Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Until very recently, one stereotype about Iranians coming to North America was that they all eventually try to pass themselves off as pop singers. Nowadays, every Tom, Dick, and Harry, or rather, every Ali, Akbar, and Hassan claim to be a "human rights activist."

There is even an Iranian woman who is aspiring to do both, i.e. to be a famous singer and prominent human rights activist, so maybe she will spark a new trend. In fact, I was all set to share some funny stories about this person, but after reading a friend's post about the tendency of Iranians to randomly attack and counter attack one another, I decided to hold my tongue. But just a word of friendly advice to this lady and others in pursuit of becoming singer-human rights activists: if you are ever invited to speak about your human rights work, say at the UK parliament, it may not be such a good idea to play your music video because, you know, that's embarrassing and inappropriate.

But back to my main point, which is about this new tendency for nearly every Iranian political activist, writer, or public personality of any sort that arrives in North America to affix the label "human rights activist" to his or her name. While some who consider themselves as part of a "human rights movement" may consider this a good sign, I would urge caution, especially when it comes to the Iran context. Several months ago, a US State Department official, after listing familiar complaints about the factionalization and in-fighting among Iranian political groups, told me: "we believe that that human rights is the one thing that will unite all Iranians." Translation: "we will be using human rights instrumentally in whatever way we can to make sure we get our way with Iran."

And herein lies the biggest danger to human rights as a concept and as a mode of activism: rather than being used against those in power who abuse human rights, human rights are being used by those in power as a tool to punish their enemies without being held accountable for their own abuses.

With regards to Iran, its mechanisms are obvious, and I didn't need to hear it from the horse's mouth to know so. The state funded Voice of America Persian, for example, is now heavily focused on human rights in Iran, but in a disgustingly skewed and politicized manner. All sorts of websites have sprung up as well, clearly well-funded , but unfortunately not very reliable in terms of the information they provide. Of course, there are still a number of credible Iranian websites--almost all of them in Iran--which provide accurate information about human rights violations. But in a sea of lies and propaganda, it is difficult to discern the truth or to know who to trust.

Despite all of the Iranian "pop stars" who have cropped up in North America over the last three decades, most of us tend to think that a good singer should have the minimum qualities of a nice or strong voice and preferably some charisma or charm. If there are minimum qualifications for singers, shouldn't there be some for human rights activists?

Note: "I suffered a lot" or "my human rights were violated" is not a qualification. It may make one more sensitive to violations or inspire one to work for human rights, but it is not by itself a qualification. Similarly, if you say "I hate government X" or "I loathe president Y", that may make you an opponent or critic of said government or politician, but not a human rights activist specialized in that country. If hating a president or a government automatically made one somehow well qualified to be a human rights activist in relation to a particular country, then we could all likely claim that title vis-a-vis multiple countries.

I think it would be good for everybody if we treated every person who declares himself/herself an Iranian human rights activist with the same healthy skepticism we have when we hear of a new singer coming out of Los Angeles' Iranian quarters: Sure, let's give them a chance and encourage them if they are good, but let's have some minimum standards too.