John Keane | Laughter and Tears On Being Accused of Spying for MI-6
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Laughter and Tears On Being Accused of Spying for MI-6

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London, Saturday 1st August: one of those weird moments when glum silence is the most sensible reaction. A colleague telephoned to spill the bad news. ‘This morning, in a preliminary statement before the highest court of the Islamic Republic of Iran’, he began, ‘you were named by the Deputy State Prosecutor as a co-conspirator in an organised attempt to overturn the present regime by means of a velvet coup d’état.’ Surely a prank call, I thought. I hesitated. ‘What? Co-conspirator? Who else?’ My colleague sounded serious. ‘Jürgen Habermas. Richard Rorty. You’re together accused of acting as CIA and MI-6 agents. I’ll e-mail more details this afternoon.’

Laughter: so utterly absurd was the news that the end of the telephone conversation triggered a belly laugh of deep animal dimensions. So far as I know, there is no right to be ridiculous, but that was exactly what the government prosecutor seemed bent on proving to the court, and to the outside world, or so it first seemed. I soon learned that a few weeks earlier the same accusation had first been floated in the prominent Tehran Newspaper Kayhan.

In a 5-part ‘treatise’ published between the 4th and 9th of July – just a few days after the election that tore apart the country’s heart – the ‘researcher’ and ‘best-selling author’ Payam Fazlinejad had caused a great political stir by alleging that various people linked to the former president Mohammad Khatami were hatching a plot to take over the state by means of a ‘velvet counter-revolution’. Almost certainly repeating thoughts obtained from an intelligence source behind the scenes, Mr Fazlinejad said not a word about the elections, or about the fact that millions of Iranians had already reached the conclusion that the result might well be rigged by a power group bent on hanging on forever, using every conceivable dirty trick, blessed by the Supreme Leader. That is of course what soon happened. Mr Fazlinejad instead alleged a nasty conspiracy – a latter-day trahison des clercs organised and paid for by a global network of scheming foreign agencies, including the United States Congress, the Dutch parliament, the German Association for Foreign Policy, the National Endowment for Democracy and my own University of Westminster. Standing at the heart of the grand conspiracy, he claimed, were ‘three thinking engines of the CIA and MI-6’.


Image: Saeid Hajarian Saeid Hajarian (front) attends on August 25, 2009 a hearing at the revolutionary court in Tehran.

Habermas, Rorty and I were said to be ‘security and intelligence theorists’ who had managed to ‘transform the project of “civil society” into “civil struggle”, this time targeting Iran. Mr Fazlinejad went on to conclude that Rorty was a ‘fascist’ theorist and an ‘old spy’; and that Habermas, ‘the most distinguished German philosopher’, is in reality a soiled champion of ‘civil struggle’ and the ‘American project of “transition to democracy”’.

How should scholars react to intimidation wrapped in lies? I cannot speak for Jürgen Habermas, with whom I have corresponded about the matter; sadly, Richard Rorty is no longer with us, though almost certainly his first response to these allegations would have been a sceptical smile and signature shrug of the shoulders.

What must be said is that the allegations border on libel – and that they may warrant legal action. They are wholly false. Mr Fazlinejad and the state prosecutor and the Fars news agency – the only media organisation allowed to cover the trials now taking place – have twisted and distorted facts to suit their own perverse ends. Their intelligence sources are dumber than they suppose. Their abracadabra gets everything wrong.

I am not ‘Civil Society Professor at the University of Westminster’ (I am Professor of Politics). The Centre for the Study of Democracy was not founded in 1988 (it was a year later) and it has never hosted a ‘project on Iranian Civil Society’. I am neither a ‘theorist of MI-6’ nor its ‘brain’ (I have had no contact with any such organisation, and on principle would never knowingly do so). I am no ‘master key’ of things, people or events, although for Mr Fazlinejad and the state prosecutor, who both think in terms of crude substitutions, anything is possible: A stands for B, C stands for B, therefore C is A and A, B and C are causally intertwined and therefore ultimately identical in motive and substance.

I am not the ‘hidden figure’ who arranged ‘consultations’ with ‘the American Council on Foreign Relations and the German Foreign Policy Association’. I have not ‘travelled frequently to Tehran’ (I have travelled twice, on both occasions thanks to official invitations and for the purpose of establishing scholarly links).

I have indeed met Saeed Hajjarian – a victim of the current trials – with whom I had pleasant and polite conversation, but not for the purpose of ‘soft subversion’ or ‘conveying the latest instructions’ from the shadowy organisers of the planned ‘velvet coup d’état’.

In 2004, during one such visit to Tehran, I indeed taught an officially approved short course based on research for The Life and Death of Democracy (which has just been published). This four-part course of scholarly lectures was not a ‘training workshop on the transition to democracy’.

It is not true that I participated in ‘operations geared to the collapse of the governments of Eastern Europe’. I did not spend ‘the years 1973 and 1975 in Czechoslovakia’ (I lived in Canada during this period) and at no time have I ‘often travelled to Poland’ or worked for the ‘Polandising of Iran’.

Many errors, multiple distortions, countless confabulations: my spontaneous belly laugh had clearly been triggered by nonsense nurtured by reasoning based on substitutions, non sequiturs and vengeful paranoia.

Seconds later, I felt fear. When my colleague hung up, animal laughter morphed into a cloud of pensiveness, riveted by the thought that words can ruin lives, or torture and kill. It is no laughing matter for scholars to be lumped in with plotters, mercenaries and secret agents of ‘Western’ and ‘Zionist’ reaction. It is incomparably worse to be the victim of a carefully constructed narrative whose crude aim is to recast the civil disturbances triggered by a rigged election as a conspiracy orchestrated by foreigners, initially by convicting many of the country’s best and brightest minds, probably for the ultimate purpose of consolidating a coup d’état by banning outright all opposition with ‘green’ democratic sympathies. I think of Kafka.

The whole sordid affair reminds me of his description of the writing machine whose razor sharp ink jets etch words into the blooded flesh of its victims. For over two months, the arrested, dressed in grey-blue prison pyjamas and rubber sandals, have been daily dragged before a revolutionary court in Tehran and subjected to a form of verbal torture. Forced to sit in silence through lies big and small, they stand accused of orchestrating the post-election violence which took the lives of more than 30 people, injured hundreds more and frightened untold numbers of innocent citizens who want nothing more than to live in a country where power is peacefully shared, human and civil rights are respected – and nobody lives in fear of the authorities. When and where this campaign of intimidation, terror and violence will end nobody knows.

From a scholarly point of view, the most worrying development, recently confirmed by the Supreme Leader, is the link that has been drawn between the human sciences, the universities and the so-called ‘velvet counter-revolution’. The attack on the human sciences as treasonous is in effect an assault on all independent scholarly investigation of power, its history, present-day fortunes and desirable limits. It is a recipe for hubris – and the blind hallucinations, follies, third-rate leadership and serial wrongs that it necessarily breeds. The witless assault on scholarly integrity explains why I wish to pass a message to those who are or have been on trial, and to those researchers and teachers who are now being targeted as enemies of state because their vocation is to study society and government.

The message is plain: I am just one of many whose thoughts are with you. We suffer. We weep as you are pushed and shoved through pitch-black tunnels of rumour, insults, slander, nightly beatings, false charges, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, rape, forced confessions and kangaroo court sessions. Your prosecution and long-term imprisonment will achieve nothing. It will not put an end to public disaffection, unemployment, poverty, regional instability and rotten government. Whatever is said, or done, hubris, cruelty and incompetence do not have God on their side. Detention without trial – which is prohibited by the constitution – and death in custody have nothing to do with reason or justice, or with the Prophet’s call for listening to people and treating them with kindness and respect. Friends: that is why you know that whatever you say or do in weakness will be used against you – and why you have resolved to be strong, cling to your integrity with all your might and to find courage and consolation in the assurance that your loved ones, and millions of people around the world, will not forget you, or accept your ghastly predicament as fate.

John Keane London 9 September 2009

Reading Weber in Tehran By Charles Kurzman Original article appeared on The Chronicle of Higher Education

Mohammad Khatami’s Mission for a Velvet Coup d’état : In this five-part article, published in the Tehran Newspaper Kayhan just a few days after the 2009 stolen election, the ‘researcher’ and ‘best-selling author’ Payam Fazlinejad claimed to uncover a plot by Western intellectuals to stage a ‘green coup d’état’.

— SEE ALSO John Keane speaking with BBC HardTalk host about being accused of spying for MI-6 by the Iran government. Read the text here

— A version in Farsi of this statement has been published by the BBC Website here.