Interview by Chris Crowstaff - part 1. April 2011.
Melody Meozzi is an inspirational Iranian Muslim writer, activist and attorney.
Melody's first book, War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims, brings together the stories of twelve young people, all vastly different but all American, and all Muslim. And all are shocked that their religion,which they see as compassionate and tolerant, is perceived by many Americans as representative of terrorism.
Melody is a United Nations Global Expert with the UN Alliance of Civilizations and has worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reporting to the U.S. Congressional Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Melody talked to Chris Crowstaff, Safe World founder, about the Iranian protests and 'western' perceptions of Iran, Persian culture and history.
I recently saw the video - 'On the Meaning of Neda' - which you did shortly after the Iran elections in 2009 and I was deeply moved by what you said.
With the protests going on now in Iran, do you feel more hopeful again that there’s a groundswell of movement that might go the same way as Egypt, or is there no comparison?
The Iranian people
I don’t think it’s a good comparison. But I think it will go the way I think Iran is going and that is towards a more democratic regime.
And eventually it’ll have to happen. Partly because the old Mullahs are going to die. I hope it doesn’t take that - I hope we don’t have to wait that long.
It may take some time, but I think also that could be a good thing because we could maintain a certain level of stability in the interim, because the last thing we want to achieve is a government, if it’s fathomable, that is worse than what we already have.
In terms of the economic situation getting worse, there are possibilities that - if there is a very quick revolution - then that could happen and I don’t want that to happen.
And I don’t want the ‘outside world’ to join us, because the Iranian people can do it and I think they’re being pretty strategic about it.
Now it’s looking like they might have protests every Tuesday. They’re thinking about it and how they want to approach it, because if they do have them day after day after day the arrests become quicker and, from what I’m hearing from friends, they’re thinking that if they stagger these protests there’s a possibility they could be more successful and have fewer arrests.
Does it feel like those that have got the really loud voice in power, who wield the power, are actually quite a small minority who just happen to have the power?
I think they’re delusional, possibly not to the extent that Mubarak is.
Ayatollah KhAmenei has all the control. So the shenanigans of Ahmadinejad are interesting, but he doesn’t have control.
Ultimately the say is in the Ayatollah’s hands, and he’s sick. He supposedly has terminal lung cancer. It’s a precarious situation.
There are a lot of people who are against this regime and I think the majority of people who are inside Iran right now are against the Regime...
Whether they’re coming out and protesting or not is different.
I understand the hesitation to go out onto the streets and I understand the caution that they all have right now.
It’s quite a young population in Iran, isn’t it, like Egypt?
Children of the Revolution
Very much, yes. Over 70% of the population is under the age of 35, so it is a very young population.
My generation – I’ve just turned 32 – is what they call the baby-boomer generation because I was born the year of the revolution.
At the beginning of the revolution, there were tight controls on birth control. What’s funny is, with these tight controls on birth control, there were a lot of births obviously, including myself, and this generation – these 'children of the revolution' – are now turning against the Regime. And it’s funny because it’s their own pubic health policy that has caused what is happening right now, in a certain way.
Did you spend your childhood in Iran?
In the summers I travelled back to Iran, but I was born in the US and then we were kicked out of the US after the hostage crisis. I spent my early childhood in Greece and France and then Iran, but I came back as an infant. I was a toddler – 4 or 5 years old – when I came back.
So I mainly grew up here in the US and spent the summers going back to Iran.
I was wondering whether your generation see things very differently and would that be a result of education or the internet and access to other ways of thinking?
The Iranian people are very well educated. Especially Iranian women – there are more Iranian women in universities right now than there are men.
So they are quite an educated population, not just about what’s going on in Iran but also what’s going on around the world and, as bad as Press TV is at covering what’s inside of Iran, they are actually quite good about covering events outside of Iran and are fairly accurate, and occasionally wrong as well, but the Iranian people get a good amount of news and they are able to access some of the blog sites through proxy servers and I think they’ve done a good job about that.
There is a drive there – they really do want to change the system. They’re afraid. I can understand that. A lot of people can understand that.
What happened in 2009, I see happening again – in terms of lots of people coming out on the streets. The more ridiculous the policies and the laws become, I feel like it’ll take one law, one ridiculous law, one mullah that stands up and says – you know, something really silly like ‘women have to wear gloves’ and it’ll be the summer. You know there was an uproar about women having to be segregated from men in elevators, having to use different elevators, and there was a huge uproar about that.
So just these annoyances in every day life, and especially now with the generations growing older and dating. It’s just frustrating to be in the street and walking and have someone ask for your identification. They say "are you related and if you’re not related we’re going to take you to jail."
I mean even Ahmadinejad came out recently and said that we shouldn’t bother people in the street like this. And I’ve been in the situation where I’ve been bothered like that. That you have to prove whether you’re related or not to a man you’re walking with!
They’ve recently arrested Karroubi, one of the opposition leaders, and blamed him for the protests. We’re campaigning for Hengameh who was Karroubi’s women’s issues advisor and was arrested shortly after the June 2009 elections.
Do you think that Karroubi’s arrest heralds the start of an even tighter clampdown?
Iranian law and civil rights
I think that with journalists, bloggers, and attorneys in particular, what they’re doing is trying to obstruct justice. And this isn’t just illegal under the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This is illegal under their own constitution. So it’s one issue to say ‘this is a human rights issue’ – of course it is. But this is also a civil rights issue, because these laws inside of Iran protect them, and they’re not following their own constitution.
So in terms of these laws protecting journalists and bloggers and attorneys – and for me as a journalist, blogger and attorney, it’s a personal issue.
You know, inside of Iran, I couldn’t practice my profession in the way that I do here.
One day I would very much like to go there with my husband. He is American – actually he’s half American and half British - and I would love to be able to go back to Iran so he could learn Farsi. But I can’t do that right now. I can’t safely go back.
It really tears my heart out. Because this isn’t just a political issue for me. It’s very personal.
What do you think they’re scared of with Karroubi?
Do you think they’re justified in their fears that he might lead some sort of revolution? Does he have a lot of influence?
Harassment of the opposition
He does have a lot of influence – I think in a very positive way.
I’m really happy to see a lot of what he’s done and I’m much more supportive of him as a potential leader than I would be of Musavi.
I think he’s gained a level of credibility over the past two years that Musavi hasn’t so much I guess. In terms of his activism and being out there. And being willing to risk his own liberty and that of his own family.
I think he’s very influencial. I think they’re being very strategic in harassing him and in harassing Musavi and their families. But obviously that hasn’t worked.
Karroubi has spent years under house arrest before. Even before all of this started. So this isn’t something new to him. He’s willing to take risks.
What about international law and the united nations and so on?
There was a lot of controversy about Iran being on the women’s rights committee – do you think basically that Iran shouldn’t be participating in the United Nations or do you think it’s better if they are there in discussions?
Contradictions in Western policy
I think they need to be there. The perception among Iranians is that they’re not accepted. Even if actually it’s the regime that’s not accepted by the international community, there could be a backlash.
The argument could be that there’s a lot of other countries that shouldn’t be allowed, including the US. After Guantanamo, there would be questions about whether they’d be allowed to be on these committees.
In terms of women’s rights inside of Iran it’s important to note that Iran is not Saudi Arabia.
If the United States or Great Britain is going to say ‘we’re supporting human rights’ then I don’t understand why they’re supporting Saudi Arabia, for example.
I think we really need to shift our focus. In terms of the United States government, and also in the UK, and all over Europe, we definitely need to shift our focus and start supporting some of these movements if we want to maintain any level of legitimacy.
Supporting them not by actively intervening, although the situation in Libya is very different right now. But in general I don’t think actively intervening is a good idea in the revolutions and uprisings throughout the Middle East.
With regard to the protests in Iran - are women likely to get treated more harshly if they’re arrested? Is it more dangerous for women to be taking part in protests?
I honestly wouldn’t say that. These Iranian women are pretty feisty, and can find their way around these laws.
For example if someone tries to arrest you and you say, "look, stop touching me, you’re a man, it’s disgusting" and even if the woman doesn’t even believe it, she can claim it. So they find ways around them. In some respects women have been able to assert their rights more so than men, but only in the sense that they’re saying things they don’t believe, if that makes any sense.
What’s the most helpful thing the international community could do to support human rights in Iran and women’s rights?
British and US involvement in Iran
I think the number one thing that the US and the UK can do, given their history inside of Iran, is absolutely nothing. I honestly think – and I know a lot of people will disagree with me – I think they just need to be quiet on it. Because their track record is so bad.
Because every time they say something, the Iranian regime and Press TV turns around and says "look, they’re supporting the opposition and the US is the opposition, and this is all driven by the US, the UK, Israel, and this is the reason this is happening. There is no proper opposition movement." Inside of Iran they claim the 'opposition movement' is all brought in by the west. And the more the west says something about it, the more they can continue to claim this.
This is a movement that is based in and of the Iranian people.
So I really think – especially given how the US has responded to the rest of the Middle East and how its history in the Middle East and especially its support for Saudi Arabia – they have no moral authority to come in and tell the Iranian government, even this Iranian regime, what to do.
When we see a spokesperson for Iran talking on Press TV, it seems that there is a feeling that Iran is being persecuted.
Is this really a belief amongst the people within the Regime themselves? Do they feel that they’re being persecuted by the 'west', do you think?
CIA overthrow of Iranian democracy
Certainly there’s an extent that Iranians feel they’ve been persecuted by the west, because they have. I think it’s a reality.
The reaction of the west to Iran, if you compare it to the reaction to Israel - and you see there’s a theocratic regime, that isolates minorities, and tramples on minority rights - to me that’s very similar to what’s going on in Israel. And yet we (the west) are staunch supporters of Israel and we’re very anti-Iran. There are obviously a lot of reasons for that – that’s really simplified.
I think the sense that we’ve been persecuted as Iranians is very much still there. And that’s why I think the best thing the west can do is keep its hands out of this and try really not to focus on it and talk about it, because this needs to happen from inside of Iran. And any external force is not going to help the situation at all and I don’t think it’s necessary.
There is definitely animosity toward the west because of the fact that in 1953 when our democratic prime minister was overthrown it was a CIA sponsored coup.
Not only that, there was a time when my parents were in Iran, that they had these British fancy country clubs that had signs outside that said 'no dogs or Iranians allowed.' And you’re inside Iran and it says that!
So, obviously, after the Shah’s extravagance and our (western) support for the Shah, there was that feeling of animosity. And all that existed before I was born and yet I still feel it. So the younger generation still knows that, they still feel it. And there has been a level of not just persecution, but really damaging intervention.
So yes, there is that sense that the more we (the west) can avoid the perception that we have anything to do with that decision, I think that’s the most that we can do for our (Iranian) revolution.
The Iranian Republican Guard and the Basij - we’ve read that they have massive business interests inside Iran.
Is the human rights issue actually about protecting the money or is there still a strong ideological element involved? Is it these days very much about the money?
The Revolutionary Guard and Basij
In relation to the Basij and the Revolutionary Guard, they do receive a level of prestige. The Basij get places at the universities and there are economic benefits but a lot of these people do have strong ideological ties to the regime. They do support it.
But I think that when things will really change is when some people high up in the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard decide to support the opposition. And I think that’s a possibility and once that happens there will be huge changes in Iran. If that happens.
The Revolutionary Guard is getting more and more power all the time. And they’re getting used to that level of power and really enjoying it, but at the same time they have friends in the opposition, they have family who are in the opposition.
It’s not as if they’re completely isolated from oppositional viewpoints and they agree with some of them. And the more brutal the regime gets, the easier it becomes to disagree with them.
So because a good deal of this is also ideological, it can also be turned because they’re not functioning just on money. And these aren’t rational people. So to a certain extent they are brainwashed but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be rehabilitated and there is a capacity for that, especially when families are so divided.
Are these all men – the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij?
There are women in the Basij and there are old men, young men. The perception is that they’re all young men but there are also female forces.
So as a women’s rights organisation, it would be important to be seen to be showing up rights abuses everywhere and not just picking on one country?
Also promoting the ideas that Americans and Europeans are not necessarily familiar with, in terms of what rights women do have inside of Iran. That’s not to say that it’s perfect, but this is very different from the situation in Saudi Arabia. Women can go to school. Women can drive. Women can do a whole lot of things. And there’s a great deal of respect for women inside of Iran. The Iranian mum is the head of the household.
Culturally speaking, there isn’t this kind of entrenched sexism or patriarchal kind of society inside the homes. And a lot of women work.
So I think drawing attention to those facts.
Inside of Iran, for example the public health advances inside of Iran that we don’t necessarily have here in the US in terms of very simple things. For example, needle exchange programmes. They have some wonderful public health programmes inside of Iran. So drawing attention to the things they are doing well will really help us more than drawing attention to the things that they aren’t.
But again I think the main situation is just to stay out, though it’s hard to do.
In a way you’re talking about western governments. How much, in the Middle East, would westerners in general be seen as sort of interfering?
Perisan culture and history
Yes they do see it as an interference and they do create these conspiracy theories that some people, especially within the Basij and the Revolutionary Guard, they buy into it. But then they do really stupid things. For example, the uproar about the Olympic symbol because they claim to see the word 'Zion' in it. Every time they do these things, everyone inside of Iran is embarrassed, no matter who they are.
We have the largest Jewish minority in the Middle East outside of Israel, so we all have friends who are Jewish and are Iranians who consider themselves Iranians like us.
First and foremost their identity is Iranian and the same with us, it’s Iranian. And we share – the Muslims and Jews in Iran celebrate Zoastrian holidays. Everybody celebrates the Persian new year. We don’t celebrate the Islamic new year.
We also have a very distinct culture as well. And that’s what I think the rest of the world doesn’t understand.
They consider Iranians Arabs, which I don’t find offensive but it’s just inaccurate. They don’t understand our culture.
So when you’re coming in – and I think that’s what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan – you had forces coming in who didn’t understand the culture at all. Didn’t speak the language.
You can’t be successful inside of any country, if you don’t understand let alone respect - at least have some level of respect for - the culture.
Because you know they think we’re very backward and this, that and the other.
But the truth is simple as Persia has been around for over 2500 years and the United States has about 200 years under its belt.
And our view of that, for them to tell us about human rights, you know - Cyrus the Great established the empire and had the Cyrus Cylinder and the first declaration of human rights was by Cyrus the Great who was Persian.
So we have a history of human rights and we don’t need to be told what they mean by other people. We don’t chop hands off, you know, but people don’t know that. So I think it’s really drawing attention to those distinctions.