Reza Kazemzadeh is a Belgium based psychologist and writer. He is the head of Exile, which is a medical psychological center for victims of torture. He spoke with MvoicesIran about why the Iranian society is, in many cases, indifferent to the persecution of religious minorities and its silence and the internalizing of fear during 40 years of repression and discrimination.
Last year,when the Islamic Republic of Iran removed the “other religions” option from the national ID card application form, a move that appeared to be designed to deny millions of Iranians full citizenship such as Baha’is, Christian converts,Yarsans,there were no big protest or campaign within Iran’s society. why?
When considering this silence, attention should be paid to three sorts of silence, which are systematically connected: 1) Silence of authorities, 2) Silence of victims, and 3) Silence of witnesses or the people to whom your question refers.
Silence of the authorities in Iran has often been seen as denial. As the Iranian regime basically refuses to accept the existence of any “religious discrimination” in Iran, Iranian authorities never remark on it in detail. It will continue unless victims and witnesses break their silence.
For instance, Iranian authorities officially started to speak about the 1988 massacre of political prisoners just after many victims told their stories and caused these crimes to be heard by the people around the world. However, the turning point that led to breaking the silence by authorities and state denial was the testimony by one of the most important and main witnesses in this case, which left no room for marginalization. The tape-recorded statements of Ayatollah Montazeri about the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners were released by his son. Because of the release of these statements to the public, after years of pressure from Iranian and international individuals and associations, it gradually became impossible to deny the fact, and the State was forced to break its silence. It presented its story in various ways, first in the form of interviews with some key officials and the accused and then with the production of some films and serials. Forcing the Iranian regime to defend itself and move beyond the denial stage was an important step.
As to the silence of direct and indirect victims (families, relatives and coreligionists), the main causes are often terror, insecurity and fear of the regime’s brutal repression. In addition, people who are arrested or tortured may also experience psychological trauma, which prevents them from speaking out. But an important factor that causes victims in some countries like Iran to remain silent goes back to the audience, not the victims. The victims have no intention of speaking out if the society is not yet ready to hear them. For instance, the trial of Adolf Eichmann about 15 years after the end of World War II is considered a turning point that paved the way for the Holocaust victims to stand up and be counted. During this period, much groundwork was laid in the public sphere, which is beyond the scope of this discussion.
As for the third type of silence, which is the silence of other people and social groups, the following factors can be briefly mentioned:
– Creating systematic desensitization among the society by using violence in the normal, daily and organized manner in various fields: in the context of judicial orders, such as Qisas and Execution, especially in the form of public executions, in the behavior of law enforcement officers in dealing with any protest or social problems, in religious rituals, in some cases accompanied by self-harm, and so on.
– Justifying the various forms of violence by an ideology, which has created ultimate ideals for the believers from the act of violence under various titles, such as Jihad and Martyrdom, reduces the sensitivity of society to state violence.
Discrimination from within the Islamic regime’s opposition groups
One of the educational goals of human rights groups is to unveil the various forms of hidden violence at different levels of society. The more that the field of legitimate violence decreases even in customary contexts, such as the relationship between partners or parents with their children, the less we will see the direct use – Another issue is the lack of sufficient information. The most important strategy of religious minorities against the discriminatory policies of the Iranian regime has been silence and, if possible, secret negotiations. However, in a country like Iran, where the Islamic revolution is still a religious society in which the prejudices of the Shiite majority prevail, it is understandable that such a policy has been adopted by minorities, who have never been able to count on empathy and solidarity with this majority. Although this policy to a very limited extent has met some needs for the recognized minorities, it has by no means been a good strategy for such minorities as the Baha’is and Christian converts. We cannot talk about strategy for Christian converts, because they do not yet have a proper organization and enough historical experience of a minority like the Baha’is against discrimination and intolerance, just as they do not yet have enough media and associations of which you are an example. This explains why the majority of the society is unaware of the very difficult conditions in which these people live.
The Baha’i community is an internally organized and socially cohesive society, while Christian converts are just an emergent one that has not yet found its voices and organs for transmitting information. Of course, an emerging minority will face numerous problems within itself, an important part of which goes back to the mainstream of society itself and sometimes even to the families of these people who still look upon them with prejudice. In this context, it is very important to develop the power of expression by which one can primarily find the majority of society as its audience.
– Another issue, unfortunately, goes back to discrimination from within the Islamic regime’s opposition groups. Iranian regime’s dissidents and sometimes even the human rights defenders engage in hierarchical thinking and decision-making based on which consciously and often subconsciously divide the victims into the groups that are more deserving of protection than others and less so. Currently, the strongest group of victims in Iran are political prisoners, and the weakest are minorities such as Afghans and Christian converts. As a result, we need intellectual and educational work even among human rights activists. The fight against discrimination must become a fight against every hierarchical system that will take on a legal aspect. In the defense of human rights, no community or society should be considered superior or inferior.
This does not mean that all of these groups should fight against different types of discrimination faced by all people at the same time. Indeed, we need different groups, each of which should be familiar with the specific issues of the people of different backgrounds, but these groups cannot be indifferent to each other, nor can they fight alone. Attempts to get closer and work together will certainly help them to be more successful in achieving their goals. As these movements are not at the same stage, it is critical that the experienced groups with more audiences (e.g., groups defending political prisoners or women) have a plan to aid groups with limited resources (such as Christian converts and Afghan migrants in Iran).
Suppressing an identity by imposing another one
The Iranian government for decades has tried to institutionalize fear in Iran’s minorities and make them obedient citizens. In furtherance of this policy, Iran’s Education Minister, Mohsen Haji Mirzaei, recently stated: “The students who profess an unrecognized faith [in school], which is considered as engaging in propaganda, will be banned from school.” What impact will this identity denial have on the children, and why is a government, which holds all of the propaganda outlets, still concerned about religious minorities and their impact on others?
Suppressing an identity, which is always accompanied by imposing another identity, harms the psyche of both the oppressed person and the majority in whose name such repression is practiced. Such a regime ignores the humanity of the underprivileged and harms the dignity of those in whose name the discrimination is practiced, but in different ways. In today’s world, a society is considered democratic if it recognizes the right to be different and allows citizens to make such a choice. That is to say, even if such a right is denied by the person’s first-degree relatives, the society will protect his rights. Instead, in Iranian society, quite the opposite, the government has predetermined an important part of the individual and social identity of the people.
That is to say, individual identity is degraded into the level of a predetermined social role. In most cases, when the government speaks of “mankind”, it means a Twelver Shiite man serving the Islamic Republic. The regime puts up with the other people, but it does not recognize them. Such a concept can be easily extracted from their textbooks.
“If You Do Not Tell Lies, We Will Punish You!”
It is obvious that the most important tool used by the Iranian regime to impose a false identity is to create socio-economic deprivation and a culture of fear deliberately. In the above-quoted passage from Iran’s Education Minister, we can clearly see practices of a radical Islamist ideology in Iran after four decades of ruling and gaining experience. His words are not about what a child really thinks, or how he understands and learns about the outside world; what seems to be important for the “Education” Minister is that the child does not “profess” his/her true faith. He simply means “If You Do Not Tell Lies, We Will Punish You!”. This is the essence of totalitarianism, of which George Orwell has spoken as the most important moral principle (the technique of telling lies) in these regimes. Just like I said before, the “Denial” is a solution for them. It does not matter if you feel good as a citizen; it matters only if you pretend in accordance with the will of “us” in public, even if it is at the cost of telling lies to “us”!
Therefore, the citizen must not only deny his identity, but he/she must also commit an immoral act (telling a lie), which conflicts with his beliefs. It seems that the rulers are seeking good citizens who are guilty at the same time. That is to say, they must live in torment for not being able to say what they really believe in and being conscience-stricken about telling lies! The most absurd thing is that all of this is done in the name of moral and spiritual values. It is in such situations that “Cultural Schizophrenia” will bud. It is a world in which there is a dichotomy between what we are inside and what we pretend to be on the outside.
But what effect does such a situation have on the other citizens? When you live in a community, it means you are participating in every aspect of community life. In a society in which discrimination has been systematically and officially institutionalized, silence makes you the accomplice of rulers and oppressors. In the sociological approach to fascism, in cases where the denial by rulers is accompanied by the silence of witnesses, we can see a “structural silence.” In the case of some minorities, especially Christian converts in Iranian society, one can speak of such a concept.
Iran’s religious minorities have been victims of the State’s repressive and discriminatory policies. Why do they even after immigration still exist in isolation from each other, do not leave the ghetto and do not work together as a group to realize their rights?
I have already answered some of your questions. Silence of the oppressed is sometimes strategic, sometimes the sign of lacking internal organization, ability and skills (e.g., the media) to transmit news, and sometimes due to successful repression of the ruling political system. Concerning this last point, it should be noted that one of the characteristics unique to the discrimination policy is to weaken, and sometimes even to destroy social ties. When you systematically deprive and oppress a particular group or minority, you will simultaneously disrupt the relationship between that group and the groups or the majority of society.
“Internalization of the Will of Executioner by the Victim”
Although a common plight sometimes leads to a sense of solidarity, it often disrupts the relationship between the group and the rest of society, because instead of a sense of oneness and closeness, it brings out the sense of being different and disregardful from the majority. Such a system needs a spirit of, in your words, “ghetto”. Just as a person is forced into emotional exile because of pretending, the system will also try to socially separate the isolated groups as much as possible from the others. Such a policy in some cases is gradually pursued by the rejected groups themselves, and building a “ghetto” is transformed from an infliction of socio-economic deprivation into a means of protection against a risk of harm from the others.
Here we are confronted with a manifestation of a well-known phenomenon called “Internalization of the Will of Executioner by the Victim”. The belief that the less they know of us, the less they come up with harassing us, is a kind of public distrust not only of oppressors, but also of humanity in general and of anyone who is not like us and does not share the same fate with us. That is why any plea for justice basically comes with repairing and reconstruction of social relationships. From this point of view, plea for justice is a kind of dressing the wounds of society and strengthening human bonds.
However, there is a kind of passivity or inclination to keep distance from other social groups among many oppressed minorities. This trait is internalized to such an extent that even after the person’s immigration to a democratic society will remain in his psyche, and sometimes even takes the form of a chronic pessimism about the individuals and institutions of the host society.
How successful has the government’s politics of disidentification?
The regime’s politics have been alarmingly successful, especially in cutting off the social and even unfortunately family ties (e.g., in some cases, a Christian convert is rejected or mistreated by the family due to conversion), but not in preventing the growth of religious groups and encouraging them to convert to Islam.
As for religious minorities, I think one of the most important factors that created both good growth platforms for them and significantly and effectively protected them against snooping and regime’s political interference, is the private space. Both the Baha’is and the Christian converts have well risen to the challenge. Such a thing is not possible, for instance, in the field of politics, because political activity should be ultimately practiced in the public space, and the public space in Iran is under full and precise supervision of the authorities. From this aspect, art is similar to politics (its arena is ultimately the public space) and as a result it has faced many problems and has been forced to adopt different strategies.
Religious belief, as we see in the case of Baha’is and, for instance, Jews in general, has become part of private life and used this space to the best of its ability to protect and survive oneself to this day.
In the case of Christian converts, as they are still growing and forming an identity, and according to the fact that in addition to government restrictions, they simultaneously face many issues and challenges in the family which sometimes can be very difficult and unbearable, they have not yet succeeded in finding an optimal and comprehensive solution to such a great dilemma. In this regard, I would like to suggest two points as follows: first, attempt to transmit news in a systematic manner and at two different levels – on the one hand, to institutions and civil and public bodies in the democratic countries, and on the other hand, to their other compatriots inside and outside Iran; and secondly, try to get closer and cooperate with other oppressed groups. Finally, I have a word with the groups defending the rights of women, religious minorities, children, and so on: Any link that is broken in our society, will bring the regime one step closer to its goals i.e. more violations of civil rights, but any link that is restored, conversely, will lead to public solidarity and retreat by the authorities.