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  • Iran’s Peculiar ElectionThe Voice of Akbar Ganji
  • Azar Nafisi (bio)

Today my broken face is the true face of the system in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I am now the symbol of justice that, if viewed correctly, puts on display the full extent of the opression by the rulers of the Islamic Republic. My worn-out body and face reveal, paradoxically, the proclaimed justice and the true oppression. Anyone who sees me now asks in surprise, "Are you Akbar Ganji? What have they done to you?"

—"Letter to the Free People of the World," 1 July 2005

Akbar Ganji has come to represent the democratic movement in Iran, not simply because of his enormous courage or the originality of his views, but because he has revealed the "true face of the system in the Islamic Republic of Iran." Alhough he has been in prison since the year 2000 and has been gravely weakened by illness and a two-month-long hunger strike in the summer of 2005, he still stands out as the strongest figure in today's Iran.

Among the former revolutionaries who have questioned the Islamic Republic, none has shown the intellectual and moral courage that Ganji has demonstrated in interrogating and holding accountable not just the Islamic regime but also his own former self. His resistance to the regime's tyranny is at the same time a statement against the young Islamist militant who once eagerly helped to bring about the Islamic Revolution. His transformation from militant Islamist to courageous dissident and staunch defender of democracy and human rights shows how thoroughly the Islamic Revolution has failed to reach its goals. Ganji's transformation gives us a little more hope in ourselves and in Iranian society's potential for change. [End Page 35]

Step by step, Ganji has redeemed himself by questioning the very system that he once helped to erect. His firmness and uncompromising attitude spring from an intellectual restlessness and a moral integrity that make him constantly seek and reveal the truth. Born in a poor neighborhood of Tehran, Ganji became a radical Islamist while still a teenager, rising to a leadership position in the Revolutionary Guards. By the late 1980s, however, he had begun to have reservations about the direction of the Islamic regime and joined the staff of a new reformist intellectual journal called Kian. His participation in a study circle around Kian led by philosopher Abdul Karim Soroush opened Ganji's mind to new ideas, but he would later go beyond any others in that circle in both theory and practice. In the 1990s, Ganji emerged as Iran's most prominent investigative journalist, and became famous for his reports linking the "serial murders" of dissidents at home and abroad with the regime's highest officials. Shortly after attending an academic and cultural conference at the Heinrich Böll Institute in Berlin in April 2000, Ganji was arrested and charged with spreading propaganda against the Islamic system, and he has been a prisoner ever since.

Whether in his readings of Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper or in his investigative journalism, Ganji has acted boldly and frankly, without the timidity and ambiguity typical of so many of his comrades in the reform movement. He would not accept pat answers or opportunistic compromises. For him, the struggle against the Islamic regime has become not only a political but also an existential imperative. In a letter to Soroush, the teacher whom he has now left far behind, he states, "The letters and notes I have written are all nourished from the essence of my life. For tens of pages that I have written, I have lost 25 kilograms of my very flesh and blood."

The radical nature of Ganji's transformation flows not from his political views, but from the manner in which he has chosen to act upon them, proving that the end is indeed the sum of the means employed. Ganji has grasped the important point that, in confronting a totalitarian regime, the first rule is to create a model of resistance that is effective precisely because it refuses to play according to the rules chosen by those in power. He...