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Society & Culture

Ramin Jahanbegloo: Post-Islamic-Republic Iran Will Have To Choose Between Executions And Justice

January 30, 2023
Roghayeh Rezaei
9 min read
Ramin Jahanbegloo: Post-Islamic-Republic Iran Will Have To Choose Between Executions And Justice
Ramin Jahanbegloo: Post-Islamic-Republic Iran Will Have To Choose Between Executions And Justice


The University of Toronto on January 14 hosted a conference by the name of “Women, Life, Liberty: Iran’s Democratic Future” where the speakers discussed non-violence, abolishment of the death penalty and the need for Islamic Republic officials who have committed crimes and have violated human rights to be tried in just and impartial courts.

At a time when Iran’s government has engaged in engaged in a bloody crackdown on dissent, it would be difficult for most Iranians to overcome the urge of taking revenge against those who, after killing their victims, continue their crimes by breaking the victims’ gravestones and harassing their families.

However, Iranian philosopher and academic Ramin Jahanbegloo, Vice Dean of India’s O.P Jindal Global University and the head of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies, believes that Iranians should not “fall into the vicious circle of violence.”

The Iranian government slaughters, tortures and harasses its own citizens, beats teenagers to death and sentences young people to death on trumped-up charges. In such a situation, you and your colleagues told the Toronto conference that this government should be fought against using non-violent methods. You called for the abolishment of death penalty on the day after the Islamic Republic falls and for impartial trials to be held for murderers and human rights violators. Do you think people could accept this?

At the symposium I did talk about death penalty, but I have been talking about abolishing death penalty for around 35 years. I wrote my first article 35 years ago in Paris and referred to death penalty as the “technology of power.” I was not only talking about Iran but about the whole world. I am categorically against death penalty in any shape or form because, I believe, it promotes a culture of violence and punishment by death is not really what it is claimed to be. Capital punishment is in fact a kind of crime committed by the government itself.

It is claimed that death penalty punishes the criminal, is meant to discourage future murderers and protects the lives of the citizens whereas in regimes such as the Taliban government and the Islamic Republic of Iran the only thing that does not count is protecting the basic rights of the citizens.

Death penalty is a crime that hides its real name and neither in today’s Iran nor in the Iran of tomorrow nothing justifies sending anybody to the gallows.

Today, all those who claim to be moral leaders of our civil society, whether they represent the government or society, must not support the culture of death penalty. What happened in Iran in the years 1979 and 1980, following the revolution, must not happen today. At the time, people did not question the leaders of their movement and those who shaped the Islamic Republic about how they view death penalty but today they must do it.

At that time, we allowed the slaughterhouse to become operational too quickly. They killed the heads of the Pahlavi regime too quickly and did not allow fact-finding public trials. Now we must be careful to ensure accountability both by the people and by the government, regardless of social and political developments; otherwise, we shall fall into the vicious circle of violence.

You mention fact-finding trials but the young protesters of today talk about revenge, at least on social media, and the reason for that is the violence that the government is using. Most of us have grown up in a culture ingrained with executions and violence. How can we now ask these young people to overcome the urge for revenge?

Growing up in a culture of violence is no reason to lose our common sense and not to have a desirable political culture that would make the country a civilized one and would rescue it from barbarism.

If we understand the philosophy of non-violence correctly and get to know other cultures, we will see that, as members of the human race in various historical eras, they have asked questions such as these: If we live in a system that kills us, do we want to become murderers as well? Are we only after revenge just to cheer us up? What does revenge mean in a democratic system that wants to be civilized and does not want to be run by the likes of Taliban.

We have to decide who we want in the government: somebody with a dagger on his side and says “vengeance is mine and I don’t care about the law,” or somebody who accepts the framework of international law, a rational government and an accountable government?

The other question is: how do we see justice? Justice is not qisas [retribution]. Justice is democratic and remedial, as we have seen in countries like South Africa, Chile, Rwanda and elsewhere. Justice is not about eliminating and killing the murderer but about fighting against murder. The prevailing culture of today is to exterminate the murderers but not the murder itself, whereas what counts is to put the criminals on trial and do something about crime.

As somebody who has studied this issue, I advise our young people to look at punishment by death the same way that they look at cancer. Death penalty is the cancer of Iranian society’s political body. When people find somebody close to them is suffering from cancer they have him treated by methods such as chemotherapy that prevents the disease from developing. We should fight death penalty with such methods. You cannot fight it by killing people.

That is why we must fight against death penalty itself because it has two dangerous aspects. The first one is that it belongs to the government, meaning that the government wants the people to be terrified of it. It wants to tell the people that “if you commit this crime we will kill you, be it smuggling drugs, political activities or just thinking.” The second one is that death penalty leaves no room for otherness in a political system. Naturally, this brings up the question of citizenship. Is citizenship based on interaction and tolerance or it is a fantasy? I say that citizenship is a real thing, and we must take it very seriously.

Can we be hopeful that after Iran is liberated death penalty would have no place in the country? What has been the experience of other countries you mentioned?

Yes, we can be hopeful because it has happened in other countries. (…)

After democratic movements in South Africa and Latin America established democratic governments, they decided to leave the vicious circle of violence behind. To achieve this, they had to understand why individuals in their society have used torture, why they have resorted to executions and why they have gone along with dictatorships.

These are the questions that the Iranian people must ask themselves, especially since they have not asked or answered these questions in their modern history as they moved from one dynasty to another and from one political system to another. It seems that they say, “We are not violent but the government is the one that has been violent; therefore, we overthrow this government and bring in another government.” They don’t think it is their job to see how justice works in their society and why violence exists.

As it happens, these must be the main questions that we ask. We must not ask who will become the leader and will control the next government. We should be concerned about the nature of society and structural violence. We must be focused on solving this issue. This is why the fact-finding commission was created in South Africa.

Nelson Mandella and Desmond Tutu said, “Let us see why those who killed our people, those who tortured us or who threw us in prison did what they did.”

At some point we must ask ourselves this question: Is killing citizens the right thing to do? The question is not whom we hang, it is who carries out the hanging. A person who sheds the blood of a citizen cannot wash this blood away from his hands. We must talk about this culture of killing and of trivializing human dignity. Capital punishment by any government, in any society and in any historical period is obscene, illegitimate and unjustifiable.

What do you suggest to civil society and civil rights activists? What can we do to help break this vicious circle of violence in tomorrow’s Iran?

We must promote the culture of non-violence. We must teach this culture to society. We must continuously talk about it and its moral importance. We need a new political grammar that does not trivialize the lives of humans.

It is really horrifying when they say we will kill 1,000 people to purge Iranian society of dangerous opponents. The idea that we can become the best nation in the world by operating a slaughter machine is something that has never worked. This idea is a result of historical illiteracy.

Nowhere in the world democracy has been established by violence. Democracy is the rule of law, justice and the accountability of both the government and the citizens. It is a system in which the citizens play a defining role and hold themselves accountable. In a democracy, the moral responsibility of individuals is of utmost importance.

Therefore, we must replace the culture of violence with a culture of discourse. In our discourse, we must not talk about killing but about how we want to build a democratic society devoid of a culture of violence and vengeance.

This needs long discussions and familiarity with non-violence struggles in other parts of the world. It is our duty to listen to women at every juncture of this movement that is going to go on for a long time. Non-violence is a feminine value. It incorporates compassion and tolerance, meaning all the positive contributions of women to the Iranian society in the past 44 years, if not in the past 120 years. Women have shown to the Iranian society that we must have more compassion and civility.

Which women have promoted the culture of violence? The women who have participated in civil rights movements — poets, writers and civil activists — and have been killed or incarcerated, who have not joined political organizations or followers of ideologies that promote violence. We must listen to our best people and learn about shortcomings of our civilization. It is undeniable that non-violence must be at the core of our social movements.



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