“When they single out a ‘visible Muslim intellectual’ for attack, their real agenda is the politics of Muslim-baiting and fear.”
Once again I have come under attack in the Netherlands. Last May and June, I was accused of ‘doublespeak’, of ‘homophobia’ and of demeaning women. Upon investigation, the Rotterdam municipality declared the accusations unfounded.
Today, the argument goes that I am linked to the Iranian regime; I support the repression that followed the recent elections. Should we be surprised that this latest accusation has surfaced only in the Netherlands? It is as if I in particular, and Islam in general, are being used to promote certain political agendas in the upcoming Dutch elections. [Local elections will be held in 2010, Ed.]
Geert Wilders, who wins votes by comparing the Koran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, casts a long shadow. I am cast as the cause of an outburst of political passions that is far from healthy. But the present controversy says far more about the alarming state of politics in the Netherlands than about my person.
The attacks on my involvement have been extremely violent; to those, I will respond with utmost clarity.
When, in April 2008 I agreed to host a television program on PressTV, the Iranian worldwide 24-hour news network, the decision followed three months of careful evaluation, as well as discussions with Iranian friends and media experts. Over time I have closely followed political developments and growing internal tensions in Iran. I was among the first Muslim thinkers in the West to oppose the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.
For the past twenty-five years, while observing that compared to the Arab countries Iran has made substantial headway in women’s rights and democratic norms, I have been critical of the lack of freedom of expression there, of the obligation for women to wear the headscarf, and, more recently, of the 2006 Holocaust conference (which dangerously blurred the lines between criticism of Israeli policy and anti-semitism). It goes without saying that I have condemned the shooting of demonstrators and the repression that followed the June elections.
My position has always been one of constructive criticism. I have devoted much of my time to studying the internal dynamics of the Iranian political system. I refuse to be swayed by propaganda claims, either from the Iranian regime, or from Israel (which asserts, all the while proclaiming its innocence, that Iran is the main obstacle to peace), from the United States or the European countries, all of whose strategic interests are involved. In Iran, the relationship between religion and politics is extremely complex.
The simplistic view that posits two opposing camps – the fundamentalist conservatives versus the democratic reformists – displays a profound ignorance of Iranian reality. Moreover, no evolution toward democratic transparency can take place under pressure from the West: the process will be internal, lengthy and painful.
When I agreed to host a television program on Islam and contemporary life, I chose the path of critical debate. I accepted no obligations. My guests have included atheists, rabbis, priests, women with and without headscarves, all invited to debate issues like freedom, reason, interfaith dialogue, Sunni versus Shia Islam, violence, jihad, love and art, to name only a few. I challenge my critics to scrutinise these programmes and to find the slightest evidence in them of support for the Iranian regime. My programme proclaims its openness to the world; all guests are treated with equal respect.
Today, as Iran is torn by crisis, I intend to take all the time necessary to make the proper decision. All the facts must be carefully weighed in order to devise the optimum strategy for supporting the long march, in Iran, toward transparency and respect for human rights. Violent polemics and overheated debate of the kind we see today in the Netherlands lead nowhere. Before deciding on a course of action, I am determined to form a fully rounded picture.
When I accepted the offer from PressTV, in London – my sole contact was with the British producers who were proposing a concept to the network – I did so on the clear condition that I would be free to select my topics and that I would have full editorial freedom within the parameters of a weekly programme dealing with religion, philosophy and contemporary issues.
My method, from the start, has been to explore these issues without lending support to the Iranian regime, and without compromising myself. It has been a choice that many Iranian friends have not only understood, but also encouraged. Money is not a consideration. Another international news network has offered me three times more than what I receive from PressTV, an offer I refused on principle.
Were I to change my political and religious beliefs I would be a wealthy man, as anyone who has followed my career well knows. But not for me the flattery of kings and princes, of regimes and of the rich. The price for my political stance has been high; I have never traded on principle. I cannot to travel to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya or Syria because of my criticism of these undemocratic regimes that deny the most basic human rights.
The United States revoked my visa because of my outspoken condemnation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its unilateral support of Israel. Needless to say, I am considered persona non grata in Israel. Twenty years ago, a staff member from the Chinese embassy gave me to understand that the Beijing authorities were well aware of my commitment to the Tibetans.
I have always taken full responsibility for my views; I have never supported either dictatorship or injustice in any Muslim majority society, or anywhere else for that matter. As for those who condemn me ‘on principle’ for hosting a television programme on an Iranian network, I reply: to work for a country’s television network does not mean support of that country’s regime. Were things so straightforward my detractors, those paragons of political virtue, would have long ago insisted that the government of the Netherlands sever all political and economic ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel or China.
Curiously, their voices are not to be heard, just as when Rotterdam municipality publicly cleared me of the false accusations of ‘doublespeak’ or ‘homophobia’, or, more recently, when an American federal court quashed the decision of a lower court revoking my visa. Why the silence? Why the accusations that seem to fit me alone?
The answer is simple: when they single out a ‘visible Muslim intellectual’ for attack, their real agenda is the politics of Muslim-baiting and fear. When it comes to seeking votes, all options are on the table, even the most dishonest and the most scurrilous.
I respect my principles far too much to submit to this deceitful propaganda campaign. Not only as a question of personal honour, but in the name of human dignity, and faith in the future.