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Iran’s Thought Criminals

My friend, the intellectual Kian Tajbakhsh, is in jail in Iran for, well, being an intellectual. He has not had access to a lawyer nor any visitors since being jailed for espionage and undermining the state. In short, if you live in Iran nowadays, intellectuals are the new terrorists.
As in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, purveyors of ideas, information, and emotions are the enemy in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran, especially if the people espousing such ideas happen to work for a foreign organization. And, thanks to Iran’s example, that trend is proliferating across the Muslim world.
Tajbakhsh, an internationally respected scholar, social scientist, urban planner, and dual citizen of Iran and the United States, has languished in Tehran’s Evin Prison – notorious for its documented cases of torture and detainee abuse – since May 11.
I was shocked last week to see him on Iranian TV, pale and wan, giving the kind of faked confession that would have made Soviet prosecutors blush. Soft spoken, mild mannered, thoughtful, and with a wonderful sense of humor, Tajbakhsh is portrayed by the Iranian government as a ravenous wolf ready to devour the regime.
Tajbakhsh was arrested along with other leading Iranian-American intellectuals, including Haleh Esfandiari of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Esfandiari is a 67-year-old grandmother – just the right age to set about undermining Iran. Her lawyer, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, has been denied access to her. Meanwhile, journalist Parnaz Azima is not allowed to leave Iran.
As an intellectual, Tajbakhsh cannot expect the world’s celebrities to beg Iran’s government for his release. Instead, he has received support from other intellectuals, such as the 3,400 members of the PEN American Center, the writers’ organization that fights for freedom of expression. The 14,000 members of the American Sociological Association have also asked for his release.
You would think Tajbakhsh’s record in Iran would rule out an accusation of treason. He has been a consultant to several Iranian ministries on urban planning, and helped the government in major rebuilding projects after the devastating earthquake that destroyed the ancient city of Bam in 2003. In 2006, he completed a three-year study of local government in Iran – hardly the stuff of insurrection and regime change.
But Tajbakhsh was also a consultant to the Soros Foundation, which, according to Ahmadinejad’s government, has worked against Islam. That idea is preposterous. In fact, the Foundation’s many contributions to the Islamic world include help following catastrophic natural disasters in Pakistan and Indonesia, providing medical supplies to the Palestinians under blockade, and allowing scholars and intellectuals to learn from each other by translating and publishing works from English into local languages and vice versa.
What makes Tajbakhsh’s incarceration look truly pathetic is that Iran boasts of one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Persians mingled easily with the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, conveying their skills, discoveries, and statecraft to the West. The image of the Persians portrayed in the recent movie 300 is simply false. Moreover, Muslim Iranians have always respected their pre-Islamic civilization. Thus, the Islamic revolutionaries in 1979 made a point of preserving the Zoroastrian fire temples.
In its Muslim era, Iran has boasted of some of the greatest poets, writers, and scientists in the world. None of this would have been possible if Iran’s ancient Muslim rulers had not allowed academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas and expression – something that is sorely missing in today’s Islamic Republic.
Other autocratic rulers in the Muslim world are learning from Iran’s example, cracking down hard on intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, women activists, or just about anyone who has ideas and wants to exchange them with others. For such Muslim rulers, intellectuals are the new global terrorists, bombarding their regimes with intellectualism. And my friend Kian Tajbakhsh – alone in his cell in Evin Prison wondering what he has done wrong – is the face of this new form of repression.