Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Iranian Jews are free, except when they are not

The new book The Ayatollah's Democracy: An Iranian Challenge is an attempt to understand what's happening a year after Iran's disputed presidential election. It explores what Iran calls a democracy. To prove a point, author Hooman Majd tells NPR Radio's Steve Inskeep that he met with members of one of Iran's minority groups: the country's estimated 25,000 Jews - and found they were free in some respects, but not in others :

During one of his visits to Iran, the writer Hooman Majd dropped by a synagogue. He found the Jewish temple in the capital of the Islamic Republic. Majd is the author of a new book called "The Ayatollah's Democracy." It's an attempt to understand what's happening a year after Iran's disputed election. And in exploring what Iran calls a democracy, he met with members of one of Iran's minority groups: the country's estimated 25,000 Jews.

Mr. HOOMAN MAJD (Author, "The Ayatollah's Democracy"): It's a fascinating story, because they're caught in this very strange world. They feel very Iranian. They've been there longer than anyone else, really, going back 2,800 years. At the same time, there's this sense - you know, you live in the Islamic Republic that is the enemy of Israel. And there's this feeling deep down that there's - you know, are there divided loyalties? That issue is always there, present.

INSKEEP: Well, as you pursued the question that's at the heart of your book -basically, can there be Islamic democracy and is there anything remotely like it in Iran, which professes to be a Democratic country - what drew you to go visit members of this very, very small minority in Tehran?

Mr. MAJD: Well, I think, one, it's interesting to a lot of people outside of Iran that there are Jews in Iran and they function and they've chosen to stay, also, in terms of the fact that there are minorities in Iran and the fact that it is not a monolithic society.

Now, of course, Iran is 97 percent Shia�Muslim. And these minorities are not big numbers of people. But they can be very influential and very important. If you look at parliament, for example, there is a Jewish member of parliament. There's a Zoroastrian member of parliament. There's a Christian member - two Christian members of parliament. And so they're represented in government. And, you know, in any democracy, the rights of minorities being protected is essential, I think.

INSKEEP: Well, if you talk to Iranian officials, somebody inevitably will bring up some of the things you just said. They'll say, look, we have religious freedom in this country. We have a Jewish member of parliament. But when you get down to whether people are really free, whether they can express themselves, whether they really have equality in the country, what did you find when you spent time?

Mr. MAJD: Well, that's the question. I think that it's nuanced. Jews are free, yes. The synagogues are free. There's no one checking from government to see who goes in and comes out. They're allowed to drink, for example, in a country where alcohol is banned.

On the other hand, do they have every right that every Iranian citizen has? No. Because they can't, for example, serve in government. They can have a member of parliament, but they can't become a minister, for example. You have to be a Muslim. That's part of the constitution. So that's discriminatory, obviously.

And then there's the other issue of are they free to express themselves politically and not just religiously. And, of course, the answer there is no, because although I doubt very much that most Iranian Jews would favor Israel over Iran - otherwise, many of them would've left, and they haven't. But when it comes to expressing any kind of sympathy for Israel or the idea of a Jewish homeland, no, they are not free to do that.

INSKEEP: In your writings, you mention in passing a celebration in Iran, an official celebration of the anniversary of the publication of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Mr. MAJD: Yeah. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Would you remind people what that publication is and what was the celebration?

Mr. MAJD: Well, it was a forgery, a czarist Russian forgery, an anti-Semitic screed, to make it appear as though the Jews said there was a cabal of Jews who were out to control the world.

INSKEEP: Total fraud, but it's been published for more than a century now.

Mr. MAJD: Yes. And there are many people in Iran, unfortunately, who also believe it to not be a forgery. And I think the government of Ahmadinejad, in one particular year, chose to celebrate it as a public relations stunt more than anything else.

INSKEEP: Like, you turn on the television or the radio, and it's noted that this is the day when we can all celebrate the publication of this book.

Mr. MAJD: Exactly.

INSKEEP: So if you're a Jew in Iran, you just kind of have to let all that wash right off your back and focus on things more close at hand that matter perhaps more to you?

Mr. MAJD: I think so. I also think - well, I don't think, I know that when you're in Iran this kind of thing doesn't make news. I mean, in Iran - it was funny, even with that holocaust conference or the subsequent cartoon festival of people submitting offensive, anti-Semitic cartoons, if you were in Iran, it wasn't news.

INSKEEP: Because these events were being generated to tweak the outside world.

Mr. MAJD: I think so. And as the Jewish member of parliament told me, it's like, you know, if you went to the conference center or you went to the cartoon exhibit, there was, like, nobody there, except for foreign journalists.

INSKEEP: So you talk with Iranian Jews as one part of a book, who are granted all freedoms of citizens in Iran, so long as they follow certain strictures laid down by the government.

Mr. MAJD: Yes.

INSKEEP: And I wonder if that is also the overall approach of the ayatollahs in power to, quote, unquote, "democracy." It is a perfectly democratic system, so long as everyone does what they're told.

Mr. MAJD: Well, it was interesting, because when I asked one of my Jewish friends in Tehran about the paradox there that Jews are free as long as they follow the rules of the Islam, he said, well, that's true for Muslims, too. Which was a good point.

Because if you're a Muslim in Iran, you can't suddenly decide, oh, I'm a Muslim, but I really want to drink. You could theoretically be arrested and lashed for drinking or thrown in prison. Or if you're a Muslim who decides to convert - well, that's punishable by death.

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