Reyhaneh Jabbari had been convicted of murdering the 47-year-old Morteza Sarbandi, who allegedly attempted to rape her. Following a trial described as “deeply flawed” by Amnesty International, she was condemned to Qisas (literally meaning ‘retaliation’) which meant that formally her fate was in the hands of the Sarbandi family, who approved the execution on 24th of October 2014.
Reactions within Iranian civil society, as reflected in social media, have been mixed, with various people holding different parties responsible for the execution, from Reyhaneh herself to the Sarbandi family or the Islamic penal laws and the Iranian state. The focus of this article, however, is not so much on the events themselves but a surprising and recurring standpoint that has gained a lot of publicity during the coverage of these events; namely, that the real murderers of Reyhaneh were those in the media, particularly the media outside of Iran, and the international campaigns which fought to prevent the execution.
ACCORDING TO the proponents of this idea, activities to save people from execution are not carried out with good intentions. The real motivation behind them is to gain personal prestige and win awards outside of Iran through falsely criticizing the Iranian state and trying to make the situation appear worse than it actually is. What makes this point of view particularly worth investigating is that it actually came from people who do not identify with the Iranian state in its totality and in many cases are seen as its opponents. Amongst them are Iranian political activists, poets and journalists. They range from Iranian reformists to Iranian nationalists.
An example is Amir-Farshad Ebrahimi, a former member of the semi-formal hard-core Islamist group Ansare-e-hizbullah, who later split from them, left Iran and is now considered as part of the opposition to the Iranian state. He writes: “those idiots who make social media pages to introduce Sarbadi as a rapist, those worthless campaigns, they are Reyhaneh’s murderers… there are tens of Qisas convictions in Iran per day and most of them are forgiven by the victim’s family. Reyhaneh had committed a murder and she was condemned to Qisas according to Iran’s law, just like in many other countries… these girls who until recently used to publish the pictures of their lipstick on social media and now have suddenly become human rights activists… these are the real murderers!”
“Reactions within Iranian civil society, as reflected in social media, have been mixed”
There are many more examples that could be referred to. What they have in common is that they all blame resane-i-shodan (‘mediatization’) and Iranian anti-execution activists for the execution. They also tend to see murder in general as a matter of personal conflict as opposed to a social issue.
My main concern here is not to provide counter-arguments or to try to prove or disprove this particular standpoint, because ascertaining the truth does not exactly require special expertise or a long trip inside the dark labyrinth of uncertainty. The facts are simple, clear and easy to access for everyone. In Iran there were 148 executions by hanging as Qisas for murder in 2013 alone. Out of those 148, only two or three may make the news before the execution is carried out and at best one becomes international news. So the executions by Qisas do happen, and very frequently, regardless of the type of international activities seeking to stop them. (Blood money, or Dia, can play an important role in changing a family’s financial situation if they face poverty. In cases where the victim’s family is not in need of such money, the act of forgiveness becomes less likely, as in Sarbandi’s case.)
This information is easily accessible to those who believe that the “media” and the “activists” killed Reyhaneh. So the real question is: why has such a reactionist and irrational point of view become so popular and well accepted in the Iranian community?
Again, the answer is right in front of us; these people are in a state of denial with regards to what is actually happening in society and the responsibility of the Iranian state in the country’s ongoing social problems.
IT IS NOT surprising to find out that many of the people who initiated the attacks and the “demonizing” of Iranian media activists and lawyers are those who rallied behind the successful presidential bid of Hassan Rouhani in the hope of a better future for Iran. Being in a situation where not much has improved for the average Iranian citizen, while at the same time having to deal with people who are pessimistic about the possibility for change under any president as long as the system remains, compels them to try to avoid such matters instead of finding solutions.
The other explanation is the sense of national inferiority which has been apparent within Iranian society and which has increased in the last decade. This sense of inferiority manifests itself in two ways: in the self-orientalization of some and in the increase in Iranian nationalism, racism and discriminatory views. To those who struggle with this complex, every social problem is first examined through the eyes of what can be called a superior occidental other. They would rather see pictures of “Tehran’s rich kids” or skiing facilities in Iran in the international media. They do not want the Western media to be running stories about a 26-year-old woman who has been executed following a case revolving around alleged self-defense against rape. When they talk about the victim’s family being dishonored by media activists, what this actually means, in between the lines, is that they believe that their national identity has been dishonored when such cases acquire international attention.
Most of these people, many of them originating from the Iranian middle and upper-middle classes, live in a limbo between a semi-modern personal life and a harsher, more restricted, social situation. In an act of self-defense they try to erase the undesirable social part from their own minds and pretend it does not exist. When this attempt fails, they react with hostility towards those they hold responsible for “degrading their nation” – media activists and lawyers in this case. This becomes more obvious when we consider the fact that none of these people have aimed their fire at the western institutions seeking to implement human rights but instead concentrate on Iranian activists and Persian-language media located in the west.
IN CONCLUSION it should be noted that the Iranian state does not feel particularly threatened by international pressure regarding the human rights issues in Iran. Iran hopes to evade all foreign pressure on human rights when/if the tension over the nuclear is resolved. This was further underlined by a recent speech of Iran’s representative during the UN Human Rights Council’s UPR, in which he denounced all claims of violations of human rights in Iran.
The past 35 years of Iranian history underlines the same point, where the Islamic Republic has rode roughshod over human rights without the slightest concern for international public opinion. Nonetheless, the Iranian state does care about losing the fragile public support it has gained since the election of Hassan Rouhani and will fight hard not to lose it again.
Ultimately, public figures who cleanse the state from its suppression of Iranians and reproducing its discourse are playing a very destructive role. And it becomes all the more important for the Iranian people in general and activists and intellectuals in particular to confront these people and challenge their ideas and – to borrow from Edward Said – “remain an organic part of an ongoing experience in society: of the poor, the disadvantaged, the voiceless, the unrepresented, the powerless.”