As in any other country, a presidential election sheds light on the candidates’ perspectives for the future as well as on their own past. Both can have an impact on how the population casts its vote. An interesting case in this regard is Esfandyar Rahim Mashaii, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s former adviser. Although in the last couple of years he has often been at loggerheads with the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and although he has often been quoted as being fairly pro-secular (one of modern Iranian society’s chief concerns) and in favour of increasing state hand-outs to the people, it is simply out of the question for reformist-minded intellectuals and activists, who believe in the possibility of change within the Islamic Republic, to support him.
The reason for this is as simple as it is logical: Mashai is closely associated with Ahmadinejad and, moreover, with the violence and the systematic abuse of human rights that swept through the streets of Iran following the rigged election in 2009. Instead their preferred candidate is Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.
Yet while all of the issues, such as those concerning domestic politics and freedoms, international affairs, sanctions and the possibility of war are being intensely discussed in the Iranian media and the public sphere, there is one human rights related issue in particular that speaks volumes about the attitude of the vast majority of Iranian intellectuals towards democracy and justice: the state massacres of 1988. When it comes to what happened in the Islamic Republic and how its victims often are compared to those who suffered from the violence of 2009 the discourse of these intellectuals and activists reveals the most astonishing double standards.
What happened in 1988?
‘He who says yes, he who says no’ (Brecht)
Giorgio Agamben’s notion of homo sacer best explains the situation of the victims of the 1988 massacres in relation to the ‘sovereign’: the Islamic state. Homo sacer has its origins in ancient Rome, where those who broke an oath could be excluded from the law and thus be killed by anyone or treated in any way. Agamben takes this historical event and seeks modern-day equivalents and analogies, such as what went on in Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, a physical space of exception where the law did not apply. The Iranian political prisoners found themselves in a similar situation in 1988 - in far too many cases, even before then.
In the summer of 1988, thousands of political prisoners were executed - prisoners who had already been on trial and received sentences, or who had already served their sentences but was still kept in captivity by the state. The exact reason behind the decision to massacre the prisoners is unknown. Many suggest that it was a desperate act on the part of ayatollah Khomeini, who was hoping to win the war with Iraq and was looking to calm his nerves after signing the peace treaty, an act which he regarded as “drinking poison.” Thousands were murdered without access to lawyers, juries, appeals etc, in trials that lasted at most a few minutes. What sealed their fate was their answer to just one or two questions. They were bare lives, deprived of all rights, placed outside of the law and mercilessly killed, in order to numb the pain of drinking poison.
Today, the victims enter a third space of exception
The five-minute long trials established whose lives were worthless, even if those lives were now spent in the horrifying conditions of the 1980s prisons. Depending on the political orientation of the particular prisoner, who stood blindfolded before the judges, two types of question were asked. One wrong answer would place them on death row, although the prisoners were unaware of this.
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The majority of those killed were members of Iran’s Mujahedin. The basic question that determined whether they would survive was: ‘Do you still see yourself as a mujahed or not?’ If they answered ‘yes’ they would be executed right away. For those belonging to leftist and communist groups, the question was whether they believed in Allah and Islam or not. If they answered ‘no’ they would be killed.
The unofficial judges decided whether they were telling the truth or not.
Those who were deemed unworthy of living under the rules of the Islamic state did not have the right to appeal (although appeal might not be the right word considering that they did not even have a trial to begin with). They could not contact their families before execution and were denied the rights to which all other people sentenced to death in Iran are entitled. They were homo sacers not only in death but also after death. They were buried in mass graves in their clothes. There was no Islamic ritual of burial - not even for the mujahedin members, who were followers of Islam. Their families were informed that they were not allowed to arrange funerals for their loved ones.
In the summer of 1988, the Iranian prisons had turned into spaces of exception where not even the restrictive laws of the Islamic republic were upheld. Most of the prisoners did not survive. Amnesty International has recorded 4,482 of the victims’ names. It is estimated that at least 30,000 people were killed.
Homo sacers twice; placed outside of the human rights discourse
While the lack of international concern for this issue is unfortunate, the true tragedy lies within the body of Iranian reformist human-rights activists and theoreticians, who have either been unexpectedly silent on the issue or, when put in a situation where they had to talk about it, have tried to make it seem like a minor event which has lost its importance over time.
Over the past few years they have voiced their concern about many issues related to the violation of human rights during Ahmadinejad’s reign. Yet the question of the 1988 massacres and the earlier executions are treated as “non-issues.” In official media they are usually silent about it, in less official spaces, such as Facebook or Twitter, a certain mockery can be detected towards those who even mention the role of current Iranian officials in the 1988 massacres, let alone those who demand a trial to investigate what actually happened. This is particularly the case when the officials in question are former Prime Minister, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, or the current presidential candidate, Rafsanjani.
It should be noted that a part of the opposition that is not pro-regime, or even pro-reformist, does not seem to be interested in exploring the issue either. It is not too bothered about what it simply believes was an “unfortunate event.” By contrast, these activists constantly (and justifiably!) raise awareness about those who were killed, imprisoned and placed under house arrest in the aftermath of the 2009 elections: the victims of 1988, as well as those of previous violence, seem to be a dispensable part of Iranian society’s collective memory. The boundaries of politically “choosing between bad and worse” have imposed all kinds of restrictions on their seemingly pro-human rights discourse.
They make it seem like it was not a big deal or post irrelevant comments hypothesising about how “the victims would have done the same if they were in power.” They reduce the act of someone like ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who instantly protested against the executions and was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life, to a personal moral choice, not holding any of the currently reformist (or moderate in Rafsanjani’s case) politicians responsible for their involvement or later silence. To them, the case of 1988 and other cases, such as the assassination of Kurdish Democratic Party leaders in the Mikonos restaurant in Berlin, for which many Islamic republic figures - including Rafsanjani - were found guilty by the German court, are “non-issues.”
Today, the victims enter a third space of exception. This time, it is not their lives or their bodies that are excluded from the law and society, it is the right to seek justice for them in the face of their exclusion from the emerging Iranian human rights discourse. Once more they are the “other” and the space of exception has increased from the physical space of the Iranian prisons to the websites and TV channels, papers and social media such as Facebook, which play an important role among the Iranian youth in particular.
The absence of a concern with, and attention to, one of the most tragic events of Iran’s recent history on the part of those who claim to be concerned about human rights issues is surprising and worrying. Whether or not these forces will be able to pursue and establish a genuine discourse that can liberate people and value human dignity is rather questionable, given that their approach towards human rights has thus far revealed itself to be opportunistic and deeply problematic.