groups practicing Satan worship and homosexuality had sent support from abroad. For a long time these disgusting practices have sought to penetrate the country.
Some additional information on this has come from sources inside Iran, and with the permission of the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), which has been following this closely, I can share a few things they have been able to confirm.
- About 80 people were caught in the party. The Guards used pepper spray, beat many of them, and took the personal information (including mobile numbers) of everyone they found.
- 17 people were arrested (the rest were freed that night), taken first to a police station and then to an unknown location. They were beaten, threatened, and verbally and physically humiliated.
- Most of those have been released, but five remain imprisoned. There were reports they would face a court today — Saturday — but no one as yet knows the charges or the outcome.
- All reports suggest that straight as well as gay and lesbian and transgender people were at at the party.
The story has already made it to the international press, so it’s probably worthwhile offering a few cautions as well as reflections.
First, there’s almost nothing that can be done right now, at least until the outcome of the first hearing is known. Lawyers are on the case in Kermanshah. International interventions tend to polarize things; they can tip governments into pursuing prosecutions when they’re hesitating, or turn fluid situations into injustices set in concrete. This is particularly true when the conservatives responsible for the arrests are already pointing to the penetration of the nation by foreign (im)morals.
Second, we don’t know anything about the arrested people: either what they’re accused of, or whether they identify as heterosexual, gay, transgender, or something else. Don’t presume on their identities. It was in Kermanshah in 2007 that Iranian authorities executed Makwan Moulodzadeh, a young man who’d been convicted for the rape of three teenaged boys (while himself a teenager) in a nearby town. His case was not helped — in fact, his judicial murder was arguably facilitated — by Western activists who tried to defend him by claiming without any evidence that he was “gay” and had a gay “partner,” and hence was guilty of another capital crime. There’s no room for a repetition of those mistakes.
Predictably, if so far in a minor way, international politics have already entangled the story. Ben Weinthal, a propagandist working for the right-wing “Foundation for Defense of Democracies,” (which Glenn Greenwald called “a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country”) tweeted it:
Weinthal is paid to promote a war against Teheran, with Western LGBT communities as a swing constituency to convert (most ridiculously, he took to New York’s Gay City News some years back to opine that an “anti-gay genocide” was happening in Iran). His solicitude for Iranian gays is a bit hard to take seriously given that he wants to kill them, and plenty of other Iranians, in a military assault.
Nonetheless, it’s very possible this is part of a test for Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani, even if not quite what the neocons imagine. Since taking office, Rouhani has struggled to establish the perimeters of his power in an inherently ambiguous system where the president is subordinate to the Supreme Leader. This has meant trying to rein in the other power centers in which authority is dispersed – most more loyal, and formally more responsible, to Ayatollah Khameini than to him. Majid Rafidzadeh describes them in Al-Arabiya as
solid institutions which have not only employed, educated, and ideologically trained millions of loyalists in the last few decades, but have also managed and controlled the nation’s economy and foreign policies. These institutions were created in order to secure an adequate and dependent social base in case of any revolt or opposition, as well as a stalwart against potential Western intervention.
The Revolutionary Guards are crucial to this network. They manage a large share of Iran’s military-industrial complex, and their tendrils reach deep into energy, construction, and other industries; some estimate they control a third of the Iranian economy. Crucial too are the basij, in theory under Revolutionary Guards command but in practice under the charge of a welter of local clerics and commanders. The basij can mobilize more than a million volunteer members for social policing and control (though it claims figures higher than 10 million), and since 2008 has had leeway to build its own empire of economic projects.
In a carefully calibrated speech just a month ago — immediately before leaving on his hectic UN visit — Rouhani tried to strike a bargain with the Revolutionary Guards. He offered to leave their economic interests untouched, even urging them to “take on important projects that the private sector is unable to take on,” if they would leave politics alone. The Guards seem unimpressed. Mohammad Ali Jafari, their commander, criticized Rouhani strongly in the state press after he returned from New York, for “prematurely” talking to Obama. Senior Revolutionary Guards leaders have stressed the organization’s important role in recent weeks, warning with renewed intensity that the West plans to “internally weaken” Iran in advance of any nuclear talks.
A well-publicized moral scandal serves the purpose, in a minor way, of emphasizing the Revolutionary Guards’ vigilance against both foreign and domestic foes, and stressing they can drum up public support. There are rumors in Kermanshah that the Guards have been under instruction, at least since Rouhani’s election, to look for gender dissidence — “men who appear like women” (mardan-e zannama) and “transvestites” (zanpoosh).
There may be more strictly local motives as well. Kermanshah lies at the heart of the Kurdish area of western Iran, increasingly a source of anxiety to Teheran as they face a spillover of Kurdish separatist sentiment from Iraq. (The day after the arrests, Kurdish guerrillas reportedly killed five Revolutionary Guards in a border town in the next province to the north.) I would bet the Iraqi guests mentioned in the basij report on the party were Kurds, whose presence — even if only rumored — may have attracted additional scrutiny to the event. The accusation of “Satan-worshipping” is also suggestive in this light. Many Iranian Kurds adhere to the Ahl-e Haqq (“People of Truth”) or Yârsânî faith, a syncretic religious order whose believers may make up as much as a third of Kermanshah’s population. Several Ahl-e Haqq believers are rumored to have been at the fateful party. Iranian authorities persecute the sect, on religious grounds coupled with fear of ethnic solidarities — in June two Kurds burned themselves to death in Hamadan, between Kermanshah and Teheran, to protest abuses suffered by their co-believers in prison. An ominous mix of religious heresy, political separatism, and sexual deviance may be what the Revolutionary Guards read into an innocent birthday celebration.
All this is speculation. What’s certain is that Rouhani so far has little control over anything the Revolutionary Guards do. The test of his presidency is not so much whether continuing human rights abuses belie his reputation as a “reformer” — that reputation is overblown, but largely irrelevant to the issue — as whether he can accumulate enough authority to curb the parastate, paramilitary institutions behind much of the abuse.
Maybe the most important point to make, though, is this. What’s at stake in this case is not so much “LGBT rights” or the status of any minority — it’s the right to privacy, and its profound contribution to human dignity. Thinking of it solely as an “LGBT” issue misses the larger point.
The people at the party were exercising their right to do as they liked, harmlessly, behind closed doors: in a rented hall, to be sure, but that partly reflects the porous nature of safety and opacity in even “private” homes, where overbearing families keep watch, and intrusive neighbors mean a basij raid may be only a phone call away. This right has a scope that extends beyond closed spaces. It’s also the claim that women are making when they defiantly wear “bad hijab,” or straight couples when they declare their intimacy with an over-the-top embrace on the street; they’re asserting they should carry an umbrella of autonomy around with them wherever they go, because they’re human beings, and their bodies or their hair or their hands are nobody’s business. The way the Iranian state treats this right with loathing and contempt, through a myriad micro-practices of meddling and surveillance, is one reason the religious police are perhaps its most popularly despised and resented symbol. It’s not because Iranians are all secular; it’s because they’re all human, and they want to be left alone. Iran’s LGBT-identified communities have made many strides in recent years in building alliances with opposition activism, partly because they affirm not just the specialized identity of a minority but a freedom from oversight and intrusion that should be a universal entitlement. Not everybody in Iran knows what it’s like to commit lavat, or “sodomy,” but millions of Iranians know what it’s like to be at a party sweating in anxiety lest the basij break in. That’s where sympathy and solidarity begin.
One often hears that privacy is a culturally specific concept. Certainly the forms of privacy and the things it can contain may vary; certainly the ability to experience it is stratified by class and power; but I’m persuaded by Barrington Moore’s researches, among others, that nearly every society traces distinctions between inside and outside, and lays down rules by which its members can control what other people see and know. In Iran these rules are perpetually changed and fought over, subject to the whims of a swollen state and a people’s capacity for resistance, and the conflict can be brutal.
The struggle for privacy ought to be critical for everybody — especially though far from exclusively for LGBT people around the world, whose earliest moral claims and legal successes partly hinged on the demand for a respected, protected private sphere. In the West, though, our sense of why privacy is vital seems to be eroding. Among LGBT movements, it’s a right either denigrated or confused with a privilege, and in either case hardly mentioned any more. This may hinder our ability to understand why events like this in Iran are not trivial but political and decisive. Frank Rich wrote a few months ago, about the US’s own surveillance scandals, that
The truth is that privacy jumped the shark in America long ago. Many of us not only don’t care about having our privacy invaded but surrender more and more of our personal data, family secrets, and intimate yearnings with open eyes and full hearts to anyone who asks and many who don’t, from the servers of Fortune 500 corporations to the casting directors of reality-television shows to our 1.1 billion potential friends on Facebook. Indeed, there’s a considerable constituency in this country — always present and now arguably larger than ever — that’s begging for its privacy to be invaded and, God willing, to be exposed in every gory detail before the largest audience possible. We don’t like the government to be watching as well—many Americans don’t like government, period—but most of us are willing to give such surveillance a pass rather than forsake the pleasures and rewards of self-exposure, convenience, and consumerism.
Try telling this to an Iranian. They’d be amazed, I suspect, that anyone would doubt how preserving and cultivating your sphere of privacy and autonomy is indispensable to your dignity. This is one reason the struggles in Iran continue to be important, not only as source of “inspiration” to the West –that generic and vapid tribute — but as something we should learn from.
Last month Karma Chavez of WORT FM in Wisconsin did an hour-long interview with me about various things LGBT and global: Iraq, Iran, homonationalism, neocolonialism, ethical activism, Peter Tatchell, and other usual and less-usual subjects all came up. Here’s the whole thing. You have to skip over the scree-scraw noises at the beginning where a failed attempt to Skype me — I was in a remote foreign land — led to an explosively resounding reverb effect. Thunder on the left, the Romans thought, was a sign that Jupiter was pleased.
At Electronic Intifada, Benjamin Doherty excellently investigated the megaweird San Francisco Pride crèche of Ahmadinejad being sodomized by a nuclear warhead. To summarize what he’s found: something called Iran 180 sponsored the float. It’s a “movement of people and organizations who have come together as a unified voice to demand a 180 by the Iranian government on their pursuit of nuclear weapons and the treatment of their citizens.” As you would expect from that, it’s not a movement at all: discouraged that anti-Iran rallies outside the UN “attract fewer attendees and even less press, the New York Jewish Community Relations Council decided to act and formed a new coalition called Iran 180.” They found the language of human rights instrumental to their cause:
A petition on basic human rights for women, minorities, unions, media, journalists, political opposition, juveniles, and more, helped generate interest from some non-traditional allies such as the NAACP and 100 Hispanic Women.
Not to mention the Korean American Community Empowerment Council and the United Haitian American Society. Most of the groups undoubtedly signed on with no particular idea what they were endorsing, except that it all sounding like a Good Idea. As Ben notes, it’s a fine case of “astroturfing” — “advocacy in support of a political, organizational, or corporate agenda, designed to give the appearance of a ‘grassroots‘ movement” (merci Wikipedia). Two PR firms spearheaded the 2010 launch, one of them a division of Burson-Marsteller, notorious for refurbishing the images of evil dictators and other miscreants.
That scowing, hook-nosed Ahmadinejad puppet is the staple of Iran 180′s street theater. One of the lead groups writes, “The popularity and presence of this puppet made it a useful tool for Iran 180 … The press had a catchy photograph and Iran 180 had a hook” — the latter a Freudian slip, no doubt. Ben found additional photos of the SF Pride float. On the left, Mahmoud drops his pants to let the warhead in; on the right, he fellates it:
They’re obsessed with the Ahmedinejad-is-a-fag theme. Here’s a UN demo with A-jad in red heels (it’s Human Rights Day, December 10, which I never knew also celebrated the fashion-challenged):
And here they’re staging a gay wedding between A-jad and Bashar Assad, under a chuppa, with Qaddafi as witness:
What the hell is the point of all this iconography? Any residual irony is wasted in the case of Assad, who is known for many awful things but not especially for homophobia. Is this supposed to change the minds of gays somehow? I find it hard to imagine any homo stumbling on this touching scene and feeling the urge to blast away those Persian centrifuges, or rain destruction on Damascus.
The whole bizarre display seems torn from the discredited writings of Raphael Patai, the Israeli-American Orientalist whose dissection of “The Arab Mind” (and, by extension, Middle Eastern masculinity in general) became an ur-text underpinning Abu Ghraib. As Seymour Hersh wrote:
The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. … [Patai's] book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. “The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,” Patai wrote. … The Patai book, an academic told me, was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged—“one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.”
Putative insults directed at the sexualities of US enemies in the region are legion. There was, and is, for instance, a longstanding rumor that Yasser Arafat was gay and died of AIDS, spread by neoconservatives with glee. Unlike most rumors, it’s possible to pinpoint this one’s source with some precision. Ion Pacepa, chief of foreign intelligence in Ceauşescu’s Romania, defected to the US in 1978, and later composed his memoir, Red Horizons, while under CIA protection. In it, he claimed that secret microphones caught Arafat making love to his male bodyguard while visiting Bucharest. The book is full of wild stories, and this particular propaganda gem had a two-birds usefulness for the US: it impugned not only Arafat for screwing a man, but Ceauşescu (notoriously puritanical) for tolerating it. The CIA called his book ”an important and unique contribution to the United States,” and it should be read as such, along with other important and unique fabrications such as the histories of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch.
As I’ve written here about “outing,” deploying anxieties about homosexuality to defame or shame people simply means manipulating — and endorsing — homophobia. This is true whether the object is Ahmadinejad, Assad, or Rick Perry.
On looking at this stuff, though, I have to note what bad propaganda it is. Is Burson- Marsteller (“the world’s biggest PR company,” apparently) any good at what it does? Ben quotes the Guardian on its mind-molding feats: the firm
was employed by the Nigerian government to discredit reports of genocide during the Biafran war, the Argentinian junta after the disappearance of 35,000 civilians, and the Indonesian government after the massacres in East Timor. It also worked to improve the image of the late Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu and the Saudi royal family.
Its corporate clients have included the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, which suffered a partial meltdown in 1979, Union Carbide after the Bhopal gas leak killed up to 15,000 people in India …
Hmm. Nobody much doubts anymore that Nigeria’s, Argentina’s, and Indonesia’s dictators were guilty of murder; while if I remember my 1989 rightly, Ceauşescu and his brand went the way of the Edsel and New Coke. Three Mile Island pretty much ended the nuclear industry in the US — and so on. If I were Ahmadinejad, I would take comfort from this record of ineptitude and sip my Coke Classic in peace of mind.
The Ahmadinejad puppet clearly derives from old anti-Semitic imagery. But the point of Nazi propaganda was to frighten people. (Jeffrey Herf’s study of wartime anti-semitic posters is a thoroughly disturbing guide.) The Jew appeared as monstrous threat, individuality always dissolving in collective, conspiratorial menace:
It’s horrific, but it worked, a gross demonology that actually did incite and prolong the war. It wouldn’t have occurred to them to depict the Jew as schlemiel. This Ahmadinejad — sexually passive, his pants down, generally pathetic — has nothing threatening about him. There is no great propaganda value in portraying the dictator of Iran as Woody Allen. Even when he tries to scare, the effect is unconvincing:
Such is the dreaded Mad Bomber, the feared Hitler of the Gulf, and the worst he can do is wave one of Dorothy’s ruby slippers at you? Even in the unmanly corridors of the Arab Mind (how many times have we been told in the last decade that “Showing the sole of your shoe has long been an insult in Arab culture”?) this guy is considerably less alarming than Imelda Marcos.
This failure points, I think, to a larger and partly disabling ideological contradiction in our world of post-colonial wars. It’s a point often made that the Nazis brought back colonial methods – of disenfranchisment, dispossession, and murder — to the European homeland. Yet in order to do so, in order to overcome the moral and material barriers to such a slaughter on nearby soil, they needed to conjure a threat more comprehensive and capable than the colonial Other, generally shown as impotent, backward, and helpless minus the mission civilisatrice. They needed the tropes of far-reaching conspiratorial power, the Enemy within, that came from anti-Semitic paranoia. Only that kind of fearsome, concocted foe could gin up a comfort-fattened populace to the hardships of total war — not to mention the horrors of mass murder.
In the interminable battles with brown people that constitute American foreign policy at the start of the millenium, though, these tropes aren’t functional. Brown people, after all, are born schlemiels and born bottoms; so intrinsic to the West is the contempt for their competence and capacities that it’s hard to impute the requisite menace to them. The late 20th century saw various attempts to elevate the Arab or the Ayatollah to the power and dignity of World Enemy, based mainly on the conspiratorial connection with oil; these sinister plotters kept hatching destructive cabals in clandestine secret hideouts, like Tora Bora, OPEC, or the UN. But those enemies, like Ahmadeinejad, kept lapsing back into their appointed role in the Western imagination, as buffoon. The propaganda around the last Gulf War was illustrative of the contradiction. On the one hand, Colin Powell and Tony Blair and the rest assured us that Saddam Hussein was a universal monster who put everybody in jeopardy, with poised weapons forty minutes’ flight from Paddington. On the other, keeping up support for the war meant promising this would be an easy kill; the poor joker couldn’t possibly hold out in his bunker for more than a week, and we’d be welcomed with flowers while opponents withered like kudzu in the desert. Memorably, neither was true.
It’s quite telling that, although there’s a bomb on the Ahmadeinejad float, the droopy A-jad isn’t the one wielding it. Instead, he’s the one raped by it. Iran, in the imagery, is the party getting nuked.
How strange … or is it? Could this be a last Freudian slip in Iran 180′s unconscious repertory? After all: the one universally known but unspeakable secret in the current furor over Iran’s nuclear program is: there’s already one nuclear power in the region. Günter Grass presumed to mention this fact in a recent poem, and got hit by the intellectual equivalent of Desert Storm for his presumption (though the controversy did contribute to investigations of how Germany furnishes Israel with submarines to carry its nuclear arsenal).
After Ben published his piece, Iran 180 posted, miraculously, an apology on its Facebook page.
In June 2011, Iran180 participated in the San Francisco Pride Parade … The performance mocked the Iranian regime’s homophobia and was intended to raise awareness of the continued persecution of the LGBTQ community in Iran. As our followers know, drawing attention to the plight of Iran’s LGBTQ community is a priority for us. While the float was largely well received by onlookers, there were elements of the performance that unfortunately crossed the line and were clearly inappropriate. For that we sincerely apologize and have taken steps to ensure that this will not happen again.
But what line, exactly, did they cross? Is this an unlikely acknowledgement that rape and racism are bad? Or are they recognizing that, inadvertently, they gave too much away?
This comes to me by way of Maya Mikdashi and the folks at Jadaliyya:
It’s a float from 2011′s San Francisco Pride. It shows a dungeonmaster dominating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There’s a whip involved, but mainly he’s fucking the Iranian with a nuclear bomb.
Jadaliyya headlines this “No Comment,” and probably it’s healthier for what’s left of my gay identity, and ungay sanity, not to dwell on it. I feel like I’ve been putting up with other people’s overspill of testosterone for several days now, from the guy downstairs whose pit bull seems to be killing a giant squid at great length, to the baltageyya an ocean away who assaulted a women’s march in Cairo. But as I wrote rather inarticulately yesterday, you can only address the operations of power by first thinking them through — you know, trying to unpack a bit what’s at work there. So shoulder to the wheel; let’s try to extract some useable lessons from this very American, very gay piece of imperial performance art.
1) Rape is funny, depending on who you’re raping. Not funny-strange or funny-abnormal, but funny-ha-ha. So, for that matter, is nuclear war! Why give head in front when you can give warhead from behind?
What’s funny about it, though? Freud argued (in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious) that humor is a safety-valve for thoughts society inhibits; jokes play much the same role for the collective imagination that dreams do for the individual’s. But they release the repressed temporarily only to restore the social order in the end. Comedy is conservative. It puts the bounder, the miscreant, the climber or the rebel in his (or her) place, by saying, finally: this is who you are.
Rape is funny, then, when it reminds the raped (and the onlookers) of what’s inescapable, the self he can’t get away from. Inferiority is always a matter of interiority, the inner — penetrable — person placed, defined, exposed. Now, look at Ahmadinejad again. Who is he, really? Isn’t he a bit … familiar?
Really, these hook-nosed Eastern types need some big blond leathery Meister to whack, or fuck, the presumption out of them 24/7. (The Iranians have this notion that they’re Aryan somehow, and such arrogance especially calls out for the whip.) This is a fascinating instance of how grossly anti-Semitic imagery is so ingrained in Western modernity — the Jew as synonym for weakness, effeminacy, corruption — that it’s a floating, limpetlike defilement. It doesn’t even require actual Semites to glom onto. (I say nothing here about what you can assume are the pro-Israel, and particularly pro-Netanyahu, implications of the display. I suppose if you read Joseph Massad you might argue that Israeli discourse is also capable of exploiting anti-Semitism on its own terms. But then, I would never read Joseph Massad, would I?)
Of course, what’s more satisfying than insulting Ahmadinejad by alleging he’s not really a proper male, just one of those squirmy little degenerates? It’s a feel-good thing for two reasons: it disses the the odious Mahmoud, while it affirms Manhood in general, including yours and mine. Ideologically, men are so damn easy to please.
Brown people are born to bottom. This is a fundamental fact, as it were: one in which politics has clearly seized the steering wheel away from desire. Plenty of white gay men, in the Bay Area as well as other precincts, undoubtedly harbor fantasies of being topped by some darker, muscled Other in a sweaty, hairy abnegation of one’s personal power, one’s private nuclear arsenal: an arms treaty for the ages. But these dreams are luxuries to be sacrificed for the national good, for the sanctified collective purpose, the way Americans submitted to gas rationing to beat the Nazis, or gave up — remind me, what did we give up? — to win the Iraq war. Politically, brown people are perpetually being screwed, and it’s only natural that sex (which in essence is politics without the voting, like the rest of politics these days) should reflect that. Sex is also an excellent way of reminding them of the fact.
You can see what I mean by comparing the Pride photo to an image that must have been clanking around somewhere in the back of the floatmasters’ minds, one of the most celebrated stills from any American film:
Of course, that’s Slim Pickens riding the bomb down to oblivion and Armageddon at the terminus of Dr. Strangelove. He’s in pretty much the same position as the megaton-wielding Master on the float, with the Russians (honorary brown people for Cold War purposes) positioned where the Iranians now stand in our diminished day. Although this is an anti-war film, notoriously subversive of the military verities, there’s no suggestion anywhere that any proper American is going to have his buttcheeks opened to insert weaponry. That would be, one supposes, too subversive — one turn of the screw too many, a fuck too far. (Instead the movie presents American soldiery as obsessed by Purity of Essence, keeping the holy jism bottled up and restrained for the Big Moment when its outburst is required. Or think Deliverance or Pulp Fiction, where the key to national masculinity is maintaining a clenched anus, despite all the menacing forces — from Vietnamese captors to Appalachian S&M freaks — trying to pry it open.)
2) It also depends on who’s doing the raping. Not just anybody can accomplish the curative and conservative function. The question is: who’s got the power?
(Re)consider, please, the following two photographs — I discussed them yesterday. Both accompanied Mona Eltahawy’s article on Middle Eastern women, in Foreign Policy magazine this spring. This is the one FP chose for the article itself — a famous shot of an Egyptian demonstrator abused and stripped by police:
This really had to go with Eltahawy’s essay — it was too well known to leave out. But they wouldn’t and didn’t put it on the cover, to draw a Western reader in. Why not? Well, it wouldn’t seduce, it wouldn’t draw. The people doing the dominating there aren’t Us (to borrow Eltahawy’s terms): they’re Them, those Arabs, and the problem with them is they have too much power. No purchaser of FP in DC is going to be turned on by the politically suspect sight of them exerting it. Many viewers, in fact, saw the photo as especially disturbing because the bra made the woman seem like Us, prone at Their mercy — a commodity like underclothing is notoriously a more accurate indicator of a woman’s identity than voice or face. Who can stand to see a Westernized woman subdued by Their violence? Thus Sally Quinn wrote:
Aside from the sheer brutality, I think what got to me was that she was wearing this gorgeous, sexy bright blue bra. … This person covered from head to toe demonstrated her beliefs through her choice of underwear. The blue bra said what I imagine her to be feeling: “I may be oppressed. I may not have rights. I may have to cover up my body and face. But you cannot destroy my womanhood. You can’t rob me of my femininity. You can’t take away my power.” That blue bra, to me, was the ultimate symbol of women’s power.
Me, I am no bio woman, just a poor aging drag queen on a Saturday night. But please, please, I want me a talking bra.
The cover photo FP chose instead, of course, was this:
Now, that woman has taken off her clothes not for Them, but for Us (not to mention how she’s painted on that fetching, Ayisha-meets-Al-Jolson blackface niqab). Look at her! She’s looking right at Us, acknowledging that she’s at our command! Of course, it’s a voluntary stripping she’s undertaken. It isn’t rape per se. But you don’t need to be an acolyte of Catherine MacKinnon (I’m not, believe me) to realize that the fantasy of women’s willing submission is intrinsic to the pornographic imagination. (It’s one reason it’s hard to argue that porn actually incites violence against women: most porn doesn’t need it.) This photo, unlike the aggressive-Arabs one, shows the right kind of Sex at Issue here. Like ha-ha rape, it puts Them in their place, while pumping up Ours.
And now I see why, as part of the endless wars over “gay executions” in Iran, so many Western activists laugh — ha, ha! — at the idea that Iranian men might rape other men. That’s impossible. It’s allotting Them too much power. Iranian men (remember those small penises!) probably aren’t able to rape Iranian men: bottoms bomb, rather literally, when they try to top. Even if They can rape, We won’t allow Them to. As the Pride photo shows: that’s Our job.
Go ahead: Google “Stop Iran from Executing Four Homosexual Citizens.” You’ll get well over a thousand hits. They link to petitions that accuse four Iranian men in the small town of Charam of being gay — a capital crime. The insane activist misbehavior over Iran goes on unstoppably. And those responsible for it take no responsibility at all.
When I last wrote about this, none of the petitions were yet directly addressed to Ahmadinejad and the Iranian authorities. That didn’t take long to change. This one, on CNN’s website, now has 5000 signatures; but beyond that, it comes with helpful e-mail addresses and links so that you can contact Iran’s authorities yourself.
SEND THIS LETTER TO SUPREME LEADER OF THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN ALI KHAMENEI BY COPYING AND PASTING HERE … ALSO, SEND THIS LETTER TO VARIOUS OFFICIALS OF THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC REGIME AS WELL AS THEIR EMBASSIES AROUND THE WORLD BY USING THIS LINK.
The suggested missive not only affirms the men’s gayness, and hence guilt, but makes a weird link to Iran’s nuclear program. With the Flame virus spreading like, well, wildfire, it’s hard to imagine what could be more incendiary; the drafters might as well just brand the four men Israeli spies:
Your Excellency, This is a petition to bring to your attention to [sic] case of four gay men in Iran who are sentenced to be hanged for “sodomy…
If this execution goes forward, it will constitute a crime against humanity in the eyes of the international community, as well as a profound affront to the international standards of justice and norms of modern cilivization [sic] as codified in human rights treaties and conventions to which Iran is a signatory state.
Unavoidably, the question arises: if the Islamic Republic cannot be trusted to honor its human rights obligations under international treaties and covenants, how can it be trusted to honor its commitments in other areas of pressing urgency such as nonproliferation? [emphasis in the original]
In fact, the last paragraph is really the most revealing. Whoever dreamed up this language, it’s clear, isn’t thinking about whether the men live or die. He or she is thinking about Iran’s nuclear program; the men’s fates are a propaganda tool. None of this is doing any good for the men. Nearly all of it is poised to do them harm.
Now, it’s worth repeating: we still have zero information suggesting that the men are “gay.” But none of these petitionmongers cares much about facts. On one page, I see, comments from a Morocco resident who raised doubts about the story have simply been deleted.
What, in truth, do we know now? One human rights activist in Iran reported to the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO) that “The four individuals are related and come from the same tribe. They’re among the thugs in the area. About two and half years ago, they have ‘cornered’ a young man of 18-19 and raped him.” He added that HRANA (the Human Rights Activists News Agency), the Farsi-language source of the original story “received th[is] original version too, but intentionally altered it to create media uproar.”
There is recurrent mistrust of HRANA’s reliability among sexual-rights activists and some other human rights campaigners in Iran. Still, after this circulated, on May 17 (28 Ordibehesht 1391), HRANA published an elaboration, based on an alleged interview with a relative of one of the four. This article states that the actual charge was “lavat beh onf,” or rape. The interviewee told HRANA that ”the families of all four” believed that the victim actually had consensual sex with the men, but had turned this into a rape claim, enlisting two other sexual partners as witnesses against them.
What we have, then, is characteristic confusion caused by a dearth of information. An editor at JOOPEA, an Iranian sexual-rights platform, wrote me, “5 adults are involved [presumably including the alleged victim]. We don’t know this was a rape, normal sex, a game or something.” It’s an article of faith among the Peter Tatchells and Doug Irelands of the world that male-male rape never takes place in Iran, and that all alleged incidents are “really” consensual homosexual acts. In promoting this version of the famous 2005 case where two youths were hanged for the rape of a 13-year-old, Peter’s then organization OutRage! both belittled the violence and defamed the victim, accusing him of wanting the sex and then lying about it. Of course, while mounting these allegations, they knew nothing about the victim, not even his name — and very little about Iran; nonetheless, Gay City News, Doug’s employer, intoned back in 2006 that “rape of men by men is comparatively rare” worldwide, an astonishingly ignorant generalization. (Underreporting, mainly due to stigma, means that almost no country has statistics on male rape that can be considered reliable. One Australian psychologist estimates that only one out of eleven cases there is reported.) In fact, in several years of interviewing Iranian LGBT people, I talked to dozens of men who had been sexually assaulted or sexually abused by other men — in jails, in schools, or in families. Children were particularly at risk; and “effeminacy,” looking or acting somehow unmasculine, made them vulnerable.
It’s certainly possible that the four men in Charam are “gay” or hamjensgara, and have been framed. It’s certainly also possible that they raped an “effeminate” victim, and that he is the one who suffered for sexual dissidence. Quite possibly, in fact, that’s the pattern underlying these stories of rape. In other words, conceivably Tatchell, Ireland, and their cohorts have spent all these years speechifying and pontificating in support not of “gays,” but of their persecutors. The point is: We don’t know. All this is speculation. And the only responsible way to defend any of these people from the death penalty is not to make imperial, destructive, and unsupported claims about their sexualities, but to oppose the death penalty itself.
That, however, is not an issue to motivate Western queers.
Meanwhile: No one who launched the story has bothered to follow up the facts. Dan Littauer and one of his editors are both on the listserve where the IRQO’s account, and the HRANA elaboration, appeared. You’d think that this might stimulate a further article. You know: New allegations on both sides have been forthcoming, and so on. Naturally, though, there’s been nothing of the sort. The MO of the rumorists is like that of Spenser’s untameable Blatant Beast: Never apologize, never explain.
True, the publicity hounds at Italy’s Everyone Group — who organized similar petitions incriminating Makwan Mouloudzadeh before his execution back in 2008 — did at least respond to me on their website. They title their answer “Gay Persecution under Sharia: the Silence of the West.” The phrase “Silence of the West” endlessly fascinates me. It’s used almost invariably in relation to subjects about which the West will not shut up. What it means is not that the West is neglecting something, but that one discordant voice unsettles the harmony and unanimity. It’s an odd sort of aural hallucination: while the whole Mormon Tabernacle Choir is bellowing out the “Hallelujah Chorus,” a single person whistling “Hava Nagila” softly to herself is enough to drown out lungs and pipe organ alike.
Since Everyone Group did me the favor of a reply, though, I’ll reply to them here in turn. They write:
We are very familiar with Islamic law (Sharia).
No, you aren’t.
An accused person can be sentenced exclusively on the EYE WITNESS accounts of at least FOUR PEOPLE OF ISLAMIC FAITH. The Islamic judges do not consider as evidence the statements given by “infidels”.
Nonsense. As is well known, in Ja’fari shari’a legal interpretation, there are two additional bases for convicting people of liwat/lavat: a confession repeated four times, or the judge’s personal knowledge of the acts (in Arabic, ‘ilm al-hakim). The former arguably gives considerable scope to torture to extract confessions; In Iran, the latter has turned into broad leeway for circumstantial evidence to decide cases.
Anyhow, in this situation we are not discussing first-instance verdicts. The question is how to persuade Iranian authorities to show mercy and suspend an already-decided sentence of death. Everyone Group clings to the unaccountable delusion that telling Ahmadeinjad et. al. the convicts are gay is actually a means to this end.
Then we get into Everyone Group’s favorite bugaboo: the idea that they have an absolute right to use anyone’s name — an asylum-seeker, a refugee, an Iranian facing the death penalty — in any way they want to, without the person’s consent. God forbid you disagree:
Unfortunately, some governments and associations connected to public funding and not to human rights, often seek to prevent (as occured during the National Socialism period) the names of the condemned being published. The real purpose of these policies is to obtain silence on refugees and the persecuted …
It’s true; we’re all Nazis! Everyone Group has been saying this for years. Back in 2009 they had the same refrain: blanking out the name of an asylum-seeker in a campaign “mean[s] denying, as in Apartheid and slavery, a fundamental right. In this way, a person becomes isolated, he becomes an anonymous figure, a common Mister X or a number and is cancelled out, as happened in the Nazi concentration camps and in the present day jails of fundamentalist Islamic countries.” (Their emphasis.) Of course, you might imagine a person has a “fundamental right” to decide how their identity is represented and their name is used: a right not to have their safety endangered for publicity’s sake. Look at yourself! You think that because you are a racist, an ayatollah, and Heinrich Himmler.
Finally, as far as the Makwan Mouloudzadeh case goes, Everyone Group indulges in a bold rewriting of reality:
As for Makwan, it is not true that the accusers retracted the allegations: the identities of the five accusers have never been revealed, but we do know that they were police officers. The charge of “lavat” against Makwan was never retracted!
I puzzled over this wildness for some while, since the facts of Makwan’s legal situation at least are no secret. In September 2006, three men in the town of Paveh told police that Mouloudzadeh had raped them seven years earlier. During the subsequent trial, they retracted their accusations. Mouloudzadeh was convicted nonetheless, based on a confession he claimed was coerced under torture.
I can only assume that Everyone Group’s error here derives from an attempt to confuse “accusers” with “arresters.” Yes, the police arrested Makwan, and were responsible, as in most systems, for charging him before the law. But the accusation of rape that came from the three alleged victims was certainly retracted — by the alleged victims themselves. A guilty conscience perhaps informs Everyone Group’s uncertainties about what happened in the Makwan case, but it’s no excuse for confusing matters further.
Finally, it’s inevitable where publicity and Iran are concerned that Peter Tatchell should rear his head. He gets cited in the petitions. And I notice (see to the right!) he is now giving himself a new title: “expert on Iran.” It’s astonishing you can become an expert on a country where you’ve never been, and don’t even speak the language. How do you manage? Perhaps some geek on the Mother Ship transfers the expertise direct from a jump drive into your brain, like in The Matrix. “Can you fly that helicopter?” “Not yet.” “Can you comment on that country?” “Wait, I’m downloading.”
How to become an expert on Iran: One theory
Of course, there are other means. The London Review of Books this week carries a very useful article by Owen Bennett-Jones on the Mujahedin e Khalq or People’s Mujahedin (MEK), a cultlike and exceptionally repressive Iranian resistance group that’s campaigned for years to get itself removed from the terrorist lists of the US and other countries. I recommend the piece to everybody.
The People’s Mujahedin used to be a pet cause of Peter Tatchell. He’s dismissed charges of terrorist violence as a “smear”; he said of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), MEK’s political wing, that “it has played a heroic role in resisting the clerical fascist regime in Iran and campaigning for democracy and human rights.” He compared it to “the African National Congress in South Africa or the anti-Nazi resistance in occupied Europe during World War Two.” He told The Nation it was ”a key liberation movement inside Iran that deserves international support.”
The MEK’s generous funding has long been a mystery, though nobody was much surprised by Seymour Hersh’s revelation this year that, despite the “terrorist” designation, the US has been channeling not just money but arms to the group — as well as training them in Nevada. What they do with their CIA-and-other largesse is perhaps even more interesting. In addition to full-time lobbyists, they pay a stable of prominent personalities not just to defend their record, but to lend them mute luster by their mere proximity. Bennett-Jones notes,
Three dozen former high-ranking American officials regularly speak at MEK-friendly events. They include Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, Obama’s former national security adviser General James Jones and the former congressman Lee Hamilton. The rate for a speech is between $20,000 and $40,000 for ten minutes. Subject matter is not a concern: some speakers deliver speeches that barely mention the MEK. … The Treasury is investigating whether speakers have been receiving funds from a designated terrorist organisation. … Most of those who back the group do so because they will back anything that seeks to upset the regime in Tehran. They seem unaware that the organisation has been called a cult and have not heard the complaints of former members. A number of the most prominent MEK lobbyists say they agreed to speak because they were reassured by the respectability of those who were already doing so.
Tatchell’s own funding is, of course, also a mystery of long standing. For example, his latest venture, the “Peter Tatchell Foundation,” is not a UK registered charity, and offers no reports on where it gets its monies or how it spends them. Given the MEK’s avidity to recruit celebrities major and minor to flack for it, and Tatchell’s own diehard defenses of the group, one does rather wonder what exactly exchanged hands between them. Expertise, very possibly (perhaps on how to run a cult, perhaps even on Iran). But were there more material aspects to the Vulcan mind-meld?
Of course, this is pure and simple speculation. But it’s no more speculative than the stuff Tatchell and Ireland have disseminated on Iran in the past. And it has one advantage they don’t. It doesn’t endanger lives.
Documentary made for the first-ever IDAHO event in Burma
Thursday was the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO, or perhaps, with the belatedly-added identities, IDAHOAT). I am generally a Scrooge when it comes to holidays, and if there were an IDAHO tree to deck, or IDAHO eggs to hide, I would bow out, bah-ing. This day, however, was made for people like me, those too jaundiced or depressive to appreciate the manic self-congratulation of Pride; it gives space to consider the obstacles LGBT rights movements still face, as well as those overcome. This probably accounts for the popularity it’s won in half a decade; there were events in 95 countries this year.
In Iran, activists staged discreet celebrations. Here’s one photo: more can be found here.
(As an Iranian friend of mine sniffed, “In north Teheran, you can do anything.”) Even more significantly, Iranian Liberal Students and Graduates, an informal association founded early in the Ahmadinejad years to discuss liberalism as politics and philosophy, issued a statement of support for IDAHO, defending “tolerance for homosexual, bisexual transsexual, and transvestite people”:
- The consensus of experts is that homosexuality is not a physical or mental illness;
- The consensus of experts is that sexual orientation is unchangeable;
- There are numerous homosexual persons in all societies, and it is not a phenomenon unique to Western societies …
- Homosexual attitudes and behavior have been observed in nearly 1500 species of other organisms, and are not unique to humans;
- And the consensus of experts is that no evidence is available that of the psychological development of children in gay families is inferior to that of children in heterosexual families …
- Criminalization of homosexual behavior and its punishment by brutal execution in Iranian law should be repealed;
- And all legal discrimination based on the sexual orientation of individuals, at any level, should be removed from the laws in Iran.
It has taken years of patient work and persuasion by Iranian LGBT rights advocates to integrate their issues with dissident movements’ concerns, and achieve this kind of support. They should be congratulated on this.
Meanwhile, as a Southeast Asian Spring comes to Burma, the first-ever open LGBT event was held in Rangoon, partly organized by my colleage Aung Myo Min of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, which still largely operates in Thailand exile. A 106-year-old transgender woman spoke:
A local youth brought the centenarian transgender woman to the stage during a section called Paying Respect to Seniors. ‘She was almost in tears,’ … Aung Myo Min told Gay Star News. ‘She told the audience how pleased she is to see this event take place in Rangoon.’
In 1906, when she was born, Burma had been a British colony for 20 years. She was 14 when the first revolt against colonial rule — by university students (Aung San Suu Kyi‘s father was one of them) – happened; 36 when the Japanese invaded; 42 at independence; 56 when the long nightmare of military rule started. I hope someone is recording her life story. I also hope that when I’m her age, no one expects me to have anything to say.
Iranian authorities killed Makwan Mouloudzadeh on December 5, 2007. Six months earlier, a court had convicted Mouloudzadeh — a youth of Kurdish descent from near Kermanshah — of raping three other boys when he was 13. However, his accusers retracted their claims; no evidence against him remained. In November, Iran’s chief justice had overturned the death sentence. Yet a panel of judges illegally defied him; they ordered the execution to go forward. Makwan was 21 years old.
“Hier ist kein warum,” an SS officer in Auschwitz told Primo Levi: “Here there’s no ‘why.” Try finding the “why” in Iran’s criminal justice system, riddled with corruption, incompetence and contradictions that unravel the basic rationality and syntax intended to constitute the law! If the mullahs behaved inscrutably, though, you have to grasp the matching weirdness in the deranged behavior of Western gay activists, who had mounted a massive campaign on Makwan’s behalf. Their goal wasn’t to persuade Iran’s authorities of Makwan’s evident innocence; it was to convince them he was guilty of a different crime. They accused him of consensual homosexual sex — which is also a capital offense.
They all wanted a “gay” victim, even if it meant his death. Peter Tatchell, the British activist, had been obsessed for years with proving that “gay” executions were a regular event in Iran. He seized on Makwan’s case as evidence, broadcasting that he was the “latest victim in Iran’s on-going homophobic campaign.” He referred to the 13-year old, who had recanted any claim of rape or other sexual relations, as Makwan’s “partner”: and he urged letters to Iran’s government, calling for Makwan’s release while further incriminating him. Meanwhile, EveryOne Group, a rogue Italian circle of publicity hounds, organized a petition to Ahmadeinejad for the “young homosexual Makvan,” and argued explicitly that he was “‘guilty’ of having loved a peer when he was 13 and having sexual intercourse with him.” Not a shred of evidence underpinned these fantasies of erotic culpability. But God knows how many messages Everyone Group showered on Teheran, all telling the authorities, completely falsely, that Makwan had committed a capital crime. It’s impossible to suppose these didn’t play their part in the judges’ sudden reversal, and the execution. Makwan’s self-appointed “friends” had blood on their hands.
You know the cliches. Those who don’t remember the past …. And, of course, History repeats itself … “The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce,” that was what Marx said, right? Except what if both times, it’s tragedy? What if it’s just a grinding recurrence of the same mistakes? Not even laughing gas could let you find comedy in the senseless reiteration, the stupid waste.
Everything old is new again; and the same people are still looking for “gay” victims, and still indifferent to the consequences.
Here’s the story. On Saturday, May 12 (that’s 23 Ordibehesht, 1391, in the Persian calendar) the website of Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), an independent Farsi source for rights news, published the following note:
The sentence of death against four citizens in the province of Kohgiluyeh on charges of “sodomy” has been confirmed.
HRANA, a news organization for human rights activists in Iran, reports that the execution of four people named Saadat Arafi, Vahid Akbari, Javid Akbar and Houshmand Akbari has been approved.
These four persons residing in the city of Charam in Kohgiluyeh province, are facing charges of sodomy punishable by death. The charge of sodomy is an accusation often referring to sex with [persons of the] same sex.
This is very little information, and the last sentence indicates that HRANA itself didn’t know the substance of the charges — whether they involved consensual sex or rape, both of which can be included under lavat (sodomy) in Iranian law. HRANA is the only source we have; no independent account seems to turn up in any other Iranian news organ, at least not online. It’s not on the local Kogiluyeh websites, here or here or here; it’s not even on the helpful page of the province’s religious police.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t true — but it does mean HRANA’s information is probably pretty fragmentary. Charam is a small city (population 12,000 in the 2006 census) in the out-of-the-way and mountainous Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad province in Iran’s southeast. Even HRANA doesn’t seem to draw a whole lot of news from there, judging from their website.
So the first thing a human rights activist or a journalist would do is try to reach HRANA and get more information. The real human rights activists are trying this (and I too wrote to HRANA today). Unfortunately, there are also journalists who have learned in the Doug Ireland school that speculation is what makes a story.
The HRANA piece was posted to a listserve I’m on, that same Saturday. Dan Littauer, of the dubious website Gay Middle East, is on the same list. Within a few hours he’d written a lengthy article, which was up on three British gay news sites. (The alacrity with which these articles blossom on the Web suggests a certain sparsity of fact-checking.) The piece is an educational example; it reveals how to pad out the virtual absence of detail in the HRANA piece with other non-details, until it looks like you actually know something. Naturally, Littauer didn’t reach HRANA itself; but he quotes an unnamed gay activist in Iran, as well as Iranians in London and Austria, none of whom have any direct knowledge of the case. One says, “this is the most clear statement against same sex-acts in past months.” Another: “The rhetoric of announcement makes the link between same-sex sexual activity, or sodomy with corporal punishment very clear.” I don’t quite know what the last sentence means; but of course, we don’t have any official “announcement” or “statement” to judge from. We have only the blip from HRANA, in HRANA’s own words. It’s hard to read a new government stance into that.
Then, to fill space, Littauer indulges his own Orientalist speculation:
Iranian Human Rights activists constantly note the fact that the two genders are strictly segregated increases the tendency for same-sex acts among the youth, in a phenomena [sic] that is also similarly known in single gender prisons. Indeed this phenomenon happens throughout highly segregated societies in the Middle East and North Africa.
Now, I’ve never heard an Iranian human rights activist say anything of the sort. I have, however, heard plenty of white gay tourists, plumped up with their own fanciful sex scenarios about endlessly available Middle Eastern men, offer up just this account. What this has to do with the skeletal story from Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad is anybody’s guess. But rule one in the Doug Ireland school of journalism is, Remember, Westerners’ fantasies are your audience. And rule two is, Every added paragraph makes it seem more true.
But the sad part is what happens then. Over the weekend, some other websites start carrying the tale. “Iran to Execute Four Gays by Hanging,” one right-wing page serves up, complete with ideological icing: ”It is very rare that liberal media cover Islamic hatred towards gays, or killing of gays.” Well, actually, they do. Monday the wildly popular US-based Huffington Post picks up the story, headlining it “Iranian Gay Men To Be Hanged For Sodomy: Report.” But: what? What, even in Littauer’s article, suggested the men were “gay”? Does HuffPo have any proof they were even guilty of sodomy, or any other form of sex? Do its editors repose such doelike trust in the Islamic Republic’s justice, such faith in its forensic uncovering of truth, that they can’t imagine the poor men’s innocence? That’s the liberal media for you.
Pretty soon it’s all over the web. The Advocate blares “Breaking News”: “Four Gay Men to Be Hanged in Iran for Sodomy.” (It’s listed under Crime, because after all, they’re guilty.) Philadelphia’s gay magazine muses on “Life, Death, and Being Gay in Iran”: ”How do you save four men sentenced to hanging for sodomy?” Not by calling them “gay,” for starters.
None of this would matter much — the Iranian authorities probably aren’t fans of the Advocate, or even Arianna Huffington. But invisible capillaries carry information, words, fantasies across borders these days; and some of this language starts to bleed back into how the story is represented in Iran. By today, the story’s been picked up across the Farsi blogosphere. The HRANA article is, so far as I can see, the only source any of them have. But an inflection from the US articles starts creeping into the story: the headline changes. “Risk of imminent execution in Iran for four homosexuals [hamjensgara]“ one Farsi account reads, and others echo it.
Worse, the repeat-offending Italians at EveryOne Group get back into the act. They advertise an “Urgent Appeal” to — what? – ”save the lives of four gay men.”
EveryOne Group is asking the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, the European Union Commissioner for Human Rights, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, the Islamic Human Rights Commission and civil society to support our call for the defence of the lives of these four young homosexual men and all those who suffer persecution because of their natural orientation.
The accompanying petition already has 4000 signatures. (The one mercy is that Ahmadinejad is not yet among the addressees, but one imagines they’ll add him soon.) “The blood of four innocent gay men will be an indelible stain upon the conscience of the world community if this atrocity is allowed to proceed!” But don’t you see? Marking them “gay” means they are not “innocent,” not in the Iranian judiciary’s eyes. You know nothing about these four men, nothing at all. But you’re still content to call them names that convict them. What gave you that right?
And of course Peter Tatchell, who’s always happy to exploit the living or the dead, rejoins the parade. He fires off a press release — “Four Iranian men to hang for sodomy” — not designed to help them, but to advertise a panel for the International Day against Homophobia that he’s cosponsoring.
I don’t know anything about these four men; none of us are likely to, until we hear from HRANA. I think I can predict, though, what will happen. The EveryOne Group’s campaign will go forward, the petition will accumulate its fungal signatures, all with the greatest good will; demonstrations and banners may cap off the news articles. And the men will die. Whether all these voices chanting that they’re “gay” will contribute to their deaths depends on how loud they grow, and whether the Iranian authorities are paying attention. But the ease with which we attach identities to people we’ve never seen and know nothing of — only because they’re there, not here, only because they are malleably foreign and employable to us, only because they’re in Iran and we need to affix a certain narrative to both violence and victims there — is overwhelmingly distressing. And so is the ease with which we neglect the threatened consequences. We’ve learned nothing from the miserable follies around Makwan. Blood cries out from the ground; we haven’t begun to listen.
A friend from Iran sent me this link tonight; it’s amusing, in a disturbed and disturbing sort of way. The “Iran Firewall Test” allows you to “use the Internet in Iran in real time” to explore what people in the country can access or not through ordinary Web means. What’s blocked, and what’s not? Enter your favorite website, and see.
There are already mysteries I’ve stumbled on in five minutes of playing with it. Why is Salon blocked while Slate isn’t? Why does the New Republic lie afoul of the firewall but not — get this — Commentary? Barack Obama’s reelection effort isn’t censored; the White House is. Mitt Romney’s campaign site is open to any Iranian to view; perhaps the ultimate step in his political evolution is to succeed Ahmadinejad. So, too, World Net Daily, the rabid right-wing Christian page (“American’s Independent News Network”) can be perused by the most militant of Teheranis. But you can’t get Wonkette. Iranians will never learn the true meaning of “Santorum.” Dan Savage’s column is blocked, and so is Dr. Ruth, and so is Rex Wockner’s blog. But neither COYOTE in LA nor SWEAT in South Africa — both of them sex workers’ advocacy organizations — is. You can get to the Ford Foundation but not the Soros Foundation. You can get the Colbert Report and the Daily Show, but not Saturday Night Live.
This little blog is unblocked, at the moment, a dubious honor; if you want anything read in Iran, just let me know and I’ll facilitate it. One feels like reciting Brecht’s poem:
When the Regime commanded that books with harmful knowledge
Should be publicly burned and on all sides
Oxen were forced to drag cartloads of books
To the bonfires, a banished
Writer, one of the best, scanning the list of the burned, was shocked to find that his
Books had been passed over. He rushed to his desk
On wings of wrath, and wrote a letter to those in power ,
Burn me! he wrote with flying pen, burn me! Haven’t my books
Always reported the truth ? And here you are
Treating me like a liar! I command you:
Anyone who possesses even mildly the geek’s temperament will remember what happened in Egypt just after midnight on January 28, 2011, The Night Mubarak Turned It All Off. The following graph captures it:
In a matter of minutes, Web access across a country of 80 million shrank to almost nothing, as every major Internet service provider (ISP) shut down like a po-mo version of the end of Atlas Shrugged. But that steep cliff has to be understood against this graph, too:
That’s the growth in Internet usage from its first introduction in Egypt in 1993. From 2004 on — the same time political dissent was multiplying — it took off almost exponentially. By 2010 it had reached a quarter of the population. This year, Internet penetration is estimated to hit 30%.
The regime was very slow to waken to the potential threat that blogs, social networks, email and other kinds of cybercommunication could pose. By the time they got around to considering the problem, the Net had burgeoned to a point where they could no longer monitor and conduct surveillance easily. It wasn’t just a question of physical capacity; Egyptian State Security and the regular police were late to develop the technical competence. In the great crackdown on gay men from 2001-2003, police entrapped people in chatrooms and through personals ads. But they hadn’t the technology or knowhow to trace the guys through their ISPs. The only way of finding them was a relatively primitive one: luring them to give away their names and addresses. One man who was caught on the Web told me,
All of them—the judges, the lawyers, even the niyaba [prosecutor]—knew nothing about the Internet. The deputy prosecutor even said, “I know nothing about the Internet and I don’t have time to learn about it. What is it? What do you do on it? Do people just talk around with men?” They knew nothing about how the things I was charged with actually worked, how these sites work, how you enter them or use them, or even how you log onto the internet or send an e-mail. They knew nothing except that the police officer had said I was gay and stood in [Midan] Tahrir making feminine motions, and that the Internet was somehow part of this.
The reason they shut down the whole Internet in a failed attempt to stifle the Revolution, then, was that they didn’t know anything else to do. Other, more targeted means of keeping tabs on dissident networks were beyond their ability. As a similar mark of ineptitude, when I say that the Great Blackout in January happened “in a matter of minutes,” I mean it’s inaccurate to think that the Mubarak regime “pulled the plug” on the Internet. They didn’t know where the plug was. They weren’t technically able to shut down the whole thing themselves. Those minutes mean that they were individually calling the telecom companies and ordering them to close up shop. The whole thing was massive but appallingly primitive.
Now, what isn’t very well remembered is that the Egyptian blackout boys had a role model. Here it is:
That deep fosse or fissure is a profile of panic. It was the day after the stolen election of June 12, 2009. As protests spread, on June 13 the state-run service providers shut down. The authorities had realized that the Internet and its accomplice technologies, Twitter and texting and the rest, were how information was metastasizing among the protesters, and spilling over to the outside world. Much like Mubarak’s sweating henchmen, they had no ready means to control it. So off went the lights. They flickered back only slowly in the following days, at a dim and sluggish level. The BBC spoke to a Western expert who
believes the authorities were buying time to install the filtering tools they needed to have a functioning internet infrastructure, but one over which they had some measure of control. So he reckons they gradually turned the tap back on as they put the filters in.
We talked about two very different countries that have also attempted to control the web; Burma and China. ”Burma in 2008 wasn’t very delicate,” he explained, referring to the regime’s reaction to large-scale unrest. “They simply turned it all off, so there was six weeks without a phone call or an e-mail.”
China, by contrast, has a very sophisticated filtering infrastructure, allowing for a completely open interchange of traffic with overseas trading partners, while maintaining strict control over access to forbidden sites and search terms.
And here’s the other graph that’s relevant. Iran’s internet usage as of 2010 was hovering just above 10% of the population:
Iran’s regime struggled after the June 2009 shock to find ways of surveilling and controlling the Internet that would still keep its economy functioning. They were aided, though, by a rate of Web penetration that, while growing along a curve comparable to Egypt’s, had still reached a much smaller proportion of the population. They had a bit of breathing space to sample technology — mostly, in all probability, from China — test it here and there, and develop a comprehensive plan.
The plan appears to be unfolding bit by bit — no pun intended. With legislative elections impending in early March, the government has introduced new rules requiring all Internet cafes to set up security cameras, and trace all users’ online footprints. Customers must also present their personal information before log-on. The Guardian says these
are calculated not to stamp out anonymous use of the internet, but to dissuade the far larger body of average people from any thought of dissent…. In a society where you know that you are being watched, eventually you will watch yourself, and save the authorities the trouble. Monitoring the free internet is too big a task for any government. But by using the threat of monitoring, Iran‘s administration can free itself to focus on words or phrases, or people, it knows to distrust.
But this is just the harbinger. Since 2009, authorities have been warning periodically about a project for a “Halal Internet”: an intranet somewhat on the model of corporations’ internal messaging systems, allowing supervised communication within the country, but cut off from the external world. This is the technologically competent version of the Cairo Solution. You shut the Internet, but you shift the parts you need to another network, one you can control.
It’s already coming. Early in 2011, a government techie told the Iranian press that
soon 60% of the nation’s homes and businesses would be on the new, internal network. Within two years it would extend to the entire country, he said.
Reza Taghipour, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology (an Orwellian title under the circumstances), has announced it will be ready in May. “Privacy, security, and cheapness are the goals of this project,” Taghipour added. (Privacy is publicity; security is vulnerability; cheap is China.)
Meanwhile, the chief of national police, Ahmadi Moghadam, warned that “Google search is not a search engine but a spy machine!” He comforted concerned searchers: “We have all these services here in Iran, more secure and better performing, so we can cut the foreigners’ connections to our content.” The appeal to xenophobia, both in the fear of alien espionage and the prospect of an improved, indigenous Google, is blatant. It isn’t us watching you, the government assures you, it’s the Zionists behind your screen. And our super gadgets will defend you! It reminds one of the Ceausescu-era Romanian “protochronists,” a sect of pseudoscholars who believed that Romania had invented everything first, and better. The Renaissance started in Wallachia, the Orthodox created the Reformation, and Aurel Vlaicu built the first airplane. Not for nothing is the project being compared to North Korea’s self-imposed isolation. Dictators, at a certain level, think as similarly as they force their subjects to do.
This information came to me first from Iranian LGBT rights activists. Queers in Iran are, though, in much the same situation as other dissidents. All had built a protective carapace, a niqab of anonymity, out of the Internet’s capacities; and they’re faced with that being ripped away. It’s a contrast to (straight) dissidents’ strategies in Egypt in the last decade: comparatively few went undercover on the Web. A large number of activists and organizations preferred transparency, not only to challenge a regime that was palpably losing some of its repressive acuity and power, but, it seemed, to confuse and swamp it with a surfeit of information. This has never been much of an option in Iran, where the cloud of information is smaller and wispier, and security forces’ ability to retaliate has been unquestionable.
Of course, xenophobia in Iran has a certain rationality at the moment. One expert inside the country told the Guardian that ”Iran has fears of an outside cyber-attack like that of the Stuxnet, and is trying to protect its sensitive data from being accessible on the World Wide Web.” The Stuxnet virus, an American-Israeli bit of malware, got into the Iranian system through infected USB sticks left for workers to pocket like poisoned chewing gum; it seriously damaged the national nuclear program. The killings of Iranian nuclear scientists, one of whom was bombed today, tend also to promote a vivid paranoia. ”Despite what others think,” the expert said, the “intranet is not primarily aimed at curbing the global Internet but Iran is creating it to secure its own military, banking and sensitive data from the outside world.”
“At the same time,” he added, “Iran is working on software robots to analyse exchanging emails and chats, attempting to find more effective ways of controlling users’ online activities.” Regardless of the halal Internet’s intent, surveillance will tighten.
What can you, or anyone do? Activists convey a twofold message to the West: first, to shout to governments that sanctions, viruses, and bombs redound in the repression of the dissidents they profess to support. Second, if the US and other states are developing Internet technologies that can circumvent censorship and firewalls, speed the damn things up. The Obama administration has promised an “Internet in a suitcase” to dissenters in countries it dislikes. It will
rely on a version of “mesh network” technology, which can transform devices like cellphones or personal computers to create an invisible wireless web without a centralized hub. In other words, a voice, picture or e-mail message could hop directly between the modified wireless devices — each one acting as a mini cell “tower” and phone — and bypass the official network.
It sounds a bit more unwieldy than the compact tchotchkes Q gave James Bond at the outset of every film:
[T]he suitcase would include small wireless antennas, which could increase the area of coverage; a laptop to administer the system; thumb drives and CDs to spread the software to more devices and encrypt the communications; and other components like Ethernet cables.
The New York Times adds with sang-froid:
Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border.
Right, if you’re bristling with all those cords and antennae. And doing 2,300 words’ worth of interviews with the Times about the project doesn’t help either.
Tell your governments — what? Tell them dissidents need help, and they’re not helping. Something, somewhere, has to give.