It was an unusual coming together.
Gathered under a large banner that read “Iran Freedom Concert” were the leaders of the Harvard Republicans and Democrats, the campus gay-rights advocacy group (BGLTSA), and the conservative magazine (The Salient), among many others.
The two-hour event, held on Saturday, drew about 150 people and, in between musical sets, featured the Iranian student leader Akbar Atri, fresh from a March 3 appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as John Haddock, a junior and president of Harvard’s undergraduate council.
Appearances by two chanteuses were a poignant case-in-point–in Iran, female vocalists are permitted to sing only back-up and never before male crowds. One Iranian human-rights group, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, wrote in with the reminder, “You are attending a concert that can not be held in Tehran.”
Relatively speaking, this is but a trifling incidence of rights denied. Over the past week, the campus was festooned with posters showing a forwardness of a type rarely seen in Harvard Yard. “In Iran,” the posters read in boldface type, “You can be sentenced to death because of your religious beliefs. Criticizing the Supreme Leader on your blog is a crime. You cannot sell a copy of the Christian Bible. Women are stoned to death for adultery. Gay teenagers are hanged.”
The announcements were sobering, especially when juxtaposed with the typical fare of Harvard activism. Last week, for instance, the cause du jour was co-ed housing, about which the student government grandiloquently invoked undergraduates’ “right to self-determination in deciding with whom they will live in university housing.”
Those activists who gaze outside the gates look no farther than the usual target, the Bush administration. This March, by my count, has now had just over a dozen teach-ins, roundtables, and similarly circuitous groupthink sessions to decry the usual battery of things: the Patriot Act, the Solomon Amendment, and, of course, the War on Terror.
But the brusque reality needing to be exposed is that Iran’s human-rights situation is poor and getting poorer. When a large picture appeared, huge on the projection screen of the Iran Freedom Concert, showing two Iranian teenagers with nooses around their necks, about to be hanged for the crime of homosexuality, the student sitting next to me gasped. Suddenly, the campus chatter of “rights” is put in sharp perspective.
Well, it is for most people, at least.
Ignoring the substance of the concert, a handful of loud detractors fretted that the Iran Freedom Concert was a diabolical neocon ploy.
Kyle Krahel, a sophomore, broke with his group’s leadership and wrote on the Harvard Democrats’ blog an entry entitled “Beware of the Iran Freedom Concert.” He worried that some leaders of the group that helped bring the student activist Atri to campus, the American Islamic Congress, had committed the unforgivable sin of supporting the Iraq war. Employ the simple Crimson calculus (Bush = Bad) and you get Krahel’s frenzy over “how much collusion by the American Islamic Congress and the Bush Administration there is in this Concert. This Administration has a history of manipulation and covert propaganda and I don’t want to be a part of it.”
At the event itself, there was a colorful, albeit small, eruption of protesters–six in all, only one of whom would give his name. The group held aloft “No U.S. War on Iran” signs, and occasionally shouted during Atri’s speech. (They were, nonetheless, invited to stay and talk to organizers and Atri afterward–they declined.)
The protester who agreed to provide his name was Alireza Doostdar, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Harvard, who asserted that “just by holding an event like this, [organizers] are playing into the hands of the neoconservative agenda for war against Iran.”
So what can be done for human rights in Iran? “There’s already been a lot of progress,” noted Doostdar, a leader of the campus group Alliance for Justice in the Middle East. “America has a human rights problem of its own, where no progress is being made.”
And Doostdar was the level-headed one. Among the cadre of protesters was a 40-something Persian woman who, in so many words, said Atri “is considered a traitor to the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Surely he is, having been convicted in absentia for conspiring to overthrow the government for collecting signatures on a petition that demanded a referendum on the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy.
But the concert, of course, was far from being a neoconservative ploy. Speakers frequently–too frequently–unleashed caveats: “We’re not neocolonialists,” said one saxophonist before he played; “We have no agenda, unless that agenda is students’ rights” said the emcee;. Haddock, the student-body president, conjured the memory of the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch and his “Free Tibet” concerts. Atri himself stated rather clearly, “We shouldn’t go to war with Iran.”
But the bottom line got through loud and clear: “In Iran, believing something could equal your death. And here,” Atri looked to the protesters in the back, “you can criticize anything without fear.”
The Iran Freedom Concert was a bold step towards honesty about the rhetoric of universal human rights, besting the utter silence on the issue previously offered by an academy too often reticent to make pesky value judgments. That an event could enjoy the sponsorship of such a diverse coalition of Left, Right, and nonpartisan student groups–even if it made for a milquetoast result–might just mean things are looking up around here after all.