With his bright, dancing eyes and easy smile, Akbar Ganji does not look like a man holding dark secrets of political assassination and government-sponsored violence. The 40 year-old journalist, however, has spent the last few months in jail for exposing some of those secrets. Last week, facing charges of treason before a hard-line judge in a Tehran court, he defiantly attacked his accusers and boldly named senior clerics he says were involved in a spate of political assassinations in late 1998. Ganji's revelations rocked Tehran political circles and increased his popularity across Iran to even higher levels. Previously, he declined to name names, referring to the implicated senior officials as "grey monsignors." Last week, in the spotlight of his high-profile trial, he fingered former Minister of Intelligence Ali Fallahian, hard-line judge Mohseni Ejei, and senior cleric Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi as the instigators of the assassinations of 5 dissidents and writers in 1998, and up to 80 others since the late 1980's.
It is unlikely that any serious investigation will be launched against accused high level figures because Iran's security service and judiciary are dominated by conservatives. Still, Ganji's bold pronouncements are likely to add fuel to the reformist-conservative power struggle that has been raging since the election of President Mohammad Khatami in May, 1997.
Ganji, with his fearless reporting and vocal criticism of Iran's powerful conservatives, has become a leading voice in Iran's nascent pro-democracy movement. He is widely believed to have eclipsed in popularity all other reformist figures, including President Mohammad Khatami, who calls for a more cautious approach. Ganji has also become a leading target of anti-reform conservatives, who still control key levers of power, including all security agencies. They call Ganji "a traitor" and the diminutive journalist regularly receives death threats. He has also reportedly been beaten during his latest incarceration.
Still, with each report of death threats or prison beatings and each defiant verbal counter-attack by the journalist, Ganji's legend grows. He is the darling of pro-democracy Iranian students and a growing number of Iran's frustrated reformers, many of whom are beginning to fear that President Khatami is moving too slowly and ceding too much ground to conservatives.
Shortly before his incarceration, Ganji spoke with the Central Eurasia Group in a basement of a downtown Tehran apartment building. When asked if he feared for his life, Ganji said: "Democratization has costs that I am willing to bear. I am simply seeking the truth so we can eliminate the use of politically-inspired violence in our society. I am not looking to become a martyr or hero."
Ganji's philosophy is simple: "In order to find the truth, we must ask difficult questions," he said in the interview. "That's it. Some people say that it is not expedient to ask these questions now. I think that the questions might save people's lives in the future and force a certain amount of accountability on officials who have previously worked behind the scenes and paid no consequences for their illegal actions. Without asking these questions, we will not progress."
Ganji calls himself a religious intellectual, though he quotes primarily secular Western thinkers. He feels that Iran's conservative clerics "have turned religion into ideology and have reduced faith into fascism." In the interview, he went on to say: "This is nothing new. Every religion has had its dark moments with inquisitions and narrow-minded prejudice, but this moment we have had in Iran goes against the spirit of Islam and all major faiths."
He views Iran's 1979 revolution as a popular outcry for freedom that turned away from the will of the people and toward an authoritarian system that abused religious belief. "Instead of a more democratic society, we got religious fascism," he said, repeating an argument he has made in his books and newspaper articles.
"Most religious intellectuals, like myself, believe that we must embrace the principles of political modernity - civil society, free press, democracy, rule of law. These are principles of secularization. Most of us, the religious intellectuals, believe in a Popperian view of the world." The 20th century Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, author of the landmark political study Open Society and its Enemies, is a favorite of Iran's reformists, including President Khatami. In the book, Popper defends democratic liberalism and a makes a devastating critique of the philosophic underpinnings of totalitarian systems. He goes on to describe how Marxism, an initially scientific theory, should have failed under the weight of empirical evidence, but instead degenerated into pseudo-scientific dogma in the defense of totalitarianism.
Ganji draws parallels between Popper's view of Marxist history and the evolution of Iran's Islamic government. "In a sense, that is what happened with our Islamic revolution," he said "We had a theory - that Islamic government could provide us with just rule - but then there was a great deal of pseudo-Islamic dogma added in defense of totalitarianism."
Ganji said that he hopes his efforts would result in "a civil society free of political violence and a government that respects religion and does not abuse it." He declined to comment on his views on the separation of religion and state. Privately, many reformers like Ganji feel that the time has come for Iran to wean itself away from the prominent role of religion in government, though this idea is still too dangerous to broach publicly.
He also hopes to show a more gentle interpretation of Islam, as opposed to the view favored by Iran's conservatives which, he says, goes against the peaceful nature of the faith. "They promise you heaven but they create hell on earth," he said, repeating one of his best known sayings.
As the journalist faces an uncertain future in a Tehran prison cell, his aides said on Monday that Ganji is unlikely to let up on his attacks. They admit to fearing the consequences of his defiant stand, including a possible assassination. Iran's conservatives, however, understand the importance of Ganji's public influence and might not want to risk a dramatic popular backlash at a time when their own popularity is at a nadir.
Afshin Molavi is a journalist based in Tehran, Iran. His work has appeared in the Washington Post.