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Four face death - and we all stand idly by

Editorial by Rosie DiManno
Toronto Star, October 29, 1999

(see an English translation of the play here)

Salman Rushdie has always struck me as a rather unpleasant fellow and overrated writer.

One can't possibly imagine how terrifying, how unnerving, it must have been to spend a decade as the subject of a fatwa - the death sentence imposed on the British author by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 for purportedly blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad in his novel, The Satanic Verses.

The edict encouraging execution - which could have come at any time, in any place - was sanctioned terrorism and, according to mainstream Muslims, a crude distortion of Islamic moral laws.

But Iran was at the time the most militant and revolutionary of Islamic republics, freshly emboldened by the international chaos it had caused after overthrowing the corrupt regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi, holding 56 American hostages at the seized U.S. embassy, and putting its women back into the chador.

Yet, despite the furtive existence necessitated by the fatwa, Rushdie was a most visible proponent of free speech, his profile and literary reputation given a tremendous boost because of his awful predicament.

However covertly and clandestinely, the author managed to travel, to be feted at a plethora of glittery functions where he received the encomiums of the literary elite; slipping in and out of England - where he received protection from Scotland Yard - and becoming, in the process, a quite garrulous, quite self-referential martyr/icon. Far from being gagged, Rushdie gabbed-gabbed-gabbed.

Good on him, I suppose.

And good on International PEN, the London-based association of writers that led the crusade for public sympathy and political pressure.

In a gesture of conciliation by the new and more moderate political regime, Iran recently declared that it had no intention of carrying out the fatwa, though whether this will still the hand of a potential assassin cannot be assured.

At the very least, if any harm were to befall Rushdie, the Iranian government can claim it was not responsible.

Globally, this reversal was viewed as palpable evidence that Iran no longer wished to function in isolation, no longer wanted to be designated a pariah nation.

There have been cautious moves toward a rapprochement with the West, tentative overtures toward democratic principles.

Iranians, after a decade-long ruinous war with Iraq, want more prosperity, educational opportunities for their children, economic improvements. A more lively media has clamoured for reform and, when a backlash from the ruling clerics forced some newspapers to cease publication, students revolted - the largest demonstration by students since the early days of the anti-Shah revolution.

The West is most eager to welcome Iran back in from the cold.

President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate who has been forced to walk a thin line in order to dodge the rancour of the zealous, aging clerics who still enjoy tremendous authority, is the key. Khatami, a cleric himself, is welcomed as a reformer who can skilfully function within the narrow context of Shi'ite militancy.

This is all heartening news.

None of this moderation, however, has been applied to the case of four students who are now facing the death penalty for what can be described, at worst, as a youthful indiscretion.

The students were brought into court last week in Tehran and charged with insulting the Twelfth Imam - a figure sacred to the Shi'ite, who believe that his return will usher in a new world order and justice for all. It's a familiar messianic belief, one common to most major faiths.

In their student play, published last month in a magazine called The Wave - so obscure it has only about 150 readers - the authors lampooned religious hard-liners. The objective, via satire, was to show how hard-liners are in control of the Iranian judiciary.

But Kayhan, a right-wing newspaper, was tipped off to the play and wrote about the blasphemy, which has become a flashpoint for fanatical clerics who fear their power base is being eroded in a more democratic Iran.

The judge assigned to the case has demonstrated an obvious bias against the students. No jury is being used, although Iranian law requires one in such cases.

As reported by the International Herald Tribune, Judge Saeed Mortezavi had this to say when the sobbing students attempted to defend themselves against the charges: ``You have used insulting words and you have made fun of people awaiting the Imam's return. You are trying to insult Islamic values in a way that we can't say this was done without malice.''

It did no good for the students to claim they were young men of faith who were disturbed by how clerics were abusing Islamic law to empower themselves.

Ali Abbas Nemati, one of the students, testified: ``I did what I did only to serve the interests of religion. This is difficult for you to believe, but it is true.''

So, where is the moral condemnation now?

Where is the international outrage?

Where the hell is PEN?

Isobel Harry, executive director of PEN Canada, was unfamiliar with the case of these amateur playwrights when contacted yesterday by the Star.

But Harry did say she would immediately contact the London office to see if they have any information on the students, or if PEN has embarked on any campaign on the young men's behalf.

The best-case scenario is a one-to-five year prison sentence, if their lawyers can convince the judge that the students meant no insult to Islamic principles.

President Khatami and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leaders, have pleaded for compassion on behalf of the students. But can they sway the hard-liners who have carriage of the case?

The most extreme option is execution, which is being urged by arch-conservative clerics, including leading ideologue Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi.

This is what Yazdi had to say about the case recently: ``Differences in opinion are not open to all in case of religious sanctities, only to those theologians who are experts.''

There was a wire photo of the students that ran in the Herald Tribune, in court, their faces in their hands, crying.

It was heartbreaking.

But they're just students, not glitterati authors. They're unknowns. They have no cachet.

And, of course, they're Iranians.