Irresponsibility, ignorance, and self-declared “experts” on Iran

This way, please: Rumor leading the chariot of War (Vincenzo Cartari, 1582)

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.

tweet them out

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.

Makwan Mouloudzadeh

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.

Down, boy: Sir Calidore and the Blatant Beast

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.

Death kitsch: “Makwan, a Letter from Paradise” by Everyone Group

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.

no knowledge, but a lot of expertise

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?

How to become an expert on Iran: Another theory

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.

Four “sodomy” sentences in Iran: On not learning from our mistakes

Makwan Mouloudzadeh

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.

But Boris’s is bigger: Anti-Iran protest, London Pride, 2008

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.

My little town: Charam

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.

the awful consequences of gender segregation

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?

Everyone Group on Mouloudzadeh, 2007: Makwan lives on, so why feel guilty?

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.