Yesterday I received the distressing news that the father of blogging in Iran, Hossein Derakshan (aka Hoder) -- the young person who had helped create the on-ramps for hundreds if not thousands of bloggers inside Iran as well as inspiring Iranian-Americans around the world to express themselves -- failed to secure an appeal of a 20-year sentence imposed on him by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This is really outrageous and sad.
But what is even more frustrating is that this great commentator was harassed in Western society too -- plagued by a $2 million libel and defamation lawsuit from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Mehdi Khalaji. Khalaji filed the suit because of a Derakshian blogpost criticizing Khalaji for his service to the "enemies of his people and humanity".
Khalaji works at a prominent think tank and, in my view, overreacted to the Derakshian post which probably was taking aim at the neoconservative slant of WINEP. I believe in civility, but the tactics Khalaji used to try and silence one of the most important voices of progressive civil society development in Iran -- but doing it in Western society -- veers too close to the thuggish tactics of Iran's government in squelching dissent and vital voices.
Yes, Khalaji used courts to pursue justice as he sees it -- something that those aggrieved in Iran cannot easily do -- but using big dollar suits to scare bloggers and to intimidate internet hosts, which Khalaji's legal team allegedly did, silences the conversation, not enhances or improves it.
I don't want to shame Khalaji in this; he did what he did -- but it is in the tragedy of what has happened to Hoder that consequences of thin-skinned overreaction compound this tragedy.
It's important to know that even those who criticize us, who criticize you and me, are part of a healthy conversation in a normal society. Sometimes things go too far and need to be pulled back. Suing people for millions of dollars or throwing an innocent man in prison for 20 years as Iran has just shamefully done are both illiberal and sad. Clearly, the Iranian government is the much bigger villain, but it's time we began to understand that those trying to encourage expression in dark places in the world may step over lines and may frustrate us -- as Hoder clearly angered and offended Khalaji.
I communicated quite a bit with Hoder about this strange lawsuit and only wish I had written more about it then, making the point I'm trying to highlight today.
We need to see value in the totality of what change agents like Hoder do -- and what today, because of a brutal regime, he cannot do now.
Khalaji hates the Iranian regime passionately -- but it will be interesting to see what happens if Derakshan begins to emerge as a powerful voice because of his detention, someone on whom the rest of the world can focus their aspirations for a better Iran -- much like other well known voices who wield greater power inside prison than they did when free.
I hope that Khalaji will be supportive of Hoder as a symbol fighting Iran's repression and some how bridge the unfortunate gap between them.
Update: A very good friend shared with me the view that Hossein Derakshan migrated to becoming a very strong supporter of Iran President Ahmadinejad and that he couldn't become a symbol of the regime's brutality because of that issue -- and also said that his attacks on Mehdi Khalaji were systematic and outrageous. This may be true. My point is not to litigate between the two -- but rather to rise to a different level about tolerating now and then what seems momentarily intolerable. I have only seen a few of the comments that Hoder made about Khalaji and they pale in comparison to what was flying on a daily basis between Andrew Sullivan and Jeffrey Goldberg and what is the scene in many other blogs, but again -- I have no interest in litigating this. And on the issue of becoming a 'supporter' of Ahmadinejad, I just haven't seen that -- and that certainly wasn't the case when I had phone conversations with him in recent years. But again, the world is not static. I wanted to post this just to give a fuller picture as shared by someone I respect.
-- Steve Clemons